Ascension of our Lord and of Elijah
S Rogers, Ross-on-Wye
THIS LAST JOURNEY OE ELIJAH, so gloriously yet solemnly typical of the last journey of his Lord is full of lessons for those who would be disciples of Christ. One of the greatest needs for today is to ‘see’ the Lord ascending to the source of power; ascending to the presence of our Father and our God, His and ours; ascending as the advocate - intercessor; and ascending in the very body in which He walked and talked on earth. What a difference it would make to our witness on earth. Equally we must know the reality of the indwelling of the Spirit sent down (like Elijah’s mantle) by the ascended One, if we are to realize more fully the meaning of those words ‘it is expedient for you that 1 go away’, John 16. 7. It is our privilege by faith, to see our Lord ascend, and our responsibility is to lay hold on all the comfort and the inspiration that this sight can give. Think for a moment of what the sight of Elijah ascending meant to Elisha. To all outward appearance Elijah’s life and witness had ended in failure. The effect of the scene on Carmel had disappeared, idolatry and sin were apparently triumphant again, and although there were seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal, not one of them was present with Elijah at his departure. The priests and the prophets had no real interest in God’s honour, yet there on the far side of Jordan, God set His seal to the life and witness of His servant, taking him up into heaven in a whirlwind. Was there not here a foreshadowing of Acts 3.21, ‘whom the heaven must receive’? How it strengthened the faith of Elisha in the reality of God and His throne. May we too have this experience as we see our Lord go up.
The words to Elisha were ‘if thou see me when I am taken from thee it shall be so unto thee, but if not it shall not be so’. They were not said merely to keep the eye of Elisha on Elijah but as a statement of fact, and is not this equally true in connection with any real desire we may have for service for our Lord? The real test for Elisha was undoubtedly whether he would complete that last journey with Elijah right outside the promised land to a spot in the desert. If we would really see our Lord ascend then we too must make our way to that spot from which He ascended. From no other spot can we get this sight and it will mean being led ‘out as far as to Bethany’, Luke 24. 50.
There was no doubt in the mind of God as to the spot from which Elijah should ascend, but with a divine purpose for our instruction and blessing He led him through various places which might have been thought suitable.
The name given to this town warrants us in thinking of the place where circumcision was renewed; where Israel was again sealed and separated; where the reproach of Egypt was rolled away; where the first passover in ‘the land’ was kept; and where they first tasted ‘the old corn of the land’, Joshua 5. But Gilgal, once so sacred had been dishonoured by disobedience and was now no hallowed ground for Elijah. What a change had taken place at Gilgal since the days of Joshua! And Saul’s failure to destroy the Amalekites gives us the clue. ‘What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears?’, 1 Sam. 15.14. No longer were the people circumcized but the ‘flesh’ was much in evidence. God’s word was disobeyed and a sacrifice given as the excuse, whilst the ‘old corn of the land’ had surely lost its flavour and its satisfaction. There were trends in Gilgal which later were exposed by God in Amos 4. 4 and Hosea 9. 15.
When in the purpose of God our Lord should ascend, what hallowed spot could be chosen? Nazareth might well have been a likely spot, ‘where He had been brought up’ and where according to Luke 4. 16-29our Lord first declared His mission and where it would seem He went with a deep desire to receive the blessing and fellowship of His acquaintances at the real commencement of His mission. But Nazareth had no room for their Messiah in lowly guise nor for a mission of grace and compassion such as would extend to widows and Gentiles. And He was cast out.
What of today? Are there any Gilgals or Nazareths today? If so we shall certainly not there be able to appreciate the ascension of our Lord, we shall not there find that the ascended Lord occupies the hearts and vision with the descended Holy Spirit in full control. There are many places today where man’s will and traditions prevail, where the sheep of Amalek which God has devoted to destruction are offered in sacrifice and where the spoil of Amalek replaces the old corn of the land, 1 Sam. 15. 9; where the clear teaching of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament is replaced by man’s traditions and rules of service; where the activity even in sacrifice is in the energy of the flesh, simple obedience is discounted and the ascended Lord waits in vain for His place - His portion. ‘Tarry here’ was the word to Elisha. Does this word come to us to settle down with the inhabitants of Gilgal? Whenever we see our Lord really ‘go out’ from the place where we have been with Him, dare we hesitate to follow?
‘The Lord hath sent me to Bethel.’ To Jacob, no doubt, Bethel had been the most hallowed spot on earth, the ‘house of God’ and ‘the gate of heaven’, Gen. 28. 17, but Bethel could not be the gate of heaven to Elijah. The sons of the prophets were there and came out to conduct Elijah into the city but what did Elijah find? (See 1 Kings 12. 28-33.) Jeroboam had set up a golden calf, priests not after God’s order and sacrifices according to man’s idea; a form of godliness but a denial of its power which earned the contempt of Jehovah, Hosea 8. 5-7. What had been the house of God was now a house of idols.
We might have expected that the centre of Israel, Jehovah’s beloved, would have been the spot from which our Lord would go back to the Father: the temple was there and the Lord’s heart’s desire was there too. But instead of joy, it brings forth tears, Calvary had been endured, the temple condemned, the feasts of God finished; and the time had come when the true worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth, John 4. 24. Where shall we find the counterpart of Bethel today? Wherever the worship is other than in Spirit and according to truth, wherever our Lord in His person and office has been replaced by objects, or man made priests or ceremonies not of the Spirit.
Again Elisha heard the words ‘tarry here’ but he could not rest in Bethel in spite of its ancient memories; and the sons of the prophets had no hold on him; one person only filled his vision and his hopes. Equally we shall never be able to get into close and direct contact with the ascended Man at Bethel.
‘The Lord hath sent me to Jericho.’ Ah! here is the spot where the might, the faithfulness, the grace, the love of God for His people were first made evident in the land. The heap of rubble that had been Jericho was a monument to God’s people of His faithfulness and power. But man in selfwill had rebuilt that which God in goodness and grace had cast down. Here again were the sons of the prophets, dwelling in rebuilt Jericho, but although the Spirit might act upon them He was not in them and they had no belief in the ascension of Elijah. Does not this remind us of our Lord’s lament over Capernaum, where His mighty works had been done, where there were so many who had felt His touch, His faithfulness and His power? Can we not today hear the lament of our Lord over many places in which His mighty works have been done? On every hand we can see re-erected those things which God in wisdom and grace had cast down - law keeping, divisions, the service of the tabernacle, days and months, times and years, all those things which come between the people of God and that of which Canaan speaks, a real anticipation and an earnest of heaven - all once cast down but now re-erected. Is it not evident that the cause of all the departure and distance from God is failure to see the Lord ascend?
From where, then, can Elijah take his departure into heaven? Not a spot to be found in all Israel. He must needs cross the Jordan, even, as it were, to cut himself off by death from the idolators and the sons of the prophets. He must go into the wilderness, that place of communion direct with God, with only one truly in fellowship with him! But what a sight Elisha beheld! What triumph, what glory, what power, what an answer to earthly rejection and what a link with heaven! ‘He led them out as far as to Bethany.’ Gathering His few faithful ones around, those few with whom He could have fellowship in His ascension, He led them out from the worldliness and religion of the city, from the Jews, the Romans, and the Greeks, as far as Bethany.
We do well to ponder the course of this journey which we too must take with Him. First over the brook Kidron crossed by the rejected David when the usurper was on the throne, 2 Sam. 15. 23; and crossed by the Lord Himself on the night of His betrayal, John 18. 1. Then by the garden of Gethsemane with its sacred memories, to the Mount of Olives, that place of constant prayer and communion with the Father, near Bethany, where His heart had found a measure of rest, where He had found some appreciation of Himself and His purposes, and Mary had sat at His feet in heart communion, Luke 10. 39. The scene of simple yet glorious faith, ‘Yea, Lord; I believe …’, John 11. 27, where He had proved Himself the Lord of life in raising Lazarus and where they made Him a supper, culminating in that scene of worship and adoration in His immediate presence, John 12. 1-3.
If we too by faith would see Him ascend, if we would know the comfort of the assurance that the same Jesus who lived here below is now flesh and bone at the right hand of God for us, and if we would know the indwelling and power of the heaven-sent Spirit we must be led out and up to that very same spot. From no other could or would our glorious risen Lord ascend. Then by the power of the Spirit we too shall be able to go back to the scenes of His labours, back to the scene of His rejection and there live out and tell out that grace and truth that came by Him, even as Elisha went back to be a blessing in the spirit of Elijah, 2 Kings 2. 19.
We regret we have to defer Mr. Forrest-Hall’s concluding paper on THE HOLY SPIRIT AND THE BELIEVER until the next issue.