Full of Leprosy
Physical and Spiritual Horrors
Horror is not too strong a word to describe the family of skin diseases known as “leprosy.” From the starkly whitened appearance of the skin to the cracking pustules to the rotting finger tips and appendages, leprosy was physically excruciating. The disease ate away at its victim, eventually entering the bones and resulting in an excruciating death. The leper also endured personal miseries. Because the disease was contagious, they could live only with other lepers, in communities of uncleanness. “Unclean” was their self-identification and their public warning – AVOID ME! GET AWAY FROM ME! The isolation was no less horrific than the pain. In Israel, leprosy rendered its host ceremonially defiled, cut off from the public worship of God or fellowship with his people, excommunication by disease. The lengthy directions respecting leprosy in Leviticus testify to its seriousness. Although leprosy was not necessarily tied to any personal sin, its presence completely barred a man from every former love and robbed him of future hope. Reentering the community of life and worship in the rare event of healing from leprosy required multiple visits and examinations by the priests. The disease thus was extremely private and embarrassing in its pain and sorrow, but it was very public in its consequences and notoriety.
A Picture of Sin’s Corrosive Effects
And what a picture we have here of sin. Virtually all believers have intrinsically felt this connection – that in the many lepers whom Jesus healed, we are witnessing a symbolic healing from sin’s contagion. A moment’s thought will show this connection is not misplaced. Leprosy might strike anyone; none were immune – and so Adam’s sin and our actual transgressions have struck down all, without respect to wealth, rank, or intelligence. Leprosy was pervasive and progressive in its destructive movements – and thus our original corruption seeks out every possible channel to pollute the soul made in God’s image but now rotting away in its filth. Nothing but a miracle could cure a leper. There were no known medicines. The instructions in Leviticus recognize healing; nothing in the law shows how the disease can be staunched at its source and eradicated. This is so much like sin that only a blind man would fail to see the connection. And when we consider also that in the unlikely event of healing, the former leper celebrated by offering sacrifices to celebrate his cleansing and reentrance into the church of God, and that no other disease had similar requirements, leprosy was surely a picture of the corrupting, corrosive flow of sin, rendering us unclean before God, cut off from his fellowship, isolated from our fellow man, and requiring nothing short of a miracle for our recovery. Thus, when we see Jesus healing lepers, we are seeing a visible gospel representation. The leper is us – what sin has done to us, our utter inability to rescue ourselves, and our hopelessness leading to everlasting death. The only healer is Jesus Christ, the Great Physician, who is able to deliver us from sin and its horrid consequences.
The Leper’s Faith
He Sought Jesus Courageously and Humbly
It was thus an act of incredible boldness for this leper to draw near to Jesus. He risked stoning! As men saw what he was, they screamed and ran from him. Matthew records that he came to Jesus after he was coming down the mountain from whose summit he preached his famous sermon (Matt. 8:1-4). I have no doubt that he heard Jesus’ word from a safe distance and was made alive by that word. Faith pushed past all the barriers between him and Jesus – his own fears, the multitudes around him, the years of isolation, the possibility of rejection. He was willing to risk death if only he might make his plea known to Jesus. When he made it to Jesus, the three Synoptic Gospels describe him as “kneeling before Jesus” (Mark 1:40), “worshipping him” (Matt. 8:2), and prostrating himself before him (Luke 5:13). Take these accounts together, and we have a beautiful picture of the kind of faith that is so pleasing to our Lord and certain to obtain good from him. We must believe that he rewards those who diligently seek him (Heb. 11:6), and this man was not content to make his request in only one posture – but came and kneeled, then sprawled before Jesus, and all the while worshipping him, calling him “Lord,” “very God of very God.” He would let nothing come between him and his Lord and hopeful healer – not the taunts of men, his embarrassed circumstanced, or Satan’s whispering cries of “WORTHLESS! WORTHLESS!” He had heard the words of life, and those words encouraged him to come boldly! This is the way we must come to our Savior for cleansing, for even the smallest good, for help in our battle against sin and Satan – courageously, defying the ridicule of men and laziness of our flesh, believing his word and promises, and also humbly, recognizing who he is. He does not need us, but we need him. He is a very loving Savior; he is also the very exalted Son of God.
Yielded to Jesus’ Will
As believing as this man was, his faith did not pass the lawful bounds of seeking what is either beyond God’s will or unknown to us that it is his will. Too many assume that because they have faith that God is able to do something that he is virtually obligated to do it. But this is little more than making God our servant, and this dishonors him. Since we do not know what to pray as we should (Rom. 8:26), our most ardent and pious prayers should be like this leper’s – “Lord, if you are willing.” He already knows that we are willing, but our will is not necessarily his. He does not make his will in our particular cases infallibly known to us, and so our posture must be one of humility and submission to his will. This leper earnestly desired for Jesus to help him, but true faith spoke not only of his desire but also of his yielded heart. Odd that this leper was so much like Jesus – “Father, your will, not mine, be done” – it would seem that in a believing heart, deepest affliction can produce still deeper submission to God’s will. Yes, our desire is for him to heal a disease that is plaguing us or someone we love, but God’s children know that there is something higher than healing, provision, or deliverance from enemies – it is for God’s will to be done. For this we pray above all – and remember that this leper had just heard “the Lord’s Prayer!” – that God will do all his holy will, have his way, and be glorified by having all things go according to his plan.
We are by this able to determine what we most want when it comes to prayer – for God to give us what we want or for God to give us himself. Now, these two may sometimes seem to conflict. We ask God to heal us. We believe that he is the Great Physician. We claim his promise: “I am the Lord that heals you” (Ex. 15:26). But he does not heal us. Or, the fight against a particular sin goes on longer than we thought it would. Or, our marriage never seems to be quite stable or free from disappointment. We live our short span, and the church always seems weak. We are commanded and encouraged to pray for each of these blessings – health, holiness, peace, and faithfulness. But a deeper part of God’s will is that we fight for these things through seeking them from him in prayer all our lives. For what we seek in prayer more than anything else, if our hearts are humble and trusting, is God himself. God in us; us in God through Christ; our love and joy made complete by yielding to him and worshipping him for his love, goodness, and wisdom. This faith was present in this leper. He wanted to be healed, but he wanted healing not on his terms, but on Jesus’ terms.
Begged for Jesus’ Help
A yielded spirit does not prevent us from crying most earnestly to the Lord. A sense of our great need makes us urgent in our prayers. None was as committed as Jesus to his Father’s will, and none ever prayed as often or as passionately. This man “implored” Jesus to heal him. De,omai is a strong word – urging, begging, pleading, praying are within its range of meanings. Since Jesus healed this leper, we should assume that his appeals were pleasing to our Lord, even that he was moved by them to act as he did. When it comes to praying, too many of us pray coldly or with an arrogant presumption that a petition or two is sufficient – when in fact our Lord is a living Person and therefore enters into our feelings and our pains and sorrow. If we felt more the hold of leprous sin upon us, how much sin is the cause of all our miseries and all the trouble in the world, we should implore the Lord as this man did. “Begging” is not too strong, though without the negative associations attached – praying fervently, appealing to his promises, to his love for us, to our great need – all of these are found and commended in the gospel. We see this in his healing of Lazarus – that Mary and Martha’s tears and entreaties powerfully acted upon him. It will not do to say, “Well, he would have healed him anyway.” This is a cold heart talking, a heart that does not appreciate that Jesus Christ is a living Person with a beating human heart. It is not as if we can act against his will or get him to do what we want irrespective of his wise and holy will that is far higher than us, but that his will and wisdom and power are also engaged with his pity and love for us.
Jesus’ Response to the Leper
Concerned and Bold
That our Lord’s heart is moved by our entreaties – not to do against his will but his will being fulfilled through our cries and according to his loving heart – is evidenced by his willingness to engage with this shadowy, rag-clothed outcast. What a strange kingdom he came to establish – the world’s castoffs and Satan’s castaways! The leper’s bold faith was met by the Lord’s bold love – he touched him! His love overcame uncleanness, as his sacrifice overcame sin’s filth and washed it all away. That touch must have sent a thrill of hope through the leper – perhaps this is the first time in many years anyone but another leper had touched him. Those who presume upon the love and mercy of Jesus Christ will find him ready to extend that mercy. If our prayers manifest that we trust his strength alone, he shall certainly show us his strength – that his power reaches its mature goal through our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
Compassionate and Willing to Relieve
That touch shows that the Son of God took our nature upon himself so that he might enter fully into our weakness and sorrows. He bore our sorrows. He was tempted in every way as we have been. He wept. He loved. He saw firsthand in our flesh the horrors that leprosy, blindness, and death had brought to our race. He felt their crushing weight in his own soul, and upon occasion, he was himself driven to the ground under them (Mark 14:35). His touch came from his compassionate heart. His touch said, “I am both willing and able to relieve your miseries.” If only sinners had a greater sense and confidence in Jesus’ compassionate heart. If only saints did! Some think they have outgrown this kind of moment – compassion! Ugh! I have a big-boy piety, and I do not need all that woman emotion. Jesus would disagree with you. He would say to you, “The whole do not need a physician.” The whole do not feel their need. Even redeemed saints sometimes lose their sense of need for Jesus’ touch, which is the reason they often know him only at a distance. Yes, they are redeemed and will have heaven’s joys, but on earth, all is bleaker, colder, and harder than it would be if they said, “Ah, Lord, I have been a believer for a long time, but I still find much corruption in my soul. I am still burdened by so many things. Please, I implore you to help me, to bear me up, to know my soul in adversities, to be with me and guide me through.”
Sufficient and Powerful
Such a believing plea will always find its mark – the heart of Jesus Christ for his sheep, for his bride, for you and me who believe upon his name. Of course he is able to help and even to heal us, according to his will. This is not in question. We forget and doubt that he is willing. He is for us. We do not have to talk him into loving us, being near to us, helping us. He loved us to the end when that end was the cross, and he will not stop loving us until we reach love’s end at his feet, seeing and loving him, being crowned by him, throwing love’s obedience crown at his feet, and enjoying him forever. The leper found Jesus compassionate and powerful to heal him. “Be cleansed.” Let us hear these words and tremble before them as the leper did. Cleansed? All my corruption washed away? Fingers, toes, ear lobes all grown back and healthy – pink skin! Jesus rules over leprosy. He rules over sin. But we must implore him by faith. We must implore him with a yielded heart. And since we have the Spirit and know a little more of his wise dealings, we must implore him with a trusting heart, that sometimes he wants to keep us diseased, weak, and struggling, for he knows this keep us seeking, hoping, and resting in his power alone. We must not so quickly discount the truth that a cancerous man singing praises to God is at least as great as miracle as a cancer-healed man singing praises to God. It is likely greater!
After Jesus Cleansed the Leper
Quiet Obedience the Best Sacrifice
After cleansing the leper, Jesus told him to do something rather strange, then something mundane. First, he must not tell anyone what had happened. I doubt this command was obligatory upon the man for the rest of his life, but at this moment, there was something else he must do – obey God’s law respecting healed lepers. Much speculation surrounds the reason for this prohibition, but I think the most compelling is that our first and most acceptable sacrifice to God is obedience. Second, our Lord commanded him to show himself to the priest and offer the sacrifice God commanded for cleansed lepers. Clearly Jesus Christ respected his own law, even the ceremonies. He had not yet made them obsolete by his once-for-all sacrifice, and thus, they were obligatory upon this now clean man. Neither his faith nor his healing freed him doing the simple commands of God.
We should not pass over this too quickly. Whenever God releases us from sin’s dominion, our freedom is unto righteousness and obedience (Rom. 6:18). He gave himself for us and purified us so we can then be zealous for good works (Tit. 2:14). Spiritual giddiness is not the gospel response to God’s grace. The coming of Jesus did not alter this dynamic. We are delivered from Satan so that we can be servants of God. Whether we think of our definitive cleansing from sin when we first believed or the many subsequent cleansings we receive for our sins, legitimate repentance is verified by obedience to God’s commands. Since this kind of powerful grace is not preached today as it should be, men often deceive themselves into thinking that if they feel better about themselves or about God, then things must be better. Good feelings, however, apart from good works, are fool’s gold and false grace. We must bring forth fruits of repentance, and this the Spirit will do in us if we have come with humble faith to the Lord Jesus Christ for cleansing.
Beware Unwise Zeal (Mark 1:45)
The newly cleansed leper ignored the Lord’s direct command. He told everyone that the Lord had healed him, and it became impossible for Jesus to continue ministering in that area. He was very mindful at this stage that “his hour was not yet come,” and that widespread public support was dangerous and misguided. Yes, the crowds would, if allowed, come and make him king by force, but this was not his true kingdom. The gospel is inevitably lost in man’s kingdom of earthly power and force. The true kingdom of God requires soul by soul discipleship, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and “patient continuance in well doing.” By his disobedience and unwise zeal, this man succeeded only in adding to the public furor surrounding our Lord, who then left the area. And yet, some giddy souls say that each believer should leave his legitimate calling and take to the streets – as if the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches men to be lazy in their callings, ignore their families, and devote themselves to what is called “full time Christian service.” True zeal should always be measured by obedience to God’s word, otherwise it is a “zeal, but not according to knowledge.” It will do more harm than good, for most believers are not called to take the gospel to the streets. We are all called to serve the Lord in our families and places of work, giving men a reason for the hope that is within us, and obeying the word of our Lord in all things. This is the zeal of which he approves and that will accomplish lasting good for men and nations.
Jesus’ Prayerful Withdrawal (v. 16)
The multitudes coming down from hearing his majestic sermon soon lost the benefit of Jesus’ presence and power through the unwise zeal of this cleansed leper. Jesus withdrew into the wilderness and prayed. The picture should grip us. A glorious day teaching on the mountain, an afternoon full of healing, and now an evening of prayer – our Lord found it necessary and delightful to refresh himself in his God and Father. This was the way he “recharged,” as we say, and his example is normative. Entertainment recharging is weakening and burdens the soul with worldly trifles, even if it not directly sinful. It is in communion with our Father that we can take the burdens of the day and cast them upon him. Before his throne of grace, zeal and love are renewed for the day’s service to him, strength is obtained for the battle against sin, and hope to endure the world’s mockery and Satan’s assaults.
Too few of us have learned the secret of our Lord’s pleasure in obeying his Father, his unflagging zeal to love his sheep and lay down his life for them, and his cheerfulness in the midst of adversity. It was in prayer that he drew all his strength, for it was in prayer that he enjoyed communion with his Father. There must be something about prayer that we have forgotten. Perhaps it is Psalm 28:7: “My heart trusted in him, and I am helped.” Or Psalm 16:8: “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.” Let us seek the Lord in the wilderness, and we shall do valiantly in the world, and one day soon open our eyes to find him in heaven. It is prayer that will bring us there, because it is by his strength and in his communion that we are able to finish our race with joy.