Succession

Our Old Testament reading from the book of Kings tells the story of the last events in the life and ministry of Elijah and the succession of his servant and follower, Elisha. In this account, Elijah and Elisha were about to travel together from Gilgal (which was a town near Jericho). They were clearly very close. 

At first Elijah asked Elisha to stay in Gilgal, because God had told him to go to Bethel, which means the house of God. Elisha replied, “As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” They then travelled to Bethel together.  Once they had reached Bethel, Elijah asked Elisha to stay there, because God had told him to go to Jericho.  Elisha replied again, “As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.”  So they then travelled to Jericho together.  Once they had reached Jericho, Elijah asked Elisha to stay there, because God had told him to go to the Jordan.  Elisha replied again, “As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.”  In some ways this reminds me of three other accounts in Scripture:

  • The faithfulness and dedication of Ruth when she said to Naomi “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD punish me, and ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17).
  • Parallels with this passage and the account of Moses and Joshua in Numbers 27:18-23.  Joshua was chosen as successor to Moses (Numbers 27:12–23) and, as a result of his ‘ordination’ by Moses, is ‘full of the spirit of wisdom’ (Deuteronomy 34:9). Joshua performs actions similar to those of Moses (Exodus 14; Joshua 3–4) and Elisha performs actions similar to those of Elijah (vv 9–14).
  • The threefold test of Peter, when asked by Jesus “Do you love me?”  Perhaps in wanting to appoint his successor, Elijah wanted to see how committed Elisha was.

There’s further evidence of that closeness when Elisha said to Elijah “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit”, perhaps with echoes from instruction in Deuteronomy about the right of a firstborn son of a man with an unloved wife.  “He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him” (Deuteronomy 21:17).  Elisha knew that Elijah’s time was nearly upon him and wanted to spend as much time with him as possible; his love, commitment and dedication could not be doubted.

I think it is significant that on their travels, the ‘company of the prophets’ at Bethel and Jericho could clearly see that Elisha was with Elijah and the ‘company of prophets’ at the Jordan were witnesses to Elisha parting the water just as Elijah had done and said “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.” They could see and acknowledge that Elisha was indeed the rightful successor of Elijah.

I don’t think we often find ‘succession’ in ministry as such these days.  But there are some values and qualities in this passage that do stand out and speak into our contexts today.

  1. The Bible tells us “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).  Much like Elisha had with Elijah, there should be love, commitment and dedication to each other in our Churches.  We should not be self-serving, but willing to journey with people – just as Elisha did with Elijah, and just as Ruth did with Naomi.  If that love, commitment and dedication is not apparent, it is something that WE in our churches need to work on. 
  2. When people express a calling into a form of ministry, it is right and appropriate that their calling is recognised by the congregation.  We are part of the Body of Christ.  It’s no good if a toe wants to be an eye.  We should be discerning about our giftings and calling and be true to what that calling might be rather than holding an aspiration to be something that we are not.  Elisha was walking in Elijah’s footsteps and much like Joshua with Moses was performing similar miracles as Elijah had done.  It wasn’t surprising that Elisha’s calling and ministry was recognised by the company of prophets.
  3. When people are appointed into specific ministry roles, I think it is really important that they are recognised and affirmed (and supported).  I’ve seen occasions when that hasn’t happened, and some people have not acknowledged or accepted their ministry.
  4. We should celebrate the legacy of those who exercised ministry before us.  There are times of prayer in one of my churches when I am humbled in thinking about the people over the 150 years that the church has been in existence who have prayed and exercised various forms of ministry in that place. We are where we are because of that legacy.
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