Super Natural is a sermon series on the miraculous works of Jesus in the Bible. The Leper Cleansed — Jesus reached out and touched a man, healing him from leprosy. This miracle teaches four things: Sin is a stain. Sin separates. Jesus cleanses the stain of sin. Jesus reconciles in relationship. Recorded on April 25, 2021, on Matthew 8:1-4, by Pastor David Parks.
Today, we’re continuing a series called Super Natural. Everywhere Jesus went, he did three things: he preached about the kingdom of God, he called men and women to follow him as his disciples, and he did miracles. In Matthew 11, When John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask if Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”
Jesus expected the miracles to authenticate his ministry, to prove that he was who he claimed to be. But also, these works serve as living parables that teach us about the character of God and his desire for us, his people. So today, we’re considering the statement, “those who have leprosy are cleansed.” What does that mean? Well, if you have a Bible or a Bible app, please open it to Matthew 8:1. Let’s read together: Matthew 8:1-4 (NIV), “When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “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!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
So Matthew, who was also called Levi, was an Apostle of Jesus. Matthew was a tax collector before he became a Christian, which probably means he was wealthy but not welcome in his community. That probably gives him a unique perspective on this story of welcoming and healing an outsider. Let’s start again at v. 1.
Matthew 8:1, “When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him.” So Matthew places this account immediately after the famous Sermon on the Mount — the mountainside being where Jesus was preaching which makes sense to accommodate the large crowds who were following him at this time. The Apostle gives us the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-7 as a sample of the preaching ministry of Jesus and then goes on to report 10 different miracles as a sample of the miraculous ministry of Jesus. The cleansing of the leper, here, being the first of those 10 accounts. Let’s continue in v. 2.
Matthew 8:2, “A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” The term leprosy covered a variety of skin diseases at the time, some of which were curable but some were not. Today, leprosy is called Hansen’s Disease and, thankfully, is fairly rare, but only in the last 30 years or so. However, in Jesus’ day, it was a terrible affliction. Leprosy is caused by a bacterial infection and over time, one of the effects is that it deadens your ability to feel pain. This is dangerous as it can lead to other wounds, especially on your hands or feet, without realizing that you’re hurt. Pain, it turns out, is a very effective way to let us know when there’s a problem. The ancient Jewish people had a law regulating such diseases.
Leviticus 13:45-46, “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.” Before antibiotics, before a viable treatment, the only effective way to limit the spread of a contagious disease was to quarantine and wear a mask when you went out. Think of all the difficulty people had over the past year with covid. Now imagine if that was possibly the rest of your life! This is what it would’ve been like to be a man or woman with leprosy: Unclean. Stained by this disease. And living outside the camp. Separated from your people, from your family and friends. Can you feel the weight of the request of this man to Jesus? “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Just think about what was at stake for him. How would Jesus respond to him? This man had nothing really to offer Jesus. A leper probably wasn’t powerful or influential. v.3.
Matthew 8:3, “Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.” Of course, Jesus would be willing! Of course, Jesus would care for someone with such a need as this man. Especially, to a man who showed so much faith in Jesus. The man doesn’t question whether or not Jesus had the power to heal him, only his willingness. Which means either the man doesn’t know Jesus’ heart or he doesn’t believe that he is really worthy of being healed. Or perhaps both are true. Either way, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. This is significant, but let’s come back to it. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” and at the word of Jesus, the man was cleansed of his leprosy. Gone. Done. He was healed. This is Jesus: one who is willing and is able. To what? To make the blind see, the lame walk, and the leper clean once again. Let’s finish with v. 4.
Matthew 8:4, “Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” So we read from Lev 13 a minute ago. Lev 14 has instructions for what you were to do if you recovered from a skin disease, both to ensure you were no longer contagious, and to restore you into the regular community of the people so you didn’t have to live outside the camp anymore. Jesus encourages this man to obey Lev 14 “as a testimony to them.” Now it’s not entirely clear who Jesus had in mind here, whether the man was to be a testimony to the priest or to the people in Jerusalem, but that’s not really the point of this passage. Also, Jesus says not to tell anyone and why would he do that? This is common during the early part of his ministry because he didn’t want people to miss the point of his person/work. Before his death and resurrection, people had all sorts of misconceptions about what the Messiah was supposed to do. Of course, after his resurrection from the dead, he said, now go to the ends of the earth and tell everyone about me! But at this point in the story, people weren’t ready for that.
So in this brief encounter, the first miracle story of a series of 10 in Matthew’s gospel, the first three, by the way, all relating to someone who would’ve been considered the least likely for Jesus to care about including a leper, a gentile, and a woman, none of whom would’ve enjoyed a high status in their culture. Here, Jesus again demonstrates the power of God to heal. But what is the unique contribution of this story to our understanding of the person/work of Jesus? In other words, what do we learn from this story that we didn’t already learn in the last two miracle stories that we considered? This question helps us understand the meaning and the application of this teaching. And, as is very often the case in studying the Bible, the language and specific details of the story give us clues to the meaning. Here’s my first observation: though this is a miracle of healing, neither Jesus nor the leper used the language of healing. What do they say? “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” And Jesus said, “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Not be healed, but be clean. Interesting. That gives us a clue to the meaning. Second observation: in such a short story, every word/detail counts. v. 3 says, “Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.” The fact that Matthew includes this detail must be significant. So with those observations, let us draw some conclusions, four in fact:
Sin is a stain. In the Bible, sin is revealed to be the root cause of every problem. Why is the world the way that it is today? Full of beauty but also ugliness, full of goodness but also oppression, violence, and hatred? It’s not a political/economic/educational problem. Sin is the problem. And sin is described by several terms in the Bible: by missing the mark or falling short of the goal/standard, by crossing a boundary that should not be crossed, or by lawlessness, these are all terms which describe the problem. But there are a number of implications of the problem of sin. One that every person from about the age of 2 and up experiences is guilt. When you say/do something you know is wrong, you feel guilty. This speaks to the legal aspect of sin. Sin creates a debt and the debt must be paid, whether that means in a timeout when you’re 2 or through an apology or a fine or even with a prison sentence. However, sin does more than create a legal problem. It also creates a phycological problem that is commonly felt as shame. When you say/do something really wrong, not only does it create a debt of guilt, but it also creates a mark of shame that feels like a stain on your soul. It doesn’t only feel like you did something wrong, you feel wrong. This also happens when someone sins against you. You might feel dirty. Sin is a stain. One of the unique contributions of this story is that leprosy becomes a metaphor for sin. And the need for not only healing, but of cleansing, speaks to our need to be not only forgiven, but cleansed from the stain of sin.
Sin separates. Another implication of sin is that sin separates. Sin drives a wedge into a relationship that cannot be ignored/avoided for long. This is seen in the Levitical regulation about people with a skin disease having to live outside the camp. In this case, the disease as a contagious, infectious thing which destroys life, has caused separation between friends and family members. In the same way, sin separates and destroys relationships. Look at the picture of sin in the garden in Genesis 3. Before sin, at the end of Ge 2, Moses writes that the man and woman were naked and they felt no shame. They walked with God face to face in this way, nothing coming between them and nothing to hide. Can you imagine that? Complete knowledge of one another and perfect freedom, love, and acceptance. But then sin enters the picture and the people are hiding from God, covering themselves, and blaming each other of wrongdoing. Sin separates. So ever since, people have been separated from God by our sin. This broken world is like a huge leper colony, outside the camp, outside the presence of God, unclean and in desperate need of cleansing and restoration. But here’s the good news. Here’s what we learn from this story of healing:
Jesus cleanses the stain of sin. Jesus is willing and able to heal the man with leprosy. And this is a wonderful picture of the person/work of Jesus. On the cross, where Jesus died for the sins of the world, he was not only willing to pay the legal price for our guilt, but he was also willing to bear our shame. “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” The cross was an intentionally shameful way to die. It prolonged the suffering of the accused and they were often hung naked and at eye level so that they would be shamefully exposed as part of their punishment. But Jesus endured that shame so that we might be cleansed of ours. He was the spotless lamb, offered so that we might be made spotless and new. Jesus cleanses the stain of sin. So for those who trust in Jesus, and believe that God raised him from the dead, your guilt is gone and your shame is clean. This is the Apostle Paul’s great conclusion in Romans 8, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This is the vision of the Apostle John of the the people of God in Rev 7, “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Why? Because Jesus cleanses the stain of sin. In Christ, no longer do you need to hide, no longer do you need to try and cover up the shame of your sin or the shame of what has been done to you. You are clean. But also, and finally:
Jesus reconciles in relationship. Leon Morris, “Nobody would touch a leper, for such a touch brought uncleanness; people would also fear the possibility of contracting the disease. It must have been years since the man had experienced such contact with anyone who did not have the disease.” (The Gospel According to Matthew, p. 189). Now, this is heartbreaking, but what else could you do at this time? If there was no cure, that was how it had to be. But Jesus touched the man. Now, we know that he didn’t have to touch him in order to heal the man. The very next story in Matthew is one where Jesus heals a Centurion’s servant simply by the authority of his word. So the healing power of Jesus didn’t require him to touch a leper, but he did anyway. Why? Because Jesus knew the deep need of the man, which was found in friendship/relationship. Jesus touched the untouchable. He brought the exile, the outcast in and made them his friend/disciple/brother/sister. Jesus was constantly doing this. For Jesus, his concern for the man was holistic. He wasn’t just a healer, he was also a redeemer. He would pay the redemption price for the stain of sin with his own perfect life. So anyone might be made clean. And he wasn’t just a healer, he was a minister of reconciliation. He reached out to touch the untouchable. And in his healing, he made a way for the man to live in the camp, to be restored in relationship with his fellow man, but also to be able to go once again to the temple, to be with his people in the presence of God! This is the work of Jesus. So as John the Baptist asked, Jesus, are you the one who is to come or should we wait for another, Jesus would say, look at what I do. My work is to heal/redeem/reconcile/restore relationships. Is this not the work of the Messiah? Is this not the work of God? Of course it is. So may we bring our shame to him. May we bring our broken relationships to him. And in him we will find cleansing and relationship both now and forevermore.