Whether you believe or not. Part 2 of 3

Last time, I mentioned that in John’s gospel, chapter 4, Jesus’ return to Galilee is presaged by the comment: John 4:43-44 But after the two days he went forth thence and went away into Galilee, for Jesus himself bore witness that a prophet has no honour in his own country. Yet, the verses that follow, describing his interaction with the courtier from Capernaum whose son was dying at home, don’t seem to fit this description. And then, if you go on to chapter 5, the scene is no longer Galilee. Is something missing from John?

This is one of those instances where it helps to have all four gospels. John’s statement is true. But he goes no further with that train of thought. Why? Maybe he considered the story so well known that he felt he did not have to retell it. Instead, it was enough to remind us of it, for the sake of continuity: Continuity of the idea that everything Jesus did during His ministry – including His travel destinations – was all directed by the Father. This is about to become a major theme in John’s gospel.

He had to go through Samaria. And the people there, strangers all, received Him. He likewise had to go to Galilee. And the people there, who knew Him, ended up rejecting Him.

Let’s go to the gospel according to Luke, to see what happened.

Luke 4:14-15 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee; and a rumour went out into the whole surrounding country about him; and *he* taught in their synagogues, being glorified of all.

So far, so good. Very much like in John, where it says those people that had been at the feast gathered around him as he entered Cana of Galilee.

Luke 4:16-21 And he came to Nazareth, where he was brought up; and he entered, according to his custom, into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up to read.

And [the] book of the prophet Esaias was given to him; and having unrolled the book he found the place where it was written, [The] Spirit of [the] Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach glad tidings to [the] poor; he has sent me to preach to captives deliverance, and to [the] blind sight, to send forth [the] crushed delivered, to preach [the] acceptable year of [the] Lord.

And having rolled up the book, when he had delivered it up to the attendant, he sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon him. And he began to say to them: Today this scripture is fulfilled in your ears.

Evidently, at this point, Jesus starts to teach from that verse. And just as it happened in southern Galilee (v. 14 and 15 above), the people are amazed:

Luke 4:22a And all bore witness to him, and wondered at the words of grace which were coming out of his mouth.

Again, this actually sounds good, doesn’t it? Until you get to the second part of this verse:

Luke 4:22b And they said, Is not this the son of Joseph?

What happened? Jesus began to explain to them the meaning, the Truth, behind this passage, widely accepted to be Messianic, and the more he said, the more they liked it. They marveled at how someone could give such life to that passage, a passage that undoubtedly had been discussed many times by their other Rabbis and Teachers.

That amazement was a common occurrence whenever He taught… Think about it: The Word of God teaching about the Word of God; the Son of God teaching about His Father. There is no way to beat that. But then, they, as it were, “come back to Earth.”

That voiced admiration suddenly plants a seed of jealousy in more than one heart. Have you ever felt that way before? It is human nature… For all that we may claim that we are happy when someone else succeeds, it is human nature to resent it. Why? Because we know we live in a world that, more often than not, beats you down. Losing is much more common than winning. And when someone else wins, we somehow feel like we have lost, that we have been cheated. “Why them, and not me?”

The reaction starts that way: “Wait a minute, how can he possibly know all this? He is just a carpenter.” And then, they remember how he began that sermon: Today this scripture is fulfilled in your ears.

And now human jealousy gets some help from the Enemy. They have become offended: They are offended by the idea that God, the Almighty, the One who promised He would rescue Israel through His Messiah, Who said He would send the deliverer that would triumph over all their enemies, including Rome, that this God would pick a puny, ordinary laborer (who maybe was even born out of wedlock) to do this glorious work.

“God wouldn’t do that!”

There are two kinds of hearers: There are those who think they believe…

Once offended, these people decide to put God to the test. For surely, “if anyone can tell whether it is God doing this work, it’s me.  I am smart enough. Let’s see, Jesus, if you can pass my test.”

I am reminded at this point of Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus, who was indeed a learned man. He too came to Jesus with the idea that he could discern what was or was not God’s work. And Jesus put him in his place immediately telling him: “You can’t even see anything of the Kingdom of God unless you are born again.”

As with Nicodemus, Jesus knew here what these people were thinking before they spoke it. And He spells it out: Luke 4:23 And he said to them, Ye will surely say to me this parable, Physician, heal thyself; whatsoever we have heard has taken place in Capernaum do here also in thine own country.

You notice how the crux of the problem is that they have decided that they will only believe if they see Jesus do the miracles they want. I already talked about this last time.  That’s a slippery slope because it means we think we can tell God what to do.

But He is the Boss, not me… And that is precisely what Jesus tries to make them see with His reply.

He quotes from two stories in the Old Testament about the two most powerful prophets ever sent to the people of God: Elijah and Elisha. Sent, paradoxically, to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, the kingdom that from its beginning was courting apostasy. More than once, Elijah faced the wrath of his own King. And yet, they were sent to those (unbelieving) Kings to try to turn them and their people around.

Luke 4: 24-27 And he said, Verily I say to you, that no prophet is acceptable in his [own] country. But of a truth I say to you, There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, so that a great famine came upon all the land, and to none of them was Elias sent but to Sarepta of Sidonia, to a woman [that was] a widow.

And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed but Naaman the Syrian.

God had a work to do in Israel in the days of Elijah and Elisha. But the majority of people looked at those prophets as meddlers; many feared them. From what we read, few Israelites ever came to them for help or guidance. In fact, only the sons of the prophets sought Elisha’s help regularly.

This is what Jesus wants this audience to recall: The Power of the Living God was utterly and completely available (Elijah called fire down from heaven more than once) and yet His people didn’t care to seek it out. So, God poured His power and mercy and grace on Gentiles: The Sidonian woman in Zarephath, and the commander of the Aramean army (enemy of Israel). Both were clearly unbelievers before their encounters with the prophets and yet they received the miracles they needed.

The crowd understood the rebuke. And so, they are put again at the crossroads. (You see, they hit the crossroads already once: They heard the graceful Word of God from a carpenter’s lips, and they had to decide: “What matters more to me: God’s word or my own pride?”) Now they have to decide: “Do I accept this rebuke from the Word of God, or do I declare that that Word is not meant for me?”

Luke 4:28-29 And they were all filled with rage in the synagogue, hearing these things; and rising up they cast him forth out of the city, and led him up to the brow of the mountain upon which their city was built, so that they might throw him down the precipice;

Luke 4:30 but *he*, passing through the midst of them, went his way.

Those who thought they believed,

who thought so highly of their “faith” that they thought they could dictate what miracle would be proof enough for them to believe,

ended up trying to commit murder.

Then there are those who know they don’t believe…

And those are the ones Jesus just brought up. First, the Sidonian widow, at the peak of the famine that God decreed against Israel and which spread to the nations around…

1 Kings 17: 8-14 (GW) Then the Lord spoke his word to Elijah: “Get up, go to Zarephath (which belongs to Sidon), and stay there. I’ve commanded a widow there to feed you.”

He got up and went to Zarephath. As he came to the town’s entrance, a widow was gathering wood. He called to her, “Please bring me a drink of water.” As she was going to get it, he called to her again, “Please bring me a piece of bread too.”

She said, “I solemnly swear, as the Lord your God lives, I didn’t bake any bread. I have one handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I’m gathering wood. I’m going to prepare something for myself and my son so that we can eat it and then die.”

Then Elijah told her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home, and do as you’ve said. But first make a small loaf and bring it to me. Then prepare something for yourself and your son. This is what the Lord God of Israel says: Until the Lord sends rain on the land, the jar of flour will never be empty and the jug will always contain oil.”

What would you do? This is a Gentile woman. Yes, she recognizes Elijah as a prophet of the Lord, the One that calls Himself the Living God, but she is not an Israelite. This is not her god. Yet, God told Elijah He commanded her to feed him. How does that work?

Well, she might not be a believer, she might not know how to worship Yahweh, but she took Elijah at his word.

1 Kings 17:15-16 She did what Elijah had told her. So she, Elijah, and her family had food for a long time. The jar of flour never became empty, and the jug always contained olive oil, as the Lord had promised through Elijah.

Remember: Whether you believe or not… What do you have to lose? Take God at His word! Did this widow become a believer then and there? Not necessarily, but she took that miracle for what it was: a signpost, dropped in the middle of her life that said: There really is a Living God willing to step into the lives of ordinary people.

1 Kings 17:17-18 Afterwards, the son of the woman who owned the house got sick. He got so sick that finally no life was left in him. The woman asked Elijah, “What do you and I have in common, man of God? Did you come here to remind me of my sin and kill my son?”

And here we see in her response that she is not yet a believer. She doesn’t really understand what kind of God the Lord is. After all, maybe this God saved her and her son just so they could keep this prophet alive until the famine was over. Why should He care about her? And yet she is aware that there is such a thing as sin in her life.

1 Kings 17:19a He said to her, “Give me your son.”

So, what would you do? As angry as you might be at Elijah and his God, what is there to do?

Take him at his word…

1 Kings 17:19b-24 (GW) Elijah took him from her arms, carried him to the upstairs room where he was staying, and laid him on his own bed. Then he called to the Lord, “Lord my God, have you brought misery on the widow I’m staying with by killing her son?” Then Elijah stretched himself over the boy three times and called to the Lord, “Lord my God, please make this child’s life return to him.” The Lord heard Elijah’s request, and the child’s life returned to him. He was alive again.

Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upstairs room of the house, and gave him to his mother. He said, “Look! Your son is alive.”

The woman said to Elijah, “Now I’m convinced that you are a man of God and that the Lord’s word from your mouth is true.”

And, finally, we see what God saw from the very beginning, that there in Sidon was a Gentile woman, as desperate as any Israelite but different in one way: She was willing to take Him at His Word.

Then there is Naaman…

2 Kings 5:1 And Naaman, captain of the host of the king of Syria, was a great man before his master, and honourable, for by him Jehovah had given deliverance to Syria; and he was a mighty man of valour, [but] a leper. And the Syrians had gone out in bands, and had brought away captive out of the land of Israel a little maid; and she waited on Naaman’s wife.

Not only is he a Gentile, he is an enemy of Israel; making war and taking away captives. And even one of those, a young girl, he kept as a servant for his wife. What would be your opinion of such a man?

2 Kings 5:3 And she (the Israelite servant) said to her mistress, Oh, would that my lord were before the prophet that is in Samaria! then he would cure him of his leprosy.

Well, maybe we were too hasty in our judgment. It appears that Naaman was a just master (honorable, as the verse said) and that the Israelite girl knew that her new life was just part and parcel of life in the time she lived, in her part of the world. Certainly, that life of bondage did not get her to forget the Lord or His prophet. At this point we have to start wondering, did Naaman come by her village to raid it, just by chance? Or did God have a plan already? The fact that Jehovah was giving him victories should have told us something already.

2 Kings 5:4-6 And he went and told his lord saying, Thus and thus said the maid that is of the land of Israel. And the king of Syria said, Well! go, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel. And he departed, and took with him ten talents of silver, and six thousand [shekels] of gold, and ten changes of raiment. And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, saying, And now, when this letter comes to thee, behold, I have sent Naaman my servant to thee, that thou mayest cure him of his leprosy.

Now, lest you think the King of Syria was just being kind to his captain, we need to read on. This is all part of the politics of the time. The King of Syria, sure that no one could possibly cure leprosy, sees this as an opportunity to get an excuse to claim an insult from Israel; an excuse for full blown war.

2 Kings 5:7-8 And it came to pass when the king of Israel had read the letter, that he rent his garments, and said, Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Wherefore consider, I pray you, and see how he seeks an occasion against me. And it was so, when Elisha the man of God had heard that the king of Israel had rent his garments, that he sent to the king, saying, Why hast thou rent thy garments? let him come now to me, and he shall know that there is a prophet in Israel.

The Kings of the earth may think they are in control, but God is ultimately in control…

2 Kings 5:9-10 And Naaman came with his horses and with his chariot, and stood at the doorway of the house of Elisha. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee, and thou shalt be clean.

Now, what would you do? Remember, Naaman may be a just man, a faithful soldier, but he is not a believer. In fact, he already had in mind the kind of miracle he wanted to see…

2 Kings 5:11-13 And Naaman was wroth, and went away and said, Behold, I thought, He will certainly come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of Jehovah his God, and wave his hand over the place, and cure the leper. Are not the Abanah and the Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? may I not wash in them and be clean? And he turned and went away in a rage.

And his servants drew near, and spoke to him and said, My father, [if] the prophet had bidden thee [do some] great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he says to thee, Wash and be clean?

(Thank God for servants or subordinates or co-workers or friends that truly care about you.) 

What did they tell him?

What I have been telling you all along:

Whether you believe or not, take Him at His word.

2 Kings 5:14 Then he went down, and plunged himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God. And his flesh became again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.

Naaman takes God at His word and receives the miracle. And the miracle becomes an undeniable signpost:

2 Kings 5:15 And he returned to the man of God, he and all his company, and came and stood before him; and he said, Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel; and now, I pray thee, take a present of thy servant.

Not only does the signpost point the way, he understands that it demands action; first of all gratitude.

2 Kings 5:16 But he (Elisha) said, As Jehovah liveth, before whom I stand, I will receive none! And he urged him to take it; but he refused.

And still considering that signpost, Naaman realizes that gratitude is not enough. If this is the One true God, that signpost demands allegiance.

2 Kings 5:17 And Naaman said, If not, then let there, I pray thee, be given to thy servant two mules’ burden of [this] earth; for thy servant will no more offer burnt-offering and sacrifice to other gods, but to Jehovah.

This sounds great, but the transformation of faith is not yet complete. As Naaman thinks through the consequences of his choice, he realizes this allegiance will be tested. What will happen when he goes back to Syria and rejects their gods? He doesn’t care what anyone else will say or do to him; after all he is a soldier, captain of the army; he can handle himself. BUT he already swore allegiance to his King. That is still also his duty.

He is now at a different kind of crossroads. What would you do? I could come up with all sorts of plans, maybe figure out how to be a secret believer… But the problem is, you cannot keep a secret from the Living God. And Naaman has figured this out!

So, what would you do? Naaman does what is suddenly obvious to him. “Well, I will just ask the Lord, how He wants me to deal with this.” In fact, even as he is asking, the answer forms in his mind, because this God just healed an enemy of His children and asked for nothing in return. This is a merciful God!

2 Kings 5:18 In this thing Jehovah pardon thy servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to bow down there, and he leans on my hand, and I bow down myself in the house of Rimmon—when I bow down myself in the house of Rimmon, Jehovah pardon thy servant, I pray thee, in this thing.

2 Kings 5:19 And Elisha said to him, Go in peace.

That is all it takes.

Even if you don’t think you believe in Him, He is never going to stop being God… The God who loves you.

What do you have to lose?

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