The prophet Elisha had some good news for the people of Samaria at one of their most desperate times. I have even better news for you today.
Elisha, Elijah’s successor, was more than just a prophet; he was a wonder-worker. In fact, the only person in the Bible who performed more miracles than Elisha was Jesus Christ. One reason for this was the critical nature of the times in which Elisha lived. Like his mentor Elijah, Elisha lived and worked during the great spiritual crisis that developed in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of the wicked Queen Jezebel and her weak husband King Ahab. It appeared as though the whole nation might turn away from the worship of the true God and begin to serve the pagan gods of their Canaanite neighbors. The miraculous signs both Elijah and Elisha performed were God’s way of confirming those prophets’ spiritual authority, so that the people would know that they truly were men who spoke for God.
THE SIEGE OF SAMARIA
One of the most dramatic incidents in Elisha’s exciting life took place during a war between Israel and its neighbor, the kingdom of Syria. There was chronic warfare between these two countries during Elisha’s lifetime. On this occasion, the Syrian king Ben-hadad had laid siege to Samaria, Israel’s capital. The siege went on for a long time, with Samaria surrounded by a large enemy army and unable to receive any supplies. Conditions became indescribably horrible. There was terrible hunger in the city. Normal sources of food were exhausted. Nobody had any more grain, or anything else decent to eat. Things were so bad that people began to eat unclean animals; in fact, the biblical writer says that the head of a donkey was selling for eight pounds of silver in the city – an astronomical price. But there was even worse than that. At the height of the siege, a woman approached the king, Joram, with a grievance. As she described her case, the details that emerged were so hideous they can scarcely be believed. “[Another] woman said to me, ‘Give up your son so we may eat him today, and tomorrow we’ll eat my son.’ So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, ‘Give up your son so we may eat him,’ but she had hidden him” (v. 28-29).
When he heard this appalling story, the king snapped. He didn’t know what to say or do; he could only tear his clothes in frustration, grief and rage. The people saw that he was secretly wearing rough sackcloth beneath his royal robes next to his skin, as an expression of humility and repentance. Joram was not a particularly good or godly king. (He was, after all, Ahab and Jezebel’s son!) But this detail speaks well of him. Perhaps he was genuinely seeking to repent and turn to the Lord on behalf of his people. But now it seemed to him like God was mocking him. The mothers’ cannibalism was more than he could take, and Joram was filled with blinding anger – not so much at the women, but at the God whom he held responsible for the terrible predicament they were all in. And since he could not attack the Lord directly, he decided to kill his prophet Elisha. So King Joram sent someone to seize Elisha and cut off his head.
Elisha took the news of his impending execution with remarkable calm, but then, he had a secret advantage. He knew the king’s rage would shortly give way to astonishment at the miraculous deliverance of the city through the power of God. The Lord had revealed to Elisha that the siege of Samaria would be lifted that very night. By this time tomorrow, the prophet announced, food would again be plentiful in the city, with prices once more approaching normal market levels.
A MIRACULOUS DELIVERANCE
But the best part of this story is what happened next. There were four lepers loitering out in front of the gates of Samaria. Because of their disease, they had been expelled from the city and were forced to live as outcasts. They stayed as close as they could to the protection of Samaria’s walls. Their situation was desperate, hopeless. They didn’t even have access to the city’s wretched food rations. But desperate men take desperate chances, and these four lepers decided they had nothing to lose by going to the camp of the Syrian army. After all, you can only die once! Here’s how the biblical writer describes what happened:
They said to one another, “Why should we stay here until we die? Suppose we say, ‘We’ll go into the city.’ There isn’t any food there, and we’ll die. But if we stay here, we’ll die anyway. So let’s go over to Syria’s army camp. Let’s give ourselves up. If they spare us, we’ll live. If they kill us, we’ll die.”
At sunset they got up. They went to Syria’s army camp. They arrived at the edge of it. But no one was there. The Lord had caused the soldiers of Syria to hear a noise that sounded like chariots and horses and a huge army. And the soldiers spoke to one another. They said, “Listen! The king of Israel has hired the Hittite and Egyptian kings. He has paid them to attack us!” So they had run away. They had left their tents and horses and donkeys behind. They had left the camp as it was. And they had run for their lives.
The [lepers] arrived at the edge of the camp. They entered one of the tents. They ate and drank and carried away silver, gold and clothes. They went off and hid them and returned and entered another tent. They took some things from it and hid them also.
But then they said to one another, “What we’re doing isn’t right. This is a day of good news. And we’re keeping it to ourselves. If we wait until sunrise, we’ll be punished. Let’s go at once. Let’s report this to the royal palace.”
What a story! You can close your eyes and see it happening: the lepers’ expulsion from the city because of the uncleanness of their disease . . . their misery as they try to survive in the no-man’s land between the walls of Samaria and the Syrian lines . . . their desperate gamble when they realize they have nothing to lose . . . their incredible discovery that the enemy had abandoned their camp and fled . . . the first rush of eating, drinking and plunder, followed by a sudden coming to their senses and the realization that they had an obligation to share the news of their discovery with the people of Samaria. It’s all so real and vivid. It almost seems like we are there watching it happen.
In a very real sense, you and I have been there, if we are among those people who have come to know Jesus Christ in a saving relationship. Those lepers stand for us! Like them, we were suffering from a life-destroying condition, a spiritual disease called sin that made us unclean in God’s sight and totally unfit to live in his presence. In the Bible, leprosy is often a symbol for sin. Like these men we are all afflicted by it. Our situation is desperate. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves. It looks as though there is no escape from death.
But God has done something extraordinary for us! He has won a great victory for us without our doing anything. God sent Christ into the world to give his life to rescue us. When Christ died on the cross he defeated all the forces of evil. He routed sin, death, and the devil, made them flee. And he shares that victory with us as we give our lives to him. If you are joined to Christ by faith, then his blood has cleansed you from all sins. You’re no longer unclean. You are pure in the sight of God. And like those four Samaritan lepers your enemy has been driven off, and you have been given the chance of a new life.
ONE BEGGAR TELLING ANOTHER
Have you also recognized your responsibility? Do you know that if you have received the blessing of salvation you must also share this good news of what you have found with those who don’t know Christ yet?
There are many reasons why we have that responsibility. Two are suggested in the lepers’ story. The first is that if we fail to tell others about Christ we are really guilty of sin and deserving of punishment. We will be held liable for that failure. “Then they said to each other, ‘We’re not doing right. . . If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us’” (v. 9). If we do not share the good news of God’s salvation through Christ with those who need to hear it, God will judge us for it. I realize that is a negative statement, and we tend to avoid negatives nowadays. But if we removed all the negative warnings from Scripture, we would have a considerably thinner Bible. Negative or not, this statement is true. How do you think God feels when he showers his grace upon us, and then watches us hoard it for ourselves alone without sharing it with others? Don’t you think such selfishness makes him justifiably angry?
Imagine if people in your town were locked in a dark prison, where they were suffering terribly. Imagine further that they would all die unless they could find a way out. Then imagine that you were holding the key that would set them free. What if you just put the key in your pocket and walked away? Wouldn’t that make you guilty?
A number of years ago the great evangelical leader John Stott published a book on evangelism which he called Our Guilty Silence. Not just our embarrassed silence or our awkward silence; our guilty silence. You know, someday everyone is going to find out about the truth of the gospel, just as everyone in Samaria saw the abandoned camp of the Syrian Army when morning dawned and daylight returned. Well, that’s going to happen in the whole world. The good news about Christ will always be good, but it will be only news for a limited time. The day will come when every eye will behold Christ in his glory, and the whole world will know that the Bible is true. No one will need to be told about the cross and the empty tomb then. But for those who have not believed, it will be too late. Do you want to have to explain someday why you didn’t care about sharing the gospel with the world when it most needed to hear it?
But here is another, more positive, reason for sharing the gospel with others. “This is a day of good news!” (v. 9); so the leper said. And so say we in an even more profound sense. It’s a day of good news when you recognize Jesus as Savior and Lord. After their initial impulse to gorge themselves, the lepers stopped to think about all those who so urgently needed what they now had. They remembered the dying city from which they had come, and they returned to it out of compassion and a desire to share. They could have just loaded up and moved on. After all, it might have been argued that the people of Samaria had not done much for them. But instead, they remembered those people’s deepest need. Maybe you’ve heard the definition of sharing the gospel as “One beggar telling another where to find bread.” Well, that’s exactly what those four lepers did in Samaria. And that is just what we’re doing when we tell others about the joy, peace and hope we experience in Jesus Christ. We’re not coming out of a position of superiority. We’re simply beggars telling other beggars where we have found bread, the Bread of Life.
The world is dying without the gospel. People everywhere are trapped in sin, gripped by the fear of death, living without God and without hope. Not just people near you who don’t know Christ, but billions of non-Christians throughout the world, including a billion and a half who have never even heard his name. Do you care about that? Do you care about them? Then why not share the good news with them? And make sure you have accepted it for yourself first!