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Elisha and the Floating Axehead

This morning I want to continue on our theme of incredible stories! One of my favourite characters from the Old Testament is Elisha – and He certainly has his fair share of incredible stories! God did more miracles through Elisha than any other character in the Bible other than Jesus himself – so there are a lot of fantastic stories to choose from.

Over the years I’ve preached on several of Elisha’s miracles – in fact, I did a series back in 2016 called “The Exploits of Elisha” – some of you might remember. But there are still a few unique stories from Elisha’s life that I’ve never preached on and I’d like to share two of those with you over the next couple weeks.

Now before we get into the story itself, we should probably take some time to figure out where exactly we are in the larger story of the Bible and see how this particular story fits in everything else.

So first of all, who exactly is Elisha? Well, Elisha was a farmer turned prophet…. Not a farmer who turned a profit (there’s not many of those) – but a farmer who became a prophet.

Now for those who might not be familiar with the term ‘prophet’ – a prophet by most simple definitions is someone who proclaims the Word of the Lord.

In the Old Testament times, most of the Bible had not yet be written, and so when God wanted to communicate with people, He would use prophets. These prophets would receive a revelation  of some sort from the Lord through the Holy Spirit – and then they would proclaim these things to their intended audience. 1 Peter 1:20 tells us…

20 Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, 21 or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God.

2 Peter 1:20-21

So Elisha was a farmer that God choose to be his prophet to speak for him to the kings and the people of Israel.

When we first read about Elisha, he is out in his field, plowing with a team of oxen. He’s apparently getting his fields ready for seeding when Elijah (not to be confused with Elisha) meets Elisha out in his field. Now Elijah was the current prophet of God at that time – he had just finished his big confrontation with King Ahab on Mount Carmel – if you remember that story. 

You see, King Ahab had led the Israelites to worship the false god, Baal, and so on Mount Carmel, they had contest to see which God was the true God. The prophets of Baal would pray to Baal and Elijah would pray to God – and they would see which god answered. And of course, Baal did nothing and God answered by sending fire from heaven! It wasn’t much of a contest! You can read about that in 1 Kings chapter 18.

So Elijah had been a very significant and influential prophet during his lifetime as He proclaimed the Word of the Lord to the kings and the people of Israel.

But now, God had just informed him that Elisha was to become his replacement. And so Elijah goes to meet Elisha as he’s out working on his farm. And to make a long story short, Elisha slaughters his oxen, sacrifices them on a fire build with the wood from his plow, leaves his family, and goes to become Elijah’s apprentice.

After some time of working with and learning from Elijah, there came a day when Elisha watched as God took Elijah to heaven in a whirlwind – leaving Elisha to take on the role of God’s prophet to Israel. This happens in 2 Kings chapter 2.

Over the next several chapters, we read several stories from the life of Elisha that clearly illustrate that God had truly chosen him as Elijah’s replacement. Just how God answered with fire when Elijah prayed, we see God answering the prayers of Elisha in some equally dramatic ways! We even see one story where Elisha prays and God raises a young boy who had died back to life!

And so the story that we are going to look at today is in this collection of stories – intended to illustrate how the Spirit of God that once worked through Elijah is now working through Elisha.

And of course, this particular story is not the most dramatic story in the collection. It’s actually just seven verses that revolve around some pretty mundane activities. But like all Scriptures, there is a multitude of things that we can learn – lessons we can take away and apply to our own lives.

So let’s have a look! This story is found in 2 Kings chapter 6 – starting at verse 1. And since it’s so short, I think I’ll just read through the whole thing, and then we’ll go back and work our way through bit by bit. It goes like this:

One day the group of prophets came to Elisha and told him, “As you can see, this place where we meet with you is too small. 2 Let’s go down to the Jordan River, where there are plenty of logs. There we can build a new place for us to meet.”

“All right,” he told them, “go ahead.”

3 “Please come with us,” someone suggested.

“I will,” he said. 4 So he went with them.

When they arrived at the Jordan, they began cutting down trees. 5 But as one of them was cutting a tree, his ax head fell into the river. “Oh, sir!” he cried. “It was a borrowed ax!”

6 “Where did it fall?” the man of God asked. When he showed him the place, Elisha cut a stick and threw it into the water at that spot. Then the ax head floated to the surface. 7 “Grab it,” Elisha said. And the man reached out and grabbed it.

2 Kings 6:1-7

And there is. Like I said, it’s not very long, not very dramatic, but it’s still a pretty cool story where God bends the laws of nature to make the iron axehead float to the surface of the water so that it can be retrieved.

So let’s look at this in a little more depth to see what we can learn! Let’s look again at the setup to this whole story.

One day the group of prophets came to Elisha and told him, “As you can see, this place where we meet with you is too small. 2 Let’s go down to the Jordan River, where there are plenty of logs. There we can build a new place for us to meet.”

2 Kings 6:1-2

First of all, I want you to note the characters involved in this story. There is Elisha, of course, but then there is this group of other prophets. And you’ll notice that it’s not just “a” group of prophets – it’s “the” group of prophets. This is a very particular group of prophets. So who were these guys?

The ESV translation calls them “the sons of the prophets.” In fact, let me show you how the ESV translates that first verse. 

Now the sons of the prophets said to Elisha, “See, the place where we dwell under your charge is too small for us. 2 Let us go to the Jordan and each of us get there a log, and let us make a place for us to dwell there.” 2 Kings 6:1-2 ESV

It would appear that these ‘sons of the prophets’ were somehow under Elisha’s authority. Verse one talks about how the “place where we dwell under your charge” is too small. There’s a sense that Elisha has some authority over these guys. He has a charge over them.

The ESV also conveys the idea that this meeting place wasn’t just like a church or a synagogue – where everyone would gather each week for a few hours for worship… But it seems that perhaps they were even living together – since it talks about ‘the place where we dwell is too small.’

It would almost seem like this was Old Testament version of our modern-day Bible college – A group of young people, living together to learn and grow under the instruction and teachings of more those more wise and mature in their faith.

I think that’s what’s going on here. Elisha is meeting with young men – It would seem he’s spending a significant amount of time with them if they have a special building for that purpose – and they are learning to become like him – they are sons of the prophets. Perhaps not literally ‘sons’, but apprentices or disciples, learning to proclaim the Word of the Lord.

And you know, that kind of apprenticeship is so important! As I think about my own children growing up – Allison is only three years away from finishing high school – I’d love to see my kids spend at least some time in that kind of Christian apprenticeship like what they would receive at a Bible college. Training for their careers is great – but training for life in the Kingdom of God is invaluable! Their careers may last 20-30-40 years, but their relationship with God will last eternity! I think a few years at Bible college is time well invested!

A lot of people think that Bible college is just for those who want to be pastors or missionaries or in some kind of full-time ministry — but that’s not the case! I think every Christian would be wise to invest some time in that kind of focused discipleship program! The Bible is clear that Satan will do whatever he can to get us off track – to make us stumble and fall – to keep us from following Jesus and living for Him. Our kids will spend their lives being bombarded with lies – lies so clever they sound like the truth.

It’s so important that we give them every possible advantage so they can stand firm in their faith. 2 Peter 3:17 says…

So be on guard; then you will not be carried away by the errors of these wicked people and lose your own secure footing. 18 Rather, you must grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 3:17b-18a

And of course, I’m not saying that Bible school is the only way to do that – we need to continue to grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord throughout our lives and there are many ways that we can do that – but I think Bible school can be a great way to help our kids get that secure footing as they start out in life.

But I digress! I’m pretty sure this story wasn’t included in the Bible to convince us to go to Bible school! But it certainly seem like that’s the kind of setting that we see here in this passage.

And as it happens, the place where they were meeting with Elisha had become too small It seems attendance was up and as their numbers grew, their building seemed to shrink. 

We had a similar experience when our church was still meeting in the old railway station building. As many of you remember, we had converted the 1100 sq ft. hair salon into our multi-purpose church building and through the province of God, it didn’t take too long to outgrow the space.

Thankfully, God also provided us with the opportunity to move into the hall a little bit later – but for these sons of the prophet’s there was no other empty building to move into.

Therefore, they began a building project. They said to Elisha in verse 2:

Let’s go down to the Jordan River, where there are plenty of logs. There we can build a new place for us to meet.”

“All right,” he told them, “go ahead.”

3 “Please come with us,” someone suggested.

“I will,” he said. 4 So he went with them.

2 Kings 6:2-4a

And I’ll just pause here briefly to mention one thing. I think it’s pretty notable that Elisha wasn’t just their teacher. He didn’t just show up each day for class, give his lecture, and then head on home. But rather, it seems that Elisha was actively involved in their lives! When they decided to go build a new building, they wanted Elisha to come along – and Elisha wanted to go with them!

Much like Jesus and his 12 disciples, it seems they lived life together. They learned together, they worked together, they ate together, they laughed together! They just did things together!

And I think that’s such an important model for our own discipleship efforts. Making disciples doesn’t just happen in a sunday-school room (or a Bible college classroom for that matter). It doesn’t just happen on a Sunday morning. It doesn’t just happen during Bible study.

Discipleship happens when you’re making lunch with your kids. Discipleship happens when you’re playing baseball or hockey with group of other people. Discipleship happens when you’re sitting around the campfire talking about million different things!

So much of the Christian life is caught – not taught. Now certainly, studying the Bible and those structured teaching times like Sunday school or the Sunday sermon or Bible college classes are all super important – and I don’t want to down-play those… But there is a big difference between just reading ‘love is patient – love is kind’ for example, and being in the room with someone as they actively illustrate a love that is patience and kind as they deal with their rebellious teenager! So much of the Christian life is caught – not just taught.

We see this sort of thing being played out in the early church – in Acts chapter 2, verse 44, it says:

42 All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.

43 A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. 44 And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. 45 They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. 46 They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity— 47 all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.

Acts 2:42-47

You see, not only did they devote themselves to the Apostles teaching – but also to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s supper) and to prayer. And as you read through that passage, you see their they were doing everything together! God’s Word was being taught – and its principles were being caught.

I think that’s maybe why so many of us have been so impacted by working out at camp, for example. Not only are the principles of Scripture clearly taught – but in the camp setting, they can also be caught as we work and play and just live life with other maturing Christians! We can see and experience those principles in action!

And that’s one thing that we try to do in our church as well. Of course, COVID has recently complicated things, but I love that our church family enjoys just living life together. I love hearing about families getting together for BBQs and bike rides. I love seeing a bunch of guys helping each other build garages or decks. I love that we often get together to play board games and just have fun together. Cause that’s all part of making disciples! 

We teach the principles on Sunday, and then we try to illustrate them on Monday.

Last week I was part of a tele-conference with about 1000 other church leaders in Alberta in a conversation with the Premier and Dr. Hinshaw talking about religious gatherings. And one of the interesting things I heard was that church gatherings are considered to be a higher risk for spreading COVID than even restaurants because we are so social! We all shake hands or hug each other, we eat together, we sing together…. very few other gatherings of people involve so much interaction with one another!

And I think that’s a good thing – not for the spread of COVID, mind you….. But I think that sense of doing life together is a key part in making disciples!

So I sure want to encourage you to continue doing that. Of course, I want to respect the COVID guidelines in place for keeping everyone safe – but within those guidelines, do what you can to continue living life together. Learn from each other and encourage one another. Disciple one another.

But I digress once again! Who knew 7 verses would be such a long story! Continuing on in verse 4…

When they arrived at the Jordan, they began cutting down trees. 5 But as one of them was cutting a tree, his ax head fell into the river. “Oh, sir!” he cried. “It was a borrowed ax!”

2 Kings 6:4b-5

Now for us today, if we were to borrow an ax from our neighbour and accidentally lose it – we’d feel bad, but it wouldn’t be a huge deal. We’d probably feel a bit embarrassed to admit what we did and it would cost us maybe $70 for a good, new ax… It would be inconvenient for sure, but not a huge deal.

But for this guy, this was a big deal. You have to realize that this was no trivial loss! Iron tools were not nearly as common or accessible back then as they are today and so losing your axehead would be a significant loss! And to make things worse, this ax didn’t even belong to this fellow – he had borrowed it!

So to put this in a modern perspective – so we can really feel for this guy… instead of thinking of losing your friend’s ax, think of borrowing and then totalling your friend’s truck – of course, with no insurance coverage!

You’ve got to imagine this verse saying “As the hood of the truck disappeared beneath the waters, the man cried out, “Oh sir, it was a borrowed truck!” That’s the sense here – this guy was in deep trouble. 

And if he was like most Bible school students, he most likely had no money to pay for such an expensive item – that’s why it was borrowed in the first place!

Now we don’t know who he had borrowed it from – or how that person might react to such a loss… But we do know that in those days, if you had a debt that you couldn’t pay, you could be sold into slavery or thrown into prison until your debt was paid.

Jesus actually tells a parable of this exact thing happening. To illustrate the importance of forgiving one another, Jesus tells the story of a man who owed a great debt to the king. The man couldn’t pay so the king ordered that the man, his whole family, and everything he owned be sold to pay the debt.

Of course, the man begs for patience and promises to pay it all and the King has mercy and forgives the debt. But then, that man who was just forgiven goes and find another fellow who owns him just a small debt – perhaps just the cost of an axehead! And this is what happens…. in Matthew 18:28…

28 “But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.

29 “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30 But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.

31 “When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. 32 Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.

Matthew 18:28-34

And of course, Jesus makes a very pointed point about truly forgiving one another as Christ has forgiven us – but I’m not sure this ‘son of the prophets’ in our story could have expected any such forgiveness for this debt of losing this axehead.

None the less, though he may not have expected any mercy from the lender of the ax, he was about to experience the mercy and the compassion of God. Verse 6.

6 “Where did it fall?” the man of God asked. When he showed him the place, Elisha cut a stick and threw it into the water at that spot. Then the ax head floated to the surface. 7 “Grab it,” Elisha said. And the man reached out and grabbed it.

2 Kings 6:6-7

Elisha’s compassion for this young man moved him to act, and God’s compassion for this young man moved him respond. God altered the laws of nature for a moment and so caused the iron axehead to float to the surface of the water so that it could be retrieved. Not only did this affirm once again that God was present and working through Elisha, but it also illustrates for us some of the character of God.

This miracle may not be the most dramatic miracle in the Bible – no was cured from leprosy or raised from the dead – but just like those more dramatic miracles, this relatively small miracle shows us once again the care and compassion of God.

Our God is not a far away, distant God – a God removed from our day-to-day struggles and trials. But our God is a very present God – a God who is concerned about even the smallest details of our lives.

I’m reminded of Matthew 10:29 where Jesus says…

29 What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. 30 And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.

Matthew 10:29-31

In other words, God know and cares about everything that’s going on in your life. If God can be bothered to number the hairs on your head – he’s most certainly concerned when your borrowed axehead falls into the river!

God knows and he cares about what’s going on in your life. 

He knows and he cares when you’re lonely or discouraged.

He knows and he cares when you’re stressed out and life is falling apart!

God knows and He cares when you’re sick, when loved ones die, when finances are tight, or when we go through any trials of life!

God knows and he cares. He’s the God of compassion and mercy.

In fact, it was God’s compassion and mercy that led him to die on a cross in your place. He cared so much about you that He was willing to die to take away all your pain, all your suffering, all your hurts. That’s his promise for those who put their faith in Him.

I love Revelation 21:3-4 which says…

3 I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

Revelation 21:3-4

That’s why Jesus died for us – so that we can have no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. That how much He cares for us.

I know there are times when God seems far away. I know you may not always feel like God is near or that God even cares. But I assure you, God does care. 

If God cares about the sparrows – if God cares about an axehead falling in the river – I assure you, God cares about you.

As I was writing this, I thought about the old hymn – His Eye Is on the Sparrow. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard it before, but I remember my folks singing that song in church and I wondered if I might be able to find it on youtube. Well, as it happens, that song seems to resonate with a lot of people because I found versions of it by Casting Crowns, the Newsboys, Micheal W. Smith, Mercy Me, Sandi Patty, a whole variety of other artist that I had never heard of before. 

So to close today, I’ll like to play that song for you just as that reminder that if God’s eye is on the little insignificant sparrow, we can know that God is watching over us.

Let me pray and that we’ll close with that song.

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