The last few paragraphs of 2 Kings have afforded us classic presentations and illustrations of biblical themes. As we have said they are in some respects the classic presentation or illustration of a biblical theme. When we want an illustration of spiritual transformation of someone’s heart and life by the grace and power of God we are likely to turn only to the conversion of Paul and perhaps that of Zacchaeus before we think of the healing and spiritual illumination of Naaman the Syrian. There was a man who was born again. And what better illustration of the reality of the unseen world is there in the entire Bible than the sight given to Elisha’s servant of the horses and chariots of fire and the great army of the Lord of hosts surrounding Dothan. Well tonight we have another of those timeless incidents that reveal forever the nature of the Christian life. Frankly I am not sure there is a passage anywhere in Holy Scripture that so beautifully and powerfully reveals this particular principle. The fact that these classic illustrations and demonstrations are found in the OT is only further proof, if proof were needed, that the message of the Bible, the spiritual world it describes, and the nature of the gospel and faith have been the same from the beginning of time to the present day.
The incident now to be reported was apparently significantly later than the time of peace described in the previous verse. There was more than one Ben-hadad who was a contemporary of Jehoram. But now it is not a mere raiding party but a full-blown invasion.
The donkey was an unclean animal, such as would never have been eaten by Jews in normal times. Now the situation is so bad that even its head, the part of the carcass that would ordinarily be thrown away, cost a small fortune. Whether it was actually “dove’s dung” or “pigeon droppings” that was sold is a question. Other English translations of the Bible render the words: seed pods, carob beans, or wild onions. They all sound equally unappealing to me! It is worth remembering that there would have been plenty of money left in Jerusalem and plenty of other valuable things. But you can’t eat silver and gold!
Jehoram’s guilt is increased because he knew to say that the Lord alone could help his people, but he did not then turn to the Lord.
Now the point of reporting this gruesome detail is, in the first place, to confirm that Israel was suffering precisely those curses the Lord had promised to visit upon her if she betrayed his covenant. Cannibalism isn’t simply picked out of the air. In Deut. 28:53-57, in the midst of the list of punishments Israel could expect if she proved unfaithful to the covenant we read this:
“Because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the Lord your God has given you. … The most gentle and sensitive woman among you – so sensitive and gentle that she would not venture to touch the ground with the sole of her foot – will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears. For she intends to eat them secretly during the siege and in the distress that your enemy will inflict on you in your cities.”
What had happened is that the word of the Lord has come to pass. Cannibalism during sieges is well attested in human history. Josephus tells us that during the Roman siege of Jerusalem a mother roasted the baby she had been nursing at her breast and ate half of it. [Seward, Jerusalem’s Traitor, 216-217] In such cases hunger brings on delirium and in such a state people will do things they would never otherwise imagine themselves doing. Here is a woman who has not only eaten a child but is complaining to the king that another mother is refusing to share her child. In many other cases in history, children were killed because there was no food for them or because they could no longer be cared for. The New England Indians were reduced to killing their children during King Philip’s War. [Philbrick, Mayflower, 326-327] In any case, try hard to enter into the situation and imagine what it was like slowly to starve to death; to be unable to escape the pain of your hunger at any moment of the day or night. This gruesome detail about the siege reveals both the ferocity of the judgment of the Lord and the greatness of the salvation that is about to occur.
Like Ahab before him, Jehoram blamed the Lord’s prophet for his troubles. The man is morally blind. He cannot see the sins that have so far been the cause of his problem and identified as the cause by the prophets of the Lord. Nor can he remember the many times in which he had been warned against this very judgment. What is more, he has forgotten what Elisha did to the last invading force of Syrians. Jehoram is treating his one remaining asset as his principal liability and that is spiritual blindness. We have here also an instance of the age-old temptation to shoot the messenger.
The text of the last verse of chapter 6 is hard to understand. Apparently the messenger spoke to Elisha and that prompted the conversation in the opening verses of chapter 7 that occurred almost immediately thereafter. The king followed his messenger, as we will read in 7:17-18, and it was to the king himself, Jehoram in person, as well as to his captain, that the prophecy of 7:1 was given.
As I said, assume this conversation took place at Elisha’s house with the elders there and the messenger and the king and his captain. How Jehoram took this news we are not told but for whatever reason he did not pursue his plans for Elisha’s murder, perhaps because of the prophecy he had just heard – he knew enough from past events that Elisha typically knew what he was talking about when he spoke about the future – perhaps because of the crowd that was present, and perhaps because, like his father Ahab, he could never stand up to the Lord’s prophet.
So Elisha prophesied the lifting of the siege and the sudden end of the famine. Indeed, the price of commodities would fall even below the normal price. They would go from famine to surfeit in a day! And as a way of drawing attention to the prophesy and fixing it in everyone’s mind (so that there could be no re-writing of the history afterwards), he prophesied the death of the captain who doubted the word of the Lord.
As lepers they had to live outside the gate, but there they remained to beg for food.
Their impeccable logic reminds me of Pascal’s famous wager. You remember the “wager.” As Pascal put it, you have to wager, you cannot refuse because God either exists or he does not and you will certainly die. Living as if God exists (Pascal means the Christian God, of course) is certainly the better course if, in fact, God exists. If he exists you have gained everything, and if he doesn’t, you have lost nothing. If you can’t prove God’s existence or non-existence by reason then you are better off assuming he does exist and living accordingly. It is by no means the best argument for Christian faith, but it exposes the daring of those who so confidently bank on the truth of a proposition they cannot prove when so much is at stake.
The question is whether the sound the lepers themselves made in approaching the camp was what the Syrians mistook for the approach of a great army. One reason to think so is that there is a play on words in the Hebrew text: “lepers” and “Egyptians” sound similar in classical Hebrew. In any case and obviously it was the Lord who confused and misled them by whatever means he may have employed.
In the event only two riders are sent out (v. 14). So either the other three horses are spares or the king was finally willing to risk only two of the remaining horses. The servant’s logic is like that of the lepers before: what have we got to lose?
And so it happened that the word of the Lord, however unlikely it seemed the day before, came to pass in every detail.
I said as we began that we have here another of the Bible’s greatest and most memorable illustrations of something. But illustration of what? Well, what we have here is perhaps the clearest account of evangelistic motivation to be found anywhere in the pages of Holy Scripture. Indeed, in v. 9 we read the four lepers actually saying, “This is a day of good news.” In the LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible produced 200 years before Christ, the word used to translate “good news” in v. 9 is the same word used for “gospel” in the New Testament, whether the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, or the gospel that Paul says is the power of God for salvation, or the gospel as the message proclaimed to the world by the apostles and others. “This is a day of good news” might as well be Paul’s “this is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).
Remember how in the Gospels a miracle of healing was used by the Lord Jesus to depict or illustrate salvation from sin and death? Well we have something like that here. In its larger context in this section of Kings (cheek to jowl with the healing and spiritual transformation of Naaman and Elisha’s raising from the dead the Shunammite’s son) and in the Bible as a whole it is entirely fair to draw that comparison between the deliverance of Jerusalem from the Syrian siege and the salvation of sinners by the grace of God. The one is very much a picture, an illustration of the other. What Israel needed to know was that she could count on Yahweh to deliver her from her enemies and that her enemies were dangerous to her only because of her sins against God. All of this is made perfectly clear in this historical episode. No thoughtful, spiritually-minded, faithful Israelite would have missed the point. It is too obvious to miss.
I say this to assure you that it is entirely fair for me, then, to use the lepers’ observation – “This is a day of good news” – as the basis for a sermon on the duty of evangelism, of the sharing of the good news, our good news, with others. And seen that way, several features of this history deserve special comment.
I. First, there is the irresistible logic of evangelism.
No one has any difficulty understanding the moral equation in the lepers’ realization that they had an obligation to share the news of their discovery in the Syrian camp. People were starving to death in Jerusalem. Every day more died from malnutrition or from the diseases that it fosters. These four men were gorging themselves on food and a short distance away were many people who, with sunken cheeks and hollow eyes, despaired to live because they had nothing to eat and had had nothing for days.
What is more, there was food aplenty in the camp. It was not as if the lepers had to choose between food for themselves and food for others. There was more than enough for everyone. It would, therefore, have been an act of supreme selfishness had they kept the news to themselves.
But are we not in precisely the same position with regard to the good news that has been published to us? People are dying all around us; day after day slipping away to spiritual death without the knowledge of God or his salvation in Jesus Christ. They are utterly unaware that there is life – eternal life – for the having and they will die unaware of that most important fact of all, unless the people who sit gorging themselves in the tents of the Syrians get off their keisters and bring them news of the Lord’s deliverance.
“How shall they hear unless someone preaches to them…?”
And, as in the case of the lepers, it is no skin off our nose to share the news we have learned with others. We are not diminished in any way by inviting others to join us in enjoying the deliverance of God. It is not as if there were food enough for but four. Indeed, such is the grace of God that our lives are enriched by the sharing of the good news and still more enriched and gladdened when others believe it and are saved. Anyone who has been involved in bringing someone to new life in the Lord Jesus Christ will tell you it is one of the most precious memories of his or her life.
It is the inescapable fact of our obligation to share the good news with those who desperately need it that has led so many to say in one way or another through the ages what John Chrysostom so memorably said in his day: “…there is nothing chillier than a Christian who is not trying to save others.”
Now, what is so important about this text, this piece of history, is that strange as it may seem, there is very little of this in the New Testament. We have been taught, and rightly, that we have an obligation to share the good news with the unsaved, indeed, that this is a first obligation of the Christian life. But it is striking how infrequently, if ever, that obligation is specifically mentioned in the New Testament. It surprised me when I first realized that. It is at that NT time, after all, that, following Pentecost, the age of evangelism began and we are given an account of the beginnings of the spread of the gospel. But most of what is said about evangelism and most of what we see of it being done in the pages of the NT concern the activity of apostles and ministers, not so much the ordinary Christian layman. Indeed, conduct the exercise yourself. Find a text in the New Testament that plainly and emphatically says that all Christians are obligated to share the good news with their neighbors. We imagine that there must be a number of such statements, but there are not. I don’t mean to imply that there is no evidence of every-Christian evangelism in the New Testament. There is some. But I suspect most Christians think the obligation is laid down clearly and emphatically in at least some places; but it is not.
The great commission is of course a statement of evangelistic obligation but it was made to the apostles directly and includes some responsibilities that belong specifically to what we would call the ministry: such as the obligations to baptize and to teach the whole counsel of God. Most of the great statements regarding what we would today call evangelism likewise concern the work of people we would nowadays refer to as “full-time Christian workers.” It is not obvious that the great commission applies to all Christians. I think it does, in fact; but by a kind of analogy. The obligations of ministers are, necessary changes being made, the obligations of all Christians. Still, even that is nowhere explicitly taught.
So why do we not find the obligation of evangelism plainly, emphatically, and repeatedly taught in the New Testament? I think for the very reason that we find here in the lepers’ logic. It is so obvious an obligation, so instinctual a recognition; the logic is so unassailable that it speaks for itself. It did not need to be said. “This is a day of good news…” What sort of person would keep news this good to herself or himself?
You have dazzling news to share with others; news that makes the breaking of the Syrian siege seem insignificant in comparison. You have discovered the way to everlasting life. You have encountered the infinite love of the personal God. You have discovered the meaning of human existence. You know the most fabulously important things, the things everyone must know. You know what they do not. Under what circumstance might it ever be reasonable to keep those discoveries to yourself? Surely there is none. The lepers could see that.
Indeed, the logic is so unassailable that the lepers took the next step and concluded that if they kept this news to themselves they would inevitably be punished for it.
“If we are silent and wait until the morning light, punishment will overtake us.”
This comes very near to the Apostle Paul’s remark, “Woe to me if I do not preach the good news!” No one will excuse our indifference to the perishing. They won’t and God won’t. One can only accept that measure of accountability if the logic of the obligation is irrefutable. But that is precisely what it is: irrefutable. There can be no excuse for the one who knows what the desperate and dying need to know and by which knowledge they may be delivered from death to life.
II. Second, there is the fitness of every Christian to be an evangelist, a bearer of good news.
We might be inclined to think that evangelism is the kind of work for which only some are qualified. After all, explaining the Christian faith to the uninitiated is no simple thing. They may ask questions which we are not prepared to answer. They may require explanations beyond our ability to provide.
I am actually quite sure that the greatest impediment to sharing the good news, to doing evangelism for most Christians is their fear that they will not do it well. They are afraid that they will not provide an unbeliever as attractive, persuasive and winsome a presentation of the gospel as they should and that their failure to be clear and persuasive will actually hinder the reception of the message. It is a natural concern and, in some respects, speaks well of many Christian people. They want to see people saved, but fear they might make matters worse rather than better and they don’t want to do that!
But who are the evangelists here? They are four men from the bottom rung of society. They had to hang around the gate of the city because their skin disease disqualified them from entering it. People didn’t want to be around them and were afraid of them. It is doubtful that they had much education because their condition would have prevented that as well. They were poor; indeed, the poorest of the poor. They were not men that others looked up to but down on. They were not men whose opinions mattered.
But it fell to them in the providence of God to know what the high and mighty did not know and so it fell to them to declare the good news and by declaring it they brought life and safety to the entire city.
And it has always been this way: God choosing the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; the weak things of the world to shame the strong, the lowly things and the despised things and the things that are not to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him (1 Cor. 1:27-29). It was primarily among the lower rungs of society that Jesus first became the object of adoration and faith and it was these people who spread the news far and wide. Think, for example, of the woman at the well of Sychar, who told her friends in town that she had found the Messiah. She couldn’t have explained to her friends what that meant, but she knew what she knew.
In the first great age of evangelism, the first several centuries of the Christian church’s life after Pentecost, although we know in detail only of the evangelism of the church’s great men, the church fathers, whose lives have come down to us in written records, we have sufficient evidence to know that the gospel was spread by ordinary Christians bearing witness to the good news among friends, acquaintances, and workmates. Celsus, a pagan critic of Christianity scorned its message. What intelligent man he wonders would believe a philosophy that was spread by women “gossiping Christ at the laundry.” Justin Martyr became a follower of Christ, in part, because of a chance conversation with an older Christian he met while walking along the beach. Think of Christian campus groups spreading out over the beaches of America and Mexico during Spring Break with the express purpose of sharing the good news with their fellow collegians. They are the spiritual descendants of that unnamed Christian man long ago.
It is a happy part of the story of Christian evangelism that very simple, unlettered believers, with the love of God and all manner of fear in their hearts, have been the instrument of God’s saving grace in the lives of multitudes. They have spoken very simply and God made it enough. You know the story of Charles Spurgeon. On a snowy morning he found himself in a primitive Methodist church. The minister was not there; a layman stood up and simply repeated the text of Isaiah 55 over and over again, “Look unto me,” and that was it. I have heard of a woman in Scotland who had become a Christian, I don’t know how. Her brother was seeing her off on a bus a few days later and she was too embarrassed to say anything about what had happened to her; nor did she know what to say. So, as she got on the bus, she handed her brother a copy of the New Testament and said simply, “Read that. It will do you good.” He was so surprised that his sister of all people should give him such a thing or make such a remark that he began to read it and a few days later he was a Christian himself. “Read that. It will do you good.” We can all say something like that! It’s what the lepers said, after all: “Go look for yourselves; the Syrians are gone and you have been delivered.” They weren’t believed at first; the news was thought impossible, but before long their simple announcement had led to the city’s deliverance.
And how many times has that happened in the history of the gospel in the world. It was some of the common people, the peasants of his country parish that led the learned Abraham Kuyper to the full conviction of the gospel of grace. They spoke warmly and surely of what they knew and the Holy Spirit did the rest.
John Stott recalls his first effort at evangelism shortly after he himself had become a Christian during his high school days at Rugby. He knew little himself and was hardly confident that he could make a good showing explaining the gospel to someone else but there was a fellow who studied near him whose difficult circumstances at home sometimes made him appear unhappy and withdrawn. So one day Stott made an effort to explain the good news as he had come to believe it shortly before.
“He simply couldn’t understand what I was talking about; it was double Dutch to him, so after a while of course I lapsed into silence because I didn’t know what to do next. But I do remember that at that point I secretly turned to prayer. After about a ten minute silence, it seemed to me, in which neither of us had anything to say, a verse came into my mind and I said to him, ‘I wonder if this would help you,’ and I read it and it isn’t an exaggeration to say that immediately he said, ‘Oh, I see.’” [Dudley-Smith, John Stott, i, 101]
Once again the Lord used someone quite small, unprepared, unsophisticated to pry open the windows of heaven so that his blessing might fall upon the needy.
Any old beggar can tell someone else where he found bread, which is all these four lepers did and what any Christian does who shares the good news with people he or she meets. The facts are these:
- The God of the Bible is the God of good news. He called one family out of the world with the express intent of using that family to bring the knowledge of his salvation to all the nations on the face of the earth.
- The Christ of the Gospels is the Christ of good news. He went out preaching the good news and showing that good news to multitudes of people. And, though he was sent only to the Jews, he laid explicit plans for worldwide evangelism to be done in his name after his ascension to the Right Hand.
- The early church was from the beginning a church that spread the good news far and wide. The story of the book of Acts is the story of the spread of the good news outward from Jerusalem and everywhere the principle of church growth was that of multiplication, not addition. It was not that one Christian was added to another, but that every new Christian brought others to the same faith. In the salvation of one the salvation of many more was latent and by a kind of spiritual mathematics generations of Christians multiplied in just months and a few years. It could have been said of a thousand churches what the Apostle Paul said of the church in Thessalonica: “The Lord’s message rang out from you…” [1 Thess. 1:8]
- And, finally, the Holy Spirit’s ministry of grace was and is today a ministry of the empowering of the proclamation of the good news. He must change or open the heart. We know that. The Holy Spirit opened Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message. But he makes use everywhere of the communication of the good news by his people. When he transforms a heart and life, not invariably but almost always, there is some Christian there who is telling that person what he or she needs to know.
But there is not a more beautiful, more arresting, more simple, more convicting or more convincing illustration of all of that than this account of the four lepers in 2 Kings 7. Simple men who had discovered the food that would make the difference between life and death and then told others where to find it.
Let’s take all of this to heart again, brothers and sisters. Even the great church historian Adolf von Harnack could see in his study of the progress of the gospel in the early centuries that most of the work had not been done by professionals. He wrote,
“We cannot hesitate to believe that the great mission of Christianity was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries.” [Cited in Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, 172]
He means that the work of spreading the news was accomplished primarily by people like you. You know this well enough from your own experience. Many of you were brought to faith in Christ through the witness of friends. For you it wasn’t listening to a sermon in church that made you a Christian, but listening to a friend who was a Christian explain what he or she had come to know about Jesus and salvation and the way to heaven.
So, my friends, up and at ‘em. Tell them simply and in your own words that the siege that is sucking the life out of them and will destroy them has been broken by the power of God and there is life to be found outside if only they will come and see.
Lord, lay some soul upon my heart
And love that soul through me;
And may I bravely do my part
To win that soul for Thee.
And when I come to the Beautiful City,
And the saved from all around me appear,
I want to hear somebody tell me
“It was you who invited me here.