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LET us, I. Consider the historical fact itself, which this portion of Scripture presents to our notice; and, II. Apply it to the christian's growth in grace.
I. Elisha now finds himself among the sons of the prophets, doubtless with his heart deeply affected by what he had witnessed and experienced beyond Jordan, as well as in crossing it the second time. Endued with a double portion of Elijah's spirit, and destined to do even greater works than his predecessor, his character appears, nevertheless, not to have been immediately comprehended by the mourning sons of the prophets, however sincerely they venerated and loved him, and submitted themselves to him as their new teacher. They could not all at once consider their departed master as fully replaced by Elisha; much less that in the husbandman from Abel Meholah, an Elijah, even of a superior order, was presented to them by the Lord! Nor was this to be wondered at, seeing it was perfectly natural that the dazzling powers of Elijah should affect them more than the less imposing appearance of an unassuming brotherly Elisha. The abstracted gravity of the Tishbite seems to have corresponded far more with the natural ideas of human greatness, than the condescending affability of his humble successor. Elijah appeared rather as an instance of the glory of man through Divine endowment; whereas the appearance of Elisha seemed to commend the greatness of God's grace in human weakness. Hence we wonder not that the sons of the prophets did not at once duly appreciate Elijah's invaluable substitute.
From similar causes, the disciples of John the Baptist were slow to perceive that Jesus was greater than his forerunner clothed with camel's hair in the wilderness, who seemed to them to carry with him more of the appearance of an ambassador from heaven, than the gentle and affable Friend of publicans and sinners. The ministry of the Baptist would also, at a superficial view, commend itself to those whose minds were not entirely freed from a legal disposition to establish their own righteousness; they would naturally regard it as the most impressive form of piety, and as most suited to their own necessities. The Baptist himself would appear to such persons as a sort of perfect man, entirely abstracted from the fashion of this world; and the works of reformation which he enjoined, would be numbered up in a tangible sum total. But Jesus, on the contrary, appearing in the greatest simplicity, not withdrawing from the customary forms of life, describing his kingdom as
not coming with observation, and insisting first of all on secret submission of the heart; promising moreover nothing of human glory to his disciples, and enjoining upon them the despised and neglected virtues of humility and love-was in the eyes of the careless world in general, and of the self-righteous in particular, "without form or comeliness," and there was to them " beauty in him, that they should desire him."
That the hearts of the sons of the prophets were principally with their departed master, is evident enough from the urgent request they made to their new teacher, as soon as he had arrived at Jericho. "Behold," said they unto him, perhaps with tears, "there be with thy servants fifty strong men; let them go, we pray thee, and seek thy master: lest peradventure the Spirit of the Lord hath taken him up, and cast him upon some mountain, or into some valley." There is something ambiguous in these words. What did these worthy persons mean? Did they not know by Divine communication, that he was that day to be taken from them? Certainly they knew it; but it is evident that the manner of his removal had not been revealed to them. They might, therefore, suppose either that God had removed Elijah to some solitary place, in order afterwards to take him to himself; or that he was received into paradise only as it regarded his soul; but that his lifeless corpse might still be lying exposed in the wilderness. Perhaps they thought of the death of Moses, who, in the same region, on the top of Pisgah, was taken away in a mysterious, distinguished, and blissful manner, but whose body was secretly buried by the Lord. But whatever were their thoughts, their intention manifested that ardent love which could hardly believe he was really gone. It is also evident, from the urgency of their request, that they regarded the loss of their master as irreparable, and with all the high esteem they cherished for his successor, were far from believing that he could fill up the enormous breach.
It would have been easy for Elisha, by whom such thoughts and feelings of theirs could not well be unperceived, to have taught them something different. He could have said to them, "I come to you with messages and information, such as you have never heard from the lips of Elijah. I have facts to relate to you concerning the love of God to man, which have been hitherto unknown to the world at large, and will fill you with adoring wonder." But Elisha does not appear at this time to have taken a single step towards securing to himself such estimation. He was above those little sensibilities, which cause the slightest appearance of disrespect to affect us like the sting
of a scorpion! Doubtless, it was with sincere satisfaction that he witnessed the love and veneration with which the sons of the prophets adhered to their departed father; and was not vain enough to prefer his own honour in their esteem, to the wisdom which dictated his silence, for the present, as to what he had witnessed beyond Jordan, and which suggested a more convenient season for his strange and delightful communications.
Though we cannot fully explain why Elisha withheld from the sons of the prophets the account of Elijah's miraculous ascension, we cannot doubt that he had the wisest and best reasons for so doing. As a prudent steward of God's mysteries, he appears to have considered the capacities and wants of those whom he had to deal with, and to have reserved such matters for their proper occasion. Hence, though the sons of the prophets were increasingly urgent to obtain his consent to the sending out of fifty brethren in search of their departed master; all this did not induce him to disclose the secret. Their urgency was at length so great, that he was ashamed at their importunity, that is, he was embarrassed, and at a loss what to say to them. But he preferred yielding to their ill-advised purpose, and letting them go, rather than betray his precious secret before the time. It could at any rate do them no harm to convince themselves that neither their master nor his mortal remains were to be found any longer upon earth. By this means they would be the more disposed afterwards to credit the intelligence of his corporeal ascension. So they went forth and searched for three days together through the wilderness country. But their journey proved a fruitless toil, and they returned to Jericho, downcast and weary. The only benefit they obtained by their laborious search was the gentle but salutary reproof of their master, "Did I not say unto you, Go not?" "Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser," Prov. ix. 9.
Sometimes we see it necessary to comply with the foolish wishes of wayward but beloved children, that they may learn, perhaps, by painful experience. And this is even exemplified, to our sorrow, in spiritual as well as in temporal matters. Thus, how difficult is it to persuade some, that the righteousness which avails in the sight of God is quite near them—that Jesus Christ is nigh unto them, with all his righteousness to bestow on them, if they will only give themselves up entirely to him. They will still forget and undervalue him, and think well of themselves, and thus virtually seek justification before God in their own persons, instead of seeking it heartily in Christ. What then remains for us at last, but to say, "Well, then, go to your own
broken cisterns!" They may thus, for a while, torment themselves with the righteousness of the law, which only worketh wrath; and thus may learn by experience that they have chosen a path of peril, bankruptcy, and ruin-where there is no life, no progress, to reward their pains. They may then return to us with a trembling conscience, and welcome the confounding inquiry, "Did we not say unto you, Go not?" and thus Christ may become precious to them, and the gospel glad tidings indeed!
II. It is evident from the portion of the sacred history we have just been considering, that Elisha did not yet consider the sons of the prophets sufficiently prepared to receive the glorious message, which he had to deliver. Though they were children of God, and had already partaken of the gifts of Divine grace, yet their master evidently looked upon them as standing in need of further spiritual education and improvement. We are reminded by this circumstance to say a few words on a subject, of which many christians seem to entertain very limited views, I mean "the growth of the children of God," of which the Scriptures speak so repeatedly, their increase IN THE GRACE AND KNOWLEDGE OF OUR LORD AND SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST. I know of no passage of Scripture, in which the spiritual life of a true christian is more fully and accurately described, than the words of the great apostle of the gentiles (Phil. iii. 12-14): "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended; but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." This is the way in which the true christian will think of himself: "Not as though I had already attained;" consequently, he will, with the apostle, follow after an increasing conformity to Christ; and he will never forget that this is the object for which he has been apprehended by Christ Jesus. Let us notice a little more closely these characteristic marks of genuine christian faith.
Wherever there is life, real spiritual life, there is also progress in that life, from one state of knowledge and improvement to another. A plant, which makes no shoots or growth, is dead or sickly. Even the tree that has reached its full height, does not remain as it is, but constantly renews and varies its outward
appearance. Thus it is in the kingdom of nature; and so it is also
in the kingdom of grace. "Be ye therefore renewed in the spirit of your minds," is the language of Scripture; and the fact in real christians corresponds to it; for they can say, "Though our outward man perish, yet our inward man is renewed day by day."
"Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect." Listen to these words, brethren! Whose are they? One would think they were the words of one who was but a beginner in the kingdom of grace, or who perhaps had not yet even entered the strait gate. But no, brethren; they are the words of one, who had arrived at a height of spiritual stature, such as probably none among us has attained. Remember that this is the language of one who could also say, “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me," Gal. ii. 20; who could also say, "Who shall separate me from the love of Christ?" Rom. viii. 35; who could say, "Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample," Phil. iii. 17. Here then is one who, at the very time that he was, with respect to the church militant, one of the brightest stars in Christ's right hand, freely and openly confesses that he had not already attained; and even repeats it with greater emphasis again, "Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended." It is true, he is not speaking of what he is in point of justification before God, through faith in the righteousness of " Christ; for he plainly teaches that the righteousness of Christ, laid hold of by faith, fully justifies us; and hence he could say, 'Being justified by faith, we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ;" "It is God that justifieth: who is he that condemneth?" And in another place, "Christ by his one offering hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified." the apostle, in the passages we have been noticing, is expressing his desire to see the life of his faith in Christ continually more and more manifested in the improved state of his heart and life. To appear, therefore, self-complacent and self-satisfied with our attainments, betrays ignorance of Christ, and want of faith.
But, alas! how many are there amongst us who appear to suppose that they have "already attained.” Let us take as an instance, spiritual knowledge. There are many who are well acquainted with the fundamental doctrines of the gospel, and are perhaps able to defend them by argument, and have their memories stored with no small number of texts of Scripture, and pious psalms and hymns. We converse with such persons, and are glad to see them thus furnished. But a year afterwards we converse with them again, and find them just the same.