This morning we will conclude our series on Elijah, the most dramatic of the Old Testament prophets. Almost everything we know about Elijah’s career is dramatic. It begins with a dramatic confrontation of King Ahab (explain), it quickly escalates to a dramatic climax with the prophets of Baal (explain), which is followed by a dramatic spiritual depression (explain)—and it ends with a super-dramatic departure.
But before we read about Elijah’s departure, let's turn to where we left off last week—1Kings 19. If you were here, you know that one of the reasons that Elijah became so depressed is because he had a “Messiah complex.” He thought he was alone and indispensable, but God showed him he was wrong. God had other people through whom he would work to accomplish his plan. This is why one of the things God told Elijah to do after this was to anoint Elisha as his successor (see Map; read 1 Kings 19:16,19-21).
Now let’s fast-forward about 10 years to 2Kings2, which records Elijah's last day on earth. It is a poignant narrative, and it contains an important lesson for us—read 2:1-6.
Investing in other’s spiritual development
We learn from this narrative that Elijah’s role in God’s service was not exclusively dramatic. Yes, the dramatic events were a key part of his role—but he had another role that, although not dramatic, was just as important. As this passage traces Elijah's final journey through Gilgal, Bethel and Jericho, it becomes clear that Elijah has invested long and deeply in the lives of certain individuals so that they may play their roles in God’s service after Elijah is gone.
Notice the priority he places on visiting different “groups of prophets” (2:3,5,7). These were younger people (lit. “sons”) being developed by Elijah and other prophets (e.g. Micaiah) to learn the scriptures, and provide spiritual leadership for Israel in the midst of Ahab and Ahaziah's apostasy. He probably wanted to encourage them one last time.
Even more so, notice the friendship bond that Elijah and Elisha share. They had spent ten years together, and this last day is tearing both of them apart. Elijah wants to spare Elisha the pain of his departure. Elisha refuses to leave Elijah even though he knows he must depart, but he won't talk about this to the groups of prophets—probably because it is too painful for him.
This is part of a larger biblical pattern in which followers of God get personally and intentionally involved with other followers of God to help them fulfill God’s purpose for their lives.
Often, this is a “mentor-protégé” relationship—one is (usually) chronologically older and (always) much more spiritually mature than the other. In the context of a close love relationship, the older one trains the younger one to carry on after he is gone (e.g. MOSES & JOSHUA; ELIJAH & ELISHA; JESUS & 12; PAUL & TIMOTHY). We learn from this pattern that spiritual leaders are responsible not only to serve publicly through teaching and preaching, but also to privately develop more godly leaders who can repeat this pattern with others (read 2 Tim.2:2).
This is a big part of my role, for example. Most of you know me as a public leader and teacher, and this is a key part of my spiritual service. But I also spend 10-15 hours a week privately working with other men to help them become and improve as spiritual leaders (BRIEFLY EXPLAIN HOW). It would be very short-sighted of me to neglect this private work for more public ministry.
This is a key role of the many home group leaders who are here this morning. According to the Bible, spiritual transformation (real, deep-seated and lasting change) requires more than large meetings like this. It happens in the context of community—that’s why we emphasize home groups. Everyone who wants spiritual transformation should have the opportunity to be in a home group—that means we need to multiply home groups. And that in turn means we need more home group leaders. Where will these future leaders come from? They won’t appear from nowhere—they must be developed by the existing leaders in this personal and private and intentional way. So having home group leaders who take this principle seriously may be the greatest strength of this church!
But the “mentor-protégé” relationship is not the only biblical way of helping people toward spiritual development. We also see examples of intentional peer friendships that pursue this goal (read Prov.27:17; DAVID & JONATHAN; PAUL & BARNABAS). Paul’s vision of the church is highly relational and highly intentional communities (house churches) in which the members help one another to become spiritually mature servants (Eph.4:15,16).
This was mainly how Dennis and I developed into leaders. He was a little older spiritually than me (9 months), so he was my “mentor” for a little while (about 1 year). But most of our development as leaders came as we learned together and challenged one another and served together as peers—with occasional input from much more experienced Christians.
A lot of this went on in the early years of Xenos. We were so young spiritually and we grew so rapidly that there weren’t nearly enough “mentors” for all the people who wanted to be mentored. So we provided some classes for more Bible knowledge and ministry principles—but many peers committed to help one another become more mature and effective as Christian servants. Through the years, this has continued to be an effective way of pursuing this important goal.1
This principle, then, is a watershed issue in the health of a church. When churches emphasize and practice this principle, they become like a HEALTHY GROWING EXTENDED FAMILY. The parents help their children mature. The older siblings help their younger siblings develop. The children grow up to have their own families, where the same personal development happens—and the result is a healthy extended family. But when churches ignore this principle, they become dysfunctional—like PERPETUAL DAY-CARE CENTERS. A few professional care-givers (the pastors) get worn out doing public ministry, while the children (the church members) remain in a state of arrested development.
What about you? Are you committed to this principle like Elijah was? Even if you are a comparatively young Christian, you can do this. You don’t have to wait until you’re a veteran “mentor.” You don’t have to be a Bible scholar. You don’t have to have a problem-free character. You just need to be serious about following Christ, get involved in a few others’ lives and let them get involved in yours, share what you’re learning, and help one another serve others. You can do this! And it will be a huge part of your spiritual legacy!
So Elijah has poured his life into these men—especially Elisha—and now he walks the final few miles with Elisha from Jericho to the Jordan River.
Read 2:7,8. Why did Elijah do this? He didn’t do it—God did. God enabled Joshua to part this same river 500 years earlier, in order to demonstrate to the Israelites that Joshua was Moses’ successor (who divided the Red Sea). God now enables Elijah to repeat this miracle in order to provide confirmation to the 50 that Elisha is his successor (summarize 2:13-15).
Read 2:9. What does it mean? The request for a “double portion” is an allusion to Deut.21:17, in which God commands Israelite fathers to give their first-born sons a double-portion of his material wealth so they could lead the extended family. As Elijah's spiritual son, Elisha asks for a double-portion of Elijah's spiritual wealth (“...of your spirit”) so that he can succeed him as the lead prophet of his day. Elisha knows he has “big shoes to fill,” so he is saying “I need twice your spiritual resources because I am half the man you are.”
Read 2:10. Elijah knows that he has no ability in himself to grant this request—only God can give Elisha this. And God gives his answer in short order...
Read 2:11. This is an amazing, dramatic conclusion to an amazing, dramatic life—like the colorful explosion at the apogee of a fireworks. Why does God remove Elijah in this unusual way? There are several answers to this question, because God can “multi-task.” “Multi-tasking” is when you do several productive things at once. Mothers of young children quickly learn how to multi-task. I love to multi-task (discuss spiritual things and pray while running with friends). But God is the ultimate multi-tasker—and Elijah’s departure is one of the ultimate multi-tasking exhibitions. If we keep the lens right here, we see one reason why God took Elijah in this way. But as we move the lens further back from this chapter to the rest of the Bible, we find that God was doing many other things.
This was obviously the way God confirmed that he had granted Elisha's request to receive a double portion of Elijah's spirit (2:10 “if you see me when I am taken from you...;” 2:12 “And Elisha saw it...”).
But there’s another reason. This was the final demonstration of God's message through Elijah from the very beginning—that he is superior to Baal. “Elijah” means “YHWH is God” (not Baal). Bruce Waltke has pointed out that this is the key to understanding all of Elijah’s miracles.2 For example:
Baal was the god of rain, but God demonstrated through Elijah his authority over rain in 1 Kings 17:1; 18:41-46.
Baal was the god of fire, but God demonstrated through Elijah his authority over fire on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:17-40).
Baal was the god who mounted up in the clouds, but God through Elijah's departure demonstrates that he has authority over the heavens (2 Kings 2:11).
So Elijah’s departure is the fitting dramatic conclusion to his life’s mission—to demonstrate God’s superiority over Baal.
But there’s another reason. By taking Elijah from earth alive rather than allowing him to die naturally, God subtly signals that he has a future role for Elijah in his redemptive plan. Elijah re-appeared (along with Moses) 900 years later to have an important conversation with Jesus. On the mount of Transfiguration, they discussed Jesus’ imminent “departure” through his death, resurrection and ascension (Lk.9:30,31 NIV).
Why was it important for Moses and Elijah to have this conversation with Jesus? Because each of them had experienced a “departure” that pre-figured Jesus’ “departure.” Moses led the departure from Egypt (the Exodus), which began with the first Passover (EXPLAIN). Jesus fulfilled this “departure” with his death. Elijah’s “departure” prefigured Jesus’ ascension, when after his resurrection, he went alive into heaven until he returns at the end of the age. Imagine how Moses and Elijah felt as they conversed with Jesus and learned the ultimate reason for both of their unusual “departures!”3
This amazing unity of the Bible—in which seeming unconnected strands come together in Jesus—is one of the evidences that it is inspired by God rather than a merely human book!
But there’s more. Elijah's departure is also a prophetic picture of a similar departure to which God invites all of us. “Wouldn’t it be cool to go out like Elijah?” Well, you can! The same Bible that describes Elijah’s past translation also predicts a future translation (read 1Thess.4:15-17). Because Jesus has defeated death through his resurrection, all who belong to him will be “caught up together with the Lord in the air.” The only condition is that you are “in Christ”—that you are personally united with him. God has already purchased your ticket through the death of Jesus for your sins; you just have to ask him for this gift. Have you done this?
1 “We have seen spiritual peers disciple one another, like ‘iron sharpening iron.’” Dennis McCallum & Jessica Lowery, Organic Discipleship (Houston: TOUCH Publications, 2006), p.46.
2 See Bruce Waltke, Understanding the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Institute of Theological Studies, 1976), pp.37-39.
3 It is also likely that Elijah will return shortly before Jesus' second coming at the end of the age. In Mal. 4:4,5 (almost the last words of the Old Testament), God declares that he will send Elijah before the “great and terrible day of the Lord.