Jesus Cleanses a Leper
Cancer – the Big C – we have all heard of it, in fact most of us will know someone who has faced it. Cancer has been known for centuries but it was not really until the second half of the 20 th century that it became a real concern to the man in the street. Cancer is a umbrella term used to cover a wide range of problems. Cancer Research Uk says there are more than 200 different types of cancer – but cancer is almost never contagious. It’s easy however to feel helpless in the face of something as big as cancer.
AIDS – burst onto the medical scene in the 1980s and was initially met with strong reactions of discrimination and fear. Initially a positive diagnosis was the equivalent of a death sentence and today there is still no known cure although the progress of the illness can be significantly slowed through medication. Such medication is expensive and has side effects – the cost to society is considerable both in terms of health care and in terms of loss of human capital. AIDS can be transmitted from one person to another in certain circumstances.
Ebola was first identified in the 1970s but has only recently hit the headlines. In certain circumstances Ebola is highly contagious – but those circumstances are limited. People can survive contracting Ebola but death rates have remained alarmingly high. Great efforts are being poured into trying to develop vaccines and effective medication to get this outbreak under control.
Each of these illnesses has been met with a reaction of fear, a fear that has been compounded by ignorance, but it remains fear nonetheless. Pain is a frequently a factor in all three of these conditions.
In Bible times leprosy was like cancer, AIDS and Ebola rolled into one. It was devastating and had significant consequences for the whole of a person's life. The illness affected his life not just physically but socially, relationally and religiously as well. Amongst the people of God a leper was forced to live his life on the fringes of society He was an outcast who could not participate fully in the life of the community. He was considered both a danger – leprosy was after all a contagious disease; but also as a person under God's curse. A person who had leprosy was usually described not as being sick and in need of healing but as unclean and needing to be cleansed.
The word leprosy was used in the Bible as something of an umbrella term to cover not just what we refer to as leprosy today, Hansen's Disease, but a number of other skin conditions too. Modern medicines can treat leprosy – though there still remain over a thousand leper colonies in India and hundreds more in China.
In Bible times there were no such treatments available – God was the only hope as is seen clearly in that OT incident we read about earlier.
A Syrian army commander who was affected by leprosy had been on a military excursion into Israel where he had captured a little girl who had become his wife's servant. This little girl had told her mistress:
2Kings 5:3 "Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy."
This commander told his King who sent him to the King of Israel with a letter which read:
2Kings 5:6 "When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy."
The King of Israel thought this was merely a ruse to find an excuse for war because in his understanding no man could cure another of leprosy:
2Kings 5:7 "Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?"
An Unexpected Encounter
And it was a leper who suddenly presented himself right in front of Jesus.
Luke 5:12 "And it happened when He(Jesus) was in a certain city, that behold, a man who was full of leprosy…"
No-one would have expected that! No leper should suddenly approach others like that. On another occasion when a group of 10 lepers wanted Jeus to help them we read that they stood "at a distance" and from afar off they called out to him – that was acceptable but that was not what this man did.
All of a sudden he was there with no warning and as soon as he saw Jesus he threw himself down on the ground before him and begged Jesus to help him:
v.12 "Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean."
Now this is really very remarkable and you must understand just how remarkable it was.
Given what we've already said about leprosy the only One who was capable of doing anything about it was God himself. Yet this man speaks to Jesus with confidence that Jesus has this power to make him clean. In fact the only thing he has any doubts about is whether Jesus will be disposed to help him!
This is all the more remarkable in that up to this point Jesus has not cleansed anybody at all from leprosy!! Yes, it was true that Jesus had delivered people from a whole range of different problems – he had cast out evil spirits and he had healed them of a range of physical ailments and sicknesses but there is no trace of any leper being cleansed prior to this in his ministry.
This leper also addresses Jesus with the language that was used of God in the OT – the title Lord meant far more than a respectful "Sir".
This leper was aware of his condition and the desperate state he was in – leprosy had taken a firm grip on his life and Luke describes the leprosy that he had as being in an advanced stage. In his need he didn't however give up hope but came to the Lord Jesus and pleaded with him for help.
Because of the way leprosy is presented to us in the Bible it becomes a ready analogy for sin itself. Just as leprosy rendered a person unclean so does sin, just as leprosy cut a person off from God and from others so does sin, just as a leper could do nothing about his own leprosy so no sinner can do anything to deliver himself from his sin. The state of a sinner before God is a desperate one. There is a difference however – no leper could hide his leprosy and many do sinners try to hide their sin. You may be like that. You may be refusing to face up to the fact that your sin has cut you off from God and that is by the far the worst effect of sin. You need to face up to your true condition before God and then you too must be prepared to go urgently to Jesus for the forgiveness and the cleansing that only he can provide.
This leper, we are told, fell on his face and begged Jesus. He wasn't standing on his honour claiming his rights but was humbly recognising his need of mercy, and that he had no claim to this at all.
Have you ever gone like that to Jesus? Jesus will be of no help to you as long as you try to fool yourself that you don't need him and that you can get by without him. How difficult it can be for men and women to come clean about themselves even before a God who knows all about them!
An Unexpected Response
The leper didn't have to wait long for a response from this most remarkable of men Jesus Christ. And what a response it was.
When Jesus cast out evil spirits he did so with with a simple word. He didn't need to actually touch sick people either when he healed them – he was quite capable of healing at distance again with a simple word, though he often did lay his hands upon those who were physically ill. And what will he do with this leper, with this untouchable one? What a blessing it would have been had he merely spoken the word and driven the leprosy out of him – yes, that would have been a blessing indeed. But Jesus did more.
It's hard to imagine what life is like with no physical contact – it's one of the trying things about Ebola that a mother can't embrace her sick child for fear of catching the virus – and here was a man who had been a leper for a long time. I wonder how long it had been since a clean person had touched him? And here is Jesus and he stretches out his hand – what did the leper think as he saw that hand approach him? And as Jesus touched him, actually touched him who was untouchable, he said something simple and wonderful:
Luke 5:13 "I will; be clean."
And instantly the man was clean – in fact so clean that no trace whatsoever was left of the illness – he was clean, clean!
And Jesus provides the same instant cleansing for us too when we go to him trusting him to deal with the problem of our sin. Jesus came in order to deal with our sin – he would deal with it by dying for us upon the Cross of Calvary – and so he can pronounce us clean, our sins can be forgiven and this not as the result of arduous efforts on our part to live a better life but because of his grace and mercy!
Jesus then sent this 'now former leper' off to see the local priests so that they could verify that he was indeed clean. There were sacrifices to be offered – expressions of thankfulness to God for his wonderful mercy. By doing everything according to the book no-one would be able to justly accuse Jesus of putting God's law to one side. By doing things according to the book this now-cleansed-former-leper would be free to participate again in community life without any shadow or suspicion hanging over him. He could then begin the task of learning how to live his new life as a clean man – he would be able to put aside all those old ways he'd developed as he lived on the margins of society and some of those habits may have become deeply ingrained. Maybe he'd still be tempted to cry out "unclean" when he turned the corner and saw someone coming – but he wouldn't need to any more!
In the same way when a person who has gone to Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of his or her sins is made clean before God but will still some old habits that need to put right. So a person who comes to Jesus Christ will undergo a change of lifestyle with a new set of priorities but this is as a result of being forgiven for his/her sin and not in a desperate attempt to make himself right with God.
The Leper Acts Foolishly
But the man who was formerly a leper didn't pay as much attention to what Jesus told him to do as he should have done. He didn't go quietly to the priest to things by the book but in an excess of joy and enthusiasm he spread the news far and wide concerning what Jesus had done for him.
I guess we can all find that pretty understandable – after all his life had just been completely turned around and he would never be the same again. And yet his actions, well-meaning as they might have been, didn't help Jesus in the pursuit of his mission. It is always better to do what Jesus tells us than it is to follow our own feelings!
New Christians can often act in similar ways – so don't be too quick to judge a new Christian if their action is a bit hair-brained at times, they'll mature with the years. But if that is you then do not assume that the way you feel about some particular course of action is necessarily the right one – we need to listen to Jesus, to pay attention to what he says and not try to trump his wisdom with our own!
As the leper spread the word – something that in other circumstances might have been highly commendable – huge crowds pressed around Jesus and doubtless for a variety of motives: some came wanting to hear what he had to say and others came wanting to be rid of their ailments.
And what was wrong with that? Well the danger was of Jesus being sidetracked or diverted in the accomplishment of his true mission. He did not come in order to provide a perfect one man health service in 1 st century Palestine but the danger was that this was precisely how others would begin to see him.
That kind of thinking is still with us today and many will try to suggest that if only we have faith then all our sicknesses will be a thing of the past. How this appeals to our natural human frame and how we would like to be permanently set free from all our aches and pains and worse! The needs however of our never-dying souls don't make themselves felt in such an obvious manner and the immediacy of our physical problems can lead many to totally overlook their far more serious spiritual needs.
When Jesus walked on earth two thousand years ago he did perform numerous miracles of varied kinds and he certainly healed many sick people out of compassion but we should understand these miracles not as setting the pattern for the rest of human history but rather as vindicating this one extraordinary man. He said extraordinary things and backed this up by doing extraordinary things but his identity/credentials having been established there is no further reason for us to expect a miracle every time we might like to benefit from one.
Yes, I know that some people like to say that they would believe if only they saw or experienced a miracle but there were plenty of folk who saw the most amazing things that Jesus did yet who never ever put their faith and trust in him.
This leper must have heard something about Jesus in order to seek him out in such a trusting manner but he exercised faith without ever having seen another leper cleansed of his leprosy.
You too need to come trustingly to Jesus Christ humbly pleading with him to forgive your sn and to give you the new life you need in him. If you haven't yet called upon the name of the Lord Jesus for your own salvation what is holding you back? Why not call upon him today? Jesus reached out and accepted this leper though the rest of society might not want anything to do with him. This same Jesus will take you as you are but you must come to him in repentance and faith.
If Jesus' chief concern had been to be make the lives of others comfortable and cozy he had a great opportunity when all those crowds were flocking to him. But Jesus deliberately didn't seek to develop this type of ministry, he didn't chase the crowds pandering to their whims and desires, he had come for a greater purpose than that.
This fact is born out by his determination to get away from the crowds and by refusing to allow them to determine his agenda for him. At a time when he could have developed the greatest of all imaginable healing ministries he preferred to withdraw into desolate, empty places where in the relative peace and quiet he could maintain his God-centred and God-ordained purpose. Instead of pursuing popularity with men he was determined to maintain his relationship with his Heavenly Father and pray.
As we draw to a close this morning I see two more lessons for us to learn from Jesus' reaction.
1. The need to have right priorities – how easy it is for us to want to be popular, to do then what others want us to do or expect us to do regardless of whether or not that is what God wants us to do.
What is it that occupies first place in your life? If it is not God then you are not living the way your Creator intended!
2. Finally, Jesus' own behavior shows me the importance of prayer. If the One who could expel evil spirits with just a word prayed and took the necessary steps to make prayer possible then shouldn't we whose needs are so much greater pray too? If he who could heal all those who came to him with diseases of all sorts ordered his life so that he had time and space to pray don't I need to do so too? If he who could touch a leper without becoming unclean himself while cleansing that poor leper, if such a one prioritized prayer can I really be so sure that I can make a success of my life without prayer?
May God help us recognize us our deepest, truest needs, may he grant us the humility to own those needs as real and may he grant us the grace to come to the Lord Jesus in simple repentance and faith. And when Jesus has made us clean let us press on to live God-centred and prayerful God-dependent lives.
To God be the Glory.