The Cleansing of the Leper
AN EXPOSITION OF MATTHEW 8:1-4
1 When he was come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him.
Having completed the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus returned to normal acts of ministry, including that of healing. The miracle of healing the leper did not take place immediately after the Sermon in the presence of a great multitude, because Jesus instructed the man to tell no one what had been done. If the healing took place before a great multitude, the instruction would have been superfluous. So verse one is a general statement, leading to a special work of healing in private. The reason for this, is that the gifts of God, and the power of God, might not be exploited.
2 And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.
Having presented many great and wonderful truths during His Sermon on the Mount, the Lord proceeded to do many good works, such as the cleansing of the leper. Jesus was not only a great teacher, He was a great doer of good works as well. Jesus is the Wisdom of God, and He is the power of God.
By doing good works, Jesus established the pattern for His people. Christians are not to be hearers of God’s Word only, but doers. “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22). While words are of utmost importance, good deeds are necessary. The teaching of Jesus is vital for spiritual healing.
Luke, the beloved physician, adds a detail about the man who came to Jesus for healing, saying that he was full of leprosy (Luke 5:12). The man was in a miserable and hopeless condition when he came to Jesus. His condition was desperate. Not only was he sick, he was a social outcast, for no one was allowed to stand near him. Despite his medical condition, and his isolation from society, the man heard Jesus speak and took hope. Faith welled up in his heart, to the point he was motivated to approach Jesus and say, “Lord.” That is always the first sign of salvation and spiritual renewal. No one can call Jesus “Lord” except by the Spirit. While Jesus is only a Rabbi to many, an impressive moral teacher to those who believe he is Lord.
So the man said, “Lord if you will.” The man bowed before the Sovereign. He understood that his petition might be rejected. He understood that Jesus had independence to say “Yes,” or, “No”. The man was humble and said, “If.” “Lord, maybe you will, maybe you will not, but if you will to do so, you can make me clean.”
While the leper recognized the sovereignty of Jesus, he also had reason to hope, that if he went to Jesus he would be healed, for he had heard the Lord say, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:” (Matt. 7:7). The leper asked. His voice was raspy and weak. It was a pitiful plea, but he asked. The words were no sooner out of the mouth of the leper than Jesus spoke.
The Touch of Jesus
3 And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
If leprosy is a symbol of sin in the Bible, then the healing of the leper gives hope to every sinner. The Bible teaches that individuals are born physically alive, but spiritually dead. The cause of death is spiritual leprosy. Individuals are born into a helpless and hopeless state of sin. But if a sinner comes to Christ, bows before Him as Lord, submits to His sovereignty, and pleads for mercy and healing, every sinner will find the Lord is ready to save. Jesus will say to every helpless and hopeless sinner seeking Him, “I will, be thou clean.”
The touch of Jesus is essential for physical healing. So Jesus touched the leper. What a tender, and memorable touch that was, for the leper had not been touched since he was first diagnosed with the terrible disease. The Law required the leper to live apart from others and live outside the camp, and later outside the gate of Jerusalem. The leper was to tear his clothes, keep his head uncovered, and cry out in the presence of others, “Unclean!” “Unclean!” “Unclean!”
Even though leprosy was not contagious, the touching of a leper was strictly forbidden by the Law (Lev. 13 -14) as a ceremonial act. God wanted to use leprosy to teach His people about the vileness of human sin, because sin can become attractive, as Alexander Pope noted.
“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”
Despite the legal prohibition against touching a leper, Jesus wanted to identify Himself with the man, and so Jesus touched the leper in an act of love, mercy, and grace.
Touching a leper would have been naturally repulsive, for leprosy (Gk. lepra, scale) has distinct characteristics. There is a form of leprosy which deforms the body, and causes it to smell due to ulcerous sores. The eyebrows fall out. Vocal cords become ulcerated. The voice becomes hoarse. The breath wheezes. The hands and feet ulcerate. Toes and fingers might fall off. This terrible disease can last for many years, causing mental decay. People slip into a coma, and then die.
Spiritually, leprosy is a great illustration of sin.
Leprosy is an inward disease.
Sin is an inward disease.
Leprosy arises very mysteriously.
Sin is a great mystery.
Leprosy affects the spirit of a man.
Sin brings shame, sorrow, fear, and self-loathing.
Leprosy manifests itself in various degrees.
Sin grows progressively worse.
Leprosy is hidden in the body.
Sin resides deep in the soul.
Leprosy corrupts and then erupts.
Sin corrupts the soul, and then erupts in openness.
Leprosy is permanent.
Sin is confirmed in many, as God gives souls over to a reprobate mind.
Leprosy is a loathsome disease which can be seen, felt, and smelled.
Sin is loathsome to God.
Leprosy can be heard, for it affects the vocal cords.
Sin is heard as people share their hearts.
Leprosy was a separating disease.
Sin separates an individual from God.
Leprosy left a person without strength.
Sin leaves men without strength before God.
Leprosy leaves a person without hope.
Sin removes all hope, for sinners know they are worthy of judgement.
Leprosy was an incurable disease, as far as Israel knew.
Sin is an incurable disease to man. No amount of moral reformation can atone for sin.
Leprosy led to death.
Sin brings physical and eternal death.
Isaiah the prophet found spiritual leprosy in national Israel. “Why should ye be stricken any more? Ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. 6 From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment” (Isaiah 1:5-6).
It is not just national Israel that is plagued with spiritual leprosy. Every person is born with spiritual leprosy, and needs to be touched by Jesus to be made whole. Every person is loathsome in sin, and separated from God. Only God’s grace can bring the sinner to the Saviour for healing.
To foreshadow the healing of leprosy, there are stories in the Old Testament about leprosy being healed. For example, Naaman the Syrian was healed of leprosy by obeying the prescriptive commandment by the man of God (2 Kings 5:14).
Spiritually, there is hope for the most desperate person, by obeying God. Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (John 6:29). The Lord touched all those who come to Him in faith, recognize Him as Lord, and submit to His sovereignty.
“He saw me ruined in the Fall,
Yet loved me, notwithstanding all.”
When Jesus touched the leper, immediately he was cured. The suddenness of his healing is important for this was a Divine miracle. The man was made whole. The inner part of his body was cured. The rotting parts of his body were made whole. In like manner, Jesus comes to make sinners whole. Their innermost being is healed, for the Lord gives a new heart to love Him, and a new desire to obey Him. Hope is revived. The person can stand before the Lord cured.
4 And Jesus saith unto him, See thou tell no man; but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.
To show himself to the priest, and to offer the gift that Moses commanded would fulfil the demands of the Law of the Leper’s Cleansing, found in Leviticus 14:1-8. Mark tells us that the man could not keep quiet, but went out and told others (Mark 1:40-45). So many who come to faith are like that. They cannot but speak of the great work of salvation God has given them. It is a wonderful gift of God, to be forgiven of sin, and to be cleansed of all unrighteousness.
Now this was not the only leper Jesus would heal. Later He would heal ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19) which, if they all went to the priest, their testimony would have a profound impact. In fact, in Acts 6:7 we read, that, after the resurrection of Jesus, “the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.”
When Jesus commanded the leper to “offer the gift that Moses commanded,” the message was being conveyed that the Law spoke of death. In every heart there is a sense that sin demands punishment, and that punishment should be death. There is an “oughtness” to the Moral Law of God.
The person who sins knows they should be punished, and the Law says there will be punishment. God will not be mocked. Whatsoever a person sows, that shall he reap. Those who sow to the flesh shall of the flesh reap destruction (Gal. 6:8). A sacrifice is needed for salvation, and for sanctification and cleansing. Every sacrificial gift that Moses commanded was a type of Christ, who came to pay the penalty of the Law, so that those who do sin can be forgiven, and then cleansed from all sin upon confession (1 John 1:9).