Relics and Elisha’s Bones (1)
One of our readers sent the following interesting question: “If God forbids us to have relics or to venerate the dead, why was the soldier resurrected from the dead after touching Elisha’s bones in II Kings 13:20-21?”
Relics are things, even body parts such as pieces of bone or teeth, that are connected with Jesus and His life or with Jesus’ family members, the apostles, martyrs or others who are deemed saints by Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Buddhism, Islam or other religions. They are supposed to have some spiritual value, miraculous or otherwise, and for that reason are often worshipped. In Roman Catholicism, veneration is supposedly a lesser form of worship offered to these relics, of which there are thousands.
Such things have no spiritual value at all. We see this in the example of Hezekiah who “brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan [i.e., a piece of brass]” (II Kings 18:4). One can understand why the Jews had a high regard for the brasen serpent, for it was an object from their wilderness wanderings in the days of Moses, the great lawgiver. Nevertheless, Hezekiah was right in calling it a piece of brass and destroying it, so that they could not worship it.
A piece of brass or a bone is only that, no matter to whom it belonged. A hank of hair or a fragment of wood, even if it came from the “true cross,” is hair or wood and has no spiritual value. Paul makes that point in a negative way about meat sacrificed to idols (e.g., I Cor. 8; 10:23-33). No matter where it was bought or whether it was the carcass of an animal offered to some heathen god, it was only meat. The spiritual danger, Paul says, is (1) in the conscience of the person who cannot eat it without thinking of his former idolatry or (2) in the conduct of the person who is not careful to avoid offending the weaker brother. Meat is only meat with no power to save or destroy spiritually.
God forbids having relics for the purpose of worship, as the first and second commandments teach us. God alone must be worshiped and He “neither can nor may be represented by any means. But as to creatures, though they may be represented, yet God forbids to make or have any resemblance of them either in order to worship them or to serve God by them” (Heidelberg Catechism, A. 97).
Nor may we worship men or angels, not even their bones or feathers (the Spanish palace, El Escorial, claims to have a feather from the archangel Gabriel, part of its collection of over 7,000 relics). John was forbidden to worship the angel who spoke with him: “I fell down to worship before the feet of the angel which shewed me these things. Then saith he unto me, See thou do it not: for I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets, and of them which keep the sayings of this book: worship God” (Rev. 22:8-9). Worthy of note in this passage is the word used for “worship,” a word much the same as the word “venerate.” Only God may be venerated.
As an aside, I am appalled when I go in the local Christian bookstores by the things I see, not much different in themselves or in their use from the relics of apostate Christianity or heathenism. I see WWJD bracelets, pocket tokens, religious jewellery of various kinds that is supposed to have some spiritual significance or be of some spiritual help, bottled Jordan River water, anointing oil, pictures that are a violation of the second commandment, items of clothing with a religious message, etc. Not all of this is per se wrong but, where it becomes a “help” to one’s spirituality, an object of trust or a substitute for real spirituality, it is not much different from the veneration of relics.
II Kings 13:20-21 states, “Elisha died, and they buried him. And the bands of the Moabites invaded the land at the coming in of the year. And it came to pass, as they were burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band of men; and they cast the man into the sepulchre of Elisha: and when the man was let down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet.” The burial party was more shocked by the man’s resurrection than by the marauding Moabites!
Graves in Israel were caves, either natural or man-made, usually sealed with a stone, as was the tomb of Jesus. II Kings does not give us many details, but the burial party either opened Elisha’s cave tomb, in their haste to get rid of the body they were carrying, or for some reason his tomb was open, so that the body of the dead man, instead of being placed in his own tomb, was thrown into Elisha’s and was raised by Elisha’s bones.
That the miracle is no encouragement to superstition is clear in several ways. There is no evidence that Elisha’s bones, either before or after this event, were objects of worship, were used to serve God or were used for other miracles. Nor is there evidence that they were kept as relics. Elisha’s bones stayed in his tomb where they belonged. Nor is it likely that his bones became an object of worship since any contact with a dead body made an Israelite ceremonially unclean (Num. 19:11).
What happened is not much different from the woman who was healed by touching Jesus’ garment (Matt. 19:20-22), the blind man whom He cured with clay and water (John 9:6-7) or those who were healed by handkerchiefs brought from the apostle Paul (Acts 19:12). Some in our day sell handkerchiefs and other objects that have been “blessed” by charismatics, promising healing through them. Not only is this making merchandise of the gospel but it is utter nonsense. There is no power in these things.
The power to heal the woman with an issue of blood did not reside in Jesus’ garment but in Him, as He said, “I perceive that virtue is gone out of me” (Luke 8:46), nor was anyone else healed by touching His garment in the press of the multitude. Acts 19 tells us that these miracles were unusual and ascribes no power at all to the “handkerchiefs or aprons” (11): “God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul” (12). Likewise, the power of the cross lies not in a chunk of wood but in Him who died on the cross.
Those who trust in such things, like those who look for the ark of the covenant or Noah’s ark, make a fundamental mistake. Even if the ark of the covenant or Noah’s ark could be found, it would not change one unbelieving heart or strengthen the faith of a child of God one iota. Faith is a gift of God and rests in Jesus Christ through the Word of God. “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Act. 4:12)! Rev. Ron Hanko