Elisha's Baptism of Spirit & Water
Many people are probably familiar with the ascension of Elijah into heaven amidst chariots of fire in 2 Kings 2. His pupil Elisha witnessed this great event. During this event, he did not simply witness a miraculous event where his father (in the faith) escaped death, but he partook in a double baptism as well: Elisha was baptized by water and the spirit at this great event in history.
One of the most famous baptism texts in scripture is the crossing of the Red Sea. While Israel was called out of Egypt and told to follow Moses out of captivity toward the promised land, the congregation of Israel found themselves trapped between the Red Sea and the Egyptians who were pursuing them. Moses stretched out his staff, the sea parted, and the congregation passed through the waters. That day, Paul reminds us, the people were baptized at the Red Sea.
Here in 2 Kings, we have an event that would certainly bring to mind the other instances of water crossings in Israel’s history, namely the crossing of the people out of slavery in Egypt at the Red Sea, and also the crossing of the people into the promised land at the Jordan, the same river that Elijah and Elisha cross here. These events are not pictures of the ingenuity of man. There were no rafts or bridges built. This event is one where God acts. This is common of every baptism we see in scripture. Baptism is an act of God, and Elijah and Elisha are participants in such an event as they crossed the Jordan; they were baptized by water at this event.
Elijah appears to have deeply loved Elisha, the son who would follow him wherever he would go. As his last act on the earth, Elijah asked Elisha what he wanted, and the request was to receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Elijah seems to yield to God here. If Elisha sees him ascend into heaven, Elisha shall receive what he asked for. This gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit who came upon Elijah in his prophetic office, was not Elijah’s gift to give; this gift was God’s gift to give. Elisha was a witness to the ascension, and so what follows of Elisha’s ministry is a double portion of what his father Elijah had done in his ministry.
The bestowal of the Spirit on Elisha is accompanied by a few interesting elements: a flaming chariot, and a whirlwind. The Holy Spirit is pictured as wind-breath at multiple places in scripture. Certainly, the Spirit that was hovering over the waters at creation is the same Spirit that was breathed into Adam. The life-giving Spirit at creation is also linked to the new-life-giving Spirit by Christ. He tells Nicodemus that the Spirit who brings new birth is like the wind that blows where it wishes. The chariot of fire that came from and ascended with Elijah into heaven are also pointing us to the Spirit. We saw the Spirit of God lead the people through the wilderness with a pillar of fire, and most clearly at Pentecost we saw the Spirit descend from heaven and baptize the disciples with tongues of fire.
When Elisha asked for the Spirit of Elijah, he was asking for a gift that only God can grant: the Holy Spirit. In other portions of scripture the Spirit is linked to both wind and to fire, and so it is not insignificant that these are the things that Elisha is a witness to. When Elijah says that if Elisha sees him taken from the earth, Elisha’s request will be granted, we are left concluding nothing but the fact that Elisha indeed received the gift of the Spirit; he was baptized by the Spirit.
The scriptures teach us that baptism saves, and in that light, we can understand this passage better. What we see here is a picture of both new birth and blessing. Simply put, what we see here in 2 Kings 2 is Elisha’s baptism, a baptism of water and Spirit. As Jesus Christ was baptized in the Jordan and was met by the Spirit descending from Heaven like a dove, Elisha was baptized in the Jordan and was met by the Spirit descending from Heaven in fire and wind.