Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.’ But Elisha said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So they went down to Bethel. The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I know; keep silent.’
Elijah said to him, ‘Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.’ But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?’ And he answered, ‘Yes, I know; be silent.’ Then Elijah said to him, ‘Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.’ But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’ Elisha said, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’ He responded, ‘You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.’ As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
I wonder how Elijah, Elisha and the prophets knew that Elijah’s life was about to end? Sometimes it is possible to discern that a time of transition is approaching if we’re truly open to the movement of God’s spirit in the world.
Elijah wants to be alone; but Elisha insists on accompanying him as he travels to Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho and the Jordan. All are places of significance in Israel’s story, where God has appeared or acted in a decisive way on their behalf, so we are being prepared as readers to expect another mighty act of God in this story.
Elijah rolls up his mantle and uses it just as Moses used his staff at God’s command to part the waters of the sea (Exod.14:16, 21). Here God parts the Jordan as Elijah strikes the water (cf Joshua 3) and the two men cross over to the east, which is where Elijah’s story began.
Elisha’s request for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit as his inheritance is that due to the eldest son on a father’s death (Deut.21:17). Elijah responds that it is not his to give; but indicates the sign by which Elisha will know if God has granted his request.
The miracle of Elijah’s ascent into heaven explains why New Testament traditions expected Elijah to return to herald God’s Messiah – he isn’t recorded as dying. Elijah departs into the realm of God rather than descending into Sheol, the destination of everyone else; and so the hope develops that he might come again.
God’s presence and power has been revealed to Elisha. Initially he mourns the passing of his spiritual ‘father’ – will he live up to all that has been entrusted to him?
What about me and my spiritual inheritance through Christ? Am I living up to expectations?
Amazing God, you have entrusted the ongoing mission of Christ to us as disciples of Jesus; and you are present with us through the Holy Spirit.
May we have the enthusiasm of Elisha as we step forward to serve you, ever mindful of what Christ has already accomplished through his life, death and resurrection.
Lead us onwards for the sake of the world. In the name of Christ, Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge
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