The Unimpressive Path to Immortality

I knew a man who walked away from Jesus because he did not know what to do on Friday nights. When unbelieving, he knew exactly what to do. As a Christian, he wasn’t sure anymore. Read his Bible? Pray? Hang out with other Christians? It all seemed so, well, unremarkable. Was this it?

Have you felt this way about the Christian life? At times, it feels less momentous than we expect. The means of grace can feel so normal — is it really supernatural? At times we think we hear our spiritual lives speak with the voice of Jacob, but other days we feel only the earthy hands of Esau. Is this really the life God promised? Have we really found what we’re looking for, or shall we look for another? How do we reenchant our love for what feels so ordinary?

Christian, the unimpressive path to glory is no concession. To see this, I want you to meet a man who struggled with the ordinariness of God’s miraculous work.

You Could Be Healed

Naaman was a great man in Syria, a man of war, and although a general highly favored by the king and a soldier fierce on the battlefield, Naaman was losing a different kind of war: “He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper” (2 Kings 5:1). His disease struck behind the shield; smirked at Naaman’s sword. Cry as loud as he might, his gods could not heal him.

Yet an unseen (and unthanked) God stood behind Naaman’s many successes. Naaman was great and highly favored because “by him the Lord had given victory to Syria” (2 Kings 5:1). And this Lord placed a witness to himself within Naaman’s household. “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” (2 Kings 5:2). Acquainted with her master’s disease and her mistress’s distress, she boldly approaches her, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5:3).

A glimmer of hope shines upon a sea of desperation. Could it be true? Hoping against hope, the wife tells her husband. Perhaps he resisted a day, then two, but could it be true? He needed to try. He brings the little girl’s words to the king, “thus and so spoke the girl.” The king approves, writes to the King of Israel: “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5:6).

The King of Israel tears open the letter one minute; tears his clothes the next. “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?” He sees the threat of war behind the request (2 Kings 5:7). King Ahab’s son is not God (nor in particularly good relations with him). What could he do? Elisha, however, hears the news of the king’s dismay, and tells him to send the man to his door “that he [and the king] may know that there is a prophet in Israel” (2 Kings 5:8).

Terms of Recovery

Naaman’s impressive entourage parks outside: “Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house” (2 Kings 5:9). Knock, knock. Nothing. Knock, knock. Finally, Elisha’s servant comes to the door with the terms of recovery: “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean” (2 Kings 5:10).

Imagine the tense moment of silence after the door thuds shut. Color flashes on scaly cheeks. Jaws clench. Is this guy serious? The provocation hit its mark: he grew furious and stormed off in a rage (2 Kings 5:11–12). We get a transcription of his thoughts as he turns for home:

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? (2 Kings 5:11–12)

No, this would not do. Naaman wanted healing to be an event, something more suitable and spectacular. He wanted the prophet to come out and publicly perform the miracle — he might humbly suggest a loud and eloquent prayer to his God accompanied with hand-waving, you know, a manner worthy of miracle-making. Instead, he sends out a servant to point at some murky river.

“Do not be deceived by the littleness of the ordinary means of grace into neglecting them.”

Had not Naaman done his part to set the stage? Had he not traveled many miles carrying hundreds of pounds of silver and gold to profit the prophet handsomely (“in the vicinity of three-quarters of a billion dollars,” IVP OT Background Commentary)? Had he not stood most politely and expectantly at the healer’s door and brought an audience for his powers? Yet, in the crucial moment, the main actor seems to develop stage fright, forget his lines, and send him away just as he arrived.

Would You Do Something Great?

A servant (again) must come help the soldier rethink his tactics. Here, the ESV diverges from other major translations. The majority translation captures the servants’ reasoning this way:

And his servants came near and spoke to him, and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do something great, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” (2 Kings 5:13 NKJV)

If Naaman was told to win the healing by conquering an army that stood between him and the Jordan, would he not have done it? If the prophet told him to recover the rarest plant that grew at the seabed of the Jordan, would he not have accepted the challenge? But just to go dip seven times — why a child could do that.

This seemed way too small, too unnoteworthy to be captured in song. But Naaman, the man accustomed to doing valorous deeds must go to a river where valor is not required. He must leave his heroics on the banks, strip off his pride, and bow beneath Israel’s waters. If he would be healed, he must first be humbled. He would not be saved by his good works or his great ones.

And Naaman did what he would never regret: “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 5:14).

Have We Refused Healing?

Naaman reconsidered and returned to Elisha’s door, not just cured, but saved. He returned not only with the flesh of the little servant Jewish girl, but with her faith, pledging his allegiance to the one true God alone (2 Kings 5:15, 17).

Reader, take this to heart: he nearly turned away from healing and salvation because of his sense of how he ought to be cured. Have things changed today? How many Naamans will look up at the lake of fire because they looked down upon the muddy surface of the Jordan? So many turn from the only name given under heaven by which men must be saved, Jesus Christ, because they prefer the world’s Abana and Pharpar. The foolish way of faith in the crucified Messiah is still despised and rejected of men, “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (Isaiah 53:3; 1 Corinthians 1:23).

But Naamans also exist who begin dipping, but do not persevere the full seven times. They leave the healing tide because of a false sense of how one ought to be sustained in the faith. These waters don’t feel much different from other rivers they have been in. They dip for a time, feel the ordinariness of the Christian life, and walk away from Jesus because they don’t know what to do on Friday nights.

Deceived by Littleness

If only we could see as the angels do. Let’s reimagine, for a moment, a normal activity of the Christian life: Bible reading. Half-waking you trudge down the stairs, brew some coffee, and open to the next section of Scripture. You come faithfully, expectantly, but is this what the momentous life in Christ looks and feels like? This section of our Affirmation of Faith can transfigure normal times in his word:

11.1 We believe that faith is awakened and sustained by God’s Spirit through His Word and prayer. The good fight of faith is fought mainly by meditating on the Scriptures and praying that God would apply them to our souls.

The good fight of faith is fought mainly by prayerful, meditative Bible reading. Hearing from our Lord, communing with him, bringing his truth into the chambers of our souls, obeying what we read — this is a vital part, a sometimes-unimpressive part, to immortality.

We do not conquer Mount Everest or climb the treetops of the Amazon to receive special revelation and feed faith — we meet Jesus upon the narrow way, the hard way, the simple way of Bible meditation in the Spirit and prayer. Do we take it for granted? Some of us need to be asked: If Jesus dwelled in the Everglades or resided on the moon, and we were told we could hear from him, learn from him, and receive eternal life from him there, would you not make valiant efforts to go to him? Then why do we have three translations of the Bible in our homes that go unread?

As with Elisha, the word comes not in theatrics — not in fire, in thunder, in earthquake — but in a whisper. Will we hear it? As one commentator says, “God often tests us with small things” (Donald Wiseman, 1 and 2 Kings: An Introduction and Commentary, 220). Do not be deceived by the littleness of the ordinary means of grace into neglecting them.

Down to the River

This worn path to glory is exactly how it ought to be. Why? Because the story already has a Hero. Ours are not the shoulders to bear eternity; we are not the ones to crush the serpent’s skull; the spectacle was achieved by the God-man upon the cross and encored at his resurrection. As Naaman, we are not saved by our good or great works, before or after coming to faith; we are saved by his that no man may boast in the presence of God.

So, we quietly go down to the river, or down to the living room, or down to the church gathering, or just down to our knees, and receive from his spoils. We plunge again and again under the waters, and trust him to continue to heal us and sustain us from one degree of glory to the next. We obey his word and believe his promises that he shall finish what he began. We do not tire of this heavenly manna that sustains our souls in favor of Egypt’s steak. Even though we are not often doing anything extraordinary, something extraordinary is happening: God is walking with us, encouraging us, conforming us to his Son’s image, leading us home.

We do not do great things for salvation, nor do we benefit God at all with our wealth. He supplies all of our needs in the person and work of his Son, and gets the glory for it. But we do receive something if we continue upon this humble way: joy now and eternity with him.