READ : 2 Kings 5:1-14
One of the most famous of all the Elisha stories offers us a parable of what we need to do in order to be saved. It isn’t hard; the question is, are we humble enough to do what’s required?
One sabbath day Jesus came back to his home town of Nazareth, went to the synagogue, and preached a sermon in which he said that the day of God’s salvation had arrived, and that it coincided with his own coming into the world! Jesus knew that would be hard for his listeners to swallow, “Isn’t this Joseph, the carpenter’s son?” they began asking themselves. In other words, “Who does Jesus think he is to come across so high and mighty to us! We know him.” Jesus then remarked that no prophet is acceptable in his own country. But if God’s own people choose to reject him, he will take his grace to foreigners. “There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha,” Jesus said, “and none of them was cleansed but only Naaman the Syrian.”
Jesus’ reference was to a well-known story told in 2 Kings 5.
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the Lord had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper. Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little girl from the land of Israel, and she worked in the service of Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” . . . .
So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” . . . But his servants came near and said to him, “My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean?'” So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
2 Kings 5:1-14
Why did God choose to heal Naaman? After all, as Jesus pointed out, there were plenty of needy people closer to home. So why did he choose just this one man, and he a Syrian, on whom to show mercy? God certainly loves some strange people. We know that God loves the poor and humble, but Naaman was rich and important. We know that God loves the meek, the poor in spirit, but Naaman was proud and mighty, a bloody man of power. We know that God has always loved his people Israel whom he called to be his own chosen race, but Naaman was a Syrian and an enemy of Israel. So why did God heal this man? I think it was to teach us something important about God’s grace, namely, that it is available for everybody, even those we think don’t deserve it – even for someone like me (or someone like you)!
Who was this Naaman anyway? He was a man of many fine qualities. He was an outstanding military officer, highly successful in his chosen career. He was popular, a favorite of the king, with honors lavished upon him. He was also courageous, “a mighty man of valor,” the Bible calls him. Naaman had received just about every honor the world has to offer. He was famous, wealthy, important, powerful. He was the kind of person you see on the cover of People magazine; he was really somebody
But he was also a leper, the Bible says. That one additional piece of information changes everything. Namaan suffered from the most feared and dreaded disease of the ancient world, a disease which had no respect for his prominence and fame. All Naaman’s strength, all his valor, all his victories, all his popularity, even his friendship with the king, could not save him from leprosy.
Naaman’s was a tragic case. He was so brilliant, yet he was a leper. But his story is not nearly as tragic as that of so many modern men and women who are spiritual lepers and don’t know it. I read once that the British scientist who discovered chloroform was asked, “What was your greatest discovery?” he replied, “That I am a sinner and that Jesus Christ is my Savior.” Exactly right. Before Naaman could be cured he had to know himself to be a leper. He had to confront the reality of his disease and accept it. Before you and I can be cleansed we must know ourselves to be sinners. Without that there can be no healing.
Hearing the Gospel
Namaan’s salvation and healing came through the simple witness of a servant girl (v. 3). How insignificant she was – first of all a girl (women were second-class citizens in Bible times), then a child (children had no importance at all), and finally a foreign captive and a slave (an absolute nobody!). What a contrast she presents to Naaman himself. This Israelite girl had no power, no status, no fame; in fact, we don’t even know her name.
But she did have faith in God. This was her only distinction. She had faith, and she let it be known. That’s really all God expected of her, but the whole story hinges on her simple word of witness. Naaman’s healing is a great story, a wonderful example of God’s power and mercy. But it never would have happened without the courage of that unknown slave girl to speak a word of testimony to the God of Israel.
So Namaan goes off to Israel and eventually gets in touch with the prophet Elisha, from whom he hears this gospel message: “Go, wash, and you will be clean.” The gospel is always a word of command and promise like this. (As Paul put it most succinctly speaking to the Philippian jailor in Acts 16: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.”) Go and wash and you will be clean.
But this gospel message is offensive to human pride. That’s really the last and strongest barrier to salvation, not just our sin that like leprosy needs to be cleansed, but our pride that refuses to accept and obey God’s gospel offer. Despite his awful disease, Naaman was proud and angry. His anger was due to a bruised ego (v. 11). After all Naaman expected more than this. Elisha didn’t even come to meet him in person! He had the gall to simply send a messenger out to speak to Naaman. And the messenger told him to just go wash in the Jordan River. No doubt Naaman had expected Elisha to come with solemn prayers and dramatic gestures and formal invocations. He wanted an impressive liturgical ceremony, as befitted Naaman’s rank and station. Elisha’s brusque message didn’t match Naaman’s sense of self-importance. And what if Elisha were mocking him, sending him on a fools’ errand to make Naaman a laughing-stock for the whole country of Israel?
So Naaman was angry at what seemed to be an unreasonable demand, a demeaning command (v. 12). It didn’t make any sense. If what he needed was a bath, Naaman could have a better one at home. And in a sense he was right. The Jordan was muddy and slow and brown, while the rivers of Damascus ran clear and beautiful.
The gospel message seems absurd to lost people. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” It comes from another world and those who belong to this world can never understand it or accept it unless God opens their minds and hearts to receive the truth. Naaman became angry and upset at the arbitrary command he was given, but the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men, as the Bible says. And when we experience the truth of God’s Word, then we come to realize that it is really the world which is senseless and absurd.
Today many alternative sources for spiritual health and healing are being touted. Like Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, they seem much more appealing than the old narrow Bible way of repentance and faith in Christ. But the question is not which way is least offensive to the modern mind, The question is, which way can cure our leprosy? Naaman found out the answer only when he conquered his pride, swallowed his anger and humbled himself to believe God’s promise and obey God’s command.
Naaman had taken a great treasure with him into Israel: gold, silver, festive garments. But all the gold in the world couldn’t buy what he needed. There is no price we can pay for cleansing from sin. God wants something much more precious than that. He wants us to come to him, humble ourselves, and accept his love. Naaman couldn’t do that in Syria. He found no gods there to heal him. And we cannot do that anywhere but at the cross. We can’t buy forgiveness at any price, not with our morality, our conservative lifestyle, our church attendance, our tithing. But we can receive it freely, if we humble ourselves and are washed in the blood of Christ.
O make thyself with holy mourning black,
And red with blushing, as thou art with sin;
Or wash thee in Christ’s blood, which hath this might,
That, being red, it dyes red souls to white.
John Donne, Holy Sonnet IV