In 1 Kings 19, when Elijah was at Mt. Horeb, one of the instructions he received from the Lord in the still, small voice was to anoint Elisha as his successor. This he did as we read at the end of that same chapter. Now we come to the actual transfer of responsibility from the one prophet to the other. We know there were other faithful prophets in Israel at the time for we have read of them. But it is clear that first Elijah and then Elisha was primus inter pares, first among equals, the prophet of the Lord. Presbyterians, perhaps especially American Presbyterians can make a shibboleth of one man not standing above another in the life and work of the church, but it has always been so and will always be so. The Lord made it so in the OT, Christ gave a special place to Peter, James, and John, and then to the Apostle Paul, and so it has continued ever since. Whatever may have been the relationship between Elijah and Elisha and the other faithful prophets de jure, de facto those two men towered above the rest and concentrated divine authority in their persons in a unique way. The proof of this, beyond the attention paid to them in the biblical narrative, is that these two men alone, so far as we know, were given authority to wield miraculous power.
Apparently Elijah, knowing his time of departure was near, made a farewell tour of several communities of prophets then in Israel: one at Gilgal, one at Bethel, and one at Jericho. Elisha insisted on accompanying his master, even when encouraged to remain behind.
We have encountered this group, “the sons of the prophets,” once before in 1 Kings 20:35. All the other ten occurrences of the term are found in 2 Kings. Remember, there is no significance in that fact; the division of the book into two volumes is arbitrary. Little is known of this group and it disappears in the biblical record after the ministry of Elisha. Think of it, perhaps, as a group of ministers, perhaps mostly young ministers, gathered around the ministries of first Elijah and then Elisha and existing to serve them.
Why the sons of the prophets are told not to speak of Elijah’s immanent departure is not explained. Perhaps it is simply a matter of showing respect to the great man [Provan, 175] or perhaps instead an indication of Elisha’s grief at contemplating the loss of his mentor.
In other words there were witnesses to what is about to transpire.
Once again, as before at Mt. Horeb, Elijah is linked with Moses who parted the waters of the Sea of Reeds with his staff, as well as with Joshua who also parted the waters of the Jordan River. The trip from Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho to the Jordan that Elijah and Elisha will take retraces Israel’s steps upon entering the Promised Land under Joshua. The thought may be that the relationship of Elijah to Elisha (who will also part the waters of the Jordon) is like that of Moses to Joshua. The place where the Jordan is crossed – near Jericho – is the same as when Israel crossed the river on dry land under Joshua. [Hobbes, 19]
The point of all this is, of course, to underscore the fact that Yahweh is still Israel’s God and that she has only to turn to him again to enjoy once again the blessing of his protection and power. Israel has changed but he has not! He still speaks to his people, as before through Moses now through Elijah and soon Elisha. And the Promised Land is Yahweh’s gift to Israel; it belongs to him and he can cause his people to remain in it or drive them from it. Israel had lost her faith because she had forgotten her history.
Elisha isn’t asking to exceed Elijah in power and influence. He is asking for the blessing and inheritance of the firstborn son according to the Law of Moses (Deut. 21:17). He is as much as saying that he knows that his calling is to continue Elijah’s work and he, understandably, asks for the full measure of spiritual provision with which to do that.
I think we get confused by a statement like this. Since such a blessing, unlike land and property – which, remember, Elisha has already left behind, as we read in 1 Kings 19 – was not Elijah’s to give; only the Lord could provide such things. So he told Elisha that the Lord must give what he asked and would if only Elisha were present to see Elijah’s ascension. Presumably what Elijah meant is that if Elisha were to see what was about to happen, if he were able to see the horses and chariots of fire, that would indicate that he had been given this special, spiritual insight that was the basis of Elijah’s ministry as a prophet. Remember later Elisha arranged for his servant to see the hosts of the Lord surrounding Dothan (2 Kgs. 6:17). Elisha could “see” spiritual realities because he had been given this remarkable power by the Spirit of God. Much later, remember, sight of the exalted Christ was given to Paul on the Damascus road, but only he was able to see the Lord. Others present at the time heard something and apparently saw a great light, but did not see the Lord himself as Paul did. Well, as it happened, Elisha saw everything too.
In any case, Elisha’s persistence in remaining with Elijah is now seen to have been a great virtue on his part, the passing of a test; only because he refused to be left behind was he present to witness Elijah’s departure. After all, we have been left to wonder why it seems in vv. 2, 4, and 6 that Elijah was attempting to shake Elisha off his tail. Is this a test of his disciple and successor, something like the Lord’s three-fold question to Peter in John 21?
The horses and chariots separated Elijah from Elisha but Elijah went to heaven in what is literally “a storm of the heavens.” [House, 257]
To have seen the heavenly host, the armies of Yahweh was a great privilege for a man who would spend his life in battle with human powers. Elisha would remember this sight, no doubt, many times, as he was beset by the Lord’s enemies.
The Lord Jesus himself both left the world in a similar way and will return in a similar way, at the head of great host to bring judgment to his enemies and salvation to his faithful servants, those who have shared in his battles. [Dillard, 84-86]
In this respect it is important to realize that John the Baptist anointed his successor, the Lord Jesus, at nearly the same place, the area of the Jordan River. And Jesus would receive a full measure of the Holy Spirit at that same time and, from heaven, the Lord God would identify Jesus as his Son, that is, his firstborn son. Notice all the parallels. Elisha is a Christ figure here in many specific ways! A pattern is being revealed that will shape the history of salvation at its great point of crisis.
This miraculous power, together with his having witnessed the ascension of Elijah, was the answer to Elisha’s request. He had received the full measure of his inheritance as Elijah’s successor.
I suppose there was scarcely a day in the life of the eleven remaining disciples of the Lord Jesus, those men who had witnessed the Lord’s ascension to heaven and had heard the angel say that he would someday return to the world as he had left it, when they didn’t think of what they had seen and heard that day. There was probably scarcely a day when they didn’t have occasion to tell others of what they had seen and heard. Knowing human nature, surely they were peppered with questions about that scene every time they met a new group of Christians. No doubt there were many events from their time with Jesus that those favored men remembered again and again, and spoke of again and again, perhaps virtually every day: the night on the Sea of Galilee when he stilled the storm by the mere utterance of his voice; the feeding of the 5,000 – a miracle in which they actually played an integral part – or his first appearance to them in the upper room after his resurrection. Who would not remember such things and bring them repeatedly to mind.
I just read the other day the final pages of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer biography and was amazed and immensely proud, as a Christian, once again to have read of his calmness in the face of death. Perhaps you remember the last words he spoke to one of the survivors of his group of prisoners. Some Gestapo villains had come to collect him. “Come with us,” they ordered, words that had come to mean but one thing for all the prisoners of the Third Reich. As he left he drew an English military prisoner aside and said, “This is the end. For me the beginning of life.” Magnificent! I should add that Captain Payne Best, the Englishman who accompanied Bonhoeffer and others on their journey from Tegel prison in Berlin to Bavaria, said of Bonhoeffer, “He was one of the very few men that I have ever met to whom his God was real and ever close to him,” and “He was, without exception, the finest and most lovable man I have ever met.” [Mataxas, 514, 528]
But where did this calmness at the moment of death come from? After all, he had every reason to want to live, to believe that he needed to live, to crave a longer life. He was in love; he was engaged to be married; he had proposed to a young German girl more than two years before. He ached to see her again and to be able to marry and build a family together. He feared for his family and especially for his mother. She had been shattered by the news of the death of her son Walter, in the First World War, it took her almost a year to recover, and Bonhoeffer well knew what a blow the loss of another son would be. (As it happened Paula Bonhoeffer would lose two sons and two sons-in-law to Hitler’s revenge after the Valkyrie plot failed.) Dietrich also had a twin sister, who had married a Jewish Christian well before the War began. They had been spirited out of Germany to England when it became clear that, Christian or not, no Jew was safe in the Third Reich. Dietrich was very close to his sister, Sabine, and, of course, was desperate to see her again. What is more, events had seemed recently to fall out in promising ways. Everyone’s spirits were up in the group. The prisoners in his group, and the guards who had accompanied them from Berlin on the 200 mile trip south, knew that the war was nearly over. Everybody knew that. The guns of the American army to the west could be heard, the Russian army was closing from the east. And, still more encouraging, they had not finally been taken, as they all had expected, to a death camp. In fact, they had ended up in a school, a temporary dorm that had real beds with mattresses; the most comfortable they had slept on in two years. It appeared that they had dodged the hangman. When they stopped they were a hundred miles from Flossenbürg, the death camp where they all had feared they were being taken. Bonhoeffer had been a part of the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler but it increasingly appeared that the Gestapo had not learned of his involvement. He had been in prison for two years for other reasons, but now it seemed he would soon be free again. Everyone had been quite happy the last few days.
And then, just at the moment when things seemed finally hopeful and safe, suddenly, out of nowhere, “Come with us…” A hundred mile trip to a death camp, a short, mock trial that lasted late into the night, Bonhoeffer on his knees in his cell as dawn broke, and then the short walk to the gallows. The camp doctor later recollected the scene:
“On the morning of that day between five and six o’clock the prisoners, among them Admiral Canaris, General Oster, General Thomas and [Judge] Sack were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of the court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God had heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.” [Mataxas, 532]
It is hard to imagine a set of circumstances in which it would be more difficult for a man – a young man; Bonhoeffer was only 39 years of age when he was executed – to accept that he must die. His life in this world was over. He would never see his loved ones again, never marry his fiancée. And yet he died in the full flood of faith and by everyone’s testimony with an almost supernatural calmness of spirit. How was this possible? In a sermon he preached years before as the pastor to an expatriate German congregation in London, Bonhoeffer had said this:
“No one has yet believed in God and the kingdom of God, no one has yet heard about the realm of the resurrected, and not been homesick from that hour, waiting and looking forward joyfully to being released from bodily existence.
Whether we are young or old makes no difference. What are twenty or thirty or fifty years in the sight of God? And which of us knows how near he or she may already be to the goal? That life only really begins when it ends here on earth, that all that is here is only the prologue before the curtain goes up – that is for young and old to think about. Why are we so afraid when we think about death? … Death is only dreadful for those who live in dread and fear of it. Death is not wild and terrible, if only we can be still and hold fast to God’s Word. Death is not bitter, if we have not become bitter ourselves. Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe in him. Death is mild, death is sweet and gentle; it beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace.
How do we know that dying is so dreadful? Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world?
Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.” 
Absolutely! Beautifully put. We agree with that surely; we do if we are Christians. But from what comes our certainty, our confidence, our assurance that death is, indeed, grace to us, the gateway to our homeland and to everlasting peace and joy? Well, ask yourself this? When James, Peter, and Paul, came to die – all men who were executed for their faith in Christ, all men who had to face the fact that they were going to die violently, at the hands of evil men, and long before they might otherwise come to the end of their lives – what were they thinking, the night before? Well, biblically minded as they were, they might have thought of Abel, the human being who had been in heaven longer than any other. They might well have thought of Enoch who never died. It would have been still more likely that they thought of Elijah, who left the world in a whirlwind and went directly to heaven. Surely Elijah’s “death” if you can call it that, his euthanasia, is a powerful argument for the nature of death for a believing man or woman.
And if they thought about Elijah the night before they were led away to their deaths, James and Peter certainly must have recalled the scene that they alone, together with John, were privileged to see, there on the Mount of Transfiguration, two years into the Lord’s ministry, a year before his crucifixion and resurrection. There suddenly the Lord shone with the glory of God and Moses and Elijah appeared to speak with him about events to come. The same man who had been carried to heaven in a whirlwind was standing there before them speaking to the Lord. Not only did Elijah not die, he appeared later on the earth speaking with the Savior. If a man wanted to die in the confidence that death was nothing but the gateway to our homeland, he could hardly do better than think about the personal history of Elijah.
But, of course, that is not what they would have thought about the most. These were men who had been eye-witnesses of the conquest of death in the person of the Lord Jesus. Peter and James had seen him that first Easter Sunday, alive again. They had seen him die – at least Peter had – and they saw him alive again on the third day. They had seen a human being after he had died, a human being with immortality upon him. And not just any human being, but one who had raised the dead himself, one who had spoken of himself as the resurrection and the life, and had promised his followers that he was going ahead of them to prepare a place for them. This is the man who appeared to them very much alive though different in some wonderful ways. I am sure that night in their prison cells they repeated to themselves and to the Lord the very sort of things that Bonhoeffer would declare in his sermon. They knew that death was not the end for them, but the beginning of life. What person, after all, could deny life after death who had seen it with his own eyes, knew how it was obtained and from whom, and how true it is that that life, the life beyond, is better by far?
And so it is and must be that those who have a deep and close walk with the Lord Jesus, those who are most conscious of him and his victory over sin and death, those whose lives are most profoundly shaped and controlled by their knowledge of Jesus Christ, as was Bonhoeffer’s, those men and women must find death so much a gateway to life that they can calmly and courageously endure it, their characters fully intact to the end, under almost any circumstances.
There are several different reasons why Elijah left the world as he did, without dying the ordinary death of a human being, one of only two in all of human history of whom that could be said.
- Obviously it was an impossibly dramatic demonstration of Elijah’s authority as a prophet of the Lord. Take that you prophets of Baal! It is of a piece with the fire falling from heaven on Mt. Carmel, with the fire destroying the companies of soldiers sent by Ahaziah to arrest Elijah, and with the miraculous provision both for Elijah himself when hiding from Ahab and for the widow of Zarephath. If the Word of the Lord is a hammer that breaks the rocks, we can understand very easily that the prophet appointed to bring that Word may be signaled out in extraordinary ways as unlike all other men.
- It was as well a demonstration of the authority of the office. Elijah’s exit from the world, wonderful as it was, would not be repeated. Even Elisha, who would perform many miracles, would die a normal death. And after Elisha the Lord’s prophets would not perform miracles (excepting perhaps Isaiah on one occasion, though not in the same immediate way as miracles were performed by Elijah and Elisha). But, at the headwaters of the prophetic movement we find these absolutely extraordinary events which convey a divine authority not only to the two men who performed the miracles themselves, but to their successors in the same prophetic office. Miracles had long since ceased by the time the Apostle John was an old man, but the fact that he had performed them in his younger years continued to invest his office of apostle with once-for-all and epoch-making authority. He was an apostle of the Lord Jesus, part of the group that would lay the foundation of the Christian church in the new epoch, part of the number that would furnish the church the last 27 books of her Bible. And we know that, among other reasons, because of the miracle-working power these men wielded for a time. And the authority of the Christian ministry that remains faithful to the apostles’ teaching rests upon that original authority granted to the apostles and demonstrated by the miracles they performed.
- Elijah’s manner of exit also once again and most dramatically revealed Israel’s folly. Ahab was dead, Ahaziah was dead, Jehoram was going to die, but Elijah, whom they all hated and whose message they all rejected, didn’t die and went to heaven immediately. Who was right after all? The followers of Baal or the prophets of Yahweh? Duh!
- It also demonstrated the authority of the Word of God. Moses died but, unlike any other human being before or since, he was buried by God himself. Elijah didn’t even die. Both of these men are associated directly with an entire section of Holy Scripture: Moses because he was the principle author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, and Elijah because he, the next great prophet after Moses, was the father of the prophetic movement that would produce most of the rest of what we call the Old Testament. It is for this reason, most biblical scholars have thought, that Moses and Elijah were the two men to speak with the Lord Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration: they represent the Law and the Prophets. The theological and ministerial followers and descendants of Elijah would produce Joshua through 2 Chronicles and Isaiah through Malachi. Only the wisdom literature (Job through the Song of Songs) was not produced by “the prophets.” Typical of every section of Holy Scripture, miracles appear in connection with the men associated with its authorship. Not with every man, of course, but with the office that he holds. We don’t know, for example, whether James, the Lord’s brother and an author of a book of the New Testament, ever worked a miracle, but he held the same office as another James, Peter’s brother – Paul even refers to him as an apostle in Gal. 1:19 – and we know the first James worked miracles. The primary purpose of miracle in the Bible – remember, they don’t happen very often – is to authenticate the divine authority of those who provide the people of God with the Word of God, and so the divine authority of the Word itself.
I say, all of these purposes and others are served by the stunning manner of Elijah’s exit from this world. But, like all other miracles, they also serve as pictures and demonstrations of God’s salvation itself. In the same way as healing the sick became so often in Jesus’ ministry a picture of deliverance from sin, in the same way that raising the dead became a picture of the conquest of death that the followers of Christ will experience, so first Elijah’s ascension and then, still more, Christ’s is a picture of the very nature of salvation as a going to heaven from this earth, there to live on.
Baal couldn’t even supply rain in a drought. What good could he be in the face of a much more sinister and powerful enemy: death itself? Yahweh had proved himself the Lord of rain, the judge of all the earth, and the provider of those who trust in him. Now he was proving himself the Lord of death and of life after death, which is, in case any of us have forgotten, the one supreme issue of human existence. We are all going to die; whether in a famine or a time of plenty matters finally not very much; whether we are young when we die or old again matters finally not very much. But if death issues human beings into one or another form of continuing personal experience, and if Yahweh determines for every human being precisely what form that continuing existence will take, whether happy or sad, whether good or bad, whether the fullness of life or the gnashing of teeth, whether in his presence or banished from it, whether in the satisfaction of longings or the futile obsessing over lost opportunities, then the fact of death is hugely significant and the fact that any single man in human history escaped death altogether because he was Yahweh’s faithful servant, well, that is a fact to consider very carefully!
Elijah’s exit from the world is by no means the only historical demonstration of the Christian doctrine of life after death and of the obtaining of that eternal life through faith in God. There are many others and, of course, towering above them all, the resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus. But in all these events we have our doctrine not only depicted in flesh and blood but powerfully commended to us. Here as everywhere the Bible proves its message to us in history, not simply in dogma. Life after death is not an idea, still less wishful thinking. It is the power of God already revealed in the world. We know the Lord can take his people to heaven because he took others there right before the eyes of eyewitnesses and because he demonstrated his power to raise the dead and because he himself could not be held by death and promised that his resurrection was the first fruits of those who sleep.
The longer I live the more certain of the gracious nature of death for a Christian I have become. Some of this is because I feel as if I have one foot already in heaven because I have loved ones there: my father, my sister, my brother-in-law, other dear friends. But what makes me so certain that death for me and for you will be the gateway to our homeland is this witness borne to that fact, this magnificent, unassailable, utterly convincing witness borne to that fact in the history recorded for us in the Word of God. There are these others who have gone before from this world to the next, some of them in ways calculated to convince us that when we are about to leave this world, however we leave it, God and heaven wait immediately on the other side.