The Cleansing of the Leper

April 11, 2021 / No. 4084

We are continuing this study of Mark, chapter 1:40-45, which is the text for this message.

And there came a leper to him beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt thou canst make me clean. And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean. And as soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was cleansed. And he straitly charged him, and forthwith sent him away; and saith unto him, See thou say nothing to any man: but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing those things which Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them. But he went out, and began to publish it much, and to blaze abroad the matter, insomuch that Jesus could no more openly enter into the city, but was without in desert places: and they came to him from every quarter.

We are given here no personal details concerning this man whom Jesus healed, simply this: A leper came to Him (v. 40). The point is that the focus is not the man but the disease. That is because, of all the diseases that are in the Scriptures, God chose out this one to be a living illustration of our spiritual disease of sin. Leprosy was the most feared of all diseases in ancient times. There was no cure. It led to certain death. Once you had received the diagnosis, it was like receiving a death sentence. Today, it would be similar to hearing the words, “You have terminal cancer.” Only, the physical effects of leprosy were far more obvious and disfiguring than a cancer would be. Leprosy led not only to being physically disfigured, but it led to being socially despised and religiously defiled.

Leprosy is a virus that begins with some skin discoloration and nerve pain. Soon the skin becomes scaly and thick, and the patch spreads. It attacks especially the extremities—the fingers and the toes, the arms and the legs, the ears and the nose. The disease is systemic. That means it attacks not only the skin but every system in the body—especially the nervous system, so that there is no feeling in the extremities. And the one who has leprosy tries to rub and scratch and soon has rubbed off his skin. A sore develops that becomes infected. The flesh begins to rot. The digits (the fingers and the toes) fall off. Hands turn into stumps, and soft tumors develop under the skin. The skin bunches up, especially in the cheeks and the foreheads, so that the face of one who has leprosy looks like the face of a lion. The throat becomes hoarse, the voice raspy, and a foul odor emits from the body. Hair falls out from the head and the face. Eyebrows and eyelashes are gone. The victim develops stomach ulcers, so he cannot eat. He becomes vulnerable to all kinds of diseases. He usually dies a slow, awful death as leprosy progressively destroys the body.

From Scripture, it seems that leprosy was contagious, although that has been questioned. Regardless, the Old Testament gives very strict instructions for those who have this disease and for handling this disease. You can read that in Leviticus 13 and 14, where we read of the procedure, diagnosis, the rules for quarantine, and especially the regulations for those who have the disease and are declared permanently unclean. They must cover their mouths when they talk. They must announce their disease by crying out, “Unclean, unclean” whenever someone comes toward them. They must not approach to within six feet of other individuals. And the disease was considered so serious that, on a windy day, they were not allowed to come within a hundred and fifty feet of others! They were not allowed to live in walled cities or communities with those who were not infected. So they live off in their own little commune with others in a similar plight. They cannot work, they cannot live with their families. They are cut off and it is permanent.

And if indeed, as some have surmised, leprosy was not contagious, all of this would seem quite arbitrary. Yet, God had commanded it to be this way.

Why all these regulations? The answer is: God chose this to be the graphic illustration of sin. There are many diseases that Jesus healed, but none of them stand out so clearly a picture of sin as leprosy. The focus here in the gospels and in the Scriptures of the Old Testament laws is on the disease, so that you and I might learn about our sin. The sin in our souls, in our natures, is spiritual leprosy with which every one of us is infected. As leprosy affects the whole person, so does sin. As leprosy is systemic, so is sin. As leprosy runs deeper than the skin, so does sin. As leprosy is ugly and loathsome, so is sin. As leprosy contaminates and spreads, so does sin. As leprosy leads to death, so does sin. As leprosy results in the loss of feeling, so that the person is unresponsive, so it is when one is in sin. As leprosy is completely incurable by man, so also is sin. And just as whatever is touched by leprosy must be burned, so the sinner is fit for hellfire. As leprosy isolates one from fellowship, so does sin separate you from your God. And as leprosy can be cured only by God, so the only cure for sin is God’s grace for us in Jesus Christ.

There is nothing that so well pictures the hideousness and the destructiveness of sin. Sin is loathsome and damnable. And you see from this description that I have given of leprosy why this is so important. It is showing to every one of us how horrible we are on account of our sin, how destructive our sin is, what we deserve on account of our sin. We are unclean. We deserve to be cast out.

Do you know yourself as a spiritual leper? Or do you tend to think of your sin as something more like a partial blindness, or being deaf in one ear, or maybe a disability for which you can learn a skill for coping? No, we are unclean! Altogether filthy and helpless. So, Romans 3:12: “They are all [universally] gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable. There is none that doeth good, no not one.” According to Psalm 14:2, 3, “the Lord looked down upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” Is this how you see yourself, as a spiritual leper, unclean, defiled, helpless?

So, first we have here this horrible disease, and it is a description of a man. And this man is in the developed stages. He is full of leprosy, Luke says. And he comes, in verse 40, to Jesus. He comes. That is the second thing—the leper is coming. Jesus said, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” That coming to Jesus is believing on Him. And in the leper’s coming to Him, we have an outstanding example of one coming in faith to Jesus.

Notice the elements. First, you see here his boldness. That he came at all was remarkable. This was strictly forbidden by the Mosaic law. It was so socially unacceptable that when people did this, when lepers did this, the people would pick up stones and hurl them at the violator. He knew that he had no right to come, and yet, here he comes through the crowd, pushing toward Jesus (perhaps with his hand over his mouth) and crying out in a raspy voice: “Unclean, unclean.” And, like the waters of the Red Sea parting, the multitude parts as this man comes to the feet of Jesus. Do you have the boldness in coming to Jesus when so many would scorn you and turn you away?

Notice, second, his reverence in coming. Mark says he came to Jesus and kneeled down. Matthew says he came worshiping Him and called Him “Lord.” What he does here is that he acknowledges the greatness of Jesus, and he falls down prostrate before Him with his face on the ground. Is this how you come to Jesus, in reverence and awe?

Then notice, third, coupled with his reverence is humility. He comes, certainly confident that Jesus has the power to heal. He has heard about Jesus’ miracles. But as he comes, he knows his own unworthiness, and there is no demand in what he says to Jesus. Instead, in verse 40, “If thou wilt,” or “If you are willing.” Now Jesus’ willingness is not really questioned. Jesus says elsewhere, “He that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out.” Jesus will receive all who come to Him because they come on account of the Father’s drawing them to Him. He says, “No man comes to me except the Father draw him.” That coming, then, is a work of God’s grace, on account of God’s electing grace. So Jesus never turns away those who come. But what this leper is acknowledging is this, that though Jesus receives sinners, there is nothing in the sinner, nothing in himself, that makes him worthy. His being received is entirely of the grace of Christ. He comes empty, helpless, destitute. Do you come to Jesus like that? Or do you hold unto your self-righteousness for acceptance with God?

Then, fourth, we see in the leper’s coming his beautiful confession. “If thou wilt,” he says, “thou canst make me clean.” You can make me clean, he says to Jesus. Looking at his stubby fingers, his rotten flesh, he knows that that disease is irreversible. He knows that he cannot change it. But, looking to Jesus, he says, “Lord, you are able, you can do it. Thine is the power, the authority, to fully heal me.” What shadow of guilt are you living under? What dominating sin is there in your life? Are you not sure that Jesus has the power to cleanse you? “Thou canst make me clean!” That is his confession.

Here is the sinner who, under the operations of God’s Spirit and grace, comes in faith to the Savior, humbly and empty, and confidently. We can come confidently because we have here in the passage a compassionate Savior who will not turn away any who come to Him in true faith. And that is what we learn here about the person and the work of Jesus. In this miracle, we have a demonstration not so much of the power of Jesus, as the compassion of Jesus. Look at verse 41. How is Jesus going to respond to this leper who has broken all the protocol? You can imagine the horror and the disdain of the crowd, and even of the disciples, wondering: What is He going to do now? How will He handle this?

“And Jesus, moved with compassion.” The word here has the idea of feeling something very deeply, in your bowels, deep down, a gut feeling. When Jesus looked at this man, He was not repulsed by this man but He connected with him on the deepest level. He understood his desperation. He felt his loneliness. He saw the effects, the curse of sin. And He did the unthinkable. When everyone else fell back in revulsion, He stepped forward, He leaned over to the man lying prostrate on the ground. He stretched out His hand and He touched the leper.

Now, if you look at the text, you see that the healing power of Jesus was not in the touch. Verse 42 says that as soon as He had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him. And that fits with everything else in this chapter. The word that Jesus spoke came with such authority that when Jesus had spoken here, “Be thou clean,” the man was clean. Jesus did not need to touch him to heal him. In fact, what Jesus did here was strictly forbidden. Now He would be unclean. Now He would be required to quarantine.

Now, think of this from the point of view of the leper. Jesus touched him. When was the last time he had been touched by someone who was not like him, a leper? Jesus touched Him. That is a very beautiful thing to do a study of, in the gospels—the touch of Jesus. Especially in the gospel of Mark, Jesus touched those who suffered. Jesus could have performed any one of the miracles that He performed of healing without touching. So, why does He touch? In reaching out and touching, Jesus gives to us a profound display of His love and pity, His power and His willingness. In His reaching down, His coming down from heaven and entering into our flesh and blood, our suffering and curse, taking that on Himself, feeling it very deeply, so that we read of Him that He was tempted in all points like as we are, He was touched with the feeling of our infirmities. He felt that very deeply. He identified with us. He became one of us. And He who knew no sin became sin for us. With His holy hand, He touched us in our sin and He was defiled for us.

In the passage, you see the healing power of Jesus. On display in the healing power of Jesus is, as reported here by Mark, the power of the cross that cleanses us from all our sins and defilement. Notice that the verb used here is not healed, but cleansed. He did not heal the leper, but He cleansed the leper. This miracle helps us to see something that we often neglect to see, and that is the cleansing power and the accomplishment of Jesus Christ on the cross. The healing of this man was immediate, verse 42: “And as soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was cleansed.” The healing was complete. This disease that had progressively worsened over the years and taken away parts of his flesh and his feeling, in a moment was gone. His fingers came back. His ears and his nose were made whole. His hair returned. An incurable disease was reversed.

Beloved, that is the power of the cross of Jesus Christ! It covers all our guilt and removes all our defilement and shame to work as a power within us as new creatures to overcome all sin. If any man is in Christ Jesus, he is a new creature. Old things are passed away, behold, all things are become new.

And, as I say, we often neglect to realize the power of the blood and the cross of Jesus Christ. I say that because of the way this chapter concludes. Did this man who was healed know that he was healed? Did he experience the cleansing power of Jesus? And, as we have been cleansed by the blood of Jesus Christ, do we know it? Have we experienced it? This man knew it. He knew it so much that in his newfound life and zeal and health he went beyond what Jesus had commanded him. He was a disobedient witness. Look at verse 43 and the way the chapter ends. “And he straitly charged him, and forthwith sent him away.” Jesus gives to this man a double charge, a double command. And notice how Jesus becomes very stern. His compassion towards the leper suddenly turns into a stern warning. He straitly charged him; He was very clear. You could say, He was straight forward. There was no question about what Jesus said. He said two things: One, he may not say anything to anyone about this healing. “See thou say nothing to any man.” And, two, Jesus sent him away. That means not just that Jesus sent him away from here, but Jesus sent him away to Jerusalem, following the protocols of the Mosaic law. He must go from Galilee to Jerusalem and have his name cleared off the roles of the unclean in the proper ceremonial manner, and he must do that as a testimony to the priests. Jesus commands him to do this. Jesus tells him, This is what you must do. He is telling him to be quiet, and He sends him away to give a testimony to the Jewish leaders.

Why does Jesus do that? Why does He tell him to be quiet, in sending him away? It is not just because this is the requirement of the Mosaic law. But I think we know why. And it fits with this whole chapter. It is because Jesus does not want the multitudes to follow Him for His miracles. His desire is to preach the gospel with power and without the distraction of the miracles. Here the leper’s disobedience makes that impossible. “But he went out,” verse 45, “and began to publish it much, and to blaze abroad the matter, insomuch that Jesus could no more openly enter into the city, but was without in desert places: and they came to him from every quarter.”

What do we do with this man’s disobedience? There are some things we can learn. And I want to conclude with these four points.

First, we really cannot fault the healed leper for his zeal. Jesus asked him to do something that is virtually impossible. “See thou say nothing to any man.” He leaves. And he runs into one of his leper companions or he runs into one of his family members and they say to him: “Wow, you look good today. What happened?” He cannot handle this, right? And there is something there in that zeal, that enthusiasm, that ought to characterize the Christian. This man is operating under what some commentators call the Messianic secret. Jesus did not want this published everywhere. But that is not the case anymore. Jesus has taught us to shout it from the mountaintops, to go and tell all creatures. If you have been cleansed and you know the cleansing of your sins, you should have the enthusiasm of this man to tell others. He began to publish it much and to blaze abroad the matter.

Second, we should see here that the real test of discipleship is not zeal but obedience. And sometimes that means doing something or going somewhere that you prefer not to do or go. Maybe that is because it lacks the excitement that you want to enjoy, or it is not a comfortable situation. Here is the true test of discipleship: You do it anyway because Jesus has called you to do it. Now, I am not talking here about obeying Jesus by going to Africa to be a missionary. Maybe that is obedience for some. But I am talking here about obeying Christ in your daily lives of discipleship—in your marriage, obeying Christ even though it is difficult. In your home—loving and serving your children, though they are so ungrateful. Obedience, that is the test of discipleship. Here, the leper failed. He did not obey.

Then, a third thing we learn here is that there is a warning against misdirected zeal—the kind of zeal that is often seen in newer Christians as an expression of their first love. It will come out in a fervent apologetic for the Christian faith or the Reformed faith. They love to engage in theological arguments. They are very confrontive in their witness to unbelievers. And there can often be a lack of love and a lack of wisdom, and the older, mature Christian will say, “Just back off a bit. Your zeal is hindering your witness.” Perhaps the best way to put it is this way, as one of the commentators did, that our calling to witness for Christ is circumscribed to other principles of Christian living, including obedience. And, he said, sometimes our most eloquent statements are found in our silence. And our little shout then can actually hinder our testimony. There is a warning here against misdirected zeal that can hinder our witness.

Then, fourth and finally. This is really the main point of these last three verses. We have a lesson, a lesson of the chapter here, that the priority of the coming and the ministry of Jesus Christ was the gospel. That was His goal and purpose: to preach the good news. That is why the chapter ends this way, to tell us about the misdirected desire of the unbelieving Jews for Jesus and His miracles and to teach us that the true purpose of Jesus’ coming was to proclaim the gospel. And it leaves us with questions as we finish. Why are you coming to Jesus? Have you come wretched, needy, hideous, empty like this leper, seeking salvation in the good news of the gospel, coming to Jesus not just for a miracle, but for the forgiveness of sin? Do you say with the leper, “Thou canst make me clean”? Jesus came to preach that good news as He came into the world, not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.