In 2 Kings 5:1–14, we find the story of Naaman, the distinguished commander of the Syrian army who also happens to have been a leper. At the suggestion of his wife’s Jewish servant girl, Naaman arranged to meet with the prophet Elisha. Elisha told this distinguished gentile to “go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean” (v. 10).
Naaman went away in anger. His response protests the superiority of the waters of Syria to the waters of Israel while also revealing his expectations for his meeting with Elisha:
Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean? (vv. 11–12)
I think it would be accurate to summarize Naaman’s thinking this way: he was expecting some sort of spectacular display that affirmed Elisha as an oracle of “his” God and some grand gesture to show the divine power at work in him.
A good contrast to Naaman is the centurion in Matthew 8. Here was another pagan military man seeking a miracle from a representative of Jewish religion. In this case, the centurion was not the one with the affliction; instead, his favorite servant had become paralyzed and was suffering, and the prophet he approached was Jesus. When Jesus agreed to come to his house to heal the servant, the centurion said, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed” (v. 8).
These two narratives provide a good illustration of the ways that fallen humans see spiritual power. One camp sees the power almost exclusively in physical and spectacular terms. It is as if the spectacle itself is the power. This is the camp of Naaman, and in this camp, the biblical miracles are more than signs, but they are ends in themselves and are the infallible proofs of God’s presence and power. The absence of the sensational and the spectacular is perceived as an indicator of lethargy, weak faith, and spiritual deadness.
The centurion represents another camp, one in which God’s presence and power are not confined to the spectacular but are also conveyed and communicated through ordinary means. This camp neither diminishes nor denies the fact that Almighty God intervenes in the created order in ways that demonstrate His sovereign power over all things. But those in this camp recognize that God also conveys and communicates His power and presence through ordinary means. A baby born in a manger, the elements of water and wine, and words spoken through lips of clay are all used by God as vehicles that demonstrate and distribute His saving power to His saints (2 Cor. 4:3–7; Col. 2:16–23).