The Unlikely Missionary
The books of Kings, covering the history of the kingdoms of Israel from about 970 to 560 b.c., record exciting and dramatic events and far-reaching political upheavals touching God’s people. Woven in these accounts are the stories of Elijah and Elisha, daring prophets of God whose adventures have gripped the imaginations of children and adults in every age.
Also interesting are the similarities between the ministry of Elisha and the ministry of Jesus. In the ministries of both, dead persons were raised, lepers cleansed, and hungry people fed from small amounts of food.
This week’s lesson deals with one of these miracles: the healing of Naaman, a wealthy, powerful, and very proud idolater who, in his great need, came to experience the power of the living God and first did so through the witness of a very unlikely missionary.
Among the many spiritual truths that can be found in this account, we can get a model for cross-cultural witnessing in the midst of international tension and rivalry. We can see, too, in this story a model for how the plan of salvation works.
*Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, July 18.
This verse contains no fewer than four descriptions or titles that put Naaman in the top echelon of Syrian, or Aramean, society. He exerted major influence on the king of Aram, was held in high esteem, and was the king’s right-hand man in religious, as well as military, matters (vs. 18). He was also extremely wealthy (vs. 5).
However, verse 1 has a major “but.” All Naaman’s power, honor, and bravery paled in light of the most feared disease in those days, leprosy. And that is exactly what this poor man had, the major “but” that cast a dark shadow over all else he had achieved. This ailment, however, brought him into contact with God’s prophet, and through that contact he became a believer in the true God.
Personal life disruptions, tragedies, and transitions can make people more open to spiritual truth and set them on a search for God. Physical, psychological, political, or other disasters can open people up to the reality of the Divine. Personal loss, national catastrophes, and wars are major motivators that cause people to seek a power greater than themselves. The church has long been aware that increased soul-winning results tend to come in areas in which people are struck by personal or societal suffering.
The Bible gives us no real details of how this young girl acted in the home, but it’s clear that there was something about her that caught the family’s attention. Think about it: on the word of a captive female child in his household, a wealthy and powerful military leader goes to his king, tells him what she said, and then gets permission from the king to go. Even more so, he loads up on gifts to bring to the prophet. Obviously, more was going on than what is explicitly stated in the texts. Nevertheless, God’s agent to plant the knowledge of Him in the ruling circles of Syria was an unnamed little Hebrew slave girl, cruelly snatched from her home by a Syrian raiding party. Instead of dwelling on the cruelty and meaninglessness of that act, and of her life of servitude, she shared her unshaken faith in the life-changing power of God, who was working through Elisha in Samaria (vs. 3). Thus, like Daniel and his companions in Babylon, she was able to turn her own adversity into a way to glorify God; and thus, God turned her captivity into an opportunity to share her faith. According to Ellen G. White, “The conduct of the captive maid, the way that she bore herself in that heathen home, is a strong witness to the power of early home training.”— Prophets and Kings, p. 245.
What’s fascinating, too, in this story is the reaction of the king of Israel upon getting the letter. Am I God? Can I heal leprosy? His words reveal just how dreaded the disease was and why only a miracle could bring about a cure. For whatever reason, the letter implied the expectation that the king was to bring the cure. He knew that he couldn’t do that, and so he thought it was all a trick to instigate trouble.
Elisha, the Prophet The ministry of the prophet Elisha in the ninth century b.c. comes to us in a series of 18 episodes, extending over more than fifty years. His ministry was conducted mostly as the head of the school of the prophets and was largely public. It included displays of signs and wonders at both the personal as well as the national level. Elisha was a prophet whose counsel and help were sought by both kings and commoners.
No question that Elisha was called of God; he had some incredible experiences that must have confirmed his calling in his own mind. More important, his request for a “double portion” of the Spirit showed his awareness that for him to do what he was called to do, he would need divine power, because in and of himself he would be helpless. Thus, even back then, this man of God understood what Jesus said many centuries later: “ ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing’ ” (John 15:5, NKJV). It’s a lesson that we all need to recognize, no matter our position in the Lord’s work.
Obviously, as we can see from the story of Elisha’s calling, this power had, indeed, been granted to him. Thus, Elisha revealed that he had a healthy and honest understanding of his own role and calling when he declared to the king: let Naaman “know that there is a prophet in Israel” (2 Kings 5:8).
Also interesting must have been the scene when this military commander and his retinue showed up in all their glory at the door of Elisha’s house, probably something relatively small and modest in contrast to the luxury that Naaman enjoyed. Elisha, however, didn’t seem all that intimidated by Naaman and his troops. In fact, Elisha did not so much as step outside to meet his powerful caller; instead, he sent a messenger, who gave the military commander a command! The only reward for Naaman’s long trip from Damascus was the blunt directive to go to the Jordan and bathe! But it was accompanied by a promise: “ ‘you will be cleansed’ ” (vs. 10, NIV).
No doubt the pride of this important man was hurt. Perhaps, though, that was the point.
Had the prophet Elisha personally met his prominent guest Naaman and employed exorcising gestures accompanied by magic formulas and other rituals so common in pagan religions, Naaman might not have hesitated. But two aspects of his reception insulted him. Not only did the prophet not personally come out of his house to meet Naaman, but he also directed him to the Jordan River as the place to get his leprosy cured.
From the viewpoint of protocol, Naaman was right. Elisha should have left his house to greet him. And the rivers in Damascus were undoubtedly better, since their water was clearer than the muddy Jordan’s. However, through Elisha, God directed Naaman to the Jordan, a river in Israel. The entire cure process was designed to demonstrate, first, that there was a prophet of the true God in Israel and, second, that God rewarded believing compliance.
Naaman’s retinue convinced him to submit to his new, divine “commander” and at least give it a try. Their argument, that if the suggested cure had been complicated he would have endured it, persuaded him. It must have been hard for Naaman to swallow his pride at having to listen to a slave girl, a foreign prophet who showed him little deference, and, finally, to his own servants. He was, though, desperate for healing.
“So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy” (2 Kings 5:14, NIV).
The initial requirements for Naaman’s healing were belief and compliance. As soon as he conquered his pride and complied with God’s expressed will by bathing seven times in the muddy Jordan, he was cured.
It would have been easy for Naaman to return directly from Jordan to Damascus after his healing. However, as a gesture of thankfulness, he and his attendants returned to the prophet’s place. This time they met Elisha in person. The confession that the God of Israel is sovereign in the world is the main theme of the Bible. These words coming from a pagan constitute one of the high points in Old Testament revelation. Naaman’s conversion made clear that his new experience had to be tied to the God of Israel. The prophet was an Israelite, the river was the most important in Israel, and the number seven was a clear connection to the God of creation.
What we see with Naaman is an example of how true faith works: Naaman received something that he could never have earned on his own. The fact that Elisha refused the gifts (2 Kings 5:16) was a way of showing how salvation cannot be earned or bought but is wholly of God’s grace. At the same time, however, Naaman’s willingness to give something to Elisha for what he had done for him shows the response of faith, a response out of gratefulness for what had been given him. Elisha refused the gift. Here he followed the example of Abraham when he helped the pagan kings but refused rewards with the words that no one should be able to say, “I made Abram rich” (Gen. 14:23, NIV). Elisha knew that acceptance of a gift would have spoiled the lesson Naaman should learn. The healing was the work of God and an act of sheer grace.
“Let this point be fully settled in every mind: If we accept Christ as a Redeemer, we must accept Him as a Ruler. We cannot have the assurance and perfect confiding trust in Christ as our Saviour until we acknowledge Him as our King and are obedient to His commandments. Thus we evidence our allegiance to God. We have then the genuine ring in our faith, for it is a working faith. It works by love.”—Ellen G. White, Faith and Works, p. 16.
Further Study: “Centuries after Naaman returned to his Syrian home, healed in body and converted in spirit, his wonderful faith was referred to and commended by the Saviour as an object lesson for all who claim to serve God. ‘Many lepers were in Israel in the time of Eliseus the prophet,’ the Saviour declared; ‘and none of them was cleansed, saving Naaman the Syrian.’ Luke 4:27. God passed over the many lepers in Israel because their unbelief closed the door of good to them. A heathen nobleman who had been true to his convictions of right, and who felt his need of help, was in the sight of God more worthy of His blessing than were the afflicted in Israel, who had slighted and despised their God-given privileges. God works for those who appreciate His favors and respond to the light given them from heaven.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, pp. 252, 253.