Preparing for Departure

“Elijah Carried Away into Heaven by a Chariot of Fire”
by James Tissot

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When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. And Elijah said to Elisha, “Please 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. And the sons of the prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from over you?” And he said, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.”

Elijah said to him, “Elisha, please 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 sons of the prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from over you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.”

Then Elijah said to him, “Please 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 sons of the prophets also went and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his cloak and rolled it up and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground.

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.” And he said, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.” And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more (2 Kings 2:1-12).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

“What is it like to die?” a little boy asked his mother. “Does it hurt?”

His mother replied, “Remember when you were little, you liked to crawl into your big brother’s bed? And around midnight, your father would come and carry you in his big loving arms. In the morning you would wake up in your own room. That’s what death is—waking up in your own room—the room that Jesus has prepared for you in His Father’s house.”

What is it like to die? Does it hurt? What will your last moments be like, the last minutes or hours before you pass from this earth? I’m sure most of you have probably thought about these things a time or two. They’re natural questions.

As I visited with a man a few hours before he died, he asked: “So, is this what dying is like?” His voice was full of emotion yet controlled. I could tell that it was a major, complex experience for him. But he was not overly troubled or bothered. I had asked him, and he had replied, “No, I’m not worried or afraid.”

How do you answer a question like that? What do you say at such a time? I knew I couldn’t honestly answer that question. I’ve never died before. And I hadn’t heard it described the way this mother told her son. So I said the first words that came to my mind: “You probably have a better idea than I do.”

It might seem like a strange answer. But as I look back on it, I think it was probably the best response I could give. The man who was dying wasn’t really looking for an answer. He was looking for a chance to explain what was happening to him. And as he tried, his tone said, “I can hardly begin to tell you all that is happening at this moment.” Yet, there was a strange sort of peace about him, because he knew that by God’s grace for Christ’s sake, he would soon wake up in his own room in heaven.

What will your dying be like? And mine? It’s a big question for each of us to consider, isn’t it? Although we like to avoid it, we would do well to prepare for it as much as possible now if we can. For none of us of know the day or time in which our death will occur. Perhaps our text for today can help us to understand how to prepare for that moment just a little bit better.

Come with me, as we walk alongside Elijah and Elisha on the last two days before Elijah is taken from this earth in the whirlwind. We’ll walk from Gilgal, five or six miles west of the Jordan River, to Bethel, about twenty miles west. The next day we’ll go back east, from Bethel to Jericho, another twenty miles. Then we’ll go over another 5 or 6 miles to the Jordan River.

At each of the three places we’ll watch Elijah and Elisha meet with groups of prophets. We’ll hear them say their farewells to each other. After meeting at each of the three places, a few of the prophets will go on with Elijah and Elisha. When we arrive at the Jordan River, we’ll be among fifty-two prophets in all.

One of the major hurdles we all face when we think of death is loneliness. The dying person will miss those who have loved him or her, and those grieving will hate to say goodbye. The person watching his loved one die might wonder, “How will I be able to go on without him? He has been so much a part of my life.”

Aware that a big hole is going to be opened in his own life, Elisha is in a sort of state of denial. When the company of prophets at Bethel asks, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from over you?” Elisha answers, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.” When the company of prophets at Jericho asks the same question, Elisha repeats his answer:  “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.”  The impending loss of a loved one is difficult to sort out and accept.

Elisha will miss Elijah, his mentor and master, the elder statesman of the true faith in Israel. Elisha will miss Elijah’s spiritual strength and his commitment to proclaiming God’s Word. He’ll miss his leadership and guidance. And therefore, he wants to spend every moment possible with his master to learn how to carry on his important work as Elijah’s successor.

Then suddenly, as they were still walking along and talking together, Elijah is being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. What a display of power! A chariot of fire and horses of fire roared between them, as if on a freeway. It formed a median strip to separate them. Elisha saw all this and cried out, “My father, my father!” And then, “The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” It is as if he said, “What a dynamic force you have been in the Lord’s army, my spiritual father Elijah!”

Elijah had no military power—not one soldier with a sword was at his disposal, much less a chariot with charioteers. Yet the power of the Holy Spirit at work in him was so strong that he overcame a company of soldiers sent by King Ahaziah to bring him back to the palace by force. Elijah said to the captain, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” In minutes, the 51 men were toast. The same happened with the next group of fifty and their captain. Finally, the captain of the third fifty learned his lesson and conceded.

Elisha will miss the spiritual energy with which Elijah stood up to the prophets of Baal, Queen Jezebel, and King Ahab on Mt. Carmel. He remembers the contest between Elijah, with his few servants, against the 450 prophets of Baal. Elisha remembers how the prophets of Baal carried on from morning to noon, dancing around their altar, slashing themselves with swords and spears until their blood flowed, all in the attempt to please Baal, the so-called source of their agricultural productivity. Elisha remembers how Elijah had taunted them to shout a little louder to get Baal’s attention. “Maybe he is deep in thought or sleeping or he’s gone to the bathroom. Maybe he really wasn’t a god after all!”

Elisha remembers how Elijah took up twelve stones (one for each tribe of Israel) and rebuilt the altar of the Lord. Elisha remembers how Elijah had dug a trench around the altar and doused the wood and bull of the sacrifice with water. Elisha remembers how God had shown His great power by sending down a heavenly fire. It burned up not only the sacrifice and wood, but also the stones, soil, and water. God and His prophet won the day.

Now, as Elijah is being lifted from this earth, the words overwhelm Elisha: “My father! How valiantly you fought against the enemies of God’s kingdom! In the face of great opposition, you held to the truth! What faith God entrusted to you, by His mercy! Will God entrust that kind of faith to me when I battle my own giants?” I think in the face of the death of a loved one or our own death, we all ask those same sorts of questions.

As he prepared for the Lord to take Elijah, loneliness was joined by fear in Elisha’s heart. And Elijah was tempted with that sense of loneliness as well. He was an independent man, not used to working in concert with others. Before they left Gilgal, Elijah said to his younger disciple, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.” It was as if he said, “Don’t bother, Elisha, this is something I have to do alone. I can’t ask you to be with me in my final hours. Besides, you have things to do, people to minister to.”

But God gave Elisha special courage. “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you,” he replied. They had that same dialogue twice more, at Bethel and at Jericho. “You don’t have to come with me,” Elijah would say. And Elisha would respond, “I will not leave you.” God knew that both prophets needed each other as the critical moment of transition drew near.

When they get to the Jordan, Elijah rolls up his cloak and strikes the river. The waters part so the two prophets could walk across. Then Elijah knows God wants his friend to be with him in his last hour. “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you,” Elijah says.

“I thought you would never ask,” Elisha probably thought. “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit, my father.” “Let me have the firstborn’s portion, the double portion, of your inheritance from the Lord” is what Elisha means.

“You’ve asked me for a hard thing,” Elijah replies. Only God can grant that gift. But if God grants you to see me as I am taken from you, then you will know that God has granted your request. And so, it happened! Elisha saw and heard the brilliant display of rushing heavenly chariots with the drivers at the reins. God swooped the faithful man of God up and away, lifted by the wind.

Elisha picks up the cloak that Elijah drops to him. It signals Elisha’s succession to his mentor’s ministry. And when Elisha crosses the Jordan again, rejoining the fifty waiting prophets, they notice the difference right away. “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha,” they say.

But that spirit of prophetic authority was and always is secondary to the primary gift—God’s forgiveness of our sins. This gift Elisha and all Old Testament believers received as they anticipated in faith and hope the sacrifice that God’s Son would produce by His dying for our sins and His return to life again in resurrection power. God gives all His gifts by grace alone, and we receive them only through faith alone.

What will our dying be like? God has not chosen to reveal those details to us—including the exact time it will occur. Those things would only distract us from our mission here on earth now. But in the meanwhile, the God of the universe protects us moment to moment, while we “tilt at the windmills” of temptation and stress.

Paul described the reality of our struggle to the Ephesians: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Elijah met his Lord in the air, and so will we, when Christ comes for us. Paul relates the sequence of events when Christ returns: “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them—all the faithful, including Elijah, Elisha, and the rest—in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17).

After Elijah left to go to heaven, God granted him a most wonderful experience. At the Transfiguration, Elijah was allowed to appear with Moses, the father of his nation, and Jesus, the Savior of the world, to have a three-way conversation about Jesus’ upcoming departure from this world. What an uplifting, glorious experience, to be privileged to share with Jesus their experience of being released from this earth. What a foretaste of the finale Elijah and Moses were granted. Jesus will return for them also—someday. And also for each one of us.

Most of us will likely die in the normal way before the time of Christ’s return. We probably won’t go up to heaven in a whirlwind. We won’t necessarily be escorted with chariots of fire and fiery horses. But we will be taken safely into the loving arms of our heavenly Father. Our meeting with the Lord Jesus will be the same as those who are still alive when He returns for His own. We, and all believers will receive the perfect gift of endless grace to live with our Lord and Savior. “And so we will always be with the Lord.”

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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