Taking up the Mantle
There are few times in history without a pressing battle to be waged by God’s people. All the personal conflicts, all the struggles with secular society, all the intellectual contests against idolatry and atheism—one big, long, war. The prophet Elijah was a soldier in this war and because he knew that the war was by nature continuous, he knew the struggle would be passed on to another generation. The prophet who represented that generation was Elisha, so Elijah passed his mantle, both literally and figuratively, to Elisha.
The young can’t wait to grow up, be important, be the ones calling the shots. But something happens as we get older: we realize that being responsible isn’t as glamorous as it once seemed. We come to realize that if we are the ones responsible, it is because the ones who used to be responsible are no longer with us. We didn’t think of that. We never thought about how lonely it is to make decisions without the benefit of the wise counsel we had grown accustomed to—the sage advice of grandparents, parents, and an older generation of Christians whom we respected. We see something of that in the following exchange between Elijah and Elisha:
Now 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.” (2 Kings 2:1-3 ESV)
This scene replays itself yet again at Jericho, before Elijah and Elisha find themselves at the bank of the Jordan River: “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, until the two of them could go over on dry ground” (2 Kings 2:8). Elijah knows his time has come.Yet, try as he might, he cannot get Elisha to leave him. Elisha relentlessly clings to Elijah’s presence and some wonder if this is a test. Who can say for sure? What most of us can say is that the desire to cling to those we love is all too familiar.
Many of us have been at bedsides where those we love have told us that their time has come. Though we know it to be true, we cling to them. We cling because we love them. We cling because we are terrified at the prospect of trying to live life without their guidance.
And so we go as far as humanly possible to stay by their side. Elijah is grouped with the likes of Moses and Joshua—you cannot help but recall the Israelites miraculously crossing the Red Sea, and then the Jordan River, when you hear how Elijah rolled up his clock, struck the water, and caused it to part so that they could walk through on dry ground. Having a guy like that around sure is handy!
Maybe the people who have gone before us never miraculously parted any rivers or seas, but there were other things they did that seemed almost superhuman. They planted churches, built church buildings, and created church camps. They raised families, sometimes on a single income. They celebrated 50th and 60th wedding anniversaries. They were men and women who labored for the Lord they loved, and it showed in their churches and homes; it was reflected in the places where they worked. It might not have been flashy, but it was a blessing. It brought steadiness to our lives, and gave us a foundation to build upon.
Our respect for previous generations and their accomplishments often creates a crisis when the moment comes for the next generation—our generation—to assume responsibility for the Lord’s work. The fear of failure causes of a sense of dread at having to walk in their footsteps. Yet we know it must be done, because no one lives forever. Elijah knows his time is near, but at his departure he asks Elisha what he can do for him.
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 2:9-12)
Due to my own context, I have always read Elisha’s request as an arrogant desire to outpace Elijah’s prophetic work. But when I read the request in its broader context, and with Israelite custom in mind, I realize that Elisha is not asking to be “twice the prophet” that Elijah was. Rather, he is asking to be recognized as Elijah’s prophetic heir. A double portion would be the portion allotted to the eldest son, the son responsible for taking up the family’s work and responsibilities. There are two things that happen in this interaction that should inform the way we function as a body of believers:
First, each older generation should be attentive to the ways we can bless and equip the generation that will follow us. We focus so much on the present (which is understandable), but our focus on the present should never be at the cost of the future.
Second, each younger generation should be aware of the task which looms ahead: guiding and taking responsibility for the church and its work. That requires acknowledgement that the duty is ours, as well as asking for the blessing of the previous generation. Specifically, it means cultivating the Spirit’s presence in our lives, both individually and collectively.
Passing the mantle from one generation to the next is a time of grief, but also of self-discovery. Elisha experiences this himself when he realizes that Elijah has been taken away.
Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. And he took up the cloak of Elijah that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. Then he took the cloak of Elijah that had fallen from him and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” And when he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over. (2 Kings 2:8-14)
There is a time to grieve over the loss of what was. For it is in grieving that we acknowledge what we had, and the ways those who have come before have blessed us. However, grief should never paralyze us. Grief should never cause us to leave the mantle lying on the ground. The war that God has been waging against the forces of evil goes on, and there is a time when every generation must take up the mantle and, in the power of the Spirit, discover who God has called them to be.