On Mt. Horeb or Sinai the Lord had given Elijah three assignments. The implication seems to be that upon their completion his work would be done and, perhaps, his life would be over and that is in fact what proved to be the case. In any case, Elijah promptly sets to work.
While not the rule, of course, it has never been uncommon in Christian history for the leadership of the church to be drawn from the well-to-do, from powerful and influential families. Twelve teams of oxen would in those days have been proof of significant wealth. Elisha was driving the last pair with the others ahead of him. The rains had come and Elisha was wasting no time plowing the now softened ground. Being asked to leave at such a time was a real test of his willingness to submit everything to his calling as a prophet. It would have been easier to leave the family farm when the ground was baked and nothing would grow anyway.
Obviously the act of laying his cloak over Elisha’s shoulders signified some sort of investiture or calling as Elijah’s assistant if not successor. It probably served to represent Elisha’s being clothed with the Spirit, the necessary prerequisite for a prophetic ministry. Several times in the OT a prophet is spoken of as being “clothed” with the Spirit; such a way of speaking as would be represented by putting a cloak over someone’s shoulders. [Dillard, 61] Later, remember, after Elijah was taken up to heaven, Elisha took his cloak that had fallen to the ground and divided the waters of the Jordan with it. Then, we read, that the company of the prophets knew that the spirit of Elijah was resting on Elisha (2 Kings 2:13-15).
Elisha simply appears from nowhere in the biblical history as had Elijah before him. We are told nothing of his background, his personal history to this point, his view of things in Israel at the time. Why Elisha? Had he identified himself by this time as a supporter of Elijah’s ministry and as a critic of the current regime? Or was this the sort of call that we find in the Gospels? Was Elisha a man like Matthew, the tax-collector, who may have had no real commitment to the living God until the moment the Lord Jesus caught his eye and called him to follow him? Were the external call and the internal call simultaneous? Of course, once Elisha’s dramatic ministry begins we forget all of these questions, but we would like to know more of what the man was like. But, then, his great role was as a spokesman for the Lord and as one who would wield the Lord’s power among his people. Like John the Baptist, the OT prophets are largely men who decreased personally so that the Lord might increase in the estimation of Israel and Judah. The fact that we are told so little about their personal lives is a lesson in itself. They are part of the history of the word of the Lord more than anything else; the word of God was the great thing, not the man who brought it.
There is one other thing worth your noting at the introduction of Elisha in the biblical narrative. Elijah’s counterpart in the history of redemption, as you know, is John the Baptist. They wore similar clothing. John the Baptist is even prophesied in Malachi as the second coming of Elijah. Attention is drawn by the Lord Jesus in Matthew 11 to the fact that John the Baptist, if you will, was the Elijah who was to come. But John the Baptist, the second Elijah, was a forerunner of someone else. And in that way also Elijah and John the Baptist are a matched pair. Elijah’s ministry was important in its own right as was John’s, but it also prepared the way for the ministry of another. John the Baptist baptized Jesus and Elijah threw his cloak over Elisha. There are differences to be sure, but it is surely significant that each Elijah has a successor who carries on his ministry and does still greater things for the kingdom of God. Such is the pattern of redemptive history; its typology.
No doubt you noticed the striking difference in Elijah’s reply to that of the Lord when he was asked a similar question. You remember, as a way of illustrating the cost of following him, the Lord mentioned a conversation not unlike this one. In Luke 9:57-62 (Matt. 8:22) to a man whom he called and who said in return, “Lord let me first go and bury my father,” the Lord replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” and “Follow me and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” The Lord was making a different point. No one had greater compassion for the bereaved than Jesus did, which is what makes his stern reply so striking and memorable. His point was that his disciples must have an unqualified commitment to him. But Elijah had no objection to Elisha’s observing the proper honors for his parents or offering a sacrifice and a fellowship feast to mark his calling to what we would nowadays call “full time Christian service”. What is more, his burning of the oxen and their wooden yokes indicated a decisive turning toward the Lord’s call and the end of his old life’s work. That is precisely what the Lord Jesus was after in his remark. Elisha’s burning his yoke was what we would nowadays refer to as burning one’s bridges. [Provan, 148-149]
Elisha begins his service as Elijah’s assistant. Imagine the conversations between that mentor and his disciple. For the time being Elisha recedes from view, but he will reappear on the main stage in 2 Kings 2.
One comes to everything sooner or later in the Bible and there are several interesting matters raised in this brief account of the calling of Elisha. The first of them concerns the calling of a man to the ministry..
It is a matter of immense practical importance that none of the calling narratives of Holy Scripture can be used to teach us how a man today is to discern a calling to the ministry of the Word. Think of them all: Moses in the wilderness at the burning bush, Samuel in the temple of the Lord, Elisha here being confronted by Elijah, Isaiah given a vision in the temple, Jeremiah spoken to directly by the Lord, the Lord’s disciples summoned by Jesus one by one, and the Apostle Paul so dramatically on the Damascus Road. Every one of these men was called immediately by the voice of God, received an audible summons or a vision, and then in a variety of ways was entrusted by the Lord with his Word to deliver to the world and to his people. How that word came to them we do not know in most cases but the revelation was direct, immediate, and self-authenticating. It was often, though not in every case, confirmed by miraculous demonstrations of divine power, sometimes miracles in the proper sense worked by these prophets themselves, and sometimes in dramatic providences (as, for example, in Samuel’s day, the intervention of the Lord in Israel’s battles against the Philistines, or in Isaiah’s the destruction of the army of the Assyrian Emperor Sennacherib outside the walls of Jerusalem).
You are aware, of course, that nowadays many Christians continue to use these biblical narratives as typical of the way God calls a man to the ministry of the Word. They will speak of the Lord speaking to them, or calling them, as if it happened to them in the same way it happened to Moses or Elisha or Matthew. No doubt all would be simpler if, in fact, that were still the case. But it is not. The Lord doesn’t speak from heaven and the claim that he does, however well-meant and however blithely accepted by Christians who ought to know better, comes very near to blasphemy: the claim that one’s own decisions are the very acts of God! There is no burning bush except in the case of Moses. There is no appearance of the Lord Christ in the sky except in the case of the Apostle Paul. The Scripture nowhere teaches us to expect some supernatural communication to a man or to the church as a whole so that we might know to whom to entrust the ministry of the Word.
And it is a fact that the error of attempting to co-opt the method of calling from these biblical narratives of the calling of prophets and apostles is found in our circles too. A man comes to his presbytery and tells them that the Lord has called him to another church. The Lord some time before had called him to the church he is presently pastoring, but is now the Lord himself is calling him to another church. Who are we to disagree with God? Harry DeSoto once told me that even as a young man he noticed that the Lord always seemed to call a man to a bigger, better paying church! We should be very, very careful – ministers especially should be very, very careful – before using such language. If the man wishes to say, “I would like to leave my present charge for another and for these reasons,” I’m entirely willing to listen. If a man would simply say “I think I could do better in another situation” I would credit his honesty and listen to his argument. But when a man says “the Lord has called me to this other work” I want to know how he knows that. Did the Lord speak to him from a burning bush? Did he address him in the middle of the night in an audible voice? Did a miracle-working prophet throw his cloak over his shoulder? Did the Lord Christ speak to him from heaven? The experience of the biblical prophets and apostles is of little help to us. Their work was unique and so their calling to that work. The sort of calling we find given to Moses or Elisha is limited to the period of biblical revelation. How can such experiences be applied to a situation like ours in which there are no prophets and no miracles and no direct speech from heaven?
To those who claim that there continues to be something of the same kind of direct speech from heaven I will say only this. To say more would take several sermons. I will say only this: prove it. I don’t believe it; most Christians don’t. Where is the evidence? How are we to know that you are not simply baptizing your own opinion, your own desire by claiming that God spoke to you, directed you, led you from the one church to the other? The faith healer who dupes credulous people, takes their money, and lives high on the hog invariably claims that the Lord called him to this work. And we rightly say “Baloney.” The false teacher always has a call. If we don’t believe that they are called why should we believe anyone’s claim to have been told directly from heaven that he is to be a minister of the Word? Nowadays, young women, even evangelical young women, are claiming in increasing numbers to have a call from God to the Christian ministry and they are expecting us to say that if you have the call of Almighty God, who are we to deny that call. However, does God call his people to break his own commandments? I don’t think so. Fact is, there have always been a good many men (and women) who have claimed to have been called to the ministry of the Word who were not, as circumstances later plainly demonstrated. Why should we believe one man’s claim to have heard from God when we don’t believe the claims of others? Elisha had a direct calling from heaven, but then he also worked miracles. So did Moses, so did Isaiah, so did Paul. Let a man work a miracle or two and then let’s talk about what God may have said to him in a vision or whispered directly into his ear.
Indeed, I would say this: if a man believes the Lord still communicates directly, person to person, as he did to Moses or to Gideon, let the man put his convictions to the test. Let him tell the Lord that the first night he is going to put a piece of cotton in his back yard. If he is called to the ministry the Lord should put all the dew on the cotton and none on the ground. The next night he will again put a piece of cotton on the grass in the back yard. If he is truly called to the ministry let the dew be on the ground and none on the cotton. If the Lord does that two nights running, that man is called to the ministry! But if the Lord does not – and surely he will not – the man can’t say that the Lord told him to be a minister! It is simply not the way we should speak and not the way we are taught to speak in Holy Scripture.
The fact is the Bible says virtually nothing about the ordinary call to the Christian ministry, to the ministry of the Word. At least it says nothing about some divine communication to settle the matter. So how is a man to know if he is called to such work? The proof of how little the Bible specifically addresses this question is that even in our own Reformed tradition, even where we think similarly about so many things taught in Holy Scripture, we have utterly different views of the calling of a man to the ministry of the Word of God. Some of our men have taken the view that every Christian boy or young man ought to consider himself called to the ministry of the Word until it is demonstrated that he does not have the gifts for that work. This was the view of Robert Dabney, the celebrated Southern Presbyterian theologian. Every young Christian man ought to point himself toward the Christian ministry until older, wiser, experienced men and women and then the church herself tell him that is not the work for him.
Most of our men, however, have taken virtually the opposite view: no Christian young man should consider himself called to the ministry unless he comes to the conviction that he could not do anything else, that he must be a minister. Every young man consider himself called to the ministry; no young man think that he is called to the ministry. These are Presbyterians reading the same Bible and seeking to extract from it the proper understanding of the way a call to the ministry comes to a man. The answer, I think, rather clearly lies somewhere in between.
The church, we are told in the New Testament, rests upon the foundation of the prophets and the apostles and so it distinguishes the prophets and the apostles from the generations that follow. One is not always building the foundation. Once the foundation is laid a different sort of building happens on top of it. And in that same New Testament we are taught what the qualifications of a builder, a minister are and what gifts he ought to have. He must be a man of the Spirit and of wisdom; he must live a godly life; he must be able to teach. A man who has those gifts and meets those qualifications may be a Christian minister. But some men who have those gifts in one degree or another, even eminently, may not find themselves called to the ministry and may instead do other very useful things with their life. If the truth be told, what is wanting in those men is a desire for the work of the ministry. There are certainly many elders in the Christian church, as there are in this church, who live godly lives and have impressive gifts, indeed we might well admit that they are more gifted than some ministers we know, but who nevertheless do not believe themselves called to be ministers of the Word.
Ordinarily the calling of a man to the ministry of the Word is said to have two parts: one internal and the other external. The external call is the validation of a man’s call by the church. There must be this at last. The work is too important to depend on nothing more than a man’s own opinion of himself. So the church passes judgment, as is right. She, after all, is the one who will rely on a man’s truly having been called to the work and equipped for the work by the Spirit of God, so she more than all others should be convinced that the man has such a call. That is the external call, the judgment of the church.
The internal call is rightly understood to be a combination of fitness for the office (gifts and graces) and a desire for it. [C. Bridges, The Christian Ministry, 94] Very often in the experience of Christian men the presence of gifts produces desire and when gifts and desire are joined a calling is found. Think of how many men have left one successful calling to become ministers simply because they were overcome by the desire to do so. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was already a physician when he became a minister of the Word; Augustine was a teacher; Jeff Struecker, whom I mentioned a few weeks ago in a sermon, was a soldier; so was our Ed Dunnington. These men became ministers because they had the gifts for the work and the desire to do it, sufficient desire that they were persuaded to leave what they were doing – doing very successfully, by the way – and enter the Christian ministry. And then the church agreed that they were fit for the work and wanted them to do it. And so it was that they became ministers of the Word. For many others, including myself, the desire was born early on in life and never left. I believe this early desire in my case is nothing less than the calling of the Holy Spirit but without fitness and without the approbation of the church my opinion would have rightly counted for nothing. Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew when he was thirteen and announced when he was fourteen that he wanted to be a minister and never once hesitated after that. By the time he was fifteen he was taking Hebrew as an elective in his German public high school! [Mataxas, Bonhoeffer, 39] He never once hesitated, never once was deflected from that course. He knew what he wanted to be and do; but as time passed Bonhoeffer proved to many others that he was a man who ought to be a minister of the Word of God.
What the Lord gives us are the principles and commandments of his Word, on the one hand, and, on the other, the Spirit in our hearts and in the heart of the church to enable us to apply those principles and commandments honestly and faithfully to our lives. As in everything else in the Christian life, as John Newton once put it, “love is the best casuist.” That is, it is the person who loves God and wants to honor him, and the church that loves God and loves God’s people and loves the Word of God who will make the wisest application of the principles of the Word of God to any particular existential question. Such a question is this one: “Is this particular individual man called to the ministry of the Word?” In the dependence of faith, he will commit the matter of his calling to the Lord in prayer; in humility he will seek the advice and counsel of older, wiser men who are known to walk with God; he will be willing to put his gifts to the test to see if others agree that he has the gifts of the ministry; and he will submit his will cheerfully to that of the church. In our tradition and very wisely, the calling of God is, in the final analysis, detected through the will of the church. If the church calls a man to a particular work, and only if she does, is his sense of calling to the ministry is confirmed. And if the church loves the people of God and the Word of God and the kingdom of God and desires the best result for all, it will make honest decisions about men, their gifts, their fitness and the purity of their desire. It will neither let unfit and unready men into the work nor will it let fit and ready men easily off the hook who imagine life will be easier if they choose some other occupation!
What we have before us this evening is a classic account of divine calling to the ministry of the Word. That such a calling is not given in the same way any more does not mean there is not such a thing as a divine calling to the ministry. It may be discerned in a different way, but it is the same calling and the same ministry of the Word. And it is a matter the importance of which cannot be overstated. They are utterly different ministers who do not do their work believing that God himself has called them to it. In our day and age there are many ministers, even in evangelical churches, who have what might be called a professional view of the ministry rather than a prophetic one. The ministry is for them a career choice rather than a divine calling. In churches like our Presbyterian Church in America, where ministers are well trained and well paid, the professionalization of the ministry is a particular temptation. So long as the ministry is regarded first and foremost as a calling, a summons from God, like Elisha’s calling that led him to forsake his comfortable life in a well-to-do home and strike out after an itinerant prophet who was at the time under a death sentence from the regime in Israel, ministers will care little where they work, or how much they are paid, or how well known they become, and care much more to ensure that they are discharging their responsibilities faithfully before the Lord for the sake of his people and their salvation. This was John Wesley’s point in part of his covenanting service for young ministers:
“This taking of His yoke upon us means that we are heartily content that He appoint us our place and work, and that He alone be our reward. Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and temporal interests, others are contrary to both. In some we may please Christ and please ourselves, in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is assuredly given us in Christ, who strengtheneth us.” [Cited in Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth, 216]
My simple point is that if a man really believes that about his life and work he is going to think very differently about it and he is going to behave very differently in it.
We need ministers and only ministers who know that they are called to the work of the ministry. That is what all Christian ministers have in common with Elisha, that and the Word of God they are called to proclaim!
The second important matter in our text is that of succession in ministry. The fact is Elijah’s work may have been largely completed but the work itself was not done by any means. Another would take up his calling and carry it forward. As it happened, many others would follow Elijah and then Elisha. There would be no time in Israel’s history concluded in 721 B.C. that a faithful prophet was not speaking the Word of God to the king and to the people. The work went on but the men doing that work changed as time passed, as one generation followed another. This may seem obvious but it is a hugely important fact. One of the most important responsibilities of any one generation of the church is to provide for the ministry that will serve the next generation, just as the great calling of a Christian family is to see to the perpetuation of faith, hope, love, and obedience in the next generation. A failure to provide for the next generation of ministry – and there have been many such failures – is the surest way to consign our children and grandchildren to spiritual death. The church will not prosper and God’s people will not continue in the faith of Christ if they are not faithfully provided the Word of God. They never have. Show me a time when living faith has leaked out of the church and I’ll show you a generation of unfaithful ministers who are no longer feeding the people of God with the Word of God and very often that generation has immediately followed a generation of faithful ministers, but ministers who did not prepare the way for those who had come after. The Lord’s instruction to Elijah to anoint Elisha is more than a particular task to be completed. It is one of a great many examples in the Bible of a responsibility the church ought always to take care to fulfill: viz. provide her next generation with faithful ministers of the Word.
There are many things the church cannot control, we cannot control. We cannot determine the measure of the Holy Spirit that will be poured out upon the church at any time. We cannot guarantee that our own ministry or that of the succeeding generation will be possessed of great gifts, eminent gifts. It is, in fact, relatively rare that there should be a concentration of great giftedness in a single generation of the church’s ministry. The period of the Reformation was such a time, but ordinarily it is not so. Most of the time the church will have some very gifted men and many more ordinary ministers. I remember Marion Barnes, the president of Covenant College years ago, telling me of this principle in life. Dr. Barnes himself was a very able man. He had a number of patents to his name as a research chemist. He said to me that I would discover in my life that no matter what the calling – whether it is research chemistry or digging ditches – there will be a few people who do the work extraordinarily well, there will be a few people who do the work extraordinarily badly, and there will be a great big bunch in the middle whose work is ordinary. It will neither be outstanding nor dreadful. It will be average. And Dr. Barnes was right. That is the ordinary way of life in the world and in the church.
We can’t guarantee great gifts. We can’t guarantee the outpouring of the Spirit of God; but the church can guarantee that its ministry be gifted to some degree and especially that it be faithful. That does lie within her power because of the guidance of the Word of God, because of the promise of God to build his church, and because the Holy Spirit gives his gifts to the church, always has, always will according to the Word of God. On the 14th of November Peter Rowan will be ordained to the ministry of the Word of God in Richmond, Virginia. He will be installed in the same office Elisha held, though, to be sure, with more regular powers than Elisha’s. But Peter will stand in a long line stretching backward to Elijah, indeed past Elijah to Moses and even beyond. The church lives or dies by her ministry: not by the greatness of its gifts but by its faithfulness, the courage of its convictions, the strength of its commitment to the Word of God, and the quality of its godliness. If you love your children and your grandchildren, hardly anything should be more important to you practically than that they will have faithful, able ministers. The quality of Christian families, for example, depends upon the ministry of the Word; the quality of the churches’ life and worship – so fundamentally important to every aspect of the spiritual life of believers – depends upon the ministry of the Word; and the power and influence of the Christian faith in the culture as a whole and so the confidence of Christians in the face of the hostility of the world depends upon the ministry of the Word.
Fact is, as both the Bible and the history of the church testify, “In the case of a faithful ministry, success is the rule; lack of success is the exception.” The measure of success, of course, the Lord will determine but a faithful ministry will be successful as a rule. No wonder, the gifts the minister employs are the Lord’s gifts, they are from him, given for his purposes, and it is the Lord’s promise that a faithful minister, a man who watches his life and teaching closely, “will save both himself and his hearers.” Those hearers will be your children and your grandchildren.
You may be surprised to learn that Reformed theologians have long held to a doctrine of apostolic succession. Certainly it is not the Roman Catholic version of that doctrine, as if the gift and authority of the office of the holy ministry is actually conferred upon a new minister because of an unbroken, physical connection from one bishop to another back to Peter himself, the first bishop of Rome. But our doctrine of ordination, the setting apart of one minister by others, of younger ministers by older ministers, implies that we can trace backward a succession from one generation to another, men who had the authority to ordain the next generation of ministers of the Word. Peter Rowan’s ordination can be, spiritually at least, carried back through the ages all the way to Elisha and to Elijah and before him. We needn’t know each minister by name whose authority it was that was transferred from one generation of ministers to the next. It has nothing to do with any single bishop or pope. It has to do with the fact that God calls ministers and gives to them the authority to ordain others who will follow behind them, just as Elijah ordained Elisha, as the Lord Jesus ordained his apostles, and Paul ordained Timothy. Indeed, we go back centuries before the Apostle Peter, where the Roman Catholics stop, for there was a church in the ancient epoch as well, and that church had its ministers and they ordained the ministers who followed them, generation after generation.
What prompted all of this reflection on Elisha’s call was the observation made at the most recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America to the effect that within the next 15 years the largest part, two-thirds, of the PCA’s ministry will be turned over. That is, most presently serving PCA ministers will retire in the next fifteen years or so. There will be a massive replacement of the present ministry by a new generation of younger men. Take a look at our own presbytery. Most of our churches will not be pastored by their present ministers in 15 years. This congregation won’t be either. Don’t imagine that this is a fact of only curious interest. The spiritual quality of the coming generation of ministers, their sense of divine calling, their commitment to the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way, will have everything to do with your life, the life of your children, and the life of your grandchildren. Will our churches remain nurseries of Christian faith, will our congregations remain confident of the truth of the Word of God in an increasingly hostile environment, will they willingly make sacrifices on account of that truth, will the gospel remain the power of God unto salvation in our circles? It all depends on a ministry that knows itself called by God.
What is your role in an age when the Lord does not send a prophet to choose his successor? It is as the church to demand a called and consecrated ministry and not to settle for anything less. It is as parents to consider with your sons whether they have the gifts and calling of a minister of the Word of God and to encourage other young men you think may have the makings of a prophet and a priest to consider that calling seriously. It is as a part of the larger church to support the theological and ministerial education of our ministers to be. Have you thought of this: what may make the greatest, the most wonderful difference in your grandchildren’s lives may well be what is happening today at Covenant Theological Seminary and at other faithful divinity schools.
One minister follows another: that is what we learn from our text. The Lord chose wisely the man who would replace Elijah. We are to learn to do the same! We want a man who burns his yoke and sets off to do the work of a prophet, confident that he is to do God’s work in God’s way.