Luke 5:12-16 “While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ And immediately the leprosy left him. Then Jesus ordered him, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.’ Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”
Luke’s gospel was written with one particular man in mind. His name was Theophilus, a literate, thoughtful Greek, and Luke wants to show him the greatness of Jesus Christ, that he really is the incarnate Lord of glory. So in this section he us showing Theophilus the power of our Saviour, that Christ is Lord over the devil when he drives out the evil spirit from the demoniac in the synagogue. Then he shows him that Christ is Lord over creation when he fills Simon Peter’s nets with fish from the depths of the Sea of Galilee. Now in this miracle before us Luke shows Theophilus that Jesus of Nazareth is Lord over disease when he heals this man of one of the most dreaded diseases in the world at that time, of leprosy.
We are told that it was in one of Jesus’ visits to a town in Galilee that a man ‘came along.’ There was something a little unplanned about this encounter the leper not knowing that this was a day that he’d never forget for the rest of his life. He was a man in an advanced stage of leprosy, “covered with leprosy,” (v.12) writes Luke. The leper saw Jesus, and he made a beeline for him. He fell with his leprous face to the ground and begged Jesus, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean” (v.12). Two such different people, one was utterly free from any disease and the other riddled with it, and they came together. This passage is bringing us back to basics, because ultimately that is all that matters today, two people and no one else, you with your need, and the living Christ moving around this congregation, seeking, giving life, speaking, convicting, challenging, encouraging, healing . . . You are like this man, and Jesus Christ is the same today as he was yesterday.
1. THE MAN WHO CAME TO JESUS.
What do we know about this man?
i] He was a man with great need. He had leprosy, an incurable disease which had a terrible effect on the sufferer physically and socially. I suppose that there are worse illnesses than leprosy; heart disease, kidney failure, dementia, cancer are all worse, but they are all internal. Leprosy is a skin disease and if you have it you can’t hide it. It included some variant of Hansen’s disease (which is what leprosy is called today), but then it also embraced the skin diseases of the hot and dusty Middle East, psoriasis, lupus, skin cancers, ringworm and favus. This family of diseases were the most dreaded diseases of that age. They were all referred to as ‘leprosy.’ They caused the same emotional response of revulsion that the word ‘cancer’ does today. When a person bathed she regularly looked at her body for any marks on her skin that warned her that she might have contracted such a disease; the discovery that you had would be a virtual death sentence.
Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, attacks the nerves and their sensitivity to pain. The disease is actually a sort of permanent anaesthetic, because it brings a numbness to the extremities of the body, to the ears, eyelids and nose, to the fingers and toes. When you have leprosy you can stand on a nail and not feel it when it goes into your foot. A coal of fire can fall on you, but you don’t feel pain. A rat can gnaw on your feet while you are lying down, but you don’t know it. You can put your hand in scalding water and you feel nothing. All the warning signals given off by the nerves are switched off, and you are very vulnerable to sores and wounds and infections of all kinds. Lepers usually lose their fingers, toes, hands and feet. Dr Paul Brand was the Christian doctor who became the world authority on this disease in the 20th century. He would send a leprosy patient back from the treatment centre to his home with a cat so that the mice and rats wouldn’t gnaw on him while he slept. He called the disease “a painless hell.”
This particular leper in our text, I say, was an especially bad case, Luke telling us that this man was ‘covered with leprosy.’ It had affected his face, his arms and hands, his legs and feet. He could have been a mass of ulcers and sores from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet. He looked loathsome with a smell of decay and death. It was an awful picture of what disease can do because it was all before the watching world – on the surface of the man. He had no illusions about himself. Every time he put some food in his mouth with fingerless hands, or tottered along on his stumps the spectators knew how ill he was. But his physical illness led to the most awful social deprivation. There were strict rules that people in Galilee had to obey. “The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as he has the infection he remains unclean; he must live outside the camp” (Lev. 13:45&46). The leper lived apart from his family, his wife and children. The group he ate and slept with were all suffering from leprosy. Every face he saw was a leprous face, some in more advanced stages of the disease than himself, and as he looked at them he knew with dread that that was where he was heading.
The leper lived an isolated life, abandoned and feared by the world, able to peep from the brow of the hill at his dear wife and children in the valley below, but he might not sit with them. They were forbidden from greeting him as that might encourage him to go running to them. He lived as an outcast. If he turned the bend in a country lane, or if a shepherd boy searched for his sheep and came across him, then that leper immediately had to shout aloud, “Unclean! Unclean!” and drive the boy away. He would see people’s horror, hear their children crying in fear, witness all the people running off the path to get out of his way. For him there was no sitting at the city gate in the warm evenings or at the village well talking with people. Worship at the synagogue was behind a wall out of the sight of the other worshippers, there was no attendance at marriages and funerals. Lepers had to stay far away from healthy folk, especially if they were upwind – one hundred yards away. Josephus, the first century historian, says that lepers were treated as if they were dead men. The rabbis had made things worse still. If the leper poked his head through a doorway then the rabbis had decided that that house had to be declared unclean. The leper was a sick man, estranged from all that was humane and good.
The worst fact of all was that there was nothing and no one who could help. Moses and the law could not help this man. It could tell him that leprosy was bad. It could tell him where he had to live, and how he had to dress, and what he had to shout, but it couldn’t cure him. He could make every sacrifice in the book of Leviticus, but he would still be a leper. The rabbis said that it was easier to raise the dead that to cure leprosy. There was nothing in the Old Testament that could heal him, and not even the top doctor in Jerusalem could prescribe anything to make him better. There was no diet, no spa, and no medicine. There was no one in Galilee to help him, but neither was there anyone else in all the four corners of the world. Leprosy was everywhere but a cure was nowhere. The leprosy might spontaneously go into remission, and if it did he would present himself to the priest to be confirmed as clean, but there seemed a capriciousness about the disease’s arrival and departure. The hope of every leper was that the disease would burn itself out and go, and so he was looking at himself every day for any signs of the sores shrinking and drying up. He was driven to examine himself, and to look and look at himself. The dying man forced to look at his own dying! His longing was that he might become a burnt out case. He had no one else to look to, and so he looked at himself. He carried each day a sense of worthlessness and despair.
Sickness and death came into the world because of sin. The warning was given to our first parents not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for the day that they took the forbidden fruit they would died. But they took it, and immediately they began to die, the woman and her husband. From the moment of their sin mortality came upon them and their seed. As by one man sin entered the world, and death by sin, so death passed upon all men for all have sinned. They became a dying people in a dying race. God appointed all sinners to die. I myself am going to die! I am much nearer death now than seventy years ago. What a thought. Worms are going to eat these hands, and this head. The wages of sin is death. You think of an army in medieval times besieging a city. They hauled in their great siege engines and they hurled their rocks over the city walls onto the houses. Then they hurled in burning bales of hay to start a conflagration. Then they hurled in the bodies of those who have died of the plague to spread disease in the city. That is what Adam and Eve did to all their progeny. By their defiance of the will of God they bequeathed the plague of plagues to mankind.
So when the prophets want to describe the effect of sin on any of us they might choose the image of a rampant disease: “Your whole head is injured; your whole heart afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness – only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothes with oil” (Isa. 1:5&6). That’s you! You are sick through sin. What is one of the titles of the Lord Jesus? The Great Physician. He tells us that he did not come from God into this world for healthy people. He came only for those who are sick through sin. How bad is the sickness? There is not one organ that is undiseased. Not one cell that is not dying. Sin has touched each part of us: our eyes – we are blind to the glory of God in the creation; our ears – we are deaf to his voice when he speaks to us in his word; our mouths – they are full of curses and bitterness; our minds are perverted, our imaginations are twisted, and our affections love that which is mean and degenerate. Our bodies themselves will finally contract an illness and there will be no cure under heaven for it. We are all going to die. You’re a leper because of sin. Isn’t that terribly offensive? You went to church for some inspiration and the preacher told you that in the sight of God you were a leper.
Selina, the Countess of Huntingdon, once invited her friend, the Duchess of Buckingham, to hear George Whitefield. Arnold Dallimore tells us the lady’s reaction. The Duchess was highly offended by his sermon, informing Selina: “It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl the earth.” (Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield, Volume 1, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1975, p.132). But it is not just the mighty and the noble who are offended. The humble and poor are also indignant when told that they are sinners in the sight of God, but they too have sins of omission and sins of commission. The young people from this church had a barbecue on the beach. We made a glowing fire of red hot charcoal bricks. We could have simply ignored it and left it die down and go out by itself – that is like the sins of omission letting love and kindness die. However, we got some buckets of water from the sea and we extinguished the blaze. That is like the sins of commission, smothering love with hatred. So I am saying that we sinners are all, without exception, like this leper, men of great need.
ii] He was a man who made a great discovery. The leper heard of the Lord Jesus Christ. The law was powerless to help him, but God sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. He came to Galilee. He came to Capernaum – so it was deliverance for the demon-possessed man. He came to Peter’s wife house, and so it was deliverance for her mother. He stood outside the door that night and it was healing for all who came to him. The leper heard of it. Somehow the news reached the colony where he lived with the other lepers. Did their hearts beat faster? Did they say to one another, “Maybe Jesus will come here?” But he couldn’t wait for that – maybe Jesus comes, but maybe he doesn’t. This leper had to get well. There is a life to live, and he was well enough to walk and so he went where he never went, where he was not allowed to go, into one of the towns. This is what we are told: “While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy” (v.12). He was coming to the Son of God, though he might not have known it. He was coming to the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount, but he might not have known it. He was coming to the one who could command the fish of the sea to fill Peter’s nets, but he might not have known that. He came to the one who could deliver men from the devil, but he might not have known it. One thing he did know, “Lord, if you are willing you can make me clean” (v.12). That is all that mattered to the leper.
Have you come here searching for Jesus? I am asking you have you begun to read the Bible? Have you gone to meetings where the Bible is preached? Have you mixed with other Christians and listened to them talk, and chosen them as your friends? Have you asked God to lead you in your search until you find his Son? If not, why not? Don’t you want to meet the most wonderful man this world has ever seen? Might not this man help you? I have told you that you are sick through sin, a leper because of your sins of omission and commission. You are certainly a dying man. Here is one who is the great Physician. He came to help the sick. He can heal the leper. There was this leper long ago and he came to Jesus, and I am saying to you that Jesus is here today. Won’t you come to him?
This leper was in dead earnest. When he finally met Jesus he fell with his face to the ground. No one has ever put their face to the ground before me, or before you. We would be embarrassed. We wouldn’t know where to put ourselves. “Get up, man! Get up!” we’d say curtly and lift him to his feet. It would be utterly inappropriate for a sinner to kneel before us because we are sinners too, we are only cleansed lepers, the best of us. A leper doesn’t kneel before another leper. But it is not inappropriate for this leper to come to Jesus, and put his face on the ground and beg him to help. Luke thought the fact of his begging was important enough to record. He didn’t tell us how old the leper was, or what his name was, but he did tell us when he came into the presence of Jesus he put his face on the ground and begged. How much of that has gone on in Christian churches on Sundays? The evangelical church is not known for its begging, is it? Are we too proud for that tone of voice?
More than that, this man knew the extraordinary power of Jesus: “You can make me clean,” (v.12), he said. How did he know this? The same way we know. Through the report of eyewitnesses. Simon Peter was there. He had stood at his door one recent Sabbath evening and watched Jesus heal every single sick person from Capernaum who had come there. Nobody had left Jesus sick. Not one. Not the most serious terminal case went away in that condition. They were all healed, and this eyewitness told Luke the doctor everything, and Luke recorded it in his gospel for Theophilus who was not there to read and learn from, and we believe it because of that. That is how this leper came to believe in the extraordinary power of Jesus. He heard from eyewitnesses about what happened, and that is why he left the leper colony and risked entering on of the towns. He trusted what these people told him. They knew the sick people before they had met with the Lord and afterwards. Jesus had made the difference, and so on that evidence – on its truthfulness – he acted. Not on his feelings and hopes but on a message he had been given concerning the power of Jesus to help needy sinners.
iii] He was a man who believed Jesus was sovereign in determining whom he would heal. He had healed all those outside Peter’s house on a recent Sabbath evening, but soon Jesus ‘upped sticks,’ as we say, and off he went, though they did attempt to keep him from leaving them (Lk. 4:42). Off he went preaching, and so the local sick folk were left unhealed. The leper didn’t doubt Jesus’ power to heal; the question facing him was this, would Jesus be willing to heal him? He didn’t take that for granted. But people today do. The healers turn up in a community or church and invite anyone to come to the front to be healed. It is up to your own decision. It has in their eyes nothing to do with the decision of the Lord. Non-Christians think that they can live in unbelief, and then at any time they choose they might nod to Jesus and he is bound to heal them of the sickness of sin. They can live like devils all their lives and they think that that won’t matter. God will still give every one of them new life, and a time of lucid self-understanding. God will reveal to them their own great wickedness and his glory, and that God will give each of them saving repentance and faith so that they will entrust themselves to him as their God and Saviour for ever. They think that God is under some obligation to do that for the whole human race some time in the future, because this is what God does, that he is under obligation to act in that way. I tell you he has not! He has an obligation to be scrupulously fair, and straight, and just in what he does, but he is under no obligation to save. He doesn’t have to save. He doesn’t have to cleanse every leper.
Remember that Jesus made that point transparently clear early on in his ministry in Galilee in Nazareth, how he said to the people in his own local synagogue in Nazareth that, “there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed – only Naaman the Syrian” (Lk. 4:27). There were hundreds of lepers amongst God’s chosen people and yet it was a Gentile alone, Naaman the Syrian, one of their traditional enemies, who was chosen to be cleansed. All the other lepers might dip seven times in the river Jordan, but only Naaman was healed. The exercise of mercy is optional with God. The Lord discriminated against all the lepers who were his holy people and cleansed a Gentile dog! All the people of Nazareth who heard Jesus were furious when they heard him say that. Imagine that too! I didn’t think Jesus said things that made people furious. Anger is one possible reaction to Christ. The other reaction is to determine that you won’t put off closing with Christ for months and years, seeing that God has no obligation to give you a new nature and forgive you your sins. You will cry mightily to him to change you today.
Have you ever considered that before you there might lie years of growing hardness and deadness with the leprosy of sin going deeper and deeper into your soul and spirit and you possessing no hope and no desire for God to save you, merely anger? “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found!” says Scripture. The only time you can guarantee is today, not even tomorrow, let alone when you are 64. How hard for a natural man to acknowledge that for 64 years of his life he has been fundamentally wrong. What saving humility to say, “I have been wrong about Jesus Christ all my life.” That is a rare gift of God. Do not presume he will give it to you. Go to God today for life.
The leper saw the immediacy of his need. He knew that Jesus had the power to make him clean, but was Jesus willing? He did not presume on the distinguishing mercy of Christ. “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean” (v.12). That is what he said, but they were not bare words. It was not just a statement he made to Christ. We are told that the leper begged him from his prostrate place before him with these words. He was pleading with Christ, “Make me clean! Please make me clean! See my wretchedness! Look at my leprosy: I am full of it. There is no hope for me in man. Moses cannot help me. I will die as a leper if you do not save me.” So he pleaded prostrate before Christ to be cleansed. Have you ever been that serious about gaining eternal life? We are all in a room and there are two doors out of this room. On one the word HELL is written and on the other the word HEAVEN. Have you ever pleaded, “Don’t let the door marked ‘Hell’ open before me. Open ‘Heaven’ to me!” Have you on your knees pleaded with Jesus to cleanse you, knowing that he is under no obligation to do so, but that if he doesn’t you will be dirty for ever? This is what this leper did.
2. THE CHRIST WHO CURED THE LEPER.
What was Jesus’ response? Did he tell the man that he had a totally wrong view of himself? Did he say, “Do you question my willingness to cleanse you?” No, he did not. Did he say, “No, I am unwilling”? No. When the Syro-Phoenician woman came to him begging that he would heal her daughter Jesus delayed, and answered her nothing, and then told her that he had come to minister to the Jews not to a Gentile like her daughter. But she argued with him and turned his own strong words into a plea so that the Saviour loved her and gave her what she desired so much. So it was with Jesus and this leper.
i] Jesus displayed his compassion. Did he say the words, “Be clean!” and dismiss the leper with a lordly wave before moving on to the next sick person? No! Jesus looked at a man full of leprosy, its ravaging progress destroying his life so that he looked horrible. Jesus saw his loneliness, an outcast from his family and friends. Jesus himself had lived in a loving family for thirty years. Christ had grown in favour with men, he had been popular in his village, and enjoyed that affection. He loved to have his disciples with him. Our Lord was also strong in body, while this man was being eaten away by his disease. In our Lord dwelt all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. He was full of the love of God, and the kindness of God, and the tenderness of God. He saw this groaning leper with his face in the dust; he heard him begging with him. He was moved with compassion. Our God does not face humanity like Nelson on his column in Trafalger Square, with his unmoving face whatever the pain of the men and women living their lives far below him. The living God abounds in every tender affection. When the Lord healed a man it was not as a theological proof of his deity being set out before the world. He was touched by the effects of sin and death in a groaning creation. When he saw Mary and Martha broken hearted because death had taken away their only brother Lazarus then our Saviour was moved by their grief and wept with them.
“In every pang that rends the heart
The man of sorrows had a part.
He sympathises with our grief
And to the sufferer sends relief.”
What is the fountain head of our redemption? It is the love of God for us. God is love. He loves sinners genuinely, really, deeply, eternally, with a saving love, determined by his Son’s incarnation and redemption to deliver us from all the effects of sin. The people of God are in the grip of the everlasting affection of a heavenly Father. It was this God who so loved the world that he was constrained to send his only begotten Son. The compassionate Son in this miracle of healing is displaying to us what God himself is like.
But you see something more, how the Lord reached out his hand and touched the leper (v.13)? God is someone who grasps a leper with the hands of love. That is our God. That is the only God there is, the God who would be your Saviour. He is a God who comes from heaven to earth, who lays hold of frail flesh, who goes out searching for the sheep that was lost, who picks him up and carries him home. He is the God who bears the lambs in his arms. He is a Lord who stretches out to people. He reached out and took Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand, and he took Jairus’ daughter by the hand, and he put his hand on the deaf and dumb man. He took the children in his arms. We often read that the Lord Jesus reached out and touched people. He came that close to them, so spontaneously and instinctively as perfect man full of affection, and incarnate God full of immeasurable love.
Think what it meant to this leper. How long had it been since he had felt the grasp of another hand? If he had been married this leper would no longer have known the embrace of his wife from the day his leprosy was diagnosed and he was driven out of his home. If he had children he wouldn’t have known their arms around his neck. He would not have held his son or daughter in his arms since that time. There had been no kiss, no embrace, no handshake, no touch of another person all the years of his leprosy, not once. How terrible was this stranger’s life, a lonely outcast. Kent Hughes of Wheaton tells of a man whose family had died, and he was all alone. He was not a professing Christian, and he said to Dr. Hughes that he would have a haircut every week just to have someone touch him without misunderstanding. Such a lonely man could at least eat with others in a restaurant, and travel with others and talk to his neighbours, without having to shout, “Unclean! Unclean!” and drive them away. This leper had forgotten what it was like to be touched until Jesus held him. The word is a strong word which we usually translate, ‘took hold of.’ Jesus grasped him. O love that will not let me go!
“O that the world might taste and see the riches of his grace;
The arms of love that compass me would all mankind embrace.””
The touch of Jesus was an outward and visible sign of the inward invisible compassion in the heart of the Lord for this man. He wanted this man to know his willingness to heal him, and his immeasurable sympathy for him. So it is with you. This Lord has spread a table before you each day throughout your life. Every good and perfect gift he has supplied for you. He has guided you here and led you to the place where you are sitting in order that you should hear these words about himself. It is all because of his wonderful love for you. He is making contact with you in order for your cleansing. Then you see what he said to the man he was holding on to? “I am willing . . . be clean!” (v.13). So Jesus showed his compassion.
ii] Jesus showed his power. There are two questions to which we need to know the answers when we hear the gospel of cleansing. Is Jesus able to save us? Is Jesus willing to save us? Jesus’ power is seen here: “And immediately the leprosy left him” (v.32).The deliverance was like the removal of a decayed painful tooth. There was instant relief. It was all done in the flicker of an eye. One second this man was full of leprosy, covered in sores and rashes, stumpy fingers and feet with ulcerated stubs, no ears, a hole where his nose had been, all in all a horrible spectacle. The next moment he was as free from disease as the healthiest man in Galilee. His skin was supple and soft, his hair black and shining, his hands lithe and beautiful. It happened “immediately”, Luke writes. Is Jesus able to change men and women? The healing of the leper says, Yes. Is he willing? What do his words say? “I am willing.” “But I have been an awful hypocrite.” “I am willing.” “But those who love me I have hurt in terrible ways. “I am willing.” “But I have been unfaithful to my spouse.” “I am willing.” “But I have murdered, and stolen, and taken drugs, and abused my own children.” “I am willing to cleanse you from all your sin.” What power there is in the Lord Jesus and what willingness to heal. It is the willingness of his grace.
This power of the Lord Jesus did not come to him automatically. We are told that it was appropriated in the presence of God day by day. “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (v.16) When a woman with an issue of blood touched him Jesus felt virtue flow out of him, in other words, teaching and healing were tremendously demanding activities, so that by the end of his three years of ministry he looked twenty years older than he was. He daily needed to seek his Father. By his own dependentness, and his own limited human resources, he simply could not handle the demands made on him by the people of Galilee. If Jesus could not preach . . . if Jesus could not drive out demons . . . if Jesus could not heal the sick except in going to God in a quiet place and asking for strength and wisdom then how before God can we hope to go through life day by day and say, “Father, it’s OK. We can handle it” and never come before God in this crushing sense of our own sheer impotence and weaknesses. God’s kingdom was going with a bang in Galilee and crowds were waiting to see Jesus but he needed a God-given sense of direction and inner strength to take things forward. No matter what our position and eminence, the number or quality of our gifts, the length or depth of our experience, there is no way that you and I can ever emerge into a situation where we are spiritually independent. There is no way we can evangelise without prayer. There is no way we can help a needy person without prayer. We can only survive as Christians in the awareness of our own limited resources, and that we have to go to God in our weakness and get strength from him. Christ never failed. He was filled with the Holy Spirit. He had the most marvellous charismata. He was unspoiled by pride or self. He was without sin. He had more right than any other creature to pretend to walk tall, yet he came to God for help. Only thus could he say, “Be clean!” and the leper was immediately clean.
iii] Jesus gave a warning. “Then Jesus ordered him, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.’”(v.14). What a contrast! The compassionate Jesus is also stern. Jesus sent him away, literally, ‘threw him out’! It is the same word used for Jesus throwing the wailers out of Jairus’ house as they wept around the deathbed of his daughter, or the evangelists even use it for Jesus throwing the traders out of the temple. “Now go!” Jesus said to him, “and do these two things, Tell no one and show yourself to the priest.” Why didn’t Jesus want this news to leak out? Didn’t he want the publicity and the crowds? Why was Jesus so fierce in his command to the man to be quiet about how he had recovered from his leprosy? Are there times when we should be silent, however much we want to speak about Jesus and what he’s done?
The Lord commanded the demons to be silent for they were not fitting preachers of his holy name. There were times when the Lord asked people to be silent about his Messiahship. There was such confusion as to what the Messiah would be; most of Galilee had a politicised version in mind including war with Rome, and a popular uprising would have been a disaster. The Lord first wanted people to consider his teaching concerning the nature of the kingdom of God.
Here it is a little different. A leper was a registered alien, and for him to get back into the community an official process was required. If this man ran home and knocked the whole town up and announced he had been cleansed, moving back in with his family people would have been suspicious and perplexed. There were legal steps that had to be taken which Jesus reminded the man about. There were priests living all over Galilee acting as the religious and scribal officials in local communities. Let his healing be registered with one of them, and the next time he was in Jerusalem let him make the required sacrifice and thank God that he had been restored. Then he would have a public bill of health. There were the laws of Moses, ceremonial and civil, which had to be kept, not to be made clean, for they could not cleanse the leper, but they could declare officially that this person was a cleansed man.
In other words, it was too soon in Jesus’ ministry for his challenge of the religious leadership of his day to be made known. There could be misunderstanding about his Messiahship challenging Rome, and now his Messiahship might be seen as challenging the Temple. “And soon the question would be asked: is he really a loyal Jew? Can his message about the kingdom of God be real? Can we believe him? Isn’t he dangerous? Hasn’t he gone too far?” (Tom Wright, “Mark for Everyone,” SPCK, London, 2001, p.15). In fact this phrase, “as a testimony to them” may be better translated “as a testimony against them” because that is its meaning in other places. These priests were immediately suspicious of Jesus, though they listened in on his preaching and saw his miracles, they were still his opponents, and Jesus is saying to this man, “Do it by the book. Present yourself to the priest and tell him what has happened. That will be a testimony against them.” So Jesus charged the leper, “Don’t tell anyone” (v.14). Discipleship consists of obeying the Lord when it doesn’t seem to make sense.
“Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace.
Behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face.” (William Cowper)
There are places in the world where it is important that our faith is not celebrated openly. Here in Wales are families where children and wives have to be secret disciples. That is not cowardice but prudent temporary obedience.
The man did not obey. Jesus had spoken to him with all the authority of God. The power of God had come upon him miraculously and transformed him, and yet this man did not do what the Lord commanded him to do. This is the great example of human responsibility in the New Testament. You can come here and Jesus can speak to you. You can be enlightened, share in the Holy Spirit, taste the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming world, and yet defy the Lord who has been dealing with you. Judas did it, and so did this man, and so will many of you whom God has been speaking to. You will do what the Lord forbids and so you become a hindrance to Jesus.
Where is the Saviour in Wales today? He is exactly where he was 2000 years ago in Galilee, not at the heart of our culture and communities but “withdrawn in lonely places” (v.16). One of the reasons he is there is that his people have had dealings with him, and have heard his voice, but they have defied what he has said, and through their disobedience Jesus has become marginalised. Yet even in the lonely places the elect will find him. Luke tells us, “crowds of people came to hear him” (v.45). And even where we are favoured sinners, feeling their sickness through their sin, will come to Jesus Christ as he is freely offered to us in the gospel, and find healing, salvation and his Lordship.
6 April 2008 GEOFF THOMAS