GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
Alright, so with that said, what about the Old Testament passage for today? Well, this is one of my favorite stories from the Old Testament. It’s from 2 Kings 5. It’s the famous story of the healing of Naaman the Syrian, who also happened to be a leper. Now this is one of those times where if I was in charge of the lectionary, I would have included a lot more of the actual story. The lectionary only gives us verses 14-17. In other words, it gives us the ending of the story, but it doesn’t give us the context. And so it’s a little unfortunate, because we miss out on a lot. So let me just give you the background. I’m going to give you one key verse that I think is actually really crucial for understanding Luke’s Gospel in context.
So the story is this: Naaman is a commander of the Syrian army. So, he’s a Gentile. He’s not from the nation of Israel; he’s from the nation of Syria, who are enemies of the Israelites, the northern kingdom. But he also happens to be a leper, and he knows that there are prophets in Israel who can perform miracles. He’s told this actually by an Israelite concubine of his, a slave girl, who was captured in one of the wars. So he sends a message to the king of Israel, asking him if he could be cured of his leprosy. And what’s fascinating about this is how the king responds. In verse 7 it says this:
And when the king of Israel read [Naaman’s] letter, he rent 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?
So pause there. Notice what the king of Israel’s words presuppose. It presupposes that only God can cure leprosy. Other kinds of miracles can be performed, but when it comes to leprosy, that’s something that only God can do, because it’s completely impossible. Very important. Basically, what the king of Israel is saying is, “This guy is asking me to heal him of leprosy. Who does he think I am, God?” That’s the implication. Now what happens is Elisha the prophet hears about this, and he comes into the king and says, “Let the king know that there is a God in Israel who can do this. Give these instructions to Naaman. Tell him to go and wash seven times in the Jordan River, and when he’s done this, he’ll be cleansed.”
Now, when Naaman hears about this command, he’s actually kind of put off, because the Jordan River is basically like a glorified ditch, and he knows this and he says, “We have all kinds of wondrous rivers in my own land.” Think here about the Mesopotamian Valley, you’ve got the great rivers Tigris and Euphrates, which were actually considered to be divine because they gave life to the whole land. They’re considered sacred rivers. And so there are lots of rivers in the world that I could go to if I wanted to wash and be cleansed. And so one of his servants said to him, “Well, you know, look...if he had told you to do something difficult, you’d do it. If he tells you to do something humble and simple, why not try that also?” And that’s where the reading for today really picks up. So in verse 14 it says:
So [Naaman] 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.
Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company, and he came and stood before him; and he said, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel; so accept now a present from your servant.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will receive none.” And he urged him to take it, but he refused. Then Na′aman said, “If not, I pray you, let there be given to your servant two mules’ burden of earth; for henceforth your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but the Lord.
Okay, so once you have the context in mind, you can actually see what this story’s about. It’s a story not just of the healing of a leper, it’s the story of the conversion of a Gentile, because as a result of his healing, he comes to recognize that there’s only one God—one true God—and that it’s the God of Israel, the God who has the power to heal him of his leprosy and make his skin clean again. And this God does this at the prompting of the prophet Elisha. Press pause there.
Remember who Elisha is? This is very important for understanding what’s going on. Elisha is the successor of the prophet Elijah. And if you remember, after Elijah is taken up into heaven on a chariot of fire, his successor Elisha is given a twofold portion of his spirit. This means that Elisha is actually more powerful than Elijah, his predecessor, and he performs greater miracles than Elijah. So what’s going on here then, is, in the Old Testament, in the scheme of things, Elisha, who is the prophet who heals Naaman, is considered, in a sense, the greatest miracle worker in the Old Testament. If you want an example of this, later in the book of Kings 13, after Elisha dies and is buried, someone is thrown into the grave with him and just touching his bones brings that man back from the dead. That’s how holy, that’s how powerful Elisha was.
Now the reason all of this matters is because if you fast forward to the New Testament, you’ll recall in the Gospels, Jesus identifies John the Baptist as Elijah. And yet, Jesus is like the successor to John the Baptist. Just as Elijah was the precursor of Elisha, so John the Baptist is the precursor of Jesus. So if John the Baptist is a new Elijah, then Jesus is a new Elisha. But He’s not just a new Elisha, He’s greater than Elisha. So whereas Elisha only healed one leper in the Old Testament, what does Jesus, the new Elisha, do? He heals ten lepers, all at once, and they don’t have to go down to the Jordan River and wash seven times. He does it instantaneously. All they have to do is obey his word and start heading toward the Temple and they’re all cleansed.
This story reveals two things about Jesus, this Old Testament reading, this great pairing with the New Testament today. First, Jesus is a new and greater Elisha. He’s performing miracles that are ten times—literally—greater than the Old Testament miracles. But even more than that...second, He’s also a Divine Savior. Because think about it, in the Old Testament, what did it say? Who can cure leprosy directly? It’s God, right? “Am I God, that I can heal this man of this leprosy?”
What did Jesus do in the New Testament? Unlike Elisha, He doesn’t have to send the man down to the river and wash and do all these different things. Jesus heals the man directly and immediately. And so there’s a—it’s just a hint—but there’s a hint of the revelation of Jesus’ Divinity. If you know the Old Testament, you know that only God can cure lepers, then it begs the question: Who is this Jesus who heals ten lepers at once? And the answer comes to you when the leper comes back to Him and falls prostrate before Him and gives Him thanks for what He has done.
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
And to that end, it's interesting, he quotes a saying, he says, "The saying is Sure." Now what saying is sure? Well, the one he is about to write here, but we don't know exactly where this comes from. This is one of those examples of what some scholars refer to as the pre-pauline hymns. In other words, there are certain parts of the letters of Paul, where the style of the Greek writing shifts from that of a prose exposition in an epistolary form, like writing a letter, to a more poetic or hymnic or rhythmic form that makes it sound as if Paul is quoting the words of a song or the words of a hymn of some early Christian singer, something that they would've sung together in the context of liturgy or the early Christian Eucharist, the Lord's Supper.
And I think in this case, this is one of the stronger examples. Some scholars will debate whether it's a pre-pauline hymn or whether Paul himself is just composing a kind of poetic or hymnic passage as part of his letter. But here when he says, "The saying is sure," he seems to be quoting some other saying that would be familiar perhaps to Timothy. Almost a kind of creedal profession or a creedal hymn, which says:
If we have died with him, we shall also live with him;
if we endure, we shall also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
And I would argue that the heart of that ... well, let's just break that down. Notice the first passage, “if we have died with him, we shall also live with him.” Now you could think, "Oh, well, that's talking about martyrdom." If we die with him in martyrdom, we will live with him in the resurrection. But the past tense there actually suggests something different. When, according to Paul, do we die with Christ? It's when we're baptized, right? So Romans 6 is the best example. He says in chapter six, verse three:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
So the death there that Paul's talking about is the baptismal death, the sacramental death that takes place when we are immersed in the waters of Baptism and rise up to new life. Back in 2 Timothy 2 we see a similar image. If we died with him in baptism, then we shall also live with him in the resurrection. And then for my money, the heart of this hymn is the next line. "If we endure, we shall also reign with him." And I think that's the heart of the hymn here, because the context is Paul is exhorting Timothy to have courage and to have patience in suffering. To be patient in the midst of his tribulation, not to give way to fear, not to give way to despair, not to give way to discouragement just because he's suffering for the sake of the gospel. Because Paul himself, as his chains bear witness, is suffering for the sake of the gospel. So he reminds Timothy that when you're suffering, when you are facing tribulation, when you are undergoing trials, just remember, if you've been baptized, you will reign with him. If you are patient, you will live with him in the resurrection. If you deny him, however, he will deny you.
And then there's this mysterious line here. “if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.” Now what does that mean? It seems at first to contradict the previous line, "If we deny him, he also will deny us." So what is he saying here? I would suggest that in context, although it might seem like a contradiction, it is actually not, because the third line in the hymn, "If we deny him, he will deny us," is something you'll see over and over again about the sin of apostasy. This will be a public denial of Christ. For example, if you go back to the Gospel of Matthew, you'll see in the gospel Matthew similar terminology. Matthew 10:32, for example:
So every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.
So what Jesus is saying there is if you make a public confession of fidelity to me, then I'm going to publicly confess you as one of my own at the final judgment. But if you publicly deny me before others, then I'm going to publicly deny you at the final judgment. So that's what would come to be known as the sin of apostasy, where a person renounces the faith through fear of persecution or fear of death. And so Paul's encouraging him, if you endure, you're going to be saved. If you deny him, you'll be denied. Which basically that hymn is a kind of summary statement of what Jesus teaches in the gospel. But the last line, "If we're faithless, he remains faithful," I would suggest has less to do with apostasy than with faults and sins and mistakes being made by the person facing tribulation and persecution.
So those who sometimes can fall into sins of weakness or other faults in the face of persecution, even though we remain sinners, Paul's saying he is faithful and he cannot deny himself. What does that mean? What Paul says there, what this hymn is saying is, as long as you remain in Christ, he cannot deny you. Certain sins can separate you from Christ like the sin of apostasy. And you'll see this play out elsewhere in the New Testament, a distinction between some sins that are deadly and other sins that are not deadly.
Here what Paul is saying is that although sometimes we might be faithless, we might fall, we might stumble. Like the book of Proverbs, the righteous man falls seven times a day. Christ never falls. He's always faithful. Pistos
is the Greek word, it's very similar to the word pistis
for faith. Why? Because he cannot deny himself. So as long as you remain in Christ, like he talks about earlier, being in Christ Jesus, and you endure suffering for the sake of the gospel, you too will one day live with him, and you too will one day reign with him. For full access subscribe here >