The powerful prophet Elijah is a punchy character in God’s story, and I can’t stop thinking about him. In 2 Kings 1:8, King Ahaziah’s men describe him as “a hairy man with a leather girdle bound about his loins”. Maybe I have a thing for hairy loners?
The voice of one crying in the wilderness,Matthew 3:3-4
“Make ready the way of the Lord,
Make His paths straight!”
This connection becomes clear when, in 1 Kings 19, Elijah runs from the wrath of Ahab’s Queen Jezebel and enters the wilderness (Luke 1:80). There, he lays down under a broom-tree (Gen. 21:15) and asks the Lord to take his life.
But God has other plans for Him. And after Elijah confronts the murdering Ahab and Jezebel and calls down fire from heaven onto King Ahaziah’s men (2 Kings 1), God catches Elijah up into heaven (2 Kings 2:11) and passes his prophetic mantle to Elisha.
Perhaps here, your mind, like mine, goes to Genesis 5 and the only other man before Elijah who did not taste death. Here, God gives us the geneaology of Noah, a catalogue of lives and deaths of men.
The days of Adam … and he died.
The days of Seth … and he died.
The days of Enosh … and he died …
The casual reader is tempted at this point to give this a miss and get to some more of the good stuff. Then, suddenly, we stumble over a brief section about a man named Enoch:
23 Thus all the days of Enoch were 365 years.
24 Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.
Genesis 5: 23-24
We’re not given much here. We might even have missed it had we skipped ahead. But in these few words, a momentary glimmer of hope sparks from the page. God has quietly recorded the first significant sign of power over death in the ascension of Enoch, a man who walked with God. And now that we’ve seen Enoch, we know to keep watch.
God doesn’t disappoint us if we are alert. Elijah’s ascension is the second sign, and just look at how God’s story is building! Like Enoch before him, Elijah’s life is a powerful preview of Jesus Christ. But there is more detail, greater space given to him in the text than to Enoch. The drama is building. Elijah’s ascension alone is startlingly supernatural and awe-inspiring!
11 As they were going along and talking, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven.2 Kings 2:11-12
It’s hard to imagine witnessing such a scene, but Elisha’s short shout of astonishment gives us a taste. “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” What a sight! Elisha can do nothing else but tear his clothes.
Enoch and Elijah are men after God’s own heart, and He honours them with a significant role in His story of defeat over death. But these are only men, and Elijah knows it.
As Elijah sits under the broom tree in the wilderness and asks God to take his life, his words are humble and sincere but full of sorrow. I can’t save your people, Lord. “I am not better than my fathers.” In his despair, he lies down and sleeps. An angel twice wakes him with bread and water. And fortified with life from heaven, Elijah travels “forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God.” (1 Kings 19:8, Ex. 19:11-23).
Many life-times later, Jesus also enters the wilderness, but this is a journey with a difference. Elijah’s journey but in reverse (Matt. 4). Like Elijah, Jesus journeys for 40 days. But Jesus has no bread yet from an angel. Only after He is tempted and resists perfectly, only after Satan leaves Him, only then do the angels come and minister to Him. Jesus does what Elijah knows he himself cannot.
This is why God’s third sign of power over death involves not just an ascension but a victorious encounter with death. Where Enoch and Elijah escaped death and were taken up into heaven as a sign, only the incarnate Son of God has the power of three. Only Jesus could go to His death, rise again, and be carried up into heaven.
Perhaps this is why, as the women waited at Jesus’s tomb, “two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing” (Luke 24:4-7).
Perhaps this is why, at Jesus’s ascension,
after Jesus had promised His apostles the power of the Holy Spirit and been lifted up,
after a cloud had taken Him out of their sight and as they gazed into heaven,
two men in white robes stood beside them and said,
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”Acts 1:9-11
As far as I can see, the original text is clear. The creatures who appear at the empty tomb and at Jesus’s ascension are not angels nor messengers, but men.
Were these men not Enoch and Elijah, two of the three human bodies that God glorifies? Were these not God’s cloud of witnesses in His plan of victory over the grave?