KEY THOT: Elisha “set out to follow Elijah” and so became his attendant or disciple. A disciple in the NT (mathetes) is literally a “learner”. However, unlike modern learner, the “student” in the OT and NT literally follows his teacher wherever he goes. Learning is not just classroom instruction but adhering to his teacher to learn from his words and his deeds: it is an impartation of life and lifestyle. And the ultimate goal of the disciple (as in Elisha’s case) is to be Elijah’s successor. The real test of our discipleship strategy is not ministry success but ministry successors. Before Elijah was called out of his ministry into heaven, he had a responsibility to find a successor: “anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet” (v.16).
When Jesus called his twelve disciples to follow him, his goal was to mentor them to succeed him when he was no longer on earth. That was one of his major objectives in his earthly mission, beside dying on the cross as a sin-substitute for mankind. But not everyone qualifies as a successor. Jesus called many to follow him, but not many do. And many left him half-way: "From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him" (John 6:66).
We read in today’s text that Elijah anointed Elisha to be his successor. Scripture tells us that Elisha immediately asked to return home to bid farewell to his parents. And he did something at home that demonstrated his commitment: “He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate” (v.21). He slaughtered his oxen and burned the tools of his trade—there was no turning back to farming. He knew that following Elijah would require total commitment.
When we mentor other believers with the aim to make them our successors whether as mentor or ministry leader, we have to be selective. When Elisha said he wanted to go back home, Elijah’s reply to Elisha was this: “Go back. What have I done to you?” It was like a test-question: would Elisha come back after he had time to reflect on his call? Right succession depends on right selection. Many times Jesus raised the costs of following him to test the person’s commitment. The rich young ruler who wanted to follow Jesus was told to “sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). Sadly, this young man was not ready and left: “At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth" (Mark 10:22).
When selecting potential mentees to be our successors, we have to test their motivation and commitment. The qualification suggested by the Navigators for potential successors is summarized in the acronym “FAT”: they must be F-Faithful, A-Available and T-Teachable. In the case of Elisha, he passed the test: he was faithful—he responded immediately. He was available—he burned all bridges so that he had no excuse for not following; and he was teachable—he followed Elijah closely to learn how his teacher perform his miracles.
Mentoring in Scripture is more than just engaging in spiritual conversations. The goal of mentoring is raising up successors who can replace us. But we have to be selective over whom we are going to invest our lives in: otherwise our time, energy and money would be wasted on end-users rather than successors. The test of our mentoring is not our success in completing the programme but successors—disciples who can also mentor others.
Ultimately, the goal of all ministry (pastoral and lay) is not programming success but successors. Ministry is about people, not programs.
Father, help us make it our life goal to always mentor others with the aim that they would succeed us in our ministry. Amen.