The Bible is a large book and it takes time to work one’s way through all of it, still it surprised me to learn, as I consulted my files, that I have never preached on this wonderful and famous text of Holy Scripture.
The fact that he retained high office as a leper is testament to Naaman’s greatness as a man and his importance to the King of Syria as an effective army commander. But it must be noted that the term here translated “leper” refers to a set of malignant skin diseases. Naaman may not have been suffering from Hansen’s disease or what we now understand leprosy to be. We don’t have any specific description of leprosy proper prior to the 2nd century B.C. though, no doubt, the disease existed earlier. Naaman may indeed have had leprosy, we simply can’t tell from the term employed.
But note the very important information that it was Yahweh who had given Syria victory, including victory over Israel, by the hand of Naaman. Yahweh has as much to do with Syria’s military fortunes as Israel’s. He is the living God, the only God and ruler of all men and nations.
It is noteworthy that the girl not only knew well of Elisha’s existence and location, but of his miracle working. These things were not done in a corner as Paul reminded King Agrippa in Acts! What is more, it probably indicates that, as in the case of the Lord and his apostles, many of the miracles he performed are not recorded in the biblical narrative of his ministry.
This is a huge amount of money: in silver alone it amounts to five times what Omri paid for the site of his future capital of Samaria (1 Kings 16:24). [Wiseman, 207] We are talking about 700 pounds of silver and 125 pounds of gold! [Cf. Dillard, Hobbs, 63-64] Again this amounts to a demonstration of the value the King of Syria placed upon Naaman.
The King of Syria thought, naturally enough, that a prophet capable of healing leprosy would be ensconced at the court. But Elisha was not a court official and Jehoram suspected that the letter was a ruse meant to provoke a casus belli, some excuse for Syria to attack Israel.
Of course, Jehoram would have known that bringing the dead to life is precisely what Elisha had done in the name of the Lord. If a slave girl in Syria knew of his miracles, Jehoram certainly did. He shouldn’t have torn his robes; he should have sent for Elisha and acknowledged that the Lord’s prophet could do what his prophets could not.
The cleansing of a leper, or someone with skin disease after it had been made clear that the disease was not infectious, according to the Law of Moses required the person to be sprinkled seven times (Lev. 14:7). Whether that has anything to do with Elisha’s instructions is unclear. Certainly in Naaman’s case the application of water seven times was not for the purpose of removing ceremonial defilement. But, of course, Naaman, wheeling up in style to Elisha’s door, coming with the trappings of wealth and power, did not expect to be spoken to by a servant and sent somewhere else. This was not the respect he felt he deserved. In Naaman’s world view the god was at the beck and call of the prophet, so in a sense Elisha should have acted immediately to heal him and could have done so.
Naaman’s servants, who are more used to being treated in such humbling ways, see the point that his offended dignity prevented him from seeing. [Provan, 192]
It is true that in the Old Testament we do not find a statement like John 3:16 or a gospel summons like that of Acts 16:30:
“Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved and your house.”
But we do find the gospel there nevertheless. We have everywhere the assertion of man’s sin and need for forgiveness. We have everywhere forgiveness obtained by reason of atonement through sacrifice. And we have everywhere the promise, as we have it in Nahum 1:7 that the Lord “cares for those who trust in him.” That the first 39 books of the Bible are an account of the same gospel as we have in the last 27 books is a matter so uncontroversial that in the New Testament it is invariably assumed, only rarely stated, though it is stated quite matter-of-factly in several places. Again and again we learn in the New Testament that if we want to know what Christian faith is we should consider the pious of the ancient epoch, how they trusted the Lord, his promises, his word and his salvation and were delivered as a result. If we wish to know what the gospel is, we are told to read the narrative of Abraham or Israel. If we wish to know who Jesus is and what he did for our salvation, we are taught to consult the prophets.
But every now and then in the narrative of the Old Testament we are treated to a supreme illustration of the gospel in flesh and blood, for example, something like what we have in the New Testament in the conversion of the Apostle Paul, recorded for us in Acts 9, or the conversion of Zacchaeus in Luke 19, and nowhere more beautifully or clearly than here in 2 Kings 5. It isn’t put in quite the same terms we use to describe a conversion, but the reality is the same, the gospel pattern is clearly visible, and that in many respects. Let me show you the gospel in 2 Kings 5.
- First, there is the man in need.
Naaman was a successful man, a great man, a powerful man. But he was a leper. There is always a “but” in human experience, some trouble, some disappointment, some failure, some running sore. [Lloyd Jones in BOT 379 (April 1995) 11] No life is whole, unspoiled, or complete. If any human being tells you that everything is great in his life, he is lying to you. There is always a great need. This man’s pain in his sickness and perhaps in the isolation it enforced upon him was so great that he was willing to pay an immense fortune just in the hopes of a cure.
But he was helpless before his disease. There are two kings in the narrative and it is perfectly obvious that neither of them could help Naaman. He was afflicted with a condition that, according to the Law of God, rendered him ceremonially unclean, making him a perfect picture of natural man in sin. No matter his success, no matter his accomplishments and reputation, he was powerless before the forces that blighted his life. What is more he was a foreigner, outside the covenant. He had no access to and no interest in the provisions that God had made for his covenant people.
Naaman is one of the Bible’s grand pictures of man in sin before God, afflicted by a disease that stood for the curse of sin, and utterly powerless to free himself from it. That is the first part of the gospel: our need as sinful human beings for what we ourselves cannot produce or affect.
- Second, there is a message delivered.
The gospel is, as you know, the good news. “Gospel” is simply an old English word that means “good news.” News is something that is spread, communicated, passed from one person to another. Everywhere in the Bible and in the history of the church, “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” One may hear the good news from one’s parents, or from a preacher, or from a friend, or from a casual acquaintance or even a complete stranger. There is something beautiful and simple about this. One person knows something that another needs to know and does not yet know and so he or she tells the other. So here. The lass in Naaman’s house knows something that would do him wonderful good and so, caring for her master as a faithful Israelite should – no matter that he has been in some ways an enemy to her – she tells him about Elisha and the healing power of the Lord.
This is all very interesting because, of course, many of the first readers of the Book of Kings would have been captive exiles themselves. And here is a girl – perhaps a teenage girl – caring for her captor and bringing to him the knowledge of the Lord he so badly needed.
It isn’t only in the New Testament we learn that the world depends upon the knowledge of the Lord and his saving grace that God’s people have. You can learn a lot from nature, even a lot about God the Bible says. Wise men can follow a star all the way to Jerusalem, but to make it the rest of the way they needed the message, the report, the account that we have in Holy Scripture. Only in that way could the wise men find their way to Bethlehem and the new born king and only in that same way does anyone learn of how it is that unclean sinners can be made clean before God.
We are to be the Lord’s witnesses as this Israelite girl was: a witness. She knew things that Naaman did not and by telling him she set the entire course of his salvation in motion. It seems she was motivated by love for her master and so should all Christian witness be motivated by such love. The world needs to know the very things that we know.
- Third, there is a supernatural deliverance.
There is a divine work in salvation, not a miracle in the technical sense of the word, but a work of exclusively divine power nonetheless. No one could cure a leper, and the Law of God never suggested that washing oneself seven times in the Jordan would cure leprosy. It would not. No doubt through the years many men and women benighted by leprosy betook themselves to the Jordan River and washed seven times in desperate hope that the same healing that had been given to Naaman would be given to them. But to no avail.
But something happened to Naaman. He came out of the water with skin as soft as a baby’s bottom, as we are wont to say. This was the power of God, nothing less.
Indeed, one reason, perhaps the primary reason why the healing was performed in the way it was was to emphasize this point. Naaman, given his worldview, imagined that Elisha would pronounce some magical incantation or perform some magical rite and effect the healing. He had the money; he was prepared to pay. That’s what his prophets or priests would have done in Damascus if any of them had dared to suggest he could cure the general.
But Elisha sent him away. It wasn’t the prophet who would cure him, it was the Lord himself, a point made clear by the fact that when Naaman was healed, Elisha was nowhere to be seen. Elisha said nothing; did nothing. This was the Lord himself and the immediate healing, the healing without incantation or ritual, the healing without money, all made that perfectly clear, a point that will be emphasized in the next paragraph that we will take up next Lord’s Day evening Lord willing. The salvation of every human being is a work of divine power so great that the only way to illustrate it is with the astonishing miracles of the Bible. There is no salvation that doesn’t involve a powerful work of recreation in a human being, a power that comes from outside of us and overpowers us and changes us. That too is what we see here. Naaman didn’t heal himself any more than he saved himself. God must do it, God can do it, and he is willing to do it.
- Fourth, there is a work of grace.
Naaman came toting a fortune into Israel, prepared to pay handsomely for the benefit he sought. But no one asked him for his money. Indeed, when someone does, later in the chapter, Elisha regards the act as a betrayal of the gospel, an undoing of what God had done. The gospel is free, it is God’s mercy to the desperately undeserving and needy. Lest we forget, it is in the Old Testament that we read:
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
No one can buy what Naaman received and no one can buy the forgiveness of sins or a place at God’s family table. It must be given and received as a gift. There is no other way. Naaman didn’t deserve this, but he received it. That too is the gospel, is it not?
- Fifth, there is a commandment to obey, something for the sinner to do.
True enough, Naaman wasn’t healed by the waters of the Jordan. As Florence and I saw last year, the Jordan is a place many come to in hopes of some blessing simply from being there, from standing or dipping themselves in the green water. There is a shop at the primary place where pilgrims to the Jordan gather, right below where the river flows from the Sea of Galilee. In the shop one can buy trinkets but one can also buy white robes. There is a changing room nearby so that one can take the robe one has purchased and change into it and enter the river wearing it. But the river does no one any good in that way.
I told family and some out-of-town friends in our Christmas letter that I baptized both of my grandchildren with water that we collected that day at the Jordan. I had brought some empty plastic bottles and filled them with water from the Jordan. Strange to say, though the river is green, the water came into the bottles clear as clear can be. This is what I wrote in the Christmas letter:
It was a great privilege for me last winter to officiate at the baptism of both babies, first Bryonie Wykoff in New York City and then Charlie Dey in St. Louis. Unbeknownst to the parents at the time I used water Florence and I had collected from the Jordan River in empty water bottles in May of 2009 and carried home in our luggage! It could be nothing, but Florence and I think both babies are particularly sweet and happy. Just saying.
But, of course, that was a joke! I have no doubt everyone realized it was a joke. The water of the Jordan can’t cure the ills of the human heart any more than it can cure leprosy. But that does not mean that Naaman would have been healed had he refused to wash in the Jordan seven times. He was certainly would not have been. Had he refused to obey Elisha’s instructions he would have returned to Damascus a leper and remained one all his life. This distinction between the necessity of our faith and action, on the one hand, and the ultimate cause of our salvation, on the other, is crucial to the gospel and to any proper understanding of the Christian faith. We must do, but our doing is a feature of our salvation; it is not its cause. It is God’s doing, Christ’s doing, the Spirit’s doing that saves a soul as surely as it was God who healed Naaman in the river.
In the gospel it is always the same. There is something for us to do: to believe in the Lord Jesus, to receive him, to confess him Lord, to love him, all various ways the Bible states the obligation of the gospel. The good news must be believed and acted upon. That is faith and without faith it is impossible to please God.
- Sixth, there is something seemingly absurd in the summons.
What in the world does washing in the turgid waters of the Jordan have to do with the cure of leprosy? It made no sense to Naaman. His question was perfectly understandable. The rivers of Damascus were clear, rushing water, flowing down from Mount Herman. If one had to wash in a river to be cleansed, why not those rivers rather than the quiet and unclear water of the Jordan? He felt he had been sent on a fool’s errand. I wonder myself if, even after having decided to do it, he wasn’t embarrassed and a bit ashamed of himself as he descended into the water with others watching him. What was he doing here? How did he get talked into this? And so it must always be.
“‘Wash in the Jordan and be cured of leprosy.’ What a preposterous idea! I can’t think of anything more ridiculous! Well, maybe one thing is more ridiculous – the idea that putting your trust and faith in a man executed on a cross almost two thousand years ago can give you a renewed life now, forgiveness from sin, resurrection from the dead, and eternal life. Now that beats all.” [Dillard, 118]
God’s promises always require real faith. It is not easy to believe them. There is that about them that seems absurd or even offensive as the Apostle Paul famously put it when he referred to the foolishness and scandal of the gospel. That is why so many do not believe. They are offended by the notion of forgiveness through sacrificial death, all the more a death that occurred so long ago and so far away; or they take offense that the gospel makes no distinctions between men and treats all men alike, as if you were just like everyone else who is dirty and needs to be made clean. What they are being asked to do makes no sense to them. And so they complain or they ridicule or they express their contempt. Here is Naaman, a helpless leper, hopeless; he has heard that this prophet can affect a cure but he doesn’t hesitate to criticize the instructions the Lord’s prophet gave him. He knows better, so he thinks. Really? Then why is he still a leper? The fact was then and remains today: what is foolish to men has proved countless times to be the power and the wisdom of God. The gospel is a test of faith. It always has been, always will be. It will never be believed because people find it so sensible. It will be believed only because people in their great need come to believe that God knows much more what they need than they do themselves.
- Seventh, there must be faith but it is a halting faith.
Lest anyone mistake what is happening here, though Naaman does what he is told, it is hardly an impressive faith that he displays. He first refuses outright to do what Elisha has instructed him to do. Finally he is persuaded by his servants that he has nothing to lose and everything to gain. He had come this far, might as well put Yahweh’s prophet’s instructions to the test and all the more given the fact that it’s not going to cost him anything. This is hardly a triumphant faith that we see here, hardly a man who has come to the Jordan expecting a miraculous healing.
This too is one of the wonderful features of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are asked to trust in the Lord and multitudes do. But we have enough experience of ourselves and of others to know that people put their faith in Christ who have hardly any idea what they are doing, in many cases don’t really understand at all what they are doing. And yet the Lord comes in and their lives change and events prove that they have in fact been healed and that the Lord has met them in their need.
J. Gresham Machen once wrote that we will never know how little a person must believe to become a Christian. That is because our faith is not what makes us Christians. God’s grace and power and the Holy Spirit wielding both make us Christians. Faith is just the instrument, the hand that receives the gift. And very little children with very little understanding can stick out a hand to receive a gift.
Naaman follows the instructions he was given, with however churlish an attitude, and that was faith, as it so often is for us; very little faith, but faith nonetheless. “Lord we believe, help our unbelief.”
- Eighth, there is a sacrament, a baptism.
Whatever else Naaman’s washing may be, why ever else he was given these particular instructions, there can be no doubt that this washing is an anticipation of Christian baptism. Like all the other washings of the Old Testament, all of them symbolic of cleansing not only from ceremonial defilement but from sin itself, this too is a baptism. Remember, all these OT washings are actually called “baptisms” in Hebrews 6. It is an anticipation only, to be sure, but a man who gets clean and is made well by washing with water is certainly an anticipation of what the New Testament says about baptism. We were made new, Paul says, by washing with water and the Word. We are baptized, Peter said in his Pentecost sermon, “for the forgiveness of sins.” Paul again refers to baptism as a “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” This is Christian baptism in its full context, of course: baptism with faith, baptism with the promises of God, baptism with the Holy Spirit. But, of course, that is what we have said about Naaman’s washing in the Jordan. It wasn’t the water by itself, but the water as appointed by God, the water with the grace of God, the water with the promise of God, and the water with Naaman’s faith.
This is all the more the case because, of course, Naaman was a Gentile not a Jew. For him, by a kind of holy anticipation, the baptism of the nations of the world is depicted and described. In fact, I think it is a very helpful way to think about baptism and to make one’s way through all the controversy, to think about what baptism is and what baptism does, by looking at Naaman in the Jordan. Faith and baptism together; baptism and obedience together; baptism and the grace of God together; baptism as an instrument of cleansing by God’s mighty saving power. Always in the Bible the gospel includes the sacrament because God’s salvation is sacramental, embodied in sacred ritual. Salvation is not an idea, it is not a concept, it is the transformation of human life body and soul and therefore there is always a sacrament attached.
- And, ninth, and finally, there is the confession of the Lord as God.
I didn’t read that passage but we will read it next Lord’s Day, but you see it there at the beginning of the second paragraph from v. 15 onward. Remember how in Romans and Acts this is a characteristic way of describing saving faith: as a confession of Jesus as Lord. Who are the Christians? Those who confess Jesus as Lord! And remember, Jesus is and was Yahweh as the New Testament reminds us many times. When Naaman said “there is no God but in Israel” he was, in effect, saying Jesus is Lord! He wouldn’t have been able to explain it in precisely those terms or use that personal name, but it was what he was saying because Jesus is Yahweh and Naaman was saying that Yahweh was the one living and true God. He knew, as he told Elisha, he knew that Rimmon was not the Living God and that Yahweh was.
And that confession, together with all of its mighty implications, completes the salvation of God. A sinful, helpless man, a man unable to change his fate, has not only been forgiven but has been made a willing servant of the Most High. This was the very last thing that Naaman imagined when he departed Damascus for Samaria – as it is so often the last thing envisioned by those becoming Christians today – but in fact the encounter with the grace of God has changed everything. There is now a new master, a new calling, a new life entirely.
Do we not have the gospel here, the gospel in a pure form, the gospel in all of its parts and dimensions, the gospel as it comes to us from God himself and as it transforms our lives in every good and wonderful way? Naaman came to Israel a leper looking for a cure; he left Israel a Christian. How many times has that happened in the ages since and how many more times will it happen before Christ comes again? Renewing our commitment to this reality of grace, let’s you and I commit ourselves in the coming few days to do what that precious Israelite girl did: tell someone where to find what they are really looking for!