“There is no other stream,” said the Lion. -C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (2009)
Wash, and Be Clean
Naaman and his entourage pulled up before the prophet’s hovel of a home. Naaman was ready to be impressed and amazed. His master, the king of Syria, had his own court magicians, and they put on a pretty good show. But the prophet of God must be in a class all his own. After all, he could cure leprosy. Naaman’s little servant girl had said so, and now the king of Israel had confirmed it. Elisha the prophet could and would cure Naaman of his leprosy.
Naaman was a valiant and successful general, the right-hand man to his king (2 Kings 5). He was also a leper. When the king of Syria heard that Naaman might find a cure for his leprosy in Israel, he sent him there, to the royal court, and supplied him with gifts of silver and gold and expensive clothing. But Naaman hit a wall when he reached Samaria. King Jehoram read his master’s formal request—“I have sent Naaman my servant to you so that you may heal him of his leprosy”—and tore his clothes in distress. Jehoram had no prophet or magician who could do any such thing. He could only conclude that the Syrian king was trying to pick a fight.
But then another letter reached the court. It was from an independent prophet named Elisha. The letter said to send Naaman to Elisha so that he could cleanse him so that Naaman would know “that there is a prophet in Israel.” Naaman observed the odd relationship between Israel’s king and the bold and confident prophet. It was unorthodox to say the least. A prophet giving orders to a king? But the king provided the address and directions and sent Naaman on his way.
So here he was—at the door to the prophet’s house. Naaman was ready for an impressive demonstration of divine power. He was ready to be shocked and awed. He was ready to be honored.
But when the door of the house opened, the only one to come out was a servant, a man named Gehazi. He came to Naaman and gave him a simple message: “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean” (2 Kings 5:10, ESV). That was it. Wash and be clean. Pretty simple.
Contempt for Grace
Naaman was indignant. He turned away in anger. This wasn’t at all what he had expected. There was no showmanship and no special effects. The prophet hadn’t even showed his face. Even worse… the message had been communicated through a servant. And what a message! Wash in the filthy Jordan River in order to cure an incurable disease? “Aren’t Amana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” (v. 12). He left the prophet’s home in more than a huff.
But happily, Naaman had surrounded himself with wise and faithful servants. They came to him after awhile and asked an obvious question: “My father, if the prophet had asked you to do some great thing, wouldn’t you have done it? How much rather when he says to you, ‘Wash and be clean’?” (v. 13). What if it really is that easy?
Naaman relented. He went to the Jordan and washed himself seven times as Elisha had commanded. And as he finished, his flesh was restored. It was now like that of a little child. In a sense, he had been resurrected and born again. Naaman quickly returned to Elisha’s house. This time the prophet came out to meet him. Naaman made a profound confession: “Behold, now I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel” (v. 15).
Naaman, like his countrymen, had been a polytheist. Now he was a convinced monotheist, and he recognized that the only true God has a unique relationship with Israel. In fact, Naaman even asked for some Israelite soil so he could worship the true God on His preferred ground (v.17).
Grace, Abundant and Free
Naaman offered Elisha a reward, but the prophet refused. Naaman urged him to accept; he still refused. So Naaman went his way with Elisha’s blessing. But Gehazi wasn’t happy with this resolution. He saw all the wealth that Naaman had brought along and decided it would be great to have some extra cash. He ran after Naaman.
When Naaman saw him coming, he stopped his chariot and climbed down to meet him. “Is all well?” he asked. “All is well,” Gehazi said, and then he spun a story. Two young men, prophets in training, had just showed up at Elisha’s door. Might Gehazi carry back a talent of silver and two garments for these seminary students?
Whether Naaman took the story at face value or whether he thought it a polite way for Elisha to take the present he had previously offered, we don’t know. But he did gladly supply the clothes and the silver and even insisted that Gehazi take an extra talent.
When Gehazi had safely stored these spoils in a secret place, he went back to stand before Elisha. And the old prophet asked, “Where did you go, Gehazi?”
“I didn’t go anywhere,” he answered.
But Elisha knew better. “Didn’t my heart go with you when the man turned back from his chariot to meet you? Is it time to receive money and garments, olive groves and vineyards, sheep and oxen, menservants and maid servants?”
Now, of course, Gehazi hadn’t come away with anything more than some silver and a couple of robes. But Elisha was looking at the bigger picture. Shall we put a price tag on God’s grace? Shall we charge for divine mercy? Is the gospel for sale?
Elisha’s last words to Gehazi are sobering: “The leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and to your seed for ever” (v. 27). And Gehazi went out from his presence a leper white as snow.
Jordan in Scripture
In spirituals and older hymns, Jordan often stands for death. “Going over Jordan” means dying and going to heaven. But that’s not how Scripture uses the image of crossing the River Jordan.
Jordan was the original western boundary of the Promised Land, and every Israelite male who wished to inherit on either side had to pass between its divided waters (Num. 32). On the eve of the conquest, Israel was baptized into Joshua just as the Israel of the Exodus was baptized into Moses by passing through the divided waters of the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:1-2). No baptism, no part in God’s kingdom of priests… no inheritance.
This covenant history is the background for Elijah’s ascension into heaven in 2 Kings 2. Elijah and Elisha left the Promised Land through the divided waters of the Jordan in a sort of reverse Exodus. It seemed that God was abandoning Israel and calling His grace and Spirit back to heaven. But when Yahweh caught up Elijah in a whirlwind, his mantle fell to the ground. Elisha picked it up, returned to Jordan, and smote its waters. They parted for him as they had for Elijah. Elisha entered Canaan afresh to begin a spiritual re-conquest of the Land for God. He wasn’t through with Israel after all.
All of this comes to focus in the ministry of John the Baptist, who performed most of his baptisms in Jordan. John baptized with reference to the Messiah, who already stood among his hearers. “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance,” he said, “but He will baptize you with the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 3:6). The cleansing waters of Jordan pointed the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit, the power that would be released through the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Messiah (John 7:39). The water was the type and sign… the gift of the Spirit would be the reality.
Of course, Jesus Himself was baptized of John in the Jordan. There the Spirit descended upon Him, anointing Him Prophet, King, and Priest of our redemption. There His Father spoke from heaven: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:16-17). The waters of Jordan lead us inevitably to grace of the Triune God in Jesus Christ, and in Him alone.
No Other Stream
When Elisha directed Naaman to the Jordan, the leprous general at first insisted that the rivers of Damascus would certainly be as effective and far more to his cultural and aesthetic tastes. Couldn’t his cleansing be accomplished in the rivers of his own nation?
The answer was of course, No. Jordan alone had the covenantal and prophetic significance that God was pleased to use for this particular cleansing. There was no other river, no other stream. God’s covenant promise was with Israel. He had made her a kingdom of priests to the nations of the world (Ex. 19:6). After the Exodus, all of God’s special revelation came through Israel or to Israel. She alone maintained, however imperfectly, the true message of salvation, the true gospel of grace. This is what Naaman had to acknowledge and accept. By God’s grace, he did.
Does this mean that, before Christ came to earth, God only saved Israelites and a few random Gentiles like Naaman? No. God had deliberately planted Israel at the crossroads of three continents. Merchants, diplomats, and kings regularly passed through the Promised Land where they could hear the message of grace. And in the days of Solomon, Israelites accompanied Phoenicians sailors to the ends of the earth—perhaps even to the Americas, bearing that same message (1 Kings 10:22). After the fall of Samaria and Jerusalem, the covenant people were scattered throughout the known world. Wherever they went, they established synagogues where they preached God’s words to Jew and Gentile alike (Acts 15:21). And we shouldn’t forget the story of Jonah: God used his preaching to bring all of Nineveh to repentance (Matt. 12:41).
And yet there was and is only one message of salvation. It was entrusted to Israel under the Old Covenant, and it pointed to the one Messiah, Yahweh Himself, who would come in the flesh to save His people from their sins. No other religion contained this message. No other religious philosophy pointed forward to Jesus. No other religion could bring men to God. The world by its wisdom never knew God, and, in truth, never sought Him (1 Cor. 1:21; Rom. 3:11).
The City of God descends from heaven (Rev. 21:2); it is the product of heavenly grace and truth. Its Builder and Maker is God, and God alone (Heb. 11:10). The fact that God builds on His own terms is an offense to the natural man, who wants divine blessing on terms much more favorable to his rebellion and unbelief. But the God of Scripture recognizes no other gods, no other religions, no path to heaven outside of Jesus Christ. He alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life: no one comes to the Father, but by Him (John 14:6). In the visionary language of Revelation, everyone who has part in the New Jerusalem must drink of the same fountain, the same River of Life (Rev. 22:1, 17). There is no other stream. So it was in the Old Testament; so it is now.