Medical science defines physical death as the cessation of blood circulation and breathing, both of which are absolutely necessary to maintain life. Breathing and circulation work together to supply the cells of the body with life-sustaining oxygen. Without these two critical functions, human cells suffer damage and quickly begin to die. Despite this simple and straightforward definition, it is not always easy to determine if a person is actually dead. There are numerous examples of people who were declared dead, but were subsequently resuscitated.
The Bible defines physical death as the separation of one’s soul from their body. The body is animated and becomes a living-being only when united with the soul. Thus, a person’s physical life is dependent upon the presence of both both and soul. Even if the body itself stops breathing or the heart stops beating temporarily, it is still possible for a person to be revived naturally if the soul has not yet vacated. But once the soul has departed, it takes the supernatural work of God the bring a person back to life.
Whenever, the soul leaves the body it immediately goes to either Heaven or Hell where it remains for all of eternity. Only in the rarest of circumstances, and for reasons that transcend human understanding, does God choose to reunite a departed soul with its deceased body and bring a dead person back to life. Such an extraordinary act is a spectacular demonstration of God’s power. Resurrection from the dead is one of the most captivating of all miracles.
There are 10 specific passages in the Bible that document people who were literally raised from the dead. Over the next few weeks we will examine these stories in detail as we consider the topic of resurrection. In each case, we will see the almighty power of God on display and be reminded that He alone is the LORD. We will begin this week with 3 episodes from the Old Testament that involve the prophets Elijah and Elisha .
I. THE WIDOW OF ZAREPHATH’S SON - 1 Kings 17:17–24
During King Ahab’s reign over Israel, God called a prophet named Elijah. Seemingly out of nowhere, this strange and uncultured man rose to prominence. With great boldness Elijah confronted the wicked king and predicted that a severe drought would fall upon the nation. Just as he’d prophesied, the rain and dew ceased and the drought began. Elijah initially refuge at the brook Cherith, but after it dried up God sent him on to the city of Zarephath where he found lodging with a widow and her son. Elijah performed a miracle that provided the entire household with a continuous supply of flour and oil during the drought.
As time went by, the widow’s son became critically ill and he died. The widow was devastated, and she blamed Elijah for her child’s death. She accused him of bringing God’s judgment upon her for past sins. Rather than getting angry at her, Elijah instead took the body of the young boy from the main house to his room upstairs and laid it on his bed. Then he stretched himself upon the body three times and cried out to the LORD asking that the child might live again. Hearing Elijah’s prayer, God brought the son back to life. Elijah carried the risen child back downstairs and presented him to his mother.
When the widow saw her son was alive, she joyfully expressed assurance that Elijah was indeed a man of God. Her exclamation also revealed a certain assurance that his God - that is, Jehovah - was and is the LORD. This miracle squelched any doubts in this woman’s mind about the reality and power of Yahweh. This story is the first clear example of a physical resurrection recorded in Scripture.
II. THE SHUNAMMITE WOMAN’S SON - 2 Kings 4:18–37
Elisha the prophet frequently stopped in the town of Shunem during his travels. A prominent woman and her husband prepared a special place for him to stay on these occasions. God blessed her and allowed her to conceive and bear a son. He grew old enough to work with his father, but one day while he was out in the fields the boy developed a severe headache. The child was hastily taken to his mother, but she was unable to help him and the young man died.
Though Elisha was not present at the time, the grieving mother took her son’s body to the prophet’s room and laid him on the bed. Then she and one of her servants quickly set out to find Elisha. When she encountered him at Mt. Carmel, the woman pleaded with Elisha to come at once. Elisha sent his younger, faster assistant ahead of them with instructions for reviving the boy but ultimately the assistant was unable to do it. So when Elisha and the child’s mother finally arrived some time later, the boy was still dead.
At this point, Elisha entered the room alone and closed the door. There he prayed fervently to the LORD. The aged prophet laid himself upon the deceased child, got up and paced around the room for a few moments, and then laid himself on the child again. The boy suddenly coughed seven times and his eyes opened. Elisha called the young man’s mother who rushed up to the room and found her son alive and well. The grateful mother bowed before the prophet, but clearly it was God who raised the boy as a result of Elisha’s prayer.
This story again declares the amazing power of Jehovah God. In this incident, the boy must have been dead for a rather lengthy period of time. Though these particular details are not disclosed, the distance from Shunem to Mt. Carmel has been estimated at 20 miles. Traveling by foot or on a donkey, this journey would have taken at least a few hours to complete as she would have had to go there and back. Furthermore, the adjectives used in this story describe the body as having grown cold, presumably due to natural death several hours before. Only God could accomplish such a wonderful miracle as this!
III. THE HASTILY BURIED MAN - 2 Kings 13:20-21
Some time after the prophet Elisha died, a group of men went out burying another person’s body. Obviously, this person had been dead for quite a while since they were intending to bury him. Apparently they were in the same area where Elisha had been buried earlier. While they were in the process of preparing the new grave, a band of Moabite raiders approached them in the distance. Fearing an encounter with these marauders, they quickly tossed the man’s corpse into Elisha’s tomb instead of finishing the burial they’d began and then hurriedly fled the scene. When the unnamed man’s body came into contact with the bones of Elisha - ie, his physical remains - the man revived and stood to his feet.
This resurrection account is interesting in that no prophet was actively involved. Elisha was already dead when this miracle occurred. There is no other indication that any other deceased person was raised to life after touching Elisha’s bones. This is because the bones themselves were not responsible for the miracle, but rather the divine providence of God. By the working of His immeasurable might, this anonymous man was brought back to life. This event not only speaks to the godly character of Elisha, but also shows (at least in some small way) how the death of one man can bring life to another.
One of the recurring themes of Christianity is the belief in physical resurrection from the dead. Most famously, Christians profess that Jesus was executed, dead, buried, and 3 days later actually rose from the grave. With Easter only a few weeks away, you can be certain that we’ll be studying this remarkable event in more detail soon. In the meantime however, it is fascinating to know that there are several other less prominent examples in the Bible of people being miraculously raised from the dead.
God alone decides who lives and who dies. It is He who determines when natural life begins and when it ends. The LORD alone has the power to give physical life and to take it, and on rare occasions to give it back again. As such, resurrection is always an act of God because only He has the power to affect it. Human doctors may declare a person to be dead, but ultimately the LORD is responsible for either causing or allowing death to occur. But don’t fret… the same God who permits the physical death of people has the power to raise them up again!