Recently, I preached on the story of the prophet Elijah and his protégé, Elisha, from 2 Kings 2:8-14.
Elijah knew he was nearing the end of his life and asked Elisha what he could do for him before he departed. Elisha replied that he wanted a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit.
Of course, this is the Elijah who had defeated Ahab and Jezebel’s prophets of Baal, all 450 of them (see 1 Kings 18).
This is the Elijah that had saved the widow of Zarephath and her son by assuring her that her flour and oil would not run out until God brought rain to end the drought (see 1 Kings 17).
This is also the same Elijah who raised the widow’s son from the dead (see 1 Kings 17).
So to ask for a “double portion” of his spirit was to ask a lot.
In Elijah’s passing of the mantle of leadership to Elisha, there are four things we can learn:
1. To pick up the mantle of leadership, you have to want it.
2 Kings tells us there were 50 other prophets following Elijah, but Elisha was the only one to ask if he could inherit Elijah’s ministry. Of course, in 1 Kings 19, God tells Elijah to select Elisha, and he does so by temporarily wrapping his mantle around Elisha’s shoulders.
Elisha indicates that he wants this mantle of ministry by immediately ceasing to plow his fields, slaughtering his oxen and building a sacrificial fire from the wooden plows and harnesses he is using.
In short, Elisha wanted to pick up Elijah’s mantle.
2. To pick up the mantle of leadership, you have to wait for it.
We don’t know how much time elapses between Elisha’s selection by Elijah in 1 Kings 19 and Elisha’s inheritance of Elijah’s mantle in 2 Kings 8. But, however long it took, Elisha had to wait for the time God had appointed for him to assume his prophetic ministry.
When Elisha asked for a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit, what he was really asking for was that he would be seen as the rightful heir to Elijah’s prophetic work, just like a firstborn son would have inherited the material possessions of his father.
An heir has to wait to succeed his father, and Elisha waited patiently for God’s timing.
3. To pick up the mantle of leadership, you have to witness the power of God.
When Elisha asks Elijah for a double portion of his spirit, Elijah says, “If you see me when I’m taken from you, it will be yours. Otherwise, it will not.”
But paradoxically, Elijah tries three times to dissuade Elisha from following him. Each time, Elisha says, “I’m going to stay with you.”
Unless Elisha sees the power of God, he can’t inherit the mantle of prophetic leadership.
While others were intimidated by seeing the power of Israel’s evil kings, Ahab and his son, God’s prophets had to see and embrace the power of God in action. When Elisha sees the chariot and horses of fire, he cries out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horses of Israel!”
4. Once you have picked up the mantle of leadership, you have to wield it.
As Elijah is being carried into heaven, his mantle slips from his shoulders. Elisha picks it up, rolls it up and strikes the waters of the Jordan River, just as Elijah had done not long before. As he does so, Elisha asks, “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?”
By his action and his prayer, Elisha invokes the power and presence of God as he assumes the prophetic mantle. When Elisha strikes the waters of the Jordan River, the waters part just as they had for Elijah.
Had Elisha not wielded the mantle of leadership, he would have never received confirmation that Elijah’s leadership had indeed passed to him.
Leadership succession isn’t always neat or simple. But church leaders can benefit from the lessons of Elisha’s succession to Elijah.
By wanting to assume the leadership to which God has called them, by waiting until God’s timing is right, by witnessing the power of God in the transition, and by wielding the mantle of leadership once it has fallen to them, the transfer of leadership from one leader to another will follow an extraordinary biblical model.
Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Virginia.