Chariots of Fire
2 Kings 2
March 8, 2006
Listen to this Sermon
What would you do if you knew that you were going to die today?
What if you knew with absolute certainty that today was going to be your last day on earth? Suppose you had less than 24 hours to live. What would you do? Where would you go? How would you spend your last few hours on planet earth? If you knew you were going to die today, what would you do? Where would you go? Would you stay where you are right now, or would you hop on a plane and go see someone you love? Would you pick up the phone and call a few people? If you did, who would you call? What would you say?
It’s good to think about questions like this from time to time. Martin Luther said that we should live every day with the day of our death always before us, like a billboard we see everywhere we turn. In his book The Seven Secrets of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey talks about living with the end in view. That’s a great biblical principle–to live today as if it were your last day. Jim Elliott (who died fifty years ago this month) said he wanted to live so that when it came time to die, there was nothing else he needed to do but die.
Let’s sharpen the question just a bit. Suppose you had just thirty seconds to live. Perhaps you’ve been injured in a terrible car accident, or perhaps you’re dying in a hospital and you know the end is very near. Your family is gathered around you, waiting for your final words. Suppose you have thirty seconds, and then you’re gone. What would you say? How would you sum up all that was important to you? I thought about that for a while and wondered what I would say to my three sons. It didn’t take me long to come up with an answer. In my final thirty seconds, I would say four things to my boys:
1. Take care of your mother.
2. Love each other.
3. Marry Christian wives.
4. Serve Jesus Christ forever.
That’s it. Take care of your mother, love each other, marry Christian wives, and serve Jesus Christ forever. If my boys did that, then I would die a happy man. That summarizes everything I’ve tried to live for.
In earlier generations Christians talked about death a lot more than we do now. The Puritans they actually wrote books to help each other learn how to die well. Dying well was considered to be a Christian virtue.
I have a friend who served in combat in Vietnam. He was captured by the North Vietnamese, shot in the feet, and escaped by crawling out of the prison camp on his hands and knees. He knows all about war because he’s seen men die in battle. Not long ago he told me that Americans are afraid to die. He wasn’t talking about the brave men and women who serve in our Armed Forces. They lay their lives on the line every day, and they do it without asking for sympathy. They do it because it is their job, and because they believe in what America stands for. That’s not what my friend meant. He meant that ordinary Americans are afraid to die. He told me this three years ago, and he said it again after the London bombings last summer. He said the difference between us and the terrorists is that we’re afraid to die and they’re not. We were sitting on a park bench in the center of a beautiful city on a lovely summer day. “Look at all we’ve got.” I saw happy couples strolling together hand in hand and young people stretched out on the grass. “We think we’re already living in heaven. We think we’ve already got the best of all possible worlds. Why would anyone want to leave this?” Compare that to where the terrorists come from. No wonder they’re not afraid to die. Americans are afraid to die precisely as a result of our own material prosperity.
That’s a fairly accurate assessment of our whole society. And in some ways it’s true of the church as well. Even inside the church we get a little bit squeamish talking about death. You’re never going to say to your friends, “Hey, I’ve got some pizza. You bring the Coke. Come on over to my house, we’re going to talk about death Friday night.” You’re not going to say that because if you do, nobody’s going to come. Nobody wants to talk about death.
But in the old days when life was harder, people thought a lot more about death. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, used to say about his people, “Our people die well.”
So what would you do if today were your last day on earth? Where would you go? What would you do? Who would you talk to? And what would you say?
I. Elijah’s Last Day
And that brings us the last chapter in Elijah’s story. From 2 Kings 2 we learn how a man of God leaves this earth well. Elijah doesn’t die, but the way he spends his last day is a message to us all.
We started our journey with Elijah in the mountains. From the mountains we went before the king. Then we went with Elijah to the brook, and after the brook we went to the widow of Zarephath. There we stayed with Elijah while miracles continued to happen. From there we climbed Mount Carmel with Elijah were he faced down the prophets of Baal. And after he left Mount Carmel we followed him into the desert and then into a cave on Mount Horeb. We watched as he called Elisha in dramatic fashion.. Then we went with Elijah as he stood before the King Ahaziah. Now we’ve come to the final bend in the road, the last installment of his amazing life story.
And on the last day of Elijah’s earthly life he does a lot of walking. He starts in Samaria and goes to Gilgal. From Gilgal he goes to Bethel. From Bethel he goes down to Jericho. From Jericho he goes to the east side of the Jordan River. His final walk takes him back to the hills and ravines of his boyhood. God’s mountain man returns to the mountains from whence he came. Amid those lonely rocky hills and deep gullies, the prophet prepares to meet the Lord. Depending on the roads you take, that’s about fifty-five miles. That’s quite a bit of walking in one day. So whatever else you want to say, don’t say Elijah was out of shape. He was obviously in excellent shape. Don’t say he was taken to heaven because he was old and tired and worn out, because Elijah still had plenty of vitality on his last day. What seems clear to me is that God had told him today is going to be the day.
Do you believe God sometimes gives his children a little advance notice that heaven is not far away? I do. I don’t think he does it in every case. But I imagine most of us could tell a story of a saint of God who had some premonition that heaven was not far away. We hear stories of angels singing, of bright lights, of the vision of the glory of Christ. While I don’t think we should be gullible and believe everything people say, I don’t think that we should discount all those stories. Before he died, Stephen had a vision of heaven (Acts 7:55-56 ). I believe that sometimes God allows us to hear the sound of the chariot swinging low to carry us home. God in his grace sometimes allows his children to know that the day has arrived.
It’s also clear that Elisha, his young protege, also knew this was the final day. And it’s clear that God had told the company of the prophets in these different towns. That explains why Elijah would do all that walking on his last day. Elijah had obviously spent a great deal of his time building into other people. In each of those three towns, Elijah had set up little hometown seminaries where prophets could be trained for the ministry. They loved Elijah and looked him to him as their guide and mentor and hero and friend. In Gilgal and Bethel and Jericho, everywhere he went that last day, the school of the prophets was dismissed. The young prophets who were trained by the older prophets came out to see the man of God as he made his farewell tour. God had not only told Elijah and Elisha, he also told the other prophets in Israel, “The man of God is going home today.”
I think that Elijah knew that today was the day. I don’t think he knew exactly when it was going to happen or where or how. I don’t know that he had any inkling of being carried to heaven in a whirlwind. So Elijah now has Elisha with him. When he comes to Gilgal, he says, “Stay here.” And Elisha says, “No, I’m going with you.” When he comes to Bethel, he says, “Stay here.” Elisha says, “No, I’m going with you.” When he comes to Jericho, he says, “Stay here.” “No, I’m going with you.” When he comes to the Jordan he says, “Stay here.” “No, I’m going with you.” It was a test of loyalty and a test of tenacity. It was Elijah’s way of saying to his man, “I’m about to leave you. Can you handle it?” And Elisha is saying to his mentor, “Wherever you go I will go. I will be with you to the very end.” It’s a very touching picture of the older man and the younger man and the final test of loyalty.
So he spends his final day with Elisha, and he spends his time greeting and saying farewell to the young prophets who looked up to him as a hero and a mentor. There is no sense of panic here. Elijah is not afraid; Elisha is not afraid. There’s no sense of fear or dread, just a sense of being completely in God’s hands.
II. Elijah’s Last Words
When they come to the Jordan River, Elijah takes his cloak, rolls it up, and strikes the water. The water parts, showing yet one more time how Elijah and Moses were both were filled with the Spirit of God. Just before Elijah leaves for heaven, he turns and says to his young friend, “What can I do for you? Before I go, before I go do you have any last requests?” And Elisha says, “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit” (v. 9). Some people have criticized Elisha for making such a request, but I think they are misguided. Actually when Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, he was revealing the priorities of his life.
You find out what makes a man tick at a moment like this. Donald Trump comes in and says, “What can I do for you?” So you say “Give me a wheelbarrow full of your money.” He’ll never miss it, he’s got so much. You might say to somebody else “Give me your contact list.” You might say to somebody else “Give me your business.” “Give me your company.” “Give me your network.” “Give me your car.” “Give me your home.” Give me your clothes.” “Give me your stocks.” “Give me your cattle.” “Give me your farm.” “Give me your family.” “Give me your books.”
Elisha asks only for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. In the Old Testament, the oldest son received a double portion of his father’s estate. Now Elisha was not literally the physical son of Elijah, but he was the spiritual son of Elijah. So he is asking as the oldest son spiritually, “Oh my father, give me what belongs to me spiritually. Grant me a double portion of your spirit,” Why did he ask for that? Those were hard days in the nation of Israel, and soon matters would get worse. Instead of getting better in the days of Elisha, the people continued to turn away from God. Elisha knew that in order for him to serve the Lord in the hard, difficult days ahead, he needed the same courage and the same resolve and the same fortitude and the same boldness that his master had had. He wanted the same spirit that Elijah had on top of Mount Carmel. He wanted the same spirit that caused him to go before Ahab in the first place. He wanted the same spirit that Elijah had had when he faced down Ahaziah. He wanted that, and he knew he needed it. God bless Elisha for realizing the need in his own life.
Elijah says back to him, “You have asked a difficult thing” (v. 10). It was a gift only God could give. Then he adds an important condition: “If you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours–otherwise not” (v. 10).
Now we come to the end of Elijah’s earthly life. “As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared” (v. 11). Those are military images. The horses and the chariot were symbols of battle. Elijah was a warrior for God. It was a sign and a symbol that there was a battle raging for the hearts of people of Israel. It meant that a warrior is about to come home to God. It’s a symbol of the kind of life Elijah has led. “Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind” (v. 11). Elijah’s life had been a whirlwind of activity. He had been so impetuous, so driven, so determined, thrusting himself into the palace of ungodly kings, blowing through Israel like a tornado from God. He left the earth as he lived on the earth–in a whirlwind.
We tend to focus on that spectacular departure, but verse 12 matters more. “Elisha saw this.” Fifty prophets followed at a distance. They saw Elijah and Elisha together and suddenly Elijah disappeared. I think it means that all they saw was Elijah disappear. They had no idea what had happened. It was only Elisha whose eyes were opened to see the flaming horses and the flaming chariot. It was only Elisha who saw his master being taken away in the whirlwind.
“If you see me,” Elijah said. There is the kind of seeing with the eyes, and there is the seeing with the eyes of the heart. It is possible to have 20/20 vision on the outside and be totally blind on the inside. You can live eighty years with perfect vision and be totally blind to spiritual reality. That’s why Paul prays in Ephesians 1:17 that the “eyes of your heart might be opened.” You could go to Sunday School all your life, you could even attend a Christian college or go to seminary, and the eyes of your heart could be tightly shut. Just going through the motions doesn’t guarantee the eyes of your heart will be open.
Seeing the Invisible
Hebrews 11:27 contains a phrase that helps us understand this principle. Speaking of Moses’ willingness to leave the riches of Egypt to live in the wilderness with his own people, the writer says that he “persevered because he saw him who is invisible.” That’s one of the most remarkable and revealing statements in the entire Bible. It appears to be an impossibility. How do you “see” an invisible person? If you can be seen, you are not invisible. But God was invisible and yet Moses “saw” him. How? Two words. “By faith.” Moses had faith and his faith gave him sight. And he saw the God who is invisible. Faith sees what is really there even though others see nothing at all. Faith believes what is true even though others don’t believe it at all. By faith we see reality, which means we see beyond the world around us. But that concept should not seem strange at all. After all, the most beloved hymn in the world (“Amazing Grace”) contains this line, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
By faith we see what others do not see. Have you ever looked at one of those 3-D pictures that contain hidden images? When you first look at the picture, all you see are wavy lines or dots or perhaps marbles or stars or pieces of fruit. But if you look at the picture up close, and if you throw your eyes out of focus and turn your head a bit cockeyed, suddenly out jumps Mozart’s head or a dancing girl or a giant bird. Since I have less-than-perfect eyesight, I have trouble with 3-D pictures. Usually the only thing I can see is a bunch or lines or something that looks vaguely like a head of cabbage. To my consternation, Marlene can almost always see the “hidden” image. But just because I can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It’s not as if Mozart’s head suddenly appears out of nowhere. It was there all along. The “hidden” image is there whether I see it or not. Suddenly you saw what was always there. It’s the same way with the life of faith. The “hidden world” of eternal reality is there whether we see it or not. And by faith we “see” it even though the people of the world do not.
Our Experience Determines Our Persuasion
This principle has many applications. Not long ago I heard a speaker say that “our experience determines our persuasion.” He then applied that to followers of other religions by saying that he didn’t get mad at Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus or the many secularists we meet every day. Why get mad at them? If they truly believe what they claim to believe, it’s because they’ve had an experience that determines their persuasion. Years ago I learned that “your experience will always beat my doctrine.” I can’t use logic to destroy your experience, at least not if it truly means something important to you. We’ve all tried arguing people into the kingdom of God and it doesn’t work. You can’t convince someone that Jesus loves them by swearing at them or threatening them or raising your voice in anger. Instead of getting angry at those whose beliefs are radically different, we should pray for God to give them an experience of the truth. Only then will they be persuaded to believe differently.
It happens that I am writing these words from an apartment in Beijing, China. Two days ago I spoke to a small group of Christian leaders and answered their questions. One woman wanted to know how to help a friend who does not know Christ. She has tried and tried to help her but nothing seems to work. I told her to do three things. First, remain her friend. You can’t help someone if you will not talk to them. Second, drop “seeds of truth” into your conversations with he. Don’t argue and don’t try to convince her all at once. Third, pray, pray and keep on praying because only God can truly change the heart. Our words can only go so far, but God’s Spirit can melt the hardest heart. And I asked her, “Do you get angry at a blind person because they can’t see the color green?” No, you don’t. If you can’t see it, you can’t see it. Getting angry makes things worse, not better. Since it is Satan who blinds the minds of unbelievers (2 Corinthians 4:4), we must pray that God will open their eyes to see the truth. They will never believe what they do not see, and they will never see until the eyes of the heart are opened, and only God can do that. But God can do it, which is why we must pray, pray, and keep on praying.
Elijah said, “You can have the power if you see me depart.” He didn’t just mean if you visually see me, but if God gives you spiritual sight to understand, if he opens the eyes of your heart.
How do I know God answered that prayer? Not because Elisha parted the Jordan with Elijah’s cloak. I know it because of the wonderful story that takes place in 2 Kings 6:8-17 when Elisha and his servant are in Dothan and the armies of the king of Aram have completed surrounded them. It’s a hopeless situation. Though the servant despairs, Elisha tells him not to worry because “those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (v. 16). Then Elisha prays, “O Lord, open his eyes that he may see” (v. 17). When his eyes were opened, the servant saw the armies of God arrayed in the clouds above the Aramean army. It is a great advance spiritually to have your eyes opened to see spiritual reality, to understand that this world is not the only world. When the eyes of the heart are opened, you understand that the unseen world is the real world, the only one that matters.
III. Elijah’s Lasting Legacy
So now one prophet is taken and one prophet is left, showing us that the battle goes on. The church triumphant rejoices in heaven while the church militant on earth continues the battle.
Elisha saw spiritual reality. He saw behind the scenes. At the end of the story, three things happen in quick succession:
Number one: He saw Elijah depart.
Number two: He picked up his cloak.
Number three: He took the cloak to the Jordan River and he said, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?”
Why did he do that? Elisha was on the east bank of the Jordan. His ministry lay on the western side. Between him and his divine calling flowed the muddy waters of the Jordan River. He had to get across to enter into God’s assignment for his life. There was no better time than the present to find out if God would be with him as he had been with Elijah.
Don’t you think it took courage to take that cloak and hit the Jordan River? He had seen Elijah separate the waters, but would the same thing happen for him? Elijah is gone, but is Elijah’s God gone also? That’s always the great question.
Where is the Lord God of Luther?
Where is the Lord God of Calvin?
Where is the Lord God of Jonathan Edwards?
Where is the Lord God of Charles Haddon Spurgeon?
Where is the Lord God of J. Hudson Taylor?
Where is the Lord God of D. L. Moody?
Where is the Lord God of Billy Sunday?
Where is the Lord God of Jim Elliott?
It took faith to take that same cloak and hit the water, not knowing what was about to happen. It took courage to do that. It was necessary. Elisha had to do it.
He had to do it.
That couldn’t happen while Elijah was still on the earth. Elijah had to go in order for Elisha to arise. I think these days a lot about my sons. At this writing they are 26, 24 and 21 years old. There is no such thing as a hand-me-down faith. Every generation must discover God’s power on its own. Josh, Mark and Nick can’t live on my faith. They have to find their own.
Josh has to find his own faith.
Mark has to see for himself.
Nick has to get it on his own.
Elijah had to leave in order to Elisha to take up his ministry. It is the same in every generation. Leaders rise, lead, fight the battle for God, and then at the appointed hour, they move off the scene, to be replaced by others whom God has raised up.
God Names His Own Successors
Now we come to the final turn in the road. Elijah is in heaven and he’s alive and well today. Hundreds of years later the Lord said through Malachi, “I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5). Four hundred years later, Jesus said of John the Baptist, “He is Elijah, who was to come” (Matthew 11:14). He meant that John the Baptist had come in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17). And later Elijah appears on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus, Peter and John (Mark 9:2-8). That means he is still alive today.
So if this were your last day, how would you spend it? What would you do? For those who know the Lord, death holds no fear. Our little time on planet earth zips by, and then we fly away. We’re here today and gone tomorrow. Here is the wonderful final word from Elijah’s life.
Elijah went to heaven.
Elisha carried on his work.
God’s work goes on.
It goes on because God goes on.
He was here before we arrived, and he will be here long after we are gone. Nothing of God dies when a man of God dies. When Elijah went to heaven, God was still the same. When Elisha died, God was still the same. We like to say when our loved ones die, “It will never be the same.” And it’s true. Life for us will never be the same with our loved ones gone. But our God is in heaven; he changes not. The world doesn’t revolve around you and me, and it doesn’t depend on our personal presence.
Psalm 100:5 tell us that God’s faithfulness continue “through all generations.” It literally means “from generation to generation.” Exodus 20:6 tells us that God shows his love to “a thousand generations” of those who love him. Since a biblical generation is 40 years, this means God’s love lasts at least 40,000 years. And since this promise was given to Moses at Mt. Sinai approximately 3,500 years ago, we may safely conclude that God’s faithful love will continue at least another 36,500 years. That is to say, in 3,500 years we are not yet even 10% of the way through the length of God’s love. But surely that is not literal, you say. Indeed, it is not. But it is not purely figurative either. It’s a way of showing us that God’s love and faithfulness go far beyond any human understanding. Suppose we line up a grandfather, a father, a son, a grandson, and a great-grandson on the platform. Psalm 100:5 tells us that what God is to the grandfather, he will be to the father. What he is to the father, he will be to the son. What he is to the son, he will be to the grandson. What he is to the grandson, he will be to the great-grandson. And so it goes across the centuries. Generations come and go, one after the other. Only God remains forever.
I am so glad that God’s faithfulness transcends the generations. At the moment I am 53 years old heading for … what? 55? 60? 75? Maybe 80 or even 90 years old if God blesses me with long life. But I won’t live forever. As the years roll by, I find myself realizing how much of my life is wrapped up in my three boys. Yesterday they were in grade school, today they are almost grown up, and tomorrow they will be grandfathers. Will God still take care of them? What about their children? And their grandchildren? Will God still be there for them? The answer is yes because God’s faithfulness doesn’t depend on me but on the character of God that spans the generations. That means I don’t have to stay alive to ensure that my boys will be okay. God will see to that. After I am gone from this earth, and even if all my prayers have not been answered, I can trust God to take care of my boys. What a comfort this is. I can do my best to help my boys while I’m here, and after I’m gone God’s faithfulness will continue for them and for their grandchildren, and even for their great-grandchildren.
Elijah departs for heaven.
Elisha picks up his mantle and carries on his work.
God names his own successors.
The Lord God of Elijah is also the Lord God of Elisha.
We come and go, but our God spans the generations.
Where is the Lord, God of Elijah? I’ve got good news for you. He’s still here. The first words out of Elijah’s mouth were “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives” (1 Kings 17:1). The Lord God of Elijah is our God today.
So I leave you with the question that I started with. Where is the Lord God of Elijah? He’s still here. Where are the Elijah’s of the Lord God in our own generation?
Father, we thank you for the joy of venturing with such a great man. I thank you for my brothers and sisters who read these words. I pray that you would birth in us Elijah-like faith for the living of these days. Make us strong and bold to speak and to stand for you, for the Lord God of Elijah is still alive today. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.