If we could choose, I think most of us would choose for our lives to end with a flourish rather than with a whimper. We would rather be struck down doing something heroic or noble than to die by inches. Unfortunately, we don’t get to make that choice.
This morning we are going to see one of the most dramatic exits of all time. The prophet Elijah served God faithfully and ended his ministry with a dramatic flare unlike any other. Enoch, in the book of Genesis “walked with God and then was no more because God took him away.” Moses was brought up to a mountain where he died and God himself buried him (Deut. 34). However, no one we know of has left the earth like Elijah.
The Dramatic Ending to the Life of Elijah
As 2 Kings 2 begins, we learn that Elijah was going to be taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elijah knew his end was coming. Elisha also knew that Elijah’s end was coming. The various prophets visited by Elijah and Elisha all knew Elijah was soon to die. It wasn’t much of a secret.
There are several odd things in the story. First, we see Elijah moving from Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho and across the Jordan. It would seem like Elijah was re-tracing (in reverse order) the steps of the Israelites as they came into the Promised Land. Perhaps he was setting things up for a “new beginning”. It is likely that Elijah had established various schools of prophets in these towns. I suppose it would be like establishing a seminary today. Elijah, knowing his time on earth was soon to be completed, perhaps wanted to pass on some final words to the students. Most likely Elisha told everyone not to talk about Elijah’s death because they needed to stop thinking about his death and start listening to Elijah’s last instructions.
Second, it is odd that Elijah seems to be trying to get rid of Elisha. He kept telling him to stay where he was but Elisha refused. We can’t know why Elijah said what he did. We don’t really know if Elijah had any idea of how his life on earth would end. It could be that he wanted to spare Elisha the trauma of his sudden departure. But is is also possible that he wanted to test the commitment of Elisha. We can’t know for sure. What we do know is that Elisha had no intention of letting Elijah walk this final path alone.
Third, there is some debate over the request of Elisha to Elijah.
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied. 10 “You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours—otherwise not.” (2 Kings 2:9-10)
The most likely explanation of the text is to look at Deut. 21:17 where we are told that the oldest son is given a double portion of the inheritance. If this is the case, Elisha was asking if he could become the rightful successor to Elijah. He was asking if he could be considered Elijah’s son and succeed him. It is possible that he was actually asking for twice the influence of God’s Spirit but that seems unlikely to me.
Elijah told Elisha that he will be the successor if he sees Elijah when he is taken. There is added incentive for Elisha to stay close. In my own mind I think Elijah was very grateful for Elisha’s company. That last journey to the unfamiliar world of the future can be a scary time.
The next part of the text is difficult to picture,
As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. 12 Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them apart.
Notice that Elijah didn’t go to Heaven in a chariot . . . he went to heaven in the whirlwind and the chariot separated Elisha from Elijah. I find it hard to even try to imagine what happened. One minute Elijah is there and the next he is swept off to Heaven. What a way to go!
Elijah left his mantle or coat behind and Elisha tore his clothes and returned with Elijah’s cloak and performed a miracle of parting the waters that was witnessed by the group of 50 prophets. The baton is effectively passed off. Elisha now is the acknowledged successor. It is a fitting ending to the story of a great prophet.
Strange as it might seem, this is not the end of the story. There is still an encore. We read in Malachi 4, the very last verses of the Old Testament,
5 “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.”
Jesus explains this text in the gospels,
10 The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” 11 Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. 12 But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist. [Mt. 17:10-13]
In other words, John the Baptist was not Elijah, but he came in the spirit and power of Elijah. He was the one “like” Elijah who would come.
Even that is not the end of the story. In Luke 9 we read the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Jesus, taking Peter, James and John with him, went up on a mountain to pray. While Jesus was praying two people appeared “in glorious splendor”. Those two people were Moses and Elijah.
This faithful prophet of God who was taken up in a whirlwind met with Jesus on the mountain along with Moses! It is a wonderful testimony of life beyond the grave. Moses represented the Law and Elijah represented the Prophets. Both showed by their presence that Jesus was the fulfillment of both the law and the prophets. He was indeed the long awaited Messiah.
In Revelation 11 there is a story of two witnesses. They are either actually Moses and Elijah or they will be people very similar to Moses and Elijah. Elijah may have been taken up to Heaven, but he wasn’t forgotten.
Let’s draw some conclusions and applications from this final chapter of Elijah’s story.
First, We gain needed perspective. Elijah was a faithful servant. I hope you felt his story was a great study. Yet, when Elijah died, the mantle passed on to another. The real story then, is not about Elijah . . . it is about the Lord.
Billy Graham is a faithful servant and so was Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, Charles Spurgeon, Charles Wesley, Jonathan Edwards and on back to the Apostle Paul, Moses etc. When one faithful servant dies, the Lord raises up another. This is an important reminder because we have this propensity to focus on the messenger rather than one who sends the message. We tend to worship the created rather than the Creator.
I was pleased that the Chicago White Sox won the World Series. I would have rather it be the Cubs, but it was still a Chicago team. However, I must admit that I was a little startled by the whole celebration. I watched the tickertape parade and the mobs of fans who cheered. I was happy for the city of Chicago but there was something that kept haunting me. All this celebration . . . all this money . . . to celebrate millionaires who won some games. The world is no better or worse because someone wins the World Series, Super Bowl or NBA Championship. It’s just entertainment. Maybe it would be different if we were cheering heros of war, then at least we could hope that a real difference was made.
What haunts me, however, is the reality that we are prone to bow before men. We wonder what will happen when a great spiritual leader dies. He will be replaced! We wonder what will happen to a church if the Pastor leaves. God will raise up someone else to lead! We wonder what will happen if a certain piece of legislation is passed or is not passed. I’ll tell you what will happen! God will remain on the throne! God is the one who is worthy of worship. We must put our hope and confidence in Him, not in those who serve Him. Others will disappoint us. Some will stumble. Some will not, but they will still disappoint because they cannot deliver that which only comes from the Lord.
This passage reminds us to worship the Lord and not men. We can appreciate and celebrate the contributions of men but must always remember that the ultimate honor goes to the Lord. We must not think more highly of ourselves than we should.
Second, we receive and important warning. One second Elijah was here, the next he was gone. That is true of all of life. There are no guarantees on how much time we have left. Jesus warns us,
36 “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
The second coming of Jesus (which is predicted many times in the Bible) will be sudden. It will be like the chariot that swoops out of the sky. When that day comes the time for preparation will be over. We must live each day with the realization that “this could be the day that Jesus returns”.
But it is not just the second coming that will be sudden. Sometimes death itself is sudden. One day we are making plans for a great vacation; the next day we are being fitted for a casket. We must make the best of every day.
I love the fact that Elijah was busy right up until the time the Chariots came to get him. He continued to teach faithfully right up until the end. Let’s face it; too many of us stop living long before we die. Even more people stop serving the Lord long before the job is over. Elijah’s sudden departure reminds us that we must remain alert, awake and diligent in our service to the Lord.
Finally, There is a reason for hope. Please don’t miss this. Elijah was faithful in this life but this life is not all there is. Elijah was swept up into life with the Father forever. It was hundreds of years later that this same Elijah appeared with Jesus. The message is clear: there is life beyond the grave.
If you are life me, you need to be reminded of that fact regularly. This world is not our home we truly are only passing through. I love the way the Bible tries to prepare us for Heaven. It uses analogies from nature. Paul said we are like a seed that is planted and what we will become is something we can’t even imagine right now. Another example is that of a child in the womb. To the child that existence is all they know. They are secure, comfortable and content. The birth process is difficult and maybe even a little scary for the child. But when enter the world it is bigger and greater than they could have ever imagined. Our existence on this side of Heaven is like the baby in the womb. We cling to this life . . . but we shouldn’t . . . because a greater existence awaits.
Randy Alcorn in his book on Heaven tells this story,
In 1952, young Florence Chadwick stepped into the waters of the Pacific Ocean off Catalina Island, determined to swim to the shore of mainland California. She’d already been the first woman to swim the English Channel both ways. The weather was foggy and chilly; she could barely see the boats accompanying here. Still, she swam for fifteen hours. When she begged to be taken out of the water along the way, her mother, in a boat alongside, told her she was close and that she could make it. Finally physically and emotionally exhausted, she stopped swimming and was pulled out. It wasn’t until she was on the boat that she discovered the shore was less than half a mile away. At a news conference the next day she said, “all I could see was the fog . . . I think if I could have seen the shore, I would have made it.” [HEAVEN p. xxii]
We feel like this woman at times, don’t we? Life wears us down. We get discouraged, we become tired and we want to quit. It is easy to think that this life is all that there is.
Elijah’s story, if you will, is a glimpse of the shore. It is a brief reminder that there is life beyond the grave and it will be a glorious life at that. Don’t miss this glimpse. Look at it carefully. Take it all in. You will need that picture of the eternal for the week ahead.
Elijah kept going in spite of threats and hardships because he kept his eyes focused on the prize. That’s what you and I have to do. We have to keep focused on the fact that this life is NOT all there is. In the times of joy we must remember that there is a greater joy still to be gained. In the times of hardship we must remind ourselves that the struggle will be worth the effort. If we can keep an eternal, heavenly perspective life will be greater and death will lose its sting.
The way to start having an eternal perspective on life is to establish a solid and saving relationship with Jesus. No matter what we would like to think, not everyone goes to Heaven. Heaven is reserved for those who have placed their trust, hope and confidence in Jesus. Salvation is not about the church you go to or the religious rites you practice. Salvation comes from trusting Christ as our Savior and our Lord. This means being honest about our rebellion and sin and putting our trust and confidence in the payment Jesus made on our behalf.
If all this series on Elijah has done is given you information and challenged you to live a little better, I have failed in my mission. The goal of this study of Elijah, the goal of any passage in Scripture, is to encourage us to trust the Lord more fully. We begin that process by putting our trust in the work of Christ on our behalf and then we seek to faithfully serve God day by day.
We serve the Lord not only because He is God and He is in charge; we serve Him because He loves us and someday we will be with Him. We may die of old age. We may die in a spectacular act of heroism or service that will inspire many. Or, we may be caught up to Heaven in the Second Coming of our Lord. But you see, in the end, the most significant thing is not how we die . . . it is where we end up when we do.