Leprosy was a general term for a variety of skin diseases. The modern use of the word refers specifically to Hansen’s disease, a bacterial infection which can damage the nervous system and leave victims unable to sense pain. That loss of the body’s unpleasant but necessary pain feedback system leaves the body vulnerable to undetected injury, infection and decay.
Journalist and writer Philip Yancey spent some time with victims of leprosy and noted that “Most of the medical advances in the treatment of leprosy came about as a result of missionary doctors, who were willing to live among patients and risk exposure to the dreaded disease. As a result, churches thrive in most major leprosy centers.”
This is one piece of information among many others that make it very difficult to sustain the accusation that Christianity is not good for the world.
A special concern for those with leprosy is just one instance of the countless ways that Christian people throughout history have gone out of their way to serve those suffering in the margins of society.
The response of Christ to the man in our text today probably have something to do with that Christian trait.
In the New Testament the word leprosy was used for over 70 skin conditions.
We don’t know exactly what this man was dealing with.
What we do now comes in part from a little detailed added by the doctor Luke in his account in Luke 5:12 – the man was “covered in leprosy”.
Whatever he suffered from, it was at an advanced stage and was particularly disfiguring.
In the Jewish community leprosy was considered to be a judgment from God against sin.
Greek Scholar RC Trench said: For the Jewish people leprosy was an “outward visible sign of innermost spiritual corruption.”
Two chapters in the book of Leviticus are filled with instructions for what to do when a skin condition appeared on a person’s body. Those conditions labeled leprosy required a dramatic response of containment and isolation.
You can get a sense for that instruction in verses 45-46 of chapter 13.
“Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.”
A person who developed leprosy would lose their job, they would be cut off from their family, their friends and their community of worship.
They were unclean in a religious sense.
They were not fit to worship God.
Anyone who came into close contact with someone with leprosy was also unclean.
They had to stay away so that others could maintain their status as worshippers. (Holman)
By the time of Jesus, OT law concerning leprosy developed into more detailed traditions.
Depending on the way the wind was blowing, a person with leprosy was required to stay from 6 to 150 feet away from others. They were required to wear bells around their necks to alert others of their presence.
It was illegal to address a person with leprosy. If a leper entered a house, that house was contaminated and unclean. If a leper walked under a tree, everyone who subsequently walked under that same tree was considered unclean.
Lepers were forced to set up camps at garbage dumps in order to find food.
The historical writings of many rabbis contain notes about leprosy:
One took pride in recording that he threw rocks at lepers to keep them away.
The rabbis despised them because the outward deterioration of the skin was seen as a sign of inward corruption of the spirit.
R Kent Hughes: “The nature of leprosy, with its insidious beginnings, its slow progress, its destructive power, and the ultimate ruin it brings, makes it a powerful symbol of moral depravity . . .
“it was . . . thought that those who had leprosy had contracted the disease because of some great personal sin. People assumed this erroneous conclusion because in past history people such as Miriam, Gehazi, and Uzziah had been judged [by God] with leprosy (cf. Numbers 12:6-10; Numbers 2 Kings 5:25-27; 2 Chron. 26:19 respectively).
Other diseases required healing, leprosy required cleansing.
It’s not difficult to see
An Untouchable Need
In order to understand the full weight of this encounter we need to see. I want to ask you to see it for just a moment. This is a photo of a woman with leprosy, I chose one of the less difficult images to see.
A Physical need: his body was steadily disintegrating.
A Spiritual need: his spirit was withering in shame and isolation.
A Desperate need: no human could help him.
Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum is a scholar of Jewish religion and history. He writes that healing a person of leprosy was considered by Jewish people in Jesus day as a Messianic miracle. In other words, it was something that had not happened to a Jewish person since the law had been given. It a miracle only someone has powerful as the Messiah could accomplish.
I think you will find it interesting to hear what he has to say about that:
“Leprosy was the one disease that was left out of rabbinic cures; there was no cure for leprosy whatsoever.
Yet Leviticus 13-14 gave the Levitical Priesthood detailed instructions as to what they were to do in case a leper was healed. On the day that a leper approached the priesthood and said, “I was a leper but now I have been healed,” the priesthood was to give an initial offering of two birds. For the next seven days, they were to investigate intensively the situation to determine three things.
First, was the person really a leper? Second, if he was a real leper, was he really cured of his leprosy? Third, if he was truly cured of his leprosy, what were the circumstances of the healing?
If after seven days of investigation they were firmly convinced that the man had been a leper, had been healed of his leprosy, and the circumstances were proper, then, on the eighth day there would be a lengthy series of offerings.
All together, there were four different offerings. Then came the application of the blood of the trespass-offering upon the healed leper followed by the application of the blood of the sin-offering upon the healed leper. The ceremony would then end with the anointing of oil upon the healed leper.
Although the priesthood had all these detailed instructions as to how they were to respond in the case of a healed leper, they [listen to this] they never had the opportunity to put these instructions into effect, because from the time the Mosaic Law was given, no Jew was ever healed of leprosy. As a result, it was taught by the rabbis that only the Messiah would be able to heal a Jewish leper.
The healing of the leper was classed as the first of the three messianic miracles.”
All that instruction and it was never used.
The need of this man was desperate.
What would it be like?
How old was he when the first spot appeared? What did he say to God in his prayers that night? Who did he talk to first?
What was it like to leave his house to head to the priest and formally declare his situation? Was he married? Did he leave children behind? How did his parents react?
Where did he go when he was pronounced unclean? Where did he sleep? How did he find food? Did anyone visit him?
What did it feel like the first time he had to shout unclean while he walked in public? How long did it take to get used to the feel and the sound of a clanging bell wrapped around your neck?
What mark does it leave on your soul to bear such an ugly and hated stigma of public shame? What does it do to your mind to live isolated from society? How many years went by without feeling the touch of another person?
What happened in his spirit when he first heard the reports of a man from Nazareth traveling around Galilee healing the sick? Did he have to work himself up to action or was it an immediate decision to set out and find him? What was it like when he first saw Jesus?
When he did see Jesus an untouchable need became an unacceptable prayer.
This man violated every Jewish law in approaching Jesus.
An unacceptable prayer: Earnest, humble, believing, scandalous (verse 40)
Earnest: imploring him. Implore means to beg desperately.
Humble: kneeling down.
Believing: if you are willing, you can.
Edwards makes the observation that “The leper’s longing is profoundly human, for it is not God’s ability that we doubt, but only his willingness—if he will do what we ask.”
Can you relate to that kind of prayer?
Charles Spurgeon encourages us to pray even if that’s the best kind of prayer we can muster:
“It is a pity that he could not go further than to say to Christ. “If thou wilt,” but it is a great mercy that he could go as far as that, so, if you, dear friend, cannot pray a prayer that is full of faith, pray one that has at least some faith in it. If you cannot go as far as some do, go as far as you can. I have often told you to bless God for moonlight, and then he will give you sunlight; but for anyone to say, “I will not pray at all because I cannot pray as I would like to pray,” is a very foolish thing. Say what you can, even as this poor leper said to Jesus, “If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.”
His prayer was humble, believing, scandalous.
Scandalous: he approached Jesus at arms’ length. (41)
What does Jesus do?
We know what the average person would have done, the sound of the bell would have sent them rushing in the opposite direction.
We know what the rabbis would have done. They would have attacked before he could get close. They would have thrown rocks. They would have called together the authorities to make a judgment against the man and administer punishment.
What did the disciples think when they saw the man approach Jesus? What did they think he would do?
Mark 1:41 is one of the most powerful verses in all the Bible.
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, I will be clean. Where do you start?
The divine response. His emotion. His touch. His word.
Emotion. It’s incredible to think of the emotion displayed by Jesus. Sometimes we think of the actors who have portrayed Jesus with such narrow ranges of emotion. We think of a detached, spiritual guru type of personality.
I don’t think that comes from the New Testament.
Our ESV version says he was moved with pity. The word means to feel the impact in your gut when you see someone else suffering.
How did Mark know to include that? Peter told him. How did Peter know? I think there’s only one answer: you could see it on his face. You could hear it in his voice. Did Jesus cry when he saw the man’s condition and his desperate prayer for help? Was it the faith in his prayer that moved him?
Here’s something really interesting. Verse 41 is an interesting one if you look at the early Greek manuscripts.
Some of the earliest don’t use the word for compassion, they use something else. The scholars who translated the NetBible use that other word which in the English is translated as “moved with indignation”. That means strong displeasure or anger about something.
You’ve heard about the compassion of Jesus. But we don’t talk much about his anger at the sight of suffering.
Do you remember that from last week?
In John 11, when Jesus saw Mary and her family mourning the death of Lazarus, John tells us that Jesus was indignant.
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved[e] in his spirit and greatly troubled.
Why would some texts say Jesus was compassionate but others that he was angry? The general consensus is that over time the scribes who made copies thought it was more fitting to say that Jesus felt pity.
What do we make of that – that Jesus felt angry when the leper approached him?
We see the divine reaction to human suffering.
We see that God is not indifferent to our pain.
We see that in the face of our suffering, our illnesses and disabilities and death – the heart of God is moved.
When Jesus face is red with anger in the face of our suffering our own indignation, our anger is validated.
The emotional response of Jesus provides enormous comfort for those familiar with the heart-wrenching crookedness of life. It is a comfort because it tells us that the sense of worth and the deep thirst for life mean something. And it tells us that frustration, the heartache and the agonizing questions we experience through our pain mean something as well.
Our painful experiences feel wrong. Because they are wrong.
What we see in the emotional response of Jesus is that we matter.
Our suffering matters.
Loneliness, illness, pain and death are not the true order of things.
Jesus heart was moved and his hand was moved: he stretched out his hand and touched him.
What did the disciples think when they saw Jesus hand stretching out?
For a person to touch a body unclean with leprosy was to become unclean.
If you or I touched a leper their uncleanness would be communicated to us.
No one would have done that.
In our home Mandy is devoted to maintaining cleanliness. Outside shoes are not allowed on the carpet. Daily clothes worn outside the house are not allowed to touch the sheets. The moment clean areas are compromised by something unclean they must be immediately and thoroughly cleansed.
Can Mandy get an amen to that?
If you have to guard your carpet from the dust on the driveway
How much more would you have to guard yourself against the uncleanness of leprosy?
No one in their right mind would reach out and touch a man with leprosy.
His touch spoke louder than his words.
“To touch that flesh, according to the Levitical code, would induce uncleanness. But Jesus shrank not. On the one hand, He knew that the ceremonial restrictions were abolished in Himself: on the other, He desired to teach that sin cannot defile the Divine holiness of the Savior. Whatever be the stories of sin that are breathed into his ear; whatever the open bruises and putrefying sores which are opened to his touch; whatever the sights and scenes with which He has to cope — none of these can leave a taint of evil in his sinless heart. It would be as impossible for sin to soil Christ as for a plague to contaminate flame. And He will heal thee. Dare to claim it.”
Jesus – touched – him.
It’s an incredible thought, isn’t it?
Jesus, the Son of God, the image of the invisible God, in the world revealing the heart of God one touch at a time.
R. Kent Hughes notes that Mark records 8 times that Jesus touched a person.
1. When Christ healed Peter’s mother-in-law, he took her by the hand and raised her up (Mark 1:31).
2. He laid his hand on the leper (Mark 1:41).
3. When he healed Jarius’s little daughter, he took her by the hand and said, “Talitha koum!” (which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, get up!’)” (Mark 5:41).
4. Next He “lay his hands on a few sick people and healed them” (Mark 6:5).
5. When he encountered the deaf and dumb man, the Apostle Mark says, “After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’ (which means, ‘Be opened’!)” (Mark 7:33).
6. Later he did almost the same thing for the blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:23).
7. In the midst of his busy ministry, he repeatedly took little children in his arms (Mark 9:36 and Mark 10:16).
8. Finally we see him raising up the formerly demonized boy (Mark 9:27). (Preaching the Word – Mark, Volume I: Jesus, Servant and Savior)
Mark records Jesus emotion, his touch and his word: I am willing, be cleansed.
God is willing.
What was the result?
The Messianic Miracle: Sudden and Complete
Mark tells us that there was an immediate result when Jesus touched the man and spoke those 4 incredible words: I will. Be clean.
He used his favorite word: immediately. Immediately the leprosy left him and he was made clean.
I love that word picture the gospels use to describe the effect of Jesus words. When Jesus answered prayers spirits left. Disease left. Sin left.
In a moment that awful, that dreaded, that hated disease that took everything from this man and was responsible for so much suffering left.
God can change anything in a moment.
The word heal is not used, cleanse 4x.
I love how one writer described that cleansing:
“For perhaps the first time in history someone who was clean touched someone who was unclean, and both came away clean.” -Ronald J. Kernaghan
Jesus was not afraid of that leper’s impurity. It couldn’t touch him. He was incorruptible.
Jesus is not afraid of your impurities. Come to him.
R. Kent Hughes:
“The healing was sudden and complete. His feet—toeless, ulcerated stubs—were suddenly whole, bursting his shrunken sandals. The knobs on his hands grew fingers before his very eyes. Back came his hair, eyebrows, eyelashes. Under his hair were ears and before him a nose! His skin was supple and soft. Can you hear a thundering roar from the multitude?
Can you hear the man crying not, “Unclean! Unclean!,” but, “I’m clean! I’m clean!” That is what Jesus Christ can do for you, for anyone in an instant, in a split second of belief. The healing of Christ in salvation from sin is instanteous and complete (“the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from every sin).” (Preaching the Word – Mark, Volume I: Jesus, Servant and Savior)”
We see the hand of God reaching out to alleviate suffering. We see individual examples of what will some day be a universal experience.
2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God . . .3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. . . 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
Jesus Charge: Earnest and Urgent
Sternly charged him.
Sent him away. Expelled.
(The Messianic secret: stern charge, don’t go talking about it, just go through the proper ritual and let your cleansing speak for itself.)
Proof for them:
Show yourself to the priest: Leviticus 14:1-7. Healed, then cleansed with ritual sacrifice.
What a scene that would be. Never had a rabbis participated in the cleansing ritual of a healed leper. Imagine the scene Jesus instructed the man to carry out, to quietly go to the priests and calmly show them the explosive reality of Jesus power.
They would have to pull out a scroll of Leviticus and look up the instructions – a powerful sense of Messianic anticipation.
Jesus did not travel with a hype man, he had no agent or PR team. He simply lived the life and his works spoke for themselves.
Danny Akin on the Messianic Secret:
[The skeptic’s explanation: This so-called strategy is the theory of a messianic secret devised to answer the question why people did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah while he was alive.]
“On three occasions demons are enjoined to silence (Mark 1:25; 1:34; 3:11).
Jesus commands silence after four miracles (cleansing of a leper, Mk 1:44; raising of a dead girl, Mk 5:43; healing of a deaf-mute, Mk 7:36; healing of blind man, Mk 8:26).
Twice the disciples are commanded to silence (Mk 8:30; 9:9).
Twice Jesus withdraws from crowds to escape detection (Mk 7:24; Mk 9:30).
ironically, the command to silence often results in the opposite: “the more he [commanded to silence], the more they kept talking about it” (Mk 7:36; Mk 1:45;Mk 5:20; Mk 7:24). (p. 63).
When one considers the historical context, Messianic expectations and the nature of how the Kingdom has come and will grow, several observations can be made about this interesting phenomenon.
Why did Jesus hide and conceal His Messiahship during His ministry?
1) To avoid the impression of being a mere miracle worker (a divine man) or magician since so many commands to silence accompany a miraculous work.
2) To avoid unnecessary and unhelpful publicity in order to have more moments of private teaching and peace with His disciples.
3) To avoid the mistaken idea of the type of Messiah he would be. His Messiahship was to be manifested through service and suffering, not sensational displays of miraculous activity which would excite political messianic fever.
4) To express His humility as the Suffering Servant of the Lord. 6 5) To inform us that only through the medium of faith (ultimately in a crucified and humiliated Jesus of Nazareth) is His Messiahship personally apprehended. (cf. I Corinthians 1-2).
6) To avoid recognition from an undesirable source such as the demonic.
7) To point to the hostility of the religious and political leadership and to mark clearly Jesus’ own choice of the destined hour of His passion.”
The restored man went out.
He began to talk freely.
He began to spread the news.
Disobedience. Was it understandable? Excusable?
Mt. 9:31 two blind men who had been told to stay quiet “spread the news about him throughout all the land.”
Those who have been touched by Jesus have a natural instinct to evangelize.
The result was that
Jesus could no longer openly enter a town
But was out in desolate places.
People were coming to him from every quarter.
“I am prepared to become, by choice, what you are by nature – a man under judgment of the law – in order to share with you what I have – freedom and life.” -Ferguson
Jesus has relieved the leper of his burden, but in broadcasting the news the leper imposes a burden on Jesus, for “he could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places.”
Mark began this story with Jesus on the inside and the leper on the outside. At the end of the story, Jesus is “outside in lonely places.” Jesus and the leper have traded places. Early in his ministry Jesus is already an outsider in human society. Mark casts him in the role of the Servant of the Lord who bears the iniquities of others (Isa 53:11) and whose bearing of them causes him to be “numbered with the transgressors” (Isa 53:12). -James Edwards
Do you have need?
Jesus is willing to touch the untouchable need.
Jesus is willing to receive unacceptable prayers.
Jesus is able to make the unclean clean.
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags
Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.
1 JOHN 1:7
the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
We love as he first loved us.
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown