One of the Bible’s most instructive moments concerning repentance and baptism occurs in a passage that ostensibly has nothing to do with either—the fifth chapter of 2 Kings. It is the story of Naaman.
“Now Naaman, captain of the host of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master, and honourable, because by him the Lord had given deliverance unto Syria: he was also a mighty man in valour, but he was a leper.” (2 Kgs. 5:1.)
It is ironic that despite Naaman’s strength and success, in the eyes of Israel and most of the ancient world his disease of leprosy was associated with uncleanliness. Thus, Naaman was dying as an unclean man, and that fact completely eclipsed his greatness!
At the time, the instructions given to Israel for discerning and controlling the spread of leprosy involved special rites and declarations of purification. We read in Leviticus 13, for example, that the priest was to quarantine a suspected leper for seven days and then reexamine him to determine if the plague had gone into remission. If it had, his garments were washed and he was pronounced clean. If the disease had progressed or remained unchanged, the quarantine process was repeated. If the leper failed the second trial, he was pronounced unclean and was exiled from the community.
Notice that if the disease did go into remission, the leper was considered cleansed, not healed. Similarly, in the New Testament, when Jesus healed a leper or referred to such a healing, the scriptures describe that process specifically as a cleansing. (See Matt. 10:8; Matt. 11:5.)
These references to ritual purification suggest a clear spiritual parallel. Sin renders us spiritually unclean. It condemns us to a life separated from God and the community of his righteous children and to spiritual death. Like Naaman’s leprosy, sin overshadows any greatness one could otherwise achieve.
But the scriptures teach us that sin need not progress unchecked. The Lord in his mercy has provided us with a way of securing a remission of sin and a way of thus escaping its more deadly spiritual effects. He has extended to each of us, in the form of baptism and repentance, the power to be cleansed. It is no mere coincidence that the details of Naaman’s cleansing from leprosy should so closely resemble those of the process of being cleansed from sin.
When Naaman heard from a captive handmaiden that there was in Samaria a prophet of God who reputedly could cleanse him of his dread disease, he journeyed to the house of Elisha. There, arrayed with his horses and servants, his chariots and wealth, Naaman sought deliverance from his uncleanliness at the hand of the Lord’s anointed. The scriptures say that in response to Naaman’s request, Elisha sent out a messenger, saying: “Go and wash in Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee, and thou shalt be clean.” (2 Kgs. 5:10.)
The act that would bring about Naaman’s cleansing—immersing himself in the Jordan River seven times—was so undramatic that Naaman, oblivious to the symbolic reference to the seven-day quarantine required of a leper in Israel and oblivious also to the importance of humility, obedience, and faith, was offended and refused to comply. The account continues: “But Naaman was wroth, and went away, and said, Behold, I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and strike his hand over the place, and recover the leper.
“Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? may I not wash in them, and be clean? So he turned and went away in a rage.” (2 Kgs. 5:11–12.)
Naaman seems to have been angered on two counts: first, that Elisha would communicate with him through a mere servant rather than honoring him with a personal response; and second, that the promised cure should involve an action on Naaman’s part, a simple action at that, rather than a dramatic miracle at the hand of the prophet.
Here again, a spiritual parallel is apparent. The Lord likewise conveys the messages of the gospel of Jesus Christ—including teachings of repentance and baptism—not personally and dramatically, but most often through humble servants and subtle whisperings of the Spirit. He does not cater to the vanity and hardheartedness of those who would desire a miraculous sign or a personal visitation.
Moreover, like Elisha’s message to Naaman, the command to repent and be baptized is at once a call to do both less and more than we might expect. It requires less than we might expect in the sense that it does not necessitate dramatic sacrifices or epic trials. And it requires more than we might imagine because, instead of a single, near-impossible feat, it involves a lifelong commitment to humble obedience and self-effacing service. To obtain a remission of sins, each of us, like Naaman, must believe in the power of God to cleanse us and must humble ourselves before God. We must voluntarily initiate the process of remission by freely stepping into the waters to be baptized by humble servants of God to whom has been delegated the proper authority. The attendant cleansing, while certainly among the greatest of miracles, is also among the least visible—cleansing the inner man and not the outer.
Naaman was finally cleansed only after humbling himself before God and man by complying with the prophet’s instructions. The scriptures say that following his indignant refusal, Naaman’s own servants convinced him to return.
“And his servants came near, and spake unto him, and said, My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?
“Then went he down, and dipped himself seven times in Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God: and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” (2 Kgs. 5:13–14.)
Naaman saw nothing inherently special in Israelite water or in the act of immersion. He was right. Naaman was healed not by the water or by immersion, but by the power of God.
Likewise, it is true that baptism must be performed with proper authority and in the prescribed way—by immersion—for it to be efficacious. Even so, the power behind the act and the symbolism is the power of God.
Baptism by immersion suggests a burial and resurrection with Christ, a death to the life of sin and a rebirth, through Christ’s atoning sacrifice, to a life of spiritual vitality, as Paul explains:
“Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?
“Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
“For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection.” (Rom. 6:3–5.)
Conversion to Christ and baptism by immersion free us from the shadow of spiritual death, leaving us, like Naaman, clean as a little child.
The Old Testament story of Naaman’s cleansing from leprosy serves as a wonderful symbol of the baptism of repentance taught in the New Testament. It illustrates both the relation of many Old Testament events to New Testament teachings and the overarching unity of the two works that can be seen when viewed from a perspective that Naaman lacked—an understanding of the plan of salvation and its requisite Messianic atonement.