Read: 2 Kings 5:1-14
What must I do to be saved? That’s a question people don’t ask much anymore, but a famous story involving the prophet Elisha and a Syrian general called Naaman shows us the answer.
One sabbath day Jesus came back to his home town of Nazareth, went to the synagogue, and preached a sermon. In it he said that the day of God’s salvation had arrived, and that it coincided with his own presence in the world (Luke 4:16ff.). How’s that for an audacious claim?
Some of Jesus’ listeners were less than impressed. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they began asking themselves. In other words, “Who does this guy think he is! 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 announced, “and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:27). He was referring to a Bible story told in the book of 2 Kings, chapter 5. Let’s look at Naaman’s story.
A Great Man
Naaman was a soldier, we learn, the commander of the army of the king of Syria. This meant that he was not only a gentile and a pagan, but also a deadly enemy to the people of God, to Israel. He was also a man who stood in high favor with his master, the King of Syria. In other words, Naaman had it made, as we say, except for just one thing. He had leprosy. As the story unfolds, we learn all this about him in just one or two sentences.
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We also learn that, as it happened, a young Israelite girl who had been captured in a raid was working in Naaman’s house as a slave to his wife. This girl tells her mistress about a prophet in Israel who could cure Naaman of his leprosy. Naaman goes immediately and tells his king, who writes a letter to the king of Israel, saying, “Here’s my favorite general. He’s got leprosy. You cure him.”
And the king of Israel says, “What am I? God? This guy is obviously trying to create an excuse for invading us!” Then Elisha, the prophet in question, hear’s about it and says, “Calm down, King. Just send the general to me.”
So [we read] 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 5:9-14)
Why did God choose to heal Naaman the Syrian? 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 gentile, on whom to show mercy?
God certainly loves some strange people, doesn’t he? We know that God loves the poor and the humble, but Naaman was rich and important. We know that God loves the meek, but Naaman was proud, arrogant, and powerful. We know that God loves his covenant people Israel, 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’s available for everybody, even those we might think don’t deserve it. It could even be available for somebody like you, or me!
Who was this Naaman anyway? He was a man of many fine qualities. He was an outstanding military leader, highly successful in his chosen career. He was popular, a favorite of the king, with honors lavished upon him. He was rich. He was also courageous; “a mighty man of valor,” the Bible calls him. Naaman had just about everything the world has to offer. He was the kind of person you see on the cover of People magazine, or maybe TIME, or whom you watch on television specials that profile the world’s great ones.
But he was also a leper, the Bible says. And 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 money, could not save him from leprosy.
Naaman’s was a sad case. He was so famous, so important, so rich, yet a leper. But I don’t think his story is nearly as sad as the story of so many modern men and women who have a kind of spiritual leprosy and don’t know it. I read somewhere once that when a famous British scientist, actually the man who discovered chloroform in the 19th century, was asked “What was your greatest discovery?” he replied, “That I am a sinner, and that Jesus Christ is my Savior.” Just so. This is the most important discovery anyone can make. Before Naaman could be cured he had to know himself to be a leper. He had to confront the reality of his disease and do something about it. Before you and I can be cleansed we must know ourselves to be sinners. Without that there can never be any healing for us.
Hearing the Gospel
Namaan’s healing came through the simple witness of a servant girl. What a contrast she presents to Naaman himself. This 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 Israelite slave girl who spoke a word of testimony to the God of Israel.
So Naaman goes off 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 both a word of command and a word of promise just like this: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” Go and wash and you will be clean.
But this 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 offer. Despite his awful disease, Naaman was offended by the prophet’s word. His anger was due to a bruised ego. After all, he had expected more than this. Elisha didn’t even come to meet him in person! He had the gall to simply send out a messenger. And the messenger told him, “Just go wash in the Jordan River.”
Naaman had expected Elisha to come with solemn prayers and dramatic gestures and formal invocations, some kind of elaborate ceremony befitting his rank. Elisha’s brusque message did not match Naaman’s sense of self-importance. And what if Elisha were mocking him, sending him on a fools’ errand to make Naaman the laughing-stock of the people of Israel?
So Naaman was angry at what seemed to be an unreasonable demand, a demeaning command. If what he needed was a bath, Naaman could have had 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.” That 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 at the arbitrary command he was given, but the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men, as the Bible says.
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 isn’t which way is least offensive to the human mind and heart. The question is: which way can cure leprosy? Naaman found 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 to pay for his cure: 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. In fact, God wants something more precious than that. He wants us to come to him, to humble ourselves, and to accept his love. Naaman couldn’t do that in Syria. He found no gods there to heal him. And we can’t do that anywhere but at the cross.
We cannot buy forgiveness at any price. But we can receive it free, if we humble ourselves and are washed in the blood of Christ.
About the Author
Rev. Dave Bast retired as the President and Broadcast Minister of Words of Hope in January 2017, after 23 years with the ministry. Prior to his ministry and work at Words of Hope, Dave served as a pastor for 18 years in congregations in the Reformed Church in America. He is the author of several devotional books. A graduate of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary, he has also studied at both the Fuller and Calvin seminaries. Dave and his wife, Betty Jo, have four children and four grandchildren. Dave enjoys reading, growing tomatoes, and avidly follows the Detroit Tigers.