We have a really great story from the Old Testament this morning and 2 Kings chapter 5. It’s one of the great stories of the whole Old Testament, I think, and it’s happened around 850 BC and it’s about a Syrian general named Naaman who goes to look for the prophet of Israel, Elisha, in order to be healed. And at the center of it really is what it means to be clean, to be made clean; that the only way to become truly clean is from the inside, out. That’s the message of the story that we’re going to read. So this is 2 Kings chapter 5. Before we read it, let’s pray.
Our God, we ask that You would speak to us in Your holy Word. And we ask for this in Christ’s name, amen.
We’ll read verse 1 to 14. This is God’s Word:
“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 went in and told his lord, ‘Thus and so spoke the girl from the land of Israel.’ And the king of Syria said, ‘Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.’
So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, ‘When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.’ And when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.’
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent to the king, saying, ‘Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.’ 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?’ So he turned and went away in a rage. 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.”
This is God’s Word.
So we’ll learn three lessons from this passage this morning. First, the reality of life. Secondly, the irony of change. And then finally, how to become clean.
The Reality of Life
So first, the reality of life. There’s a juxtaposition in verse 1 that frames the entire story. And it’s a juxtaposition that’s always been around as long as human beings have been around and it’s one that we all know the truth about. In the modern world, all of us know that in order to get a job today you need some type of marketable skill that you’ve trained for or been educated for. And college students and high schoolers today are packing a resume, more now than they ever have probably in history, with extra curriculars and things so that they can be marketable people when they come to their career. And what that means is that Jackson, Mississippi, the States, the West is full of Naamans because the first thing we read about in Naaman’s life in verse 1 is the resume. This is his resume here.
And did you catch how great it really is? He is the second most powerful man in the entire world. He is the general to the king of Assyria, which is the most powerful kingdom in the whole world. And it says he is a man “mighty in valor.” He was a great warrior. He was a man’s man. He had won all his battles. He was in high favor with the people. He was the second most powerful man in the whole world and he is an ancient Near Eastern success story if there ever was one. But the juxtaposition in verse 1, “but he had leprosy.” And what that means is that no matter how much our resumes are padded and list off our achievements and no matter how successful we may be and how hard we may work in this life, the truth is that nobody escapes leprosy. Nobody, no matter how much they achieve in this life, is outside the domain of suffering, of living in a cursed world. And in a cursed world, we all will experience the three “Ds” of the curse - disease, disasters, and death. It will happen to all of us and we know that.
Now Naaman’s leprosy is not Hansen’s Disease, what we think of as modern leprosy today. All we know about ancient leprosy is how the Bible describes it. The skin becomes so white that it’s flaky like scales. And so while Naaman was so full of success and achievement, you know, so full of pride and honor in his heart, so alive on the inside, he literally looks like death on the outside. He’s like the walking dead walking around all the time, his skin literally falling off his flesh. But look, an ancient person knew - just like we know if we’ve read the first five books of the Bible - that leprosy meant more than a biological disease. God chose leprosy as one of the conditions to be a symbol for all of humanity - that the leper in ancient Israel couldn’t be part of the people. They had to be cast out. They couldn’t come into the worship space. They couldn’t perform sacrifices. And it’s not merely because they’ve done something to get some biological disease. It’s because they are a symbol of all of humanity’s true identity. Leprosy, death on the outside of the skin, is pointing to the fact that deep down every single human being is a leper in their heart. And that’s why they were cast out. They were a symbol to stand for all people to know that, “That’s you, actually. That’s what your heart looks like - flaky and scaly and dead.” Every single person, no matter how successful we could get on the outside, has deep leprosy, the leprosy of sin on the inside.
If it’s 850 or 2019, you can grab life by the horns and climb every mountain and cross every rainbow and ford every stream and pick yourself up by your bootstraps and work as hard as you possibly can to beat it, but we can’t. We know that in the end we are out of our depths with the problems of this world. The curse has brought death, disease, disaster and it’s all because of human sin. We are out of our depths to deal with both the great problems of life - our sin and our suffering; what’s inside of us and what happens outside of us. And in a cursed world, friends have to bury friends and spouses have to bury spouses and our best moments fade to shadow. Shakespeare in MacBeth said it like this. “Every new morning, new widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven on the face.” Every single morning, millions upon millions of people experience new sufferings. Millions, every single morning. And that means in Jackson, Northeast Jackson, we are full of Naamans - people who have done well in life, who are successful, who generally have marketable skills, but we all know that secret. Even if it’s not outward, it’s inward - secretly we are clandestine sufferers; we are searching for hope and for an answer that is beyond death, disaster and disease and our own human sin.
And so the first lesson of this passage is incredibly unpopular in the contemporary world. The first message of Biblical religion is incredibly unpopular in the modern world because it says this - that real hope starts with a deep reckoning with the truth, that no matter how well we’ve created a good life, a successful life, a secure life, we are deeply flawed. And the only path to hope is first reckoning with the reality of who we really are - deep leprosy, that sin is you, that sin is me. And whether suffering happens to us or it’s a product of what we’ve done, we are not up to the task of confronting the problem of this cursed world. That’s what Naaman, the second most powerful man in the entire world realizes throughout this passage and it forces him to say this - “I am so successful, but I am not in control.”
The Irony of Change
Now secondly then, the irony of change. How does change start to happen? Just like there’s a juxtaposition in verse 1 - he was so successful yet he had leprosy - so in verse 2 and 3 there’s another juxtaposition. And that’s that he had conquered a portion of Samaria in Israel and brought with him slaves, Israel slaves. And he is the second most powerful man in the world and verse 2 says that a little girl who was his slave, his conquered slave, comes to him and says, “I can tell you where you can become clean. You need to go back to the place you conquered. There’s a prophet of God, the real God, there.” And that means that as much as the first step is reckoning with the deep truth that we are dead in our hearts, the second step is the beginning, the path of humility - of seeking a prophet of God to help us.
Now if you jump down to 10 and 11 you’ll see that when he does seek out the prophet of God, when he does get to Israel, he goes to see Elisha and Elisha won’t come out and see him. And he just tells him, “Go wash in the river.” And it says literally that Naaman was raging, that he was so angry at this. And let me suggest two reasons why he’s so mad, why he has not yet humbled himself before the truth, why he’s so mad. The first one is that humans, us, and especially great men and great women want to do great things in order to earn the gifts that we’re given. We want to earn that which is offered to us. And you can see that in the passage where the first thing he does is he goes to his king, in verse 5 and 6, and he asks for what we all have to ask for sometimes - a letter of recommendation. He wants a letter of recommendation to take to the Israeli king so he can say, “Look, this guy’s great! This guy deserves to be cured from the inside out! Look at all the things he’s accomplished!” So first he takes a letter of recommendation from his king in verse 5.
And then in verse 6 he’s reckoning if that doesn’t work, then it says he took with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels and ten changes of clothing. Horses, chariots, an army - all of it. Today, that money would be worth something like $2.5 million as a gift to give to the prophet to heal him. So he’s going to get a recommendation from the greatest man in the whole world, then he’s going to come with $2.5 million to buy his cure, buy his salvation.
And when Elisha tells him, “No, you just need to go wash in the river,” he wants to hear, “You need to go to the Lonely Mountain and defeat Smog and then come back again.” You know, “You need to go awaken Snow White from her sleep, and only then will you have the chance to be worthy to receive salvation from the prophet of God.” That’s what he wants to be told. He wants to earn it. And the lesson that he finds out very quickly here, the lesson of Biblical religion, true religion, is that it is neither accomplishments nor the stuff of this world that can ever buy the favor of the living God. We cannot buy or earn or impress with feats of heroism in order to get the cleansing that we need from the real God.
And he learns that as well, secondly, the other reason he’s so angry is because he thinks that the Israelite God is just like the Assyrian gods, is the other thing that makes him so angry. So in verse 6, he first goes to the king of Israel to make this happen. And the reason for that is that he probably believes that his own king is a semi-divine demi-god that is actually like a mediator of the gods to the prophets. So in Babylonian and Assyrian religion, you could go to the king, he’s divine himself, and he has direct access to the gods. He can call the gods and tell them, “This is what I need from you,” and they’ll do it. And he thinks that this God, that Yahweh, the true God is like that. So I can go to the king and he will be the puppet master and he will tell the prophet, “Do this dance and wave your hand and the God of Israel will cure me.”
And here’s what he finds out. Joram is the king here and Joram is not a good king. He’s an evil king in Israel and even this evil king Joram, the king of Israel, he says to him, “Who do you think I am? Do you think I am a king that controls God, that can cure you of your leprosy? Are you trying to pick a war with me? I have no power. I have no ability to make God do anything!” And what Naaman is realizing, what humans have to realize is that God, as 1 John tells us, is greater than our hearts., greater than our desires, greater than our hands, greater than our religion, greater than our ability. He can’t be tamed. Naaman didn’t know of a god who cannot be tamed, only gods who can be controlled. But the living God, the true God can’t be controlled; He can’t be tamed. He goes in verse 11, when he goes to Elisha, Elisha won’t come out and see him. He’s very angry about that. And then he said this, “I thought Elisha would come out, waves his hand, and speak the words over men.” And there, same mistake. Just like Elijah at Mount Carmel, where the prophets of Baal were babbling these ritual incantations and cutting themselves and thinking that their religious practices were going to get the gods to come down, Naaman thinks that if you sprinkle the magic potion, say “Expialadocious,” that Yahweh, that God will come down. We can make Him do what He wants. We can perform an incantation. We can do sorcery and we can control this God.
What he’s finding out is that this is the real God. He is no puppet. He cannot be controlled by humanity. He is good but He is not safe. He is good but He is not tame. The real God, the living God is greater than our hearts. And so Biblical religion says something incredibly unpopular to us again. To be clean, to be forgiven, it starts with reckoning the deep problem with our hearts, our inner leprosy; with humbling ourselves before the truth, before the reality of it, and knowing that nothing we do, no mere religion, no religious practice can help us, can save us. Mere religion cannot save us just like our accomplishments cannot save us. And so he’s told, “Just go wash in the river and you will be clean.” And it’s so easy it’s impossible for him. It’s such a gift that he cannot take it because a little slave girl could do that.”
I came across an article recently from a 2015 speech of Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor. And in the speech he was recounting his legacy at age 72 and talking about all the things he had done, spearheaded in New York City in his career. He said, “I have reduced obesity, I’ve eliminated smoking from public places, I’ve neutered the gun violence on the streets.” He said, “I’ve promoted the human health, human safety, human flourishing.” And then he ended his speech like this. “I’m telling you, if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping at the gate to be interviewed. I’m going straight in. I’ve earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close; nobody can stop me.”
Whether it’s Michael Bloomberg in 2015 or Naaman in 850 BC or me in 2019, human nature says the only way I want my salvation is if I work for it, is if I work for it, is if I do the right things, if I practice the right religion, if I experience the right culture. That’s what humanity says in our hearts. And Naaman thinks that salvation is a commercial transaction with a God that can be manipulated. And Elisha says to us, “No, Christianity is not like that. The Biblical religion is not like that. The real God does not work that way. You cannot control Him. You cannot earn anything before Him. Dead lepers deserve nothing before the living God, before the real God. There is no magic, no hand-waving, no ritual, no family line, no success story, no achievement, no security, no general goodness, no heroic feat, no cultural participation, no religion that can buy the salvation of the real God.
How to Become Clean
So how do we become clean? Finally, in verse 14, Naaman’s slaves are the ones that finally convince him. “Humble yourself and step in the river and you will be clean. What are you doing?” And he does it. And did you notice at the end that it says that his flesh was restored like the flesh of a, literally, baby; a chubby little baby. That’s what we have at our house and his skin is very soft. And that’s what Naaman’s skin was like after he stepped in the river. But it doesn’t just say that. It adds a final little clause, “and he was clean.” The reason that’s there is because the first one talks about his biological problem - his flesh has become clean. But the second, “and he was clean,” is talking about something different. Remember, every single ancient person knew that a leper was a symbol that there’s not just something wrong with our biology and our suffering on the outside, but it’s a symbol that in our hearts we’re dead. There’s deep leprosy in all of humanity and this is saying it’s not just that his flesh is restored; he became clean from the inside out. His deep leprosy was being death with when he stepped into the river.
Now 880 years after this in Luke 4, Jesus is there with the elders and the scribes and the Pharisees and He’s in His hometown and He says something very bold in verse 18. He says, “The Spirit of the Lord has come upon me to proclaim liberty to the captives and to heal the leper.” And they are very upset about this because they know what He just said. And they say things like, “Is this not Joseph’s son, the carpenter, from Nazareth? He has no marketable skills. He has no public achievement. He is not a success story. He was not much to be looked at. He was a poor man from a no-name town, Narazreth. And Jesus says, “Well every prophet is rejected in his hometown.” And this is how He responds. Verse 27, “There were many lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet, Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman, the Syrian.” You see what Jesus is doing with this story? He’s saying “My hometown might reject Me, but I’ve come to make foreign lepers clean, Jew or Gentile, no matter who it is.” What He’s really doing is He’s saying, “I am the new Elisha.” He’s directly identifying Himself with Elisha here and saying, “I am the Elisha that was there cleansing. I’ve come in the name of Elisha with the power to cleanse the leper - foreign, Gentile or Jew.” They knew that He was saying that. They knew that He was the prophet of God, so much so that they tried to throw Him off a cliff when He said it.
Now we’ll close with this. In the very next chapter, the next story after He has identified Himself as the new Elisha, after He had called John the Baptist the new Elijah, He’s there traveling around and a leper approaches Him. Now commentators have mentioned that and asked the question, “Why did Elisha not go out to meet Naaman face to face to heal him with a miracle of touching him?” And the speculation from the theologians is that Elisha doesn’t go out to touch Naaman, to heal Naaman himself because under Torah Law, if Elisha goes out and touches Naaman, what happens to Elisha? He becomes unclean. He becomes the leper. He becomes the dirty one. He becomes the one that symbolizes human sin, that gets cast out, that can’t go into the temple. And as much as Jesus Christ is the new Elisha, He’s something more, because when the leper comes to Him in the very next story - Ligon Duncan was the first person I’d ever heard point this out - the leper comes and says to Him, “You can make me clean if you would, if you will.” And they were by themselves but if any Jewish person had been standing there, what would they have said to Jesus? “Don’t touch him! Don’t touch the leper! If you touch the leper you’ll be the one cast out by God! You’ll be the one that’s unclean! You be the one that can’t appear in the presence of the Father. You’ll be the one that’s dirty and filthy.” And He says, “I will touch him. Be clean!” And He touches him. And what happens? Jesus Christ does not become unclean; the leper becomes clean. He is unlike any prophet that had ever come before him. He is the new Elisha. He is the Elisha that could touch the deep leprosy that cannot be ultimately condemned. He was the new Elisha that could eat our sin, that could drink it. He who knew no sin became our leprosy for us. And he took it to the cross and it killed Him and He defeated it in resurrection victory. When Jesus Christ touches you, He doesn’t become unclean; you become clean.
And as we step towards the Lord’s Supper today, let me say no matter how many times you’ve come to the River and washed, Jesus Christ is the River; He’s the Jordan. And today as you step towards the Lord’s Supper, come to the River and wash and be clean. Bow before Him. To be cleaned, your sin is so serious you have to bathe in the blood that was poured from His side. You have to eat and drink His body and blood. You have to come to Him and give everything and humble yourself and own your sin. That’s what Sundays are for, for Christians even and for non-Christians too - to come and to wash in the River again. To come back to the Gospel. Let me say that, as we step towards the Supper, He knows exactly what to do with you and He has done something about your leprosy. And so if you will come to Him this morning, the end of life will not be your sin, it will not merely be your suffering, it will not merely be death. It will not be death. It will be resurrection. And that’s an invitation to you to bow before the Son. Let’s pray.
Our Lord and God, we ask now that You would bring us to the waters to wash in the grace of Jesus Christ. Help those who might not know and have done that before to do it, and help all of us to come back again as we taste and as we drink of His body and His blood. And we ask this in Christ’s name, amen.
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