For the first part of these thoughts, please see my earlier post, which I prosaically called “Expectations.” In it I discuss how expectations that developed from the ministry of Elijah might have caused people to misunderstand the ministry of Jesus.
The Other Part
When people encountered Jesus, they apparently connected him with Elijah. The problem with expecting Elijah though is that Elijah was only half of a certain story. (I mean this in no way as a slight against Elijah.) After Elijah came Elisha.
I’ve heard and read multiple people talk about Elisha as though he were merely “Elijah 2,” a sequel, a knock-off, an enjoyable but superfluous retelling. One of the interesting things about Elisha though is how different he is from Elijah. He asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit and seems to have been granted it, but that double portion doesn’t manifest in expected ways.
For example, it doesn’t make him twice the rock star. Instead he’s quiet, steady, humble, and indirect. (I mean this in no way as a slight against rock stars.) Whereas Elijah wrestled with nations and people as famous as himself, Elisha ministered for longer and performed more miracles but mostly in the service of people so utterly devoid of fame that we never even learn their names.
Don’t get me wrong; the two have a lot in common too. They both certainly lived interesting lives. They both were powerful prophets who worked significant miracles. They both developed a following and they both trained other prophets. Also, and I think this is important, they have in common that they’re both part of the same continuous story.
Let me try to explain what I mean. Early prophets tended to enter and leave the story as they were needed; who followed them and who they themselves followed aren’t mentioned. A good example of this is Nathan, who might as well have appeared out of heaven to say his allotted lines. Later prophets, the ones who’s names we get from the confusing biblical books that they left behind, have stories all their own but are just as disconnected from one another. That disconnection is even more surprising because they frequently lived at around the same time and described the same events.
Against that background the Elijah-Elisha story is interesting because it provides the history of two successive generations of prophetic witness. It provides the history of two prophets who had separate ministries, but who knew each other, traveled together, and were friends. Unlike the other biblical prophets, it seems like we’re supposed to view these two together.
Also, they have oddly similar names. Sometimes Biblical names become similar through the awkward process of translation. Elijah and Elisha are similar even in Hebrew. I could write about that for a long time. (As an added bit of nerdy trivia, I would point out that the last bit of the two names come together to form the Hebrew name of Jesus. You can see it in translation: Elijah means “My God is the LORD,” Elisha means “My God is Salvation,” Jesus means “The LORD is Salvation.”)
Elijah served a God of grand events, who guides history and overcomes the powerful. Elisha served a God of lowly individuals who participates in their stories and lifts up the weak. If Elijah represented God’s power, Elisha represented his meekness. The Bible gives us the two together because they’re each best understood in light of the other.
If God were only powerful, he might reward the worthy, might even save the worthy if they got into a little bit of trouble, but the needy who were unworthy would be lost, so everyone would be lost. If God were only meek, he would want to save the needy regardless of worthiness, but he wouldn’t be able to do it, so everyone would be lost.
It’s only together that the two stories anticipate Jesus, the God of the universe who became a helpless baby, the King who became a servant, the conqueror who became a sacrifice. Or, to turn things around, it’s only together that the two stories anticipate the savior who died to destroy death, who served to show us true freedom, who chose cowards and fools to become heroes and saints. God uses his power through meekness, and he can be meek because his power is overwhelming.
The people who only expected an Elijah-like ministry missed that; they forgot to expect the meekness, and so they couldn’t understand the strength of Jesus that led him to the cross.