THE SPIRIT IN ELISHA’S LIFE: A PREVIEW OF JESUS CHRIST AND THE NEW COVENANT
In the book of Kings, Elisha is the Spirit-empowered man of God who walks with God, represents God, and shows the way to covenant faithfulness through word and deed. Elisha therefore serves as a preview of knowing God in the new covenant through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. We will see this as we examine the Spirit’s role in Elisha’s life from Kings, particularly in the narrative of Elisha succeeding Elijah (2 Kings 2:1–18), and how Elisha’s Spirit-empowered ministry points forward to the Spirit-empowered ministry of Jesus Christ, the inauguration of the new covenant, and what it means for Jesus’s followers to live in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
The primary theological truth the book of Kings communicates is that Israel’s God is the one and only God, the only true God.1 Because Israel’s God is the only true God, the people of Israel, led by their king, must exclusively worship God and keep God’s law as written in the Mosaic Covenant if they expect to experience his blessing. Lisa Wray-Beal states this about the message of Kings: “As king and people walk in the torah, they prove their identity as covenant people. But when they walk outside the deuteronomic norms of the covenant, they face discipline and ultimately exile from the land.”2 Unfortunately, as the book of Kings records, the kings of Israel, beginning with Solomon, do not worship God exclusively or keep his law, and instead of experiencing the blessings of the covenant the nation experiences its curses. Solomon commits idolatry near the end of his life and the kingdom is divided (1 Kgs 11:1–13). The subsequent kings of the divided northern and southern kingdoms follow Solomon’s example and, with few exceptions, continue to lead the people away from the one, true God.3 Both the northern kingdom (2 Kgs 17) and the southern kingdom (2 Kgs 25) ultimately experience exile for their sins. The repetitiveness of each king’s sinful reign, leading the people further and further away from God, establishes that the exile of each kingdom, the present reality of the original audience of the book, is well-deserved.4
In the midst of this history of king after king leading the people away from God we find two prophets who demonstrate God’s grace and covenant faithfulness despite the people’s sin. The narrative space and the narrative placement of these two prophets highlight their importance to the narrative as a whole. The account of these two prophets, Elijah and Elisha, in 1 Kings 17—2 Kings 13, is the center of the book of Kings, comprising roughly 40% of the narrative.5 Elijah arrives on the scene at a decisive juncture in Israel’s history, as Ahab and Jezebel are leading the people away from God and toward the false god Baal (1 Kgs 16:29–17:1), and Elisha’s ministry effectively ends when Ahab’s dynasty does (2 Kgs 9:1–3). The two prophets’ miracles, ministry, and presence serve to call the people back to the one, true God and his covenant. Elijah and Elisha remind the people who God really is, especially when compared to the false gods the people are choosing to worship, and what it means to live before this God.6
One of the primary ways that the two prophets remind the people who God is and what it means to live before him is through the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. The Holy Spirit’s presence and power is particularly noted in the narrative of Elisha succeeding Elijah (2 Kgs 2:1–18), where Elisha receives a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit (2 Kgs 2:9–10). While the Spirit’s ministry and presence is implicit throughout Elijah’s ministry (though explicitly mentioned in conjunction with Elijah’s ministry in 1 Kgs 18:12), it is in and through Elisha, as Elijah’s successor, that the Holy Spirit’s presence and power is particularly emphasized. This emphasis on the Holy Spirit in the life and ministry of Elisha helps us to understand his purpose in Kings and the whole of the biblical canon, and gives us more insight into the things concerning Jesus in all the Scriptures (Luke 24:27).7 In the context of Kings, as so many in Israel have rejected God and his covenant, Elisha serves not only as a prophet calling the people to covenant faithfulness, but as the Spirit-empowered man of God who walks with God, represents God, and demonstrates the way to covenant faithfulness. As the Spirit-empowered man of God leading the people to covenant faithfulness, however, Elisha serves as more than an example of living before God under the old covenant; he also serves as a preview of what it will mean to walk with God in the new covenant in Jesus Christ, which is ultimately how God’s people will know him and what it means to live for him.
This article demonstrates this truth by establishing the evidence and importance of the Holy Spirit’s ministry in Elisha’s life and then explaining how Elisha’s Spirit-empowered ministry points forward to the Spirit-empowered ministry of Jesus Christ and the inauguration of the new covenant. I compare and contrast Elisha’s experience of the Holy Spirit with Elijah’s experience of the Holy Spirit, and then compare and contrast Elisha’s experience with Jesus’s experience, demonstrating how the Gospels explicitly draw an analogy between Elisha’s ministry and Jesus’s ministry. Elisha’s life and ministry in the Holy Spirit ultimately preview what life with God could one day look like under the new covenant. Jesus then makes the preview a reality for all who come to him. To all facing exile from God and the kingdom for their sins, Elisha is an example of how, when we trust the one, true God, all of us can know and walk with him through the Holy Spirit because of who Jesus Christ is and what he has done.