Sermon preached on 1 Kings 19:19-21 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 02/16/2020 in Novato, CA.
Whom do you follow? Life is full of followers and leaders. Sometimes you might be a follower in one context and a leader in another. But in terms of our relationship with the LORD, we are told whom to follow. We are to follow Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. The gospels are full of Jesus calling people to follow him, and disciples described as those who followed Jesus. Well, in today’s passage in 1 Kings, we find this theme with Elisha beginning to follow Elisha. And as we consider this with Elijah and Elisha, we’ll have a chance to reflect on what such following look like when it comes to the kingdom of God.
So, we begin in our first point by looking at Elijah’s call to Elisha. Last week’s passage ended with God instructing Elijah to anoint Elisha as his successor. So then, we immediately see next Elijah calling Elisha to follow him. Though, interestingly, that’s not the language that Elijah uses. In fact, Elijah doesn’t use any words at all. We see in verse 19, that Elijah proceeds to find the Elisha that God had told him about. He then passes by Elisha and casts his cloak upon Elisha. Now clearly, Elisha understood that as a call to follow Elijah. Verse 20 shows Elisha stating that back to Elisha in such terms. But interestingly, Elijah doesn’t say, “follow me.” He instead passes by and throws his cloak upon Elisha.
It’s generally thought that prophets had a prophetic mantle or cloak that they wore when they prophesied. Zechariah 13:4 seems to describe such a practice, and it sounds like they were typically a hairy garment. Such prophetic mantles were likely distinguishable from other garments that normal, non-prophet people wore. It’s like today how some pastors wear Genevan robes to preach in. If after the service the pastor came up to a young man and put the robe on him, he’d probably think the pastor is telling the man he should pursue the ministry. So then, that’s apparently what Elisha thinks here, that Elijah putting his prophet’s mantle on him means that Elijah is calling him to follow in his footsteps as a prophet.
I think we should clarify, that at this point, this calling to Elisha is clearly about preparation for such a ministry. Elisha would not immediately begin to serve as a prophet himself. Elisha understands this since he says in verse 20 he speaks of following Elijah. Like how Jesus used that language in the New Testament, to follow a teacher or prophet is to become their disciple, and also frankly his servant. In this context, it seems that it has in view a sort of apprenticeship, where as a student or disciple you learn and serve the prophet for the purpose of eventually succeeding him. But for now, Elisha would be called into this role of following Elijah as a student and as a servant. In fact, it’s this service role that is emphasized in how our passage ends. It describes Elisha beginning this role of following Elisha in terms of him “assisting” Elijah. The Hebrew here for “assisting” is literally that Elisha “served” or “ministered to” Elijah. This is confirmed later on in the description of King Jehoshaphat in 2 Kings 3:11 where he describes Elisha the prophet as someone who in the past who “poured water on the hands of Elijah.” This fits well with the ongoing record here in 1 Kings, for while Elijah calls Elisha here, we’ll continue to see Elijah as the one doing prophetic ministry for the next several chapters. It won’t be until 2 Kings 2 when Elijah ascends up into heaven that then Elisha begins to really serve as a prophet. Prior to that, he apparently was a servant and disciple of Elijah.
Beyond this practical significance of the cloak likely representing the garb of a prophet, we see that it also reflects the present power of God being with the prophet. I say that because Elijah’s cloak gets highlighted again in that passage I just referenced in 2 Kings 2 when Elijah is taken back into heaven. There, Elijah will use his cloak to strike the Jordan river and part it. After Elijah is taken up, Elisha picks up the cloak that had fallen from Elijah when he was taken up to heaven. Elisha then uses it to again strike the water and it now parts for him. That’s the first miracle Elisha performs. And it is immediately recognized that now the spirit of God which had rested upon Elijah had then begun to rest on Elisha. When Elisha first picks up the cloak and strike the river to part it, he does so asking, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” Clearly, with the water then parting, the answer is that the LORD God of Elijah was with him, Elisha. The cloak figures prominently there to point to the powerful presence of God among him.
And of course, even last week’s passage should make us think of this too. While it was a week ago that we studied it, it was just a few verses before in our passage that Elijah was on Mt. Sinai experiencing the glorious presence of the LORD. We said it was very reminiscent to how Moses got to see the backside of God’s glory as God’s presence passed by Moses in the cleft of the rock. Well, in verse 13 the text tells us that when Elijah experienced the presence of God’s glory there on Mt. Sinai he wrapped his face in his cloak. The cloak seems to have served for Elijah what the cleft of the rock served for Moses. Think of this. If the skin of Moses face was left shining with fading glory after he was in God’s presence – think of this cloak having just been in the presence of God’s glory on Sinai. And so, then turn around a few verses later Elijah is placing his cloak on Elisha as Elisha now passes by Elijah. Even more interesting is that this word “cloak” is sometimes translated as “glory” like in Zechariah 11:3. So, if I wanted to be edgy with my translation here, I could say that Elijah passed by Elisha and cast his glory upon him. See the imagery of God’s glorious presence first with Moses and then with Elijah and now implied coming upon Elisha.
Yet how sudden this all was for Elisha. And so, I want us to think next about this request Elisha makes here to Elijah when called like this. Think about it. Elisha is busy working away doing his daily calling. He’s plowing his field with his twelve yoke of oxen – that’s twenty-four oxen all yoked together in pairs. He’s working with the twelfth pair at this moment that he is called. I’m sure this would have caught him off guard. So, he gives a reasonable request to Elijah. In verse 20, Elisha says, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.”
So then, Elijah answers Elisha saying, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” This seems a bit of a strange answer by Elijah. It may possibly have been an idiomatic statement that Elisha understood perfectly well. Some have thought this language by Elijah is a bit of a rebuke. Others have thought it’s Elijah’s way of saying “you decide” Elisha if you are going to come with me or not. But, interestingly, if we take the words at face value, we can acknowledge an important truth. Elijah says he’s not done anything to Elisha. Or to say it another way, Elijah hasn’t personally imposed this calling on Elisha. However, we might infer in those words that God has imposed this calling on Elisha. Whether Elisha inferred that or not, this is an interesting dynamic. On the one hand, Elisha here seems to be a given a choice of whether or not to join and follow Elijah. But on the other hand, we already know from verse 16 that it was God’s plan for Elisha to succeed Elijah. But I love how we see God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility come together here. It’s God’s will that will happen – Elisha will be the prophet to replace Elisha here. But Elisha has a genuine choice here of whether or not he will follow Elijah.
Interesting, the New Testament records Jesus in a similar position here with Elijah. This is in Luke 9 where Jesus is recorded as calling several people to follow him and Jesus then comments on the response each gives. In that passage, one of those people responds to Jesus’ call to follow him by saying, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home” (Luke 9:61). Clearly, those words are virtually identical with what Elisha says here to Elijah. Jesus responds to that by saying, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” That sounds like a rebuke of Jesus – at a bare minimum it’s a stern warning. And with the fact that it’s the same request Elisha makes and even involves the imagery of plowing, you can’t help but wonder if Jesus is at the same time making a comment critically back on Elisha here. It’s possible. Certainly, Jesus’ call for discipleship comes as one greater than Elijah making the call. Yet, I think we need to be careful to not rashly condemn Elisha because of Jesus’ words. Jesus often taught rather enigmatically where you have to carefully think about what Jesus is and is not saying and what he might mean and not mean before you start applying what he is saying. And when we do that with Elisha we see that despite the formal similarities, Elisha goes on to respond in a way that seems to very much fit what Jesus was calling for. Elisha’s ultimate response is to put his hand to the plow and not look back. By the way, I love how that plowing imagery is used by Jesus to describe someone as a disciple and servant of Christ and his kingdom. Just as Jesus said to fisherman that he called to follow him and become fishers of men, so too Elisha is being called here to give up his earthly plowing to begin to spiritually plow for a harvest unto the kingdom of heaven.
But the point here with Jesus’ words is essentially the point I’m making here in this second point for our sermon. For Jesus to say that a true disciple must not plow and look back, raises the question that inherently comes to someone when called to follow Jesus. It’s essentially the question that came to Elisha too. A call to discipleship unto the LORD and his kingdom presents a choice of great significance. Jesus doesn’t want doubleminded disciples. His call is not to have just some of you following him with the other part of you longing for your old life. His call is for all of your heart. In this second point for our sermon, that question came before Elisha. I do think Jesus surely has that in mind in Luke 9. Yet, I also think he positively has in mind what we go on to see with Elisha. Elisha may have asked to go back and say goodbye. But we go on to see that Elisha’s ultimate response is to grab this spiritual plow and wholeheartedly follow the LORD’s calling by becoming a disciple of Elijah. Jesus’ reference to Elisha raises the question and simultaneously illustrates a commendable response.
So then, let’s turn now in our third point to consider Elisha’s actual response. What we find is that his going back to say goodbye doesn’t reflect a torn heart that’s not devoted to God’s calling on him through Elijah. In fact, the text doesn’t even ever bother to record if he even did say goodbye to his parents – though presumably he did. Rather, the text goes on to describe how Elijah makes a break with his past. Start in verse 21. He goes back to his yoke of oxen that he had been working with. He slaughters them and feeds them to the people. Not only that, notice that the way it says that he boils the flesh is with the yokes. That’s worded a little strangely but basically it seems that he started a fire to boil them using the wood of the yokes that were used on his oxen. In other words, this is not only a big farewell party, but he literally is burning up the yokes he would have used to do his former ploughing, and he with the people eat the oxen. Not only does this suggest Elisha making a break with his former past and profession, it also is wonderful symbolism of his new job. He will follow Elijah so that he can ultimately feed the people of Israel – with the Word of the LORD!
So, think of what Elisha is saying goodbye to here. His family obviously had some wealth and means. That’s clear by how many oxen he had, probably reflecting the size of the land too. Surely his life with Elijah doesn’t hold out the same promise of financial stability as his former profession did. The fact that he wants to kiss his parents goodbye reminds us of the emotional sacrifice – he obviously loved his parents and had great affections for them. And of course, Elisha would also be giving up the familiar – he’d be leaving his comfort zone – all that he’s known – for the great unknown of following Elijah. Add to all this that surely it was well known that to be a prophet of the LORD at that time put a target on your back from the queen herself. So, Elisha goes from relative safety and security to the unknown of discipleship and ultimate ministry that could very well be filled with times of hunger, wilderness wandering, running for your life, and maybe even death. And all this came so suddenly upon him.
A question to ask is “why”? Why, if you are Elisha, do you give up all this and surely more, to go follow Elijah? Of course, a simple answer is that if God calls you to do something, you should do it. But a surely a more complete answer is for the joy set before him. For the hope of the glory of God’s kingdom that has been promised for Israel, for those who hope in his name. For the recognition of God at work through Elijah and the potential for God to be at work through him. For this power of God to work through them unto the glory of the coming of the kingdom. Yes, Elisha enjoyed a certain degree of relative ease under the current status quo – or did he? Seven years of famine for a farmer can’t be all that enticing – though he had weathered that storm (or lack thereof) and now was out ploughing after the rain had fallen. As a farmer it looked hopeful again. But Elisha saw a better hope that could be there for Israel. He saw that God could come and bring the nation back to him. He surely believed that God would keep his promise to establish Israel as a people and a kingdom in glory and eternal peace and wellbeing. He hoped for that and was surely zealous to be a part of it – however God saw fit to use him. Surely Elisha’s response here was a Hebrews 11 sort of thing. He was willing to lay aside his former life to follow Elijah because he believed this was God’s call to him. He believed that he would serve God unto the coming of the kingdom. And in fact, God did use Elisha in that regard.
Though as Hebrews 11 says, none of such Old Testament servants received the promise in their day. Yes, they received types and shadows of the promise. They had foretastes of it along the way. As Hebrews 11 says, that God has provided now something better for us, that apart from us, these saints of old like Elisha would not be made perfect apart from us. Of course, Hebrews 11 has in mind the coming of the kingdom in Jesus Christ. This we have been made a part of through faith in his name. This is the kingdom we have a share in as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Let me make sure you understand what I am saying. Elisha was willing to sacrifice all that he had because he believed he’d be laying hold of something far better. It’s that same hope that led to the even greater sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Jesus gladly suffered and died on the cross and endured its shame for the joy set before him. For the glory of redeeming us to be a people and kingdom with himself as our king – he endured the cross and despised its shame. It’s this master, it’s this prophet of prophets, it’s this righteous king, who then calls to each of us, “follow me.”
This is at the heart of our Christian ministry. We bring the call of Christ Jesus for each of us to follow him. We are called to become his disciples and students. We are called to serve him and assist him in his ministry. This is a call to become fishers of men and to plough the fields that are soon to be ripe for a spiritual harvest. Yes, it’s a call that involves daily taking up our cross. But it’s also a call to one whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. It’s a call to one whose life was characterized on earth as not having a true home here – but one who leads us to a home in heaven where his father has many mansions. It’s a call that does come suddenly upon someone and demand their wholehearted turning unto him with their entire life. Of course, none of this means that you can’t necessarily have a home in this world, or bury your dead, or say goodbye to your family, so to speak. But it’s a call for a real change in your life. It’s a call for a life U-turn to go from being the Lord of your life to following Jesus as your Lord. Why would we do such? For the joy, for the paradise, for the glory set before us. The king and the kingdom that is held out to us – it is worth any and all sacrifice. And frankly to be saved from the wrath of God to come at the end upon all those who reject the LORD – that alone is worth heeding the call to follow Jesus!
Maybe you are here today and have never answered the call. Or maybe you’ve outwardly acted like you have but really haven’t. I bring you then afresh this call from Jesus, “Follow Him.” Follow Christ Jesus as your lord, savior, and shepherd. Follow him as a student and disciple. Follow him as he uses you in advancing the cause of his kingdom.
Yes, most of us are here today as those who’ve become a follower of Jesus a long time ago. But may today’s message remind us of that call on our life. May it remind us of the nature of our discipleship. May it remind us of how we ought to continue to respond to that call. Let’s use this as a chance to reflect on who our Lord is, why his call is so important, and how we can respond better. May those areas where we know we’ve not been wholehearted in following him – may we humbly acknowledge those before him today for he gives more grace. Be renewed in following Jesus today unto the glory of his heavenly kingdom. Amen.
Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.