Jesus Encounters: Jesus and the healing of the leper

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Jesus Encounters: Jesus and the healing of the leper

by I Gordon

We have a wee little story before us today. Just six verses. But it is a goodie! It is the story of a very leprous man who desires to be well. As with most of these stories in the Gospels, there is more  than one level going on. Like the onion, it has layers. We can look at the healing that Jesus performed literally 2000 years ago and that is awesome. We can also look at what this passage teaches us today for all those that deal with that which leprosy points to and that is sin. Let's begin, argh, at the beginning.

What we can learn from a leprous man

Mark 1:40 A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, "If you are willing, you can make me clean."

Before we get into the approach of this man, let's say talk about leprosy. What do you know about leprosy? Hopefully not a lot for it is not something one wants to be well acquainted with. The Guzik Commentary gives a good summary of this hideous disease and it's consequences for the sufferer. He writes:

"Leprosy was one of the horrific diseases of the ancient world. Today, leprosy afflicts 15 million across the world, mostly in third world nations.

i. It begins as small, red spots on the skin. Before too long the spots get bigger, and start to turn white, with sort of a shiny, or scaly appearance. Pretty soon the spots spread over your whole body and your hair begins to fall out - first from your head, then even from your eyebrows. As things get worse, your finger nails and toenails get sort of loose; they start to rot and eventually fall off. Then the joints of your fingers and toes begin to rot, and they start to fall off, piece by piece. Your gums start shrinking, and they can't hold your teeth anymore, so you lose each of them. It keeps eating away at your face until literally your nose, your palate, and even your eyes rot - and you waste away until you die.

ii. As horrible as the physical suffering was, the worst part of having leprosy might have been the way people treated you. In the Old Testament, God said that when there were lepers among the people of Israel, they should be carefully quarantined and examined (Leviticus 13-14). Lepers had to dress like people who were in mourning for the dead, because they were considered to be the living dead. They had to warn the people around them by crying out, "Unclean! Unclean!" whenever people were near them. This really wasn't because leprosy is highly contagious; it isn't. It is because God used this disease as a striking example of sin and its effects on us. "

So here is the condition of the man who came to Jesus. Luke's account in chapter 5:12 even tells us that the man was 'full of leprosy'. So we are not talking about a mild case here. This man, as we read above, would have been a social outcast with no hope in sight. And though he was meant to keep himself separate from others, he sees in Jesus his one and only chance of being clean. So with his hands shaking, but hope stirring in his heart, he approaches Jesus. What could we say about this man and his approach? Can we learn anything from it for when we come before the Lord? The Believers Bible Commentary lists the following useful points:

1. It was earnest and desperate - imploring Him.
2. It was reverent - kneeling down to Him.
3. It was humble and submissive - 'If You are willing.' - He probably wasn't shown much kindness.
4. It was believing - 'You can.'
5. It acknowledged need - 'make me clean.'
6. It was specific - not 'bless me' but 'make me clean.'
7. It was personal - 'make me clean.'
8. It was brief - five words in the original.

What does leprosy in the Bible point to?

Before continuing with our story in the Gospel of Mark, we need to do a little background homework on leprosy. There is actually a lot said about leprosy in the law of Moses. Leviticus chapters 13 and 14 specifically are very detailed. They clearly show how this hideous disease defiles and isolates the sufferer. They also give instruction on how restoration can be made. In all of these ways, leprosy is used by God in the Bible as a type of sin with its defiling and separating nature. While it is outside the scope of this study to examine these long chapters in detail, they are certainly worth reading and here are some quick points to note in relation to the similarities between leprosy and sin.

Leviticus 13:2-3 "When a man has on the skin of his body a swelling or a scab or a bright spot, and it becomes an infection of leprosy on the skin of his body, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests. (3) "The priest shall look at the mark on the skin of the body, and if the hair in the infection has turned white and the infection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is an infection of leprosy; when the priest has looked at him, he shall pronounce him unclean.

Leprosy, like sin, is not just something on the surface but is deeper than the skin. This was one of the points that the priest had to look for in diagnosing leprosy and it is true of sin in general. Sin isn't just a surface level issue. It comes from the heart within us.

Leviticus 13:8 "The priest shall look, and if the scab has spread on the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is leprosy.

Leprosy, like sin, doesn't remain static. It spreads. A little lie never remains little for other lies have to be told to cover it. A little lust never remains little for it begins to consume it's victim. A little greed easily spreads and never says 'enough'! As the Apostle Paul says, in speaking of sin 'a little leaven leavens the whole lump' (1 Cor 5:6)

Leviticus 13:45-46 "As for the leper who has the infection, his clothes shall be torn, and the hair of his head shall be uncovered, and he shall cover his mustache and cry, 'Unclean! Unclean!' (46) "He shall remain unclean all the days during which he has the infection; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.

We see here that leprosy defiles the man but also leads to separation. This is completely true of sin in general. It defiles the person so that they are unclean and are separated from God for all their days while they remain in that state.

Leviticus 13:52 "So he shall burn the garment, whether the warp or the woof, in wool or in linen, or any article of leather in which the mark occurs, for it is a leprous malignancy; it shall be burned in the fire.

The garments of the leper were to be burned in the fire for they were defiled and unclean. Garments in the Bible often speak of righteousness or unrighteousness. That the garments of the leper are to be burned speaks of the judgement to come for the one who remains defiled in sin. As the Prophet Isaiah said: Isaiah 64:6 For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. But, thankfully, there is hope for such a man which we shall see in Leviticus chapter 14.

Leviticus 14:2-4 "This shall be the law of the leper in the day of his cleansing. Now he shall be brought to the priest, (3) and the priest shall go out to the outside of the camp. Thus the priest shall look, and if the infection of leprosy has been healed in the leper, (4) then the priest shall give orders to take two live clean birds and cedar wood and a scarlet string and hyssop for the one who is to be cleansed.

Here now is the way of cleansing. The leper and the Priest must meet, but it is the Priest who shall go outside of the camp to meet the leper. The leper is not allowed to come into the camp so the Priest must go to where he is. What a wonderful picture this is of the Lord Jesus who was willing, as our High Priest, to go 'outside the camp' to meet the one defiled by sin! This is the very point the author of Hebrews makes when he writes: Hebrews 13:12-13 Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. (13) So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach.

Leviticus 14:5-7 "The priest shall also give orders to slay the one bird in an earthenware vessel over running water. (6) "As for the live bird, he shall take it together with the cedar wood and the scarlet string and the hyssop, and shall dip them and the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slain over the running water. (7) "He shall then sprinkle seven times the one who is to be cleansed from the leprosy and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the live bird go free over the open field. (8) The one to be cleansed shall then wash his clothes and shave off all his hair and bathe in water and be clean. Now afterward, he may enter the camp, but he shall stay outside his tent for seven days.

The cleansing of the leper comes through two birds. One is slain and the live bird, along with cedar wood and a scarlet thread, are dipped in the blood of the sacrificed bird. The live bird is then released to go free. So what is that? It is a picture of the sacrifice and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The bird that is killed represents the death of the Lord Jesus on our behalf to provide our cleansing. The bird that is released and set free represents the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. This was the only way the leper could be declared clean. So it is with the sinner today. It comes only through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ! Note that the cleansed leper was then allowed, after seven days, to reenter the camp and pronounced 'clean'. The sinner who comes to the Lord Jesus for forgiveness is declared 'clean' (John 13:10) and is no longer separated from God. 

Whew! Alright... back to the story!

So if you have forgotten the story we are actually talking about after the extended detour, here is the story so far: A man filled with leperosy has come to Jesus and thrown himself down at Jesus' feet saying 'Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean!'. How would Jesus respond to such a person?

Mark 1:41 Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!"

Jesus was filled with compassion. He knew everything that this man had gone through. He knew the shame. He knew the loneliness. He knew the isolation and hopelessness that had long filled this man. Jesus cares for us. He isn't someone who just jumps whenever we ask for we tend to want any problem just to go away straight away and God has good purposes for those problems. Having said that, He knows when we are truly going through the ringer. He feels compassion. He never stood aloof from the people and their needs when they were real. And He acts - He reached out His hand. He is willing and He touched the man. Remember what we saw above through the law of Moses? You weren't allowed to touch a leper but Jesus did. He associated with the down-trodden. And, in leprosy being a type of sin, we see the Holy touching the unholy for He associated with us being made sin for us.

Mark 1:42 Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.

Just like that. This man went from unclean to clean in one act of reaching out to Jesus and allowing Him to take it away. Sin is like that. There is a solution and it can come instantly once a repentant sinner cries out to God from his or her heart. Notice also that normally, if someone clean touched someone unclean, then the one who was clean became unclean. That applies to everyone apart from the Son of God! When He (being clean) touched the unclean, it was the unclean that became clean! Such is the power and holiness of the Lord Jesus!

He takes your place so you can have His

Mark 1:43-45 Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: (44) See that you don't tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them. (45) Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.

Now, after a great miracle such as this one, you would think that Jesus would get the ex-leper to tell all about the great miracle that God has done. Well, we would do that anyway! But Jesus was the ultimate non-showman. 'Don't tell anyone!' He instructs the ex-leper. Jesus wasn't a show and He wasn't after curious onlookers. But this leper, overwhelmed with the kindness of the grace of God cannot obey! And I'm sure God didn't hold this act of disobedience against him! This man just had to go out and tell everyone he knew (and many he didn't know) about what Jesus had done for him! What was the result?

The story ends with the point that from then on, Jesus could no longer enter a town freely but stayed outside in lonely places. What a strange turn around we have here. It is a turn around that sums up the entire healing of this leper. The leper, who had previously been isolated, is now able to move freely among the people, while the One who had been able to move freely is now isolated and dwelling in lonely places. There is a divine substitution going on here. Jesus became, to some extent, what the leper was so that the leper could be free and clean as Jesus was. It is a min-picture of the greater Gospel truth that He became what we are so that we could be what He is! In the language of the Apostle Paul:

2 Corinthians 5:21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

And that is a truth that you will be wrapping your head around and amazed at for all eternity!