One of the most instructive passages in the Bible concerning repentance and baptism seems to have 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).
In most of the ancient world, leprosy was associated with uncleanness. It is ironic that—despite Naaman’s strength and success—in the eyes of his contemporaries, he was dying as an unclean man.
The instructions given to Israel for controlling the spread of leprosy involved special rites and declarations of purification. We read in Leviticus 13 [Lev. 13], for example, that the priest was to quarantine a suspected leper for seven days and then reexamine the person to determine if the disease was indeed an active leprosy. If it wasn’t, the person’s garments were washed and he or she was pronounced clean. If the disease proved to be leprosy, the quarantine process was repeated. If the leper failed the second trial, he or she was pronounced unclean and was exiled from the community.
If the priest determined that the disease was in remission, the leper was considered cleansed, not healed. Similarly, when the New Testament refers to the healing of lepers, the process is specifically described 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 separates us from God and the community of his righteous children. It can culminate in spiritual death. Like Naaman’s leprosy, sin overshadows any earthly greatness we may achieve.
But the scriptures teach that sin need not progress unchecked. The Lord has provided a way for us to secure a remission of sin and escape 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 coincidence that Naaman’s cleansing from leprosy so closely resembles the process one goes through when being cleansed from sin.
When Naaman heard from a captive handmaiden that a prophet of God in Samaria could cleanse him of his disease, he journeyed to the house of Elisha. There, arrayed with his wealth, Naaman sought deliverance from his uncleanness at the hand of the Lord’s prophet. In response to Naaman’s request, Elisha sent a messenger to instruct, “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 direction to immerse in the Jordan River seven times angered Naaman, and he refused to comply (see 2 Kgs. 5:11–12). He was clearly oblivious to the symbolic reference to the seven-day quarantine required of a leper in Israel and to the ritual washing required for a leper to be pronounced clean. He was equally oblivious to the importance of humility, obedience, and faith.
Naaman seems to have been angry for two reasons: first, that Elisha would communicate with him through a servant rather than honoring him with a personal response; and second, that the cure should require a simple action on Naaman’s part rather than a dramatic miracle at the hand of the prophet.
Here again, we see a spiritual parallel. The Lord likewise conveys the messages of the gospel—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 of those who desire a miraculous sign or 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 in that it does not necessitate dramatic sacrifices or trials. Yet it requires more because, instead of a single great feat, it involves a lifelong commitment to humble obedience and service. To obtain a remission of sins, we, like Naaman, must humble ourselves and believe in God’s power to cleanse us. We must initiate the process by voluntarily stepping into the waters to be baptized by authorized servants of God. The attendant spiritual cleansing, while certainly among the greatest of miracles, is also among the least visible—for it cleanses the inner being and not the outer.
Naaman was finally cleansed only after humbling himself and complying with the prophet’s instructions. 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 neither by the water nor by immersion, but by the power of God. Baptism is effective in the same way. Though it must be performed with proper authority and in the prescribed way—by immersion—baptism itself does not do the cleansing; it is the power of God that cleanses.
Baptism by immersion is a symbol. It suggests a burial and resurrection with Christ—death to a life of sin and rebirth, through the power of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, to a life of spiritual vitality. 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” (Rom. 6:3–4).