The first recorded sermon by Jesus is a pastor’s worst nightmare. Halfway through the place erupts violently. The hometown synagogue crowd furiously drives Jesus out of the city “in order to throw him off the cliff” (Luke 4:28-29).
What in the world set them off? A statement most churchgoers think refers to an innocuous Sunday school story: “And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:27).
What Jesus is saying, of course, is anything but innocent or innocuous. That’s the point of new books by veteran church planter, newcomer advocate, and Bible teacher Rob Heijermans (rhymes with “fireman’s”), who has served with Biblical Ministries Worldwide since 1979.
Why should pastors consider preaching on this first sermon by Jesus and what He says about the prophet Elisha and the Syrian military commander Naaman?
Let’s not forget the other main character—the humble Jewish slave girl. In my novella, I refer to her as The Beekeeper’s Daughter. What archeologists have discovered about her hometown is absolutely fascinating.
More importantly, everything we read about Naaman creates a picture of the very antithesis of his wife’s young maidservant. This is intended. He is somebody; she is nobody. He occupies a high rank; she has no status at all. He is known in the highest echelons of society; she is barely noticed. His opportunities seem limitless; hers ceased to exist because of him. He lives to be served; she lives to serve.
The disparity between these two people is striking.
Yet this Jewish girl is now the person with influence. She holds the only key to Naaman’s restoration. In a mere two sentences their roles are reversed. Naaman is doomed and helpless, and she has the ability to ensure his recovery.
Dr. Amihai Mazar, the archaeologist who excavated the ancient city of Rehov, determined it was destroyed during Elisha’s life and ministry. More fascinating is Dr. Mazar’s conviction that Elisha once lived there. The excavation also uncovered the oldest known commercial apiary, apparently owned by a prominent citizen.
In other words, while “the beekeeper’s daughter” is conjecture, the young Jewish slave girl certainly knew about Elisha’s extraordinary miracles.
Yes, she knew the one man in all the world who could heal Naaman.
She must have been afraid to say anything to her master.
At first, yes, probably so. Naaman is a highly decorated soldier, a man who has distinguished himself not only by his character and bravery, but also by his military exploits. The word Hebrew word chayil can carry with it the presumption of wealth and status. While this would not necessarily be true of David’s commandos, it is apparently true of Naaman. He is an extraordinary man in every way, a hero who is standing at the summit of his career and looking out over a promising future. Except for one thing.
And that one thing is leprosy.
The exact nature of Naaman’s leprosy is unknown. It may not have been Hanson’s disease, the variety that became ubiquitous two centuries ago in the developing world. I have written as if it were, since the symptoms appear to be the same as Miriam’s and Moses assesses her affliction with a description of what we know of Hanson’s disease.
In any case, the king of Israel, Joram, is convinced that Naaman’s condition is terminal. Further, we can infer from what the slave girl says that it would have caused him to be quarantined from others. Regardless of its exact diagnosis, the disease would prove to be Naaman’s undoing.
Because the beekeeper’s daughter extended mercy to her imposing master, God extended mercy to Naaman. In the end, he came to the place spiritually where God wants everyone on earth to come. Naaman proclaimed, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel’” (2 Kings 5:15). What an amazing affirmation of faith!
So, why did everyone erupt mid-sermon when Jesus referred to this story?
Precisely because the story is about a believing Gentile who did what Israel didn’t, and a slave girl who was what Israel wasn’t.
What’s the significance of the other main character?
Elisha performs more miracles than Elijah did, and even more dramatic. The healing of Naaman is perhaps the most dramatic and significant of them all, which is why I wrote about it.
How does this apply to us today?
Pride makes us think some people are not worthy of God’s mercy—not as worthy as we are. It keeps us from understanding a very important truth that’s the premise of my books: God extends His mercy to His worst enemies. And to ours.
In other words, God did not bring me forth simply to enjoy the pleasure of my company in heaven. He did not save me for my benefit alone. Instead, God wants me to proclaim the word of truth, the same way someone proclaimed it to me.
Bottom line: I need to be like the little slave girl. She challenges and convicts me as a model of the love of God for everyone. May He be pleased to use these books for His glory. A brief description of each follows below.
The Beekeeper’s Daughter (ebook, novella)
Hannah is the daughter of a prosperous beekeeper in Rehov, one of the largest cities in the Jezreel Valley during the time of Elisha the prophet. After she experiences the horrors of a Syrian raid on Rehov, she is captured and taken to Damascus. She becomes a slave in the household of Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army and the king’s personal bodyguard. He’s the very man whose orders have changed her life forever. How will she pay him back?
Serves You Right (paperback, nonfiction)
Hating our enemies is natural; it requires no training. Nevertheless, people all over the world are honing their skills and teaching their children to hate with ever increasing vehemence, violence, and bloodshed. Two thousand years ago, Jesus of Nazareth alluded to an event recorded in the Old Testament: “And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:27). This book is about Naaman the Syrian. Well, not entirely. It’s about a young slave girl and a great prophet. And, it’s about you and me.
Serves You Right Study Edition (larger paperback, nonfiction)
This version is designed for people in your church who want to further deepen their understanding of the Bible. In addition to questions for reflection, it contains expanded material on Old Testament narrative, suggestions for further reading, and exercises that help readers apply the key concepts of each chapter. It’s especially designed for Bible studies and adult education classes.
David Sanford‘s book and Bible projects have been published by Zondervan, Tyndale, Thomas Nelson, Doubleday, Barbour, and Amazon. His newest book is Choose Courage: 3-Minute Devotions for Men.