The Walls of Jerusalem's Old City

I would like to begin by reading a most remarkable story from the 7th chapter of the book of 2 Kings. It describes how the Lord rescued Israel from the army of Aram—and did so entirely without human help. Please turn to it with me and follow along if you have a Bible handy. I am going to begin reading from the New International Version version beginning with chapter 6, verse 24, in order to give the background of the story:

Some time later, Ben-Hadad king of Aram mobilized his entire army and marched up and laid siege to Samaria.  There was a great famine in the city; the siege lasted so long that a donkey’s head sold for eighty shekels of silver, and a quarter of a cab of seed pods for five shekels.  As the king of Israel was passing by on the wall, a woman cried to him, “Help me, my lord the king!” The king replied, “If the LORD does not help you, where can I get help for you?  From the threshing floor?  From the winepress?” Then he asked her, “What’s the matter?”  She answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Give up your son so we may eat him today, and tomorrow we’ll eat my son.’  So we cooked my son and ate him.  The next day I said to her, ‘Give up your son so we may eat him,’ but she had hidden him.”  When the king heard the woman’s words, he tore his robes.  As he went along the wall, the people looked, and there, underneath, he had sackcloth on his body.  He said, “May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if the head of Elisha son of Shaphat remains on his shoulders today!”

        Now Elisha was sitting in his house, and the elders were sitting with him.  The king sent a messenger ahead, but before he arrived, Elisha said to the elders, “Don’t you see how this murderer is sending someone to cut off my head?  Look, when the messenger comes, shut the door and hold it shut against him.  Is not the sound of his master’s footsteps behind him?”  While he was still talking to them, the messenger came down to him.  And [the king] said, “This disaster is from the LORD.  Why should I wait for the LORD any longer?”  Elisha said, “Hear the word of the LORD.  This is what the LORD says: About this time tomorrow, a seah of flour will sell for a shekel and two seahs of barley for a shekel at the gate of Samaria.”  The officer on whose arm the king was leaning said to the man of God, “Look, even if the LORD should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?”  “You will see it with your own eyes,” answered Elisha, “but you will not eat any of it!”

        Now there were four men with leprosy at the entrance of the city gate.  They said to each other, “Why stay here until we die?  If we say, ‘We’ll go into the city’-the famine is there, and we will die.  And if we stay here, we will die.  So let’s go over to the camp of the Arameans and surrender.  If they spare us, we live; if they kill us, then we die.”  At dusk they got up and went to the camp of the Arameans.  When they reached the edge of the camp, not a man was there, for the Lord had caused the Arameans to hear the sound of chariots and horses and a great army, so that they said to one another, “Look, the king of Israel has hired the Hittite and Egyptian kings to attack us!”  So they got up and fled in the dusk and abandoned their tents and their horses and donkeys.  They left the camp as it was and ran for their lives.

        The men who had leprosy reached the edge of the camp and entered one of the tents.  They ate and drank, and carried away silver, gold and clothes, and went off and hid them.  They returned and entered another tent and took some things from it and hid them also.  Then they said to each other, “We’re not doing right.  This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves.  If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us.  Let’s go at once and report this to the royal palace.”

The image of the leper in Scripture is a good analogy to what we who are believers here tonight were—before Jesus, the Great Physician, found us and changed our lives. In biblical times, lepers were banished from their homes and forced to live away from the rest of society, unless and until their leprosy was cured. But what leper could ever hope to cure himself? Spiritually, the situation was very much the same with us. Before God saved us from our “leprosy,” the leprosy of sin, we were unclean in every way in the sight of Him with whom sin can never dwell. Nothing we could do for ourselves could have changed our condition or made us acceptable in the sight of a Holy God. We lived outside the camp of God’s Kingdom and love, ignorant of His goodness—as is the condition of so many people today on the campus of this great university.

Yet, as Romans 5, verses 8-10, state so beautifully:

  “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!  For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life.”

God did for us what we could not do for ourselves. He changed our lives by sending his only beloved Son, who lay down His life as an atoning sacrifice for all the awful things you and I and the rest of the human race have done. God healed us of the leprosy of sin and gave us an entirely new life, a life that we never dreamed existed before we met Jesus.

Hill of Samaria with Ruins of the Ancient City

To return to our passage in 2 Kings, when Ben-Hadad, king of Aram, besieged the city of Samaria, Israel had no hope, no way out of their trouble. They were in such despair regarding any chance of rescue that, when Elisha prophesied regarding God’s imminent deliverance of Israel, the officer closest to the king declared, “Look, even if the Lord should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?” But God did open the floodgates of heaven, turning on His celestial loudspeakers and terrifying the entire Aramean army. He caused them to “hear the sound of chariots, and horses, and a great army,” provoking them to flee for their lives far beyond the Jordan River—without a single Israelite soldier in pursuit! The Israelites didn’t even know what was happening!

Now let us look more closely at the four Israelite lepers described in verses 3 and 4. “They said to each other, ‘Why stay here until we die? If we say, ‘We’ll go into the city’—the famine is there, and we will die. And if we stay here, we will die. So let’s go over to the camp of the Arameans and surrender. If they spare us, we live; if they kill us, then we die.” In some ways, the lepers were the wisest Samaritans of all. They risked everything because they correctly reasoned that, if they did not, they would lose everything. Do you see any echoes here of the words of Jim Elliot, the famous missionary to the Arauca tribe in Ecuador? While he was an undergraduate at Wheaton College he wrote, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

The lepers took a great risk leaving the city of Samaria, but even so, they were totally unprepared for what they found when they walked into the camp of the Aramean army. They did not know that the Lord had already been there. Instead of having to surrender to their enemies, these starving men were free to eat and drink, to carry away “silver, gold, and clothes,” as much as they wanted with no one the wiser. Isn’t it just like God to welcome the repentant sinner home with arms wide open and a feast prepared? Think for a moment of the story of the prodigal son. That rebellious young man was ready to accept the humiliation of becoming a servant in his own father’s house—just so that he could go back home. And how did his father respond? To quote from Luke chapter 15, he said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his fingers and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

Did the Israelites in Elisha’s day deserve such a miraculous deliverance from the Lord, any more than the prodigal son deserved such open-armed forgiveness? But as the prophet Jeremiah wrote of the divine nature in Lamentations 4, “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassion’s never fail. They are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.” To return to the story of the Israelite lepers, look at their first response to God’s great mercy. They grabbed every treasure they could for themselves, “and went off and hid them.” Their second response, however, was wiser. Conviction must have come upon them, because they turned to one another and said, “We’re not doing right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves.”

This brings me to my main theme tonight: How often are we who believe in Jesus Christ guilty of keeping to ourselves the wonderful treasures of Heaven—while others around us starve and die for want of what we have? It is a glorious thing that we can be here tonight worshipping the Lord, but aren’t there many others on this campus who are lost and far away from God? They are souls for whom Jesus laid down His life just as surely as He laid it down for us. Didn’t Jesus say in Luke 15, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” For each of us who are saved here tonight, there was someone who prayed, someone who went after us and took the risk of speaking to us about Jesus Christ. I know how I responded to the first people who talked to me about the Lord—and I wasn’t very nice. I don’t know if any of them regretted having wasted their time on me but, thank God, He did not give up on me.

God could have chosen to save men and women entirely on His own, just as He chose to rescue the Israelites from the Arameans. He could have left us out of the work of salvation altogether, but He didn’t. What a high privilege! He called us to be co-workers with Himself in rescuing people from death and bringing them into the joy of eternal life. Jesus said in John 15:16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.” We have “good news” just like those lepers of old, and there are many people who need what God has given to us—just as much as the people of the city of Samaria needed what God gave to the four lepers.

St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia University

I am not going to try to tell you that the work of spreading the Gospel is easy, especially on a campus like this one where some people despise us for the very things we prize most. But I am going to tell you that this work is absolutely worthwhile, worth every prayer and effort we give to it. Ultimately, the work of salvation is not our work anyway. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 6, “he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” Making His appeal through us? How extraordinary that Almighty God would choose the likes of us as His personal ambassadors to a lost world! But He does—and we need to be faithful in this calling.

I would like to briefly tell you two stories from my own life, one sad and one happy. Years ago, a friend introduced me to Cab Calloway, the son and namesake of the great jazz musician. Shortly thereafter, I was riding on a train in New York when I noticed that he was sitting a few seats in front of me. There aren’t many times in my life when the Lord has spoken to me, but then and there He said to me, “Go and talk to this man about Me.” I was a very young and inexperienced believer and, like Moses, I resisted that command, thinking that I would not know how to speak to the fellow. I resisted too long because, not much later, Cab got off the train and I have never seen him since. I cannot tell you how guilty I felt for years thereafter. God gave me someone to speak to and I blew it. I therefore asked the Lord to help me never to miss an opportunity like that again.

The second story, as I said, is happier. When I was a freshman at Yale, I went out to preach and sing with a number of brothers and sisters in Christ on a Sunday afternoon on 42nd street near Times Square. We went there several times, and I still remember one day when so many people stopped to listen that the police had to come and push the crowd back onto the sidewalk, because they were obstructing traffic. After one of those occasions, I asked the Lord to give me someone to talk to about Him on my bus ride back to New Haven. When I got on the bus, only one seat was open, next to an elderly gentleman. I sat down, struck up a conversation, and he was soon telling me the story of his life. It seems that he had been happily married for many years when he suffered a heart attack and landed in the hospital. While there, believe it or not, his seventy-year-old wife was unfaithful to him for the first time—after 50 years of marriage! That experience so devastated the old man that he told me he just wanted to throw his life away. He had specifically gone down to Times Square that weekend to commit every sin he could with every prostitute he could find, because he was disgusted with his wife, and with his own life as well!

When the old man finished speaking, I began to tell him the good news of the forgiveness and new life that is ours in Jesus Christ. He resisted everything I said tooth and nail until, finally, he turned away in anger and just stared out the window. Something in me urged me not to give up, but to keep speaking though the case appeared hopeless. After about 30 or 40 minutes of total non-response from the man, I was truly ready to give up. In the meantime, however, it had begun to get dark and I could now see the reflection of the man’s face in the bus window. Tears were streaming down that face. I asked him if he wanted to receive Jesus Christ as his savior, and he turned toward me and responded with an emphatic, “Yes!” He prayed the sinner’s prayer with me just before we got to his stop. When he got up to leave, he was beaming from ear to ear, turning around every step as he left the bus to say over and over, “Thank you. You don’t know how much this means to me.” The bus driver finally had to beg him to please get off the bus. I received a beautiful letter from that happy old man several months later. He was still overflowing with joy—and he was reconciled with his wife!

"In thy light do we see light."

In Psalm 49, verse 7 it says, “No man can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him—the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough—that he should live on forever and not see decay.” No, we cannot pay the price to save our own lives or anyone else’s, but Jesus Christ has already paid that price for everyone who ever lived. The only question is what men decide to do or not do with God’s free gift. The King James Version translates verse 7 with the words, “the redemption of their soul is precious, and it ceases forever.” This world is the proving ground for all of eternity. Right here and right now men and women make decisions by which they will live or die forever. And to think that God has called us to have a part in the awesome work of pointing people to Himself, telling them about forgiveness of sin and new life in Christ! We cannot make the decision for someone else, but we can faithfully pray for them and give them the Good News of Jesus Christ. If we will do our part, God will be faithful in doing His part—and I expect that you may be very surprised by whom He saves at Columbia University. God often chooses the most unlikely people, at least from our limited perspective, because only He can see their hearts. But, as the lepers said to one another in 2 Kings 7, verse 9, “if we wait until daylight,” in our case the judgment day, to offer to others the gift so freely given to us, “punishment will overtake us.”

As I come to a close, I would like to read a verse from the book of Daniel, chapter 12. It is not only a beautiful passage, but a wonderful invitation for anyone here tonight who is willing to let go of his or her life and give it to Jesus, so that others may also find new life in Christ. “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” This latter phrase, “and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever,” is one the Lord impressed upon me when I was a child, and I have never forgotten it.

Don’t think for a moment that the work of saving men belongs only to those who are called by God to be preachers or evangelists. If you yield your life to do His will, God may lead you into politics, or business, or law, or medicine, or whatever He chooses. But part of your work will be to point men and women to Jesus Christ. Perhaps your epitaph will be like that of one of the first physicians to graduate from Yale at the beginning of the 18th century, when that university was still a godly place:

Bless’d with good intellectual parts,
Well skilled in two important arts,
Nobly he filled the double station
Both of preacher and physician.
To cure men’s sicknesses and sins,
He took unwearied care and pains;
And strove to make his patient whole
Throughout, in body and in soul.
(Memorials of Eminent Yale Men, Vol. 2, 12)

Copyright ©1997 Christopher N. White
(Message given at an InterVarsity meeting at Columbia University on 9/17/97)