The prophet Elisha is introduced for the first time in 1 Kings 19. Elijah has recently had his encounter with the 400 prophets of Baal and the still small voice of God on Mt. Horeb. On his way from the mountain to the wilderness of Damascus Elijah finds Elisha plowing in a field. He passes by him and throws his mantle over Elisha. And scripture says that Elisha arose and followed Elijah, and became his servant. Elisha doesn’t receive another mention until the end of Elijah’s ministry — when Elijah’s mantle falls from him as he is translated and is taken up by Elisha — and one can’t help but wonder about the relationship between the two in the interim. How was Elisha prepared to succeed Elijah, and what relevance does this story have to succession in the Church today?
In the manual, our SS lesson discusses in depth how this story relates to succession in the Presidency of the Church, and how this “mantle” is transferred when the prophet dies. But I think the story is also fitting for application on the ward level, where callings from Nursery Leader to Bishop are regularly passed around. As we follow and serve under our ward leaders, we take upon ourselves the learning role of an Elisha. In the Books of 1st and 2nd Kings, we may not have the details of how Elisha was prepared for his calling. But 2 Kings 2:9-10 is instructive. Immediately before Elijah is taken up into heaven he asks Elisha: “Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken away from thee.” And Elisha replies, “I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me.”
Ask what I shall do for thee
Here the Elijah figure, or the one being released from the calling, is willing to train his or her successor. He or she passes on the needed materials, explains what the calling entails, and makes themselves available as a source of information during the transition period. I think it is important to see each calling as a legacy which is being passed down and improved upon each time a new member steps up to fill the position. Holders of each calling should be willing to mentor others to succeed as their replacement.
Let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me
When Elisha asked to receive a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit he was not seeking a ministry twice as great as his master’s but he was using cultural terms derived from inheritance law to express his desire to carry on Elijah’s ministry. Inheritance law assigned a double portion of a father’s possessions to the firstborn son [see Deut. 21:17]. Elijah’s response that “if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee” left the gift Elisha requested in God’s hands. Elisha does see Elijah being taken up by the chariots of God at the Jordan River and God does fulfill the request — Elijah received the “double portion” = the power and authority of his master. This is demonstrated by Elijah’s performance of 8 works of God while Elisha accomplishes 16.
Elijah’s 8 miracles:
|1. Shut the heavens (drought) and opened them (rain)||1 Kings 17:14, 41-46|
|2. multiplied flour and oil||1 Kings 17:7-16|
|3. raised the widow’s son from the dead||1 Kings 17:17-24|
|4. defeated the prophets of Baal||1 Kings 18:16-40|
|5. was fed by ravens||1 Kings 17:2-8|
|6. destroyed Ahaziah’s soldiers with lightning||2 Kings 1:9-13|
|7. parted the Jordan River||2 Kings 2:8|
|8. was taken to heaven in God’s chariot||2 Kings 2:9-18|
Elisha’s 16 miracles:
|1. parted the Jordan River||2 Kings 2:14-15|
|2. purified water||2 Kings 2: 19-22|
|3. cursed attackers who were then savaged by bears||2 Kings 2: 23-25|
|4. caused a flood to foil the Moabites||2 Kings 3: 14-25|
|5. caused miraculous flow of oil for the poor widow||2 Kings 4: 2-7|
|6. gave fertility to the woman of Shunem||2 Kings 4: 8-17|
|7. raised a child from the dead||2 Kings 4:32-37|
|8. purified poisoned soup||2 Kings 4:38-41|
|9. multiplied loaves to feed a large crowd||2 Kings 4:42-44|
|10. healed Naaman of leprosy||2 Kings 5: 1-19|
|11. cursed Gehazi with leprosy||2 Kings 5:20-27|
|12. made an iron axehead float||2 Kings 6:1-7|
|13. struck the Aramaeans with sun blindness and then cured them||2 Kings 6: 15-23|
|14. predicted the end of a famine||2 Kings 7:1-20|
|15. prophesied the death of Ben-Hadad and the rise of Hazael||2 Kings 8:7-15|
|16. predicts Israel will defeat Aram 3 times||2 Kings 13:14-19|
Each of us has likely experienced numerous changes in Church callings over the years. I have had some interesting feelings both in receiving and in giving up callings. I’ve discovered that we need mentors — wise and faithful guides, advisers, or teachers — to apply an unseen, affirming influence and positive energy as callings change. The mentor’s spirit can promote healthy relationships in every presidency, classroom and organization. There must be a willingness to share our ministry. This sharing comes from a place of deep satisfaction and peace about the work we have done over the years. The work hasn’t always been easy and there may be a certain reticence to let go of hard won accomplishments. But the mentor’s spirit reminds us that it is not so much a letting go as it is a passing on.
Note especially what Elijah says next: “Thou hast asked a hard thing.” It’s hard both to give up and to accept a calling. For me, one of the hardest releases I experienced was that of Seminary teacher. I held the calling for several years. I put a lot of time and energy into it, and I came to self-identify as the Seminary teacher. I wanted to be the best one ever. I wanted to affect the lives of my students and I wanted them to love me. When a new teacher was called, I didn’t want him to be as successful as I was. To this day I have a hard time when a new Seminary teacher is called in the ward. It is just as hard to accept new callings with grace and equanimity. Some people feel inadequate, doubting they can measure up to what has been done by their predecessor. Some accept with pride, thinking that they can do a better job than has been done in the past. Neither attitude takes full advantage of the mentoring process.
As Elijah and Elisha continued walking and talking by the Jordan River, a chariot of fire and horses of fire took Elijah up into heaven in a whirlwind. Both Elijah and Elisha experienced the presence and the power of God in that moment. I believe that we can experience the same as we struggle with the difficult issue of passing on and accepting Ward callings.