Cleansed Lepers and Floating Axe Heads
2 Kings 5:1–6:7
Main Idea: In a show of His power and grace, the Lord (through the ministry of Elisha) first heals an outsider of leprosy and then provides for the needs of His servants through an unusual miracle.
I. God’s Saving Grace (5:1-15)
A. A great man with a great need (v. 1)
B. A great evangelist (vv. 2-5a)
C. A great word (vv. 5b-13)
D. A great transformation (vv. 14-18)
II. God’s Supplying Grace (6:1-7)
A few years ago some guys from our church went to Nigeria on a mission trip. The trip included medical missions, orphan care, theological training, and a visit to a leper colony. I will never forget the day we pulled into the isolated place where a group of lepers was living. We spent our initial time visiting with them. We went hut to hut, sitting down with these wonderful individuals, hearing their stories, and asking them about their faith. Some of them had no toes or fingers. They dwelt in sad-looking huts, trying to survive on limited food resources. The locals wouldn’t allow the lepers’ kids to leave the colony, so the colony was filled with kids also. Of course, the kids latched on to us and celebrated as we handed out candy. The sights, sounds, smells, conversations, and touches caused us all to be emotional.
I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. A local chaplain gathered everyone to the center of the village and said, “Now pastor Tony will preach.” That was news to me! I didn’t know I was preaching. I didn’t even have a Bible. And what on earth can you say to a group of dying lepers? I decided simply to quote Romans 8:18-31 as best as I could and encourage these individuals, many of whom were followers of Jesus. As I spoke about suffering and future glory, the people began to worship. I have a picture of a lady standing behind me with her arms lifted up in the air as I told the villagers that all of us are dying, lepers and non-lepers alike. But soon Jesus will come to make all things new, and this fallen world will give way to indescribable glory. We had a powerful time of worship, and Romans 8 came with fresh application to us all.
Presently the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has brought great fear to people across the world. Health professionals and international leaders struggle to stop this deadly disease that has reportedly taken over 700 lives (and growing as I write). This outbreak has rightly caused many to grieve and pray. It has also brought to mind—at least for some—that we’re made for another world where there is no more sickness, fear, or tears.
While Jesus was on earth, He demonstrated His messianic reign in many ways, including the healing of sick people, like lepers. When John the Baptist had a crisis of faith, he sent a question to Jesus, asking about the Savior’s identity. Jesus replied with a mild rebuke:
Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news. And if anyone is not offended because of Me, he is blessed. (Matt 11:4-6)
Jesus’ words were intended to leave no doubt that He was indeed the Holy One, of whom all the prophets spoke. His clear proofs included His miraculous healings and His powerful gospel preaching.
Jesus’ miracles were foretastes of the kingdom to come. His miracles weren’t the violation of the laws of nature but the restoration of the laws of nature. Jesus gave an early viewing of the ultimate restoration to come. Jesus will one day reverse the curse of this fallen world triumphantly, fully, and finally. Now we groan with longings for that day (Rom 8:18-31). We wait with groanings that are at times too deep for words (Rom 8:26). But our groanings should be mingled with confident hope, for hope has come in a person, Jesus, and He will come again to make all things new.
Elisha’s ministry included “previews of Jesus.” We have already noted that their ministries have numerous similarities. Once again we see that to be true. In 2 Kings 5 we read of the prophet Elisha healing a leper. His healing points us to the ultimate Prophet and Great Physician, who on one particular occasion healed 10 lepers, giving a sign of the ultimate restoration that will one day come fully.
Naaman’s cleansing provides a vivid illustration of the power of the gospel. His physical healing is only part of the whole story. What we witness here is an amazing conversion of one who had been outside the faith. God graciously saves a leper from a deadly physical condition and ultimately from eternal judgment. Naaman eventually confesses, “I know there’s no God in the whole world except in Israel” (2 Kgs 5:15). So now you see, this isn’t simply an encouraging tale for sick people. This is a story that we can all identify with. As believers, we were spiritual lepers until Christ cleansed us from sin.
Indeed, this story reminds us that no one is too bad to come to Christ for salvation. There is real gospel hope in this dusty old story. My good friend and colleague Nate Akin illustrates this glorious gospel truth with the following story. One Sunday, in the response time following a pastor’s sermon, a lady began to weep as she filled out a response card at the front of the worship center. The pastor went and sat next to her in order to learn more about her situation. She took the card she had filled out and said, “You see my name?”
“Yes,” the pastor said.
She replied, “You see that ‘Mrs.’ in front of my name?” The pastor affirmed. She went on, “I’m no ‘Mrs.’ I’ve never been married. I write ‘Mrs.’ in front of my name on account of my little baby boy. When he was born, I said in my heart, ‘I’m going to raise him in that wonderful First Baptist Church in Dallas.’ So I began bringing him into the nursery, and I began attending the services, and I’ve been listening to you preach, and today I felt I wanted to become a Christian and become a member of the congregation.”
“But,” she said, “Since I have come and since I’ve been seated here, I’ve been thinking about my life as a prostitute. I’ve been thinking about what I’ve done, and if you knew me, and if these people knew me, you would not want the likes of me in this church.”
Of course, the pastor told her otherwise. The truth is, we aren’t unlike this woman. We have a fundamental problem. We are all unclean. Paul puts it like this:
There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one. (Rom 3:10-12)
This story in 2 Kings 5 reminds us that God powerfully, sovereignly, and graciously can overcome the effects of the fall and save sinners like Naaman—and like us.
But that’s not all. God’s sovereign grace is on display in the story that follows the Naaman incident, as God works through Elisha to recover a floating axe. This whole section is a marvelous testimony to the amazing grace of God. We will look at this chapter in two parts—God’s saving grace and God’s supplying grace.
God’s Saving Grace
2 Kings 5:1-15
The account of Elisha’s miracles not only points us ahead to Jesus, but it also points us back to Elijah. Here’s another account of how God was at work in the prophet to impact those outside the nation of Israel. We find here a great man with a great need, a great evangelist, a great word, and a great transformation.
A Great Man with a Great Need (v. 1)
Naaman is quite an impressive individual. He is a commander of the Aramean (Syrian) army. He’s a successful man with high standing. Most interestingly, he’s a man who had gained victory with the help of Yahweh. His success was due to Yahweh’s sovereign will.
This is a remarkable illustration of God’s total sovereignty. Yahweh controls Aramean politics and all “foreign affairs” around the world. God was not merely the God of Israel. He was and is the God of the nations. The psalmist says, “The earth and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, belong to the Lord” (Ps 24:1). Davis says, “Yahweh is both the God of the church and Lord of the world. Yahweh draws near to his people but that doesn’t mean he allows pagans to run around unsupervised” (2 Kings, 86). Indeed, it shouldn’t surprise us that Naaman’s success came at Yahweh’s pleasure.
But this great man had a great need: “he was a leper” (v. 1 ESV). Bible commentators point out that technically this “skin disease” (HCSB) was probably not modern-day leprosy, that is, Hansen’s disease. Naaman’s patchy disfigurement appeared “white as snow” (5:27). Hansen lesions aren’t white. Naaman’s disease seems to be something like psoriasis (Leithart, 1 and 2 Kings, 193). Whatever the exact condition was, we know it was serious enough to bring fear and elicit concern from others. Most importantly, this skin disease would have rendered Naaman ritually unclean (Lev 13–14) and under God’s judgment (Num 12:1-15; 2 Kgs 15:5). Thus, Naaman was a double outsider. He was an Aramean, and he was a leper. He was a great man, but he had a great need. He needed to be cleansed in every way.
Naaman’s story, however, isn’t unique. We all need to be cleansed. But before we can find true cleansing, we must realize our own need. This is hard for some to admit, especially successful people and especially “religious” people. In Luke 4 Jesus retells the story of Naaman:
And in the prophet Elisha’s time, there were many in Israel who had serious skin diseases, yet not one of them was healed—only Naaman the Syrian. (Luke 4:27)
After hearing these things, they wanted to kill the Savior. Those listening to Jesus describe His mission didn’t receive Him. They rejected Him like Israel rejected the prophets. We must not make the same mistake. Grace is available for all who admit they’re spiritual lepers in need of Christ’s cleansing.
A Great Evangelist (vv. 2-5a)
God’s sovereignty is displayed in His involvement not only in big foreign affairs but also in the small details of seemingly “unimportant” individual’s lives. Enter the “young girl” (v. 2). How will Naaman ever hear the “great thing” (v. 13) of the prophet Elisha? God uses means to accomplish His purposes. One of those means is human beings testifying of God’s saving power, like this unnamed servant girl. We know little about her, but she proves to be tremendously important.
She had been taken away after an Aramean raid. Perhaps her parents were dead. She probably had no hope of returning home. She was living out her days in the service of a foreign person in a foreign land. Yet she stands as a wonderful example to us. She’s aware of Naaman’s condition. Concerned for his welfare and confident in God’s work through Elisha, she tells her mistress that someone can cure the commander. This word was passed up to Naaman, who then went and received permission to go to Israel in hope of being cured.
Never underestimate the power of words. Never think God can’t use you where you are. Point people to Jesus within the ordinary rhythms of your workweek. You never know who might respond and how God may be glorified. That’s the legacy of this little evangelist.
Today this might look like something as simple as giving a Christian book to someone at your school or in your office. It might involve simply inviting someone to corporate worship with you on a Sunday. It might involve your simply asking if you could pray for your sick neighbor or taking the family some soup. If you want to do great things, great! But most Christians need to start with small things. This small girl did the small task of telling someone about Elisha, and it made a huge difference. Don’t think you need a position in a church or in a corporation to be used of God. God loves to use ordinary people to accomplish His extraordinary purposes. Live every day with gospel intentionality.
A Great Word (vv. 5b-13)
In contrast to the faithful servant girl, we now meet a pathetic servant. This time the servant has position, influence, and power, but he’s useless. Naaman goes off to Israel with an official letter from Aram’s king and a lot of goods, clothes, and gold. Presumably the Aramean king thought that there would be a close relationship between the prophet and the king’s court. But Israel’s king (Joram? 2 Kgs 3) is no help whatsoever. He responds with mourning and panic. His assumption is that Aram wants to fight again. The slave girl has faith, but the king of Israel doesn’t.
Israel’s king doesn’t seek out the prophet, but when Elisha hears about the situation, he responds: “Why have you torn your clothes? Have him come to me, and he will know there is a prophet in Israel” (v. 8). Following this invitation, “Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house” (v. 9).
Isn’t it interesting that this man Naaman is coming to the country where Yahweh’s chosen people live, but the king in the country doesn’t even truly know Yahweh? How similar is this to people who grow up in religious environments but never become real Christ followers? Proximity doesn’t always lead to salvation. Your name may be on a church roll, but what matters is whether it’s in the Book of Life (Phil 4:3).
Now for the great word of Elisha. His word is a word of salvation, but like the gospel this word can offend.
Elisha sends his messenger to Naaman instead of going himself. Imagine this scene. A royal entourage is at your door, and you stay at your desk, sending someone to speak for you! The writer doesn’t interpret Elisha’s actions, but surely this act was a bit humbling to Naaman. But if this didn’t humble Naaman, Elisha’s instructions surely did. In fact, they disturbed him. Naaman anticipated a faith-healing event, like the waving of the hand, an incantation, and boom—leprosy gone! But that’s not what happens. Elisha tells him to go to the Jordan and wash seven times. Elisha treated this man like any other leper who needed to be healed, and Naaman didn’t like it (Davis, 2 Kings, 90).
The gospel must first humble us before it heals us. Everything about the gospel humbles us. It crushes our pride and our cultural assumptions. You must first humbly admit that you’re a desperate sinner. Proud, morally relativistic people don’t want to recognize this fact. You must humbly accept that Jesus, the One hung on a tree 2,000 years ago, is the only way of salvation. Proud, intellectual people don’t want to embrace this fact either. You must also humbly acknowledge that you can’t do anything—anything!—to earn salvation. Proud “self-made” people don’t want to admit this either. They want to justify themselves. They want to work out their own self-salvation projects. Indeed, everything about the gospel humbles us. But for all those who do humble themselves, they will find grace and be exalted (1 Pet 5:5-6).
Naaman is being humbled in this account. He’s bothered by Elisha’s dogmatism and “narrow-mindedness.” He’s bothered that he has to go into the Jordan, Israel’s major river, instead of some other body of water, maybe one in his own country. Will Naaman stumble over this message, or will he submit to this message?
Paul tells us that many stumble over the cross, but others find salvation in it (1 Cor 1:23-24). Some scoff at the message of a bloody cross while others sing about it. Scoffers find it too embarrassing, too uncivil, too stupid, too simple, and too narrow. Believers find it altogether glorious, infinitely wise, hope giving, and powerful. The cross of Christ divides the human race into two categories, and it unites all believers. To sing about the wonders of the Savior, one must first humbly submit to the word of the Savior.
Naaman eventually submitted to the prophet’s word. His servants tell him that instead of scoffing at the message, he should rejoice in its simplicity and experience the promise of responding in faith. By God’s grace, we then read of his conversion.
A Great Transformation (vv. 14-18)
After washing in the Jordan, Naaman’s skin is transformed. He’s healed instantly and fully. It’s a beautiful picture of his new status and his new identity. The miracle wasn’t due to any magical powers in the Jordan River, either. His transformation can only be attributed to the power and grace of God.
Bible teachers disagree over whether or not one should see this account as having some baptismal significance. While we should avoid making this story a key text for an argument regarding baptism views, it’s hard not to see some similarities. Even those who practice a different mode of baptism than me see this text as saying something about it. Leithart goes so far as to say, “The story of Naaman is the richest Old Testament story of baptism and anticipates Christian baptism in a number of specific ways” (1 and 2 Kings, 192). One could argue that Naaman’s “baptism” anticipates the baptism of thousands of future Gentiles. Naaman’s baptism, like Christian baptism, also identified Him with God and His people. And his baptism was a picture of death to life, like Christian baptism.
In verse 15 we see that Naaman’s skin wasn’t the only thing that changed. His mind and heart changed also. What an awesome confession of faith and change of heart! Naaman confesses that Yahweh alone is God. He also calls himself a “servant” of Elisha. Finally, he wants to give an offering as a sign of his love and loyalty. That’s quite a shift from his initial reaction.
But there’s even more evidence of his transformation. The next part of the passage might puzzle you, but I think it makes sense. Naaman essentially explains that he’s not adding Yahweh to his already existing pagan gods, but rather he’s turning from all false gods and replacing them with Yahweh. The situation he describes in verses 17-19 might not first appear to say this, but I think that’s exactly the point. Naaman says that he’s committed to worshiping Yahweh exclusively, but he wants pardon in advance because he knows that he will be going to the pagan temple with his master. Is Naaman, then, not committed to Yahweh? No, I think the opposite is true. This was simply part of Naaman’s job description. Naaman is implying with the “soil sample” that even though he will be in the temple with his master, he will not worship his master’s idol. Because of his work expectations, he asks for pardon.
So I don’t think we should take this negatively. Elisha takes it as no big deal, saying, “Go in peace.” He simply leaves it at that. Davis rightly says that verse 18 actually shows a mark of conversion, namely, a “sensitive conscience” (2 Kings, 94). Naaman is bothered by his workplace expectations. Too bad more Israelites weren’t as sensitive as Naaman. Naaman lost not only his leprosy but also his paganism (ibid.).
A real conversion involves turning from idols to the living God exclusively (1 Thess 1:9-10). It involves a change of status. It involves new desires. It involves a sensitive conscience. It involves generous giving. All of these things are expressed in this remarkable conversion story. Leithart summarizes it well:
The story of Naaman’s conversion is one of the most detailed and one of the most sociologically and psychologically rich conversion stories in the Bible. Almost for the first time, the Bible depicts the change of mind and heart, as well as the change of status, that occurs when a sinner turns to the God of Israel. (1 and 2 Kings, 193)
Indeed, everything changed for Naaman, and everything changes for anyone else who truly repents and believes in Christ.
Paul told the formerly unclean Corinthians, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come” (2 Cor 5:17). Becoming a Christian isn’t about becoming a nicer person. It’s not about turning over a new leaf. It’s about becoming a new person. That’s the change Christians have experienced, and that’s the message we hold out to the world. So, like this little slave girl, let’s keep telling everyone about the One greater than Elisha that can make them new and clean.
Unfortunately, the whole story of Naaman’s conversion doesn’t end positively for everyone. While Naaman experiences the wonder of God’s gracious salvation, Gehazi experiences a negative transformation. In the first story Naaman is healed from leprosy; in the second story Gehazi, because of his great sin, is struck with the same disease. We read of Gehazi’s greed and lack of gospel understanding and appreciation in verses 19-27. This whole account is sad. Elisha refuses to receive anything from Naaman, but Gehazi is looking to cash in on the matter, reminding us of the sin of Achan (Josh 7) and Simon the Magician (Acts 8:18-24).
Gehazi makes up a story about Elisha. His lie is carefully told, for it doesn’t come across as excessive but believable. Naaman had previously offered much more. Naaman agrees and hands over the goods to Gehazi.
Motivated by greed, Elisha’s servant lies and takes what doesn’t belong to him. Then he lies again when Elisha asks him where he has been. Elisha informs Gehazi that he knows what has happened. Elisha then informs him that such great sin has consequences, and in this case it results in leprosy.
What’s probably most deplorable in this episode is that Gehazi distorted the gospel. God’s grace was coming free of charge to Naaman, yet Gehazi tried to put a price on salvation. Davis says, “Gehazi’s greed implied that Yahweh was a ‘taker’ like all the other deities that littered the Near East. . . . This explains why Gehazi’s punishment is so severe, why God deals so harshly with him” (2 Kings, 97-98).
Grace is free. We must not distort it. Paul warned the Galatians about adding anything to the saving grace of God. The apostle taught that if anyone distorted the life-changing gospel of grace, they should be under a curse (Gal 1:8).
Stand in joyful awe of Naaman’s conversion; stand in fear of Gehazi’s greed and distortion. Celebrate the gospel. Preach the gospel. Believe the gospel. Don’t use the gospel for your own selfish gain. Don’t communicate false ideas about the living God. God really is gracious and sovereign, and He really delights in saving people. May everything we do and say commend the Redeemer to the nations.
God’s Supplying Grace
2 Kings 6:1-7
The “God of all grace” (1 Pet 5:10) not only saves us by grace but also graciously supplies all our needs. God’s power is at work in Elisha, and God cares about supplying the smallest of needs for all His servants.
At first glance this story seems unnecessary. Who cares about a floating axe head? Someone cared about it! We aren’t given his name, but one particular prophet would never forget this story about God’s miraculous provision. God cares about world events, and He cares about giving us daily bread . . . or an axe head. Be encouraged by this fact. This was a simple need, but it was a real need.
These seminary students really needed more space. They needed tools. After the axe falls into the water, the student cries out for help because of his need. The fact that he didn’t own an axe probably meant he couldn’t afford one. Losing the axe would only add to his financial burden, since they were probably expensive (Davis, 2 Kings, 105). So God in His mercy works a miracle. Elisha strikes the water. The iron rises to the surface, and the student picks up his tool and presumably goes back to work.
I love this story. I think it teaches us that we can take every care to God as we seek to fulfill His will for our lives. He is a God you can call out to in your emergencies and trust that He provides for His children. He may provide in mundane ways or miraculous ways, but either way, it comes from our good and gracious God. Trust Him. Seek Him. Believe He responds to our cries. God’s servants can rely on Him to supply their needs.
As we wait for the day that God makes all things new, let us keep our eyes on the One greater than Elisha, Jesus Christ. Soon we will dwell with Him forever, where all the redeemed from every tribe and tongue will sing praises to His name. On that day there will be no more lepers. No more Ebola sufferers. No more pain. No more tears. All the redeemed, who experienced God’s saving grace and who lived on God’s supplying grace, will exalt the One who rescued them. Former lepers will be able to lift their new hands in praise to the King. Like the little girl, let’s tell everyone of this good news. A Savior for all nations has come, and He will come again.
Reflect and Discuss
- Discuss any personal experiences where God used seemingly insignificant people to extend His significant grace.
- Why did God use a little girl to call Naaman instead of someone well known and powerful?
- Why did the king of Aram send gifts to the king of Israel? Can God’s blessing be procured through diplomacy?
- Why did Naaman become enraged when Elisha told him to wash in the Jordan?
- How might people today reject God’s blessing because it doesn’t suit them?
- How do pride and humility function in the story of Naaman’s healing?
- Discuss any personal experiences with God extending grace in surprising ways.
- Which is the most significant part of the story of the floating axe head, the miraculous physics or the mercy shown to an unnamed prophet? Why?
- Are there any needs today that a person might consider too small to ask of God?
- How might the stories of the little girl, Naaman, and the floating axe head offer comfort to someone in need?