An Overlooked Hero
We all have our superheroes that shape us, whether real or imaginary. Even as adults, we look to figures holding larger-than-life personas, generally on the sports field, movie screen, or church platform. My husband has a short list of superheroes: his father and Roger Staubach. For me, my heroes were all behind a church podium. As a teenager, I remember reading stories of revival by Jonathan Edwards late into the night with a flashlight. Those stories gave me a sense of hope and spurred me on to know more about the God of the Bible.
First-century Jewish messianism found superheroes in prophets, notably Elijah, the prophet who never died. A symbol of hope and redemption in Judaism over the centuries, Elijah’s return is prophesied to mark the messiah’s earthly arrival. No wonder he held such a superhero status.
In Luke’s gospel, Elijah and Moses were present at what the gospels call “the Transfiguration,” the event in which Jesus’ appearance was so glorified and transformed that it frightened onlooking Peter, James, and John. All three synoptic gospels portray this event as a powerful demonstration of the divine nature of Jesus and the manifestation of His glory. Of course they were scared! Just as the baptism of Jesus marked the beginning of his public life, the Transfiguration celebrated its capstone. And Elijah was front and center.
Peter would later write, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18)”
In Matthew and Mark’s gospel, just after the Transfiguration, the disciples ask Jesus about the prophecy given in Malachi 4:4-6: “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first (Mark 9 and Matthew 17)?” Jesus explains to them that Elijah has indeed come, and he has come in the person of John the Baptist, fulfilling that prophecy.
Elijah is a big deal, even in the New Testament but what about Elisha, the successor of Elijah? Was Elisha an enigmatic character, a prophet whose only claim to fame was based on his association with the great Elijah?
First, let’s look at Elijah’s life through the book of Kings. The book of 1 Kings provides an account of the death of David, the rise and fall of his son, Solomon, and the decline and division of the Kingdom of Israel. We see Israel’s kings fall further into idol worship until finally, King Ahab initiates state-sanctioned idol worship, specifically to the god Baal. Here’s where Elijah enters. We’ve all heard these stories about Elijah confronting King Ahab and challenging his god, Baal, to a duel. With Elijah, we have a powerful picture of who God is—sovereign over all, even an idol as powerful as Baal. A paraphrase of Elijah’s message to Israel would be something like, “Hey, this Baal god isn’t needed or necessary! You have a true God that hears you and can move in the natural world around you! Ask Him for help!”
Through Elijah, God displayed His true power over His creation, His kings, and His world. We even see this paralleled in the name of Elijah, which means “Jehovah is my God.” Even through Elijah’s name, God is displaying His ultimate sovereignty.
As the story continues in 2 Kings, we see Elijah taken up into heaven in a miraculous whirlwind and the mantle of his ministry landing squarely on the shoulders of his protege, Elisha. In contrast to the ministry of Elijah, with Elisha, we get a window into what this all-powerful and sovereign God cares about and why it matters.
Elisha as a Window Into God’s Heart
Throughout 2 Kings, we find Elisha performing many miracles, like multiplying oil vessels to save a widow from debt, rescuing friends from a poisonous soup, multiplying food that feeds hundreds, and even healing a gentile! Does this sound familiar? Elisha tends to mirror the ministry of Jesus. If we know that God is, in fact, God over all, do we also know that His heart is to save and rescue His people? It is no wonder Elisha’s name means “God saves.”
There’s one story of Elisha that I’d like to note because it really mattered to Jesus. In 2 Kings 4, Elisha absconds to the restful town of Shunem and one Shunammite home in particular. Shunem, located in the valley below Mount Moreh, was just off the International Coastal Highway—a major trade route stretching from Egypt to Damascus. It was an important road, and Elisha traveled it frequently. He visited Shunem so often that, on this trip, a wealthy Shunammite couple surprised him with a room they had built on the roof of their home, especially for his visits. This gesture was such a beautiful display of faith and hospitality.
Elisha, wanting to repay the childless couple for their kindness, prophesied that they would have a son the following year. They did have that son. However, a few years later, the child became sick and died. I imagine most of us can sympathize with the heartbreak this mother must have felt. She was gifted a child by God, only to have him quickly taken away.
However, the Shunammite woman, showing incredible faith yet again, traveled and pursued Elisha. She would not leave him until he traveled back and raised her son from the dead, which he did, restoring her heart, family, and future. Given the travel time necessary, the boy must have been dead for at least 24 hours. What an unimaginable miracle, one of only three raisings of the dead in the Old Testament!
Fast forward 800 years. Jesus visits the city of Nain, which is the New Testament city of Shunem. It is the very same city where Elisha had been, and there’s no doubt the people still remember this story of Elisha raising this Shunammite woman’s son from the dead.
As Jesus entered the city, it so happened that he walked right into a funeral procession where a dead young man was being carried out of the city for burial. Just like the story of Elisha, this young man is the son of a childless mother. Luke’s gospel tells us that Jesus, having compassion, healed her son and handed him back to her.
Coincidence? Jesus, coming from Capernaum, would have set out on this journey well before this funeral began as it’s a difficult road to walk—30 miles uphill—just to visit this town in the middle of nowhere. He arrived at just the right moment to meet a woman devoid of hope, facing financial and relational ruin. Can you imagine the scene as the large funeral procession of tear-stained mourners come face to face with the Rescuer himself? Luke 7:13 says, “When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” Luke uses the phrase “heart went out” in a few other places in his gospel to describe the compassion of the Samaritan (10:33) and in describing a father’s response to his returning prodigal son (15:20).
In his book, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers, Dane Ortlund says, “The gospel offers us not only legal exoneration – inviolably precious truth! – it also sweeps us into Christ’s very heart.”
So often as Christians we struggle to embrace God’s unlimited love for his people, as Elisha and Jesus teach us in this story and others. However, if we put ourselves in this painful albeit glorious moment with Jesus and this woman who has lost everything and allow our hearts to experience Jesus as rescuer and restorer of our own brokenness, how could this transform our hearts, our lives? How could this change how we see people around us?
It is not a coincidence that this miracle of Jesus is so similar to Elisha’s, happening so near the Old Testament town of Shunem. The gospel of Luke tells us that after Jesus healed this young man, the people praised God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” Jerusalem Perspective explains that the onlookers interpreted this event as the fulfillment of God’s promise to “raise up a prophet like [Moses]. (Deuteronomy 18:15)” God was keeping his promise to his people!
Jesus isn’t just repeating Elisha’s or Elijah’s miracles or ministry—his message is so much more. Only after this Son is raised from the dead, will the onlookers begin to understand the greatest message of Jesus; He’s there to rescue them.