“Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, ‘Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.’
“But Naaman went away angry and said, ‘I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?’ So he turned and went off in a rage.” (2 Kings 5:10-12)
“But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.” (Exodus 23:27-30)
When it comes to turning darkness into light, or a moribund spiritual life into a living, fruitful one, there seem to be two schools of thought that dominate the discussion: one is personified by Naaman, the other by the children of Israel who spied out the land and came back intimidated to the point of unbelief (Num 13:27-29, 31-33).
Caleb famously silenced the people by saying, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it” (Num 13:30). I don’t know if there were crickets in the wilderness, but figuratively speaking at least, that was the reception his exhortation received.
And then there was Naaman (2 Ki 5:1-27). He was the king of Aram’s army commander and a valiant and successful soldier but he had leprosy. By chance, the young Israelite girl captive that served Naaman’s wife told her about Elisha, confident that the prophet could help Naaman. So off Naaman went to Israel.
But he didn’t reckon on the type of cure in store for him. As a man of importance, with a letter of introduction from his king and laden with enough silver and gold gifts to run TBN for maybe a week or so, he arrived at Elisha’s door—to be met by Elisha’s messenger rather than the prophet himself.
And the message—baptize himself in the Jordan seven times to be cured—didn’t bode well for a good review on Tripadvisor.
“I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy,” Naaman complained. And the sluggish, turbid, muddy Jordan River rather than “Abana and Pharpar,” mountain streams known for their clarity? You must be kidding.
Two different scenarios, two different types of unbelief. Either it can’t be done or it won’t be done. There seems to be nothing in between. But that’s simply not true.
In the first post on turning darkness into light, I described how failing to honor God as God had an effect on our minds: our thinking becomes “futile” while our hearts are “darkened.” Our moral sense is obscured, the needle on our moral compass swings wildly, having lost its true north.
To turn the darkness that results back into light, the process has to be reversed. The concept itself is relatively simple. The process, however, requires a determination of the will to undo the darkness, not a special effort of the mind to find enlightenment.
The promise “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you” (Ps 32:8) is open 24/7. in addition to this, Jesus promised the Counselor “will take what is mine and declare it to you” (Jn 16:14 ESV), at the time extending his earthly ministry to beyond Pentecost, but as applied to us a promise of clear and reliable guidance–always.
To put it in more explicitly theological terms, our sanctification depends on our consistent obedience to the Spirit’s leading to “take the land,” the task facing the children of Israel that appeared to them so daunting.
As it happened, their conquest of the land took place city by city, king by king, stronghold by stronghold. Or “little by little,” as Moses recorded in Exodus. Forget Naaman’s tent-revival hope of instant transformation. It wasn’t going to happen. It never will happen.
If you’re wondering why, look at what happened in Corinth. The church there was both gifted and blessed with spiritual knowledge. But the gifts of the Spirit weren’t governed by the fruit of the Spirit, and so Paul had to write that gem of a brief sermon on the absolute necessity of love (“Love is patient, love is kind”).
What happened when love wasn’t governing their behavior? Pride leading to factions, men making foolish comparisons among themselves, disorder in worship and the use of the gifts. To borrow from Exodus, despite “you do not lack any spiritual gift” and “enriched in speech and knowledge” (1 Cor 1:5-7), the “land was becoming desolate” rather than looking like the kingdom of God. When the kingdom is firing on all cylinders, it is “a land flowing with milk and honey. When it’s not, well, it’s like Corinth.
Jesus said some people are like seed sown on rocky soil: “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (Mt 13:20-21).
People who seem to transform themselves quickly tend to fall away just as quickly. They lack roots, and roots take time to grow. Jesus also said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16).
Not coincidentally, the children of Israel were brought to the same river as Naaman. It was the Jordan they had to cross to enter, then take possession, of the land.
They had been separated from the world at the Red Sea. Behind them they saw their oppressors drowned in the enveloping waves they had walked through on dry ground. Now they faced another formidable barrier, or so it seemed.
If the Red Sea separated us from our former life apart from God, the Jordan separates the two “lives” still running concurrently within our life in God: the life we must “lose” to “save our life, ” and the life we are “saving” (i.e., taking possession of) by “losing our life for Jesus’sake.” If we try to “save” our own unsanctified life, we will just “lose” it.
We’ve devised ingenious substitutes to avoid “crossing the Jordan.” Legalism, for example. Legalism is the ultimate DIY “righteousness.” It consists of fencing off right and wrong with multiple spiritual principles until nearly everything is black-and-white, easy to figure out and even easier to catch someone outside the fence.
In the hands of powerful men, it’s easy to control and maintain the system and the people governed by it. When they define the terms, they don’t have to meet the high standards of the kingdom as announced in the Sermon on the Mount, for example–establishing as a standard their own, or self-righteousness–and they can identify threats to the system instantly (“This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath,” Jn 9:16).
When Jesus said, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven,” (Mt 5:20), that must have raised a few eyebrows, for the Pharisees were no slouches when it came to righteousness.
In fact, that standard might have appeared to them like the muddy Jordan at spring flood stage, just as the Israelites saw it as they approached the Promised Land. How do you get across? More in the next post.
Note: In this and in all posts, citations are from the New International Version (NIV) translation unless labeled otherwise. This is still one of the most popular translations, though I don’t always agree with the way it renders particular words, phrases or passages (hence the occasional exceptions). But because it is the most-familiar to most readers, I use it here.