1 When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. 2 And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” 3 And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. 4 And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” – Matthew 8:1-4 ESV
Jesus finished His sermon and, rather than taking a well-deserved break, He immediately began His ministry. And it’s interesting to note that upon the completion of His message, the very first person who came to Jesus was a leper. Matthew describes great crowds of people following Jesus, but it was a lone leper, a social pariah and ostracized outcast from the community who made a beeline to Jesus and knelt before Him. This man’s hideous skin disease was not only painful, but marked him as unclean and prohibited him from participation in temple worship. Because he was in close proximity to the crowd, which was most likely comprised primarily of Jews, it is safe to assume he was a Jew himself. But, because of his disease, he was no longer welcome in the community. Leprosy was considered a curse from God, a divine judgment for sins committed. So, lepers were avoided at all costs, not only because of their disease, but because any contact with them would make a person ceremonially unclean. By law, this man would have been required to announce himself to all those around him as being a leper.
45 “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ 46 He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp. – Leviticus 5:45-46 ESV
And while Matthew doesn’t describe the reaction of the crowd, we can only imagine the shock and repulsion they must have felt when this man showed up in their midst. They would have backed off in horror at the sight of him. There were likely shouts of ridicule and anger at his unmitigated gall to show his face among them. And how dare he approach Jesus, a rabbi and teacher. But this man was desperate. He longed to be healed. He was tired of being an outcast. So, he took his need to Jesus, and the text tells us he kneeled before Him. Somehow, this man knew that Jesus was the answer to his problem. In his pain and desperation, he took a huge risk and, in violation of the law, he said to Jesus, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”
Notice the wording of his statement, “If you will….” He seemed to have no doubt in his mind that Jesus could heal him. His only reservation had to do with whether Jesus would. He was well aware of his own uncleanness. His faith in Jesus’ capacity to restore him was strong, but he had doubts about Jesus’ willingness to do so. He was undeserving and unworthy. But he was also just the kind of person for whom Jesus had come to earth.
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” – Luke 4:18-19 ESV
4 And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” – Matthew 12:4-5 ESV
Whether this man realized it or not, in spite of his bad circumstances, he was in good company. He was part of the poor, the captives, the blind and oppressed to whom Jesus had come to minister. Like the lame, the deaf and even the dead, this man’s problem was no match for the Son of God. His disease was no obstacle for Jesus. And amazingly, to the shock of all those in the crowd that day, Jesus reached out His hand and touched this man. In doing so, not only risked making Himself ceremonially unclean, He violated the law. In response to the man’s statement, “If you will…,” Jesus replied, “I will….” And He did. He healed him. In a matter of seconds, the man’s disease was completely eradicated. This man had been healed by a touch from the hand of Jesus, and everyone in the crowd would have been witness to this miraculous event.
One of the things that gets easily overlooked in this passage is the deliberate decision on Jesus’ part to touch the man. He didn’t have to do so. He could have healed him with a word. But Jesus, knowing that by touching the man He would contract the man’s defilement, did so. In many ways, leprosy represents the pervasive nature of man’s sin nature. It contaminates and separates. It leaves its victim helpless, hopeless and alone. It defiles and deems the individual unfit for communion with God. But with a touch, Jesus took on the man’s defilement and bestowed on him perfect health. The apostle Paul wrote of the amazing transaction that Jesus came to make possible.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV
The leper’s physical restoration was symbollic of the spiritual restoration Jesus came to provide all those who would place their faith in Him as their Messiah and Savior. But in order for anyone to have their sinful state healed by Jesus, they would have to admit their problem and come to Him just as the leper did – in humility and faith. Jesus once stated, “”Healthy people don’t need a doctor–sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” (Mark 2:17 NLT). The apostle John wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 ESV).
This man was healed, but he still required cleansing. In spite of his radical physical transformation, he was still unclean according to the law.
3 …if the case of leprous disease is healed in the leprous person, 4 the priest shall command them to take for him who is to be cleansed two live clean birds and cedarwood and scarlet yarn and hyssop. 5 And the priest shall command them to kill one of the birds in an earthenware vessel over fresh water. 6 He shall take the live bird with the cedarwood and the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, and dip them and the live bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water. 7 And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease. Then he shall pronounce him clean and shall let the living bird go into the open field. 8 And he who is to be cleansed shall wash his clothes and shave off all his hair and bathe himself in water, and he shall be clean. And after that he may come into the camp, but live outside his tent seven days. 9 And on the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair from his head, his beard, and his eyebrows. He shall shave off all his hair, and then he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and he shall be clean. – Leviticus 14:1-9 ESV
So, Jesus commanded the man, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them” (Matthew 8:4 ESV). This is significant, because healing from leprosy was rare and unheard of. By sending this man to the temple, Jesus would have sent a loud and clear message to the priests that something new was going on in their midst. It’s likely that these priests had never had a single leper show up at the temple healed and ready to offer the prescribed sacrifices. Jesus wanted this man to obey the law and follow the Mosaic requirements for cleansing, but He also wanted the man to provide visible, tangible proof of His power over not only sickness, but sin.
We must not overlook the significance of this man’s desperate state. Because of his leprosy, he was alone, ostracized, unclean, and condemned to a slow, painful death. But he brought his need to Jesus and said, “If you will, you can…” and Jesus did. This man’s physical state mirrors the spiritual condition of each and every man and woman who is infected by sin. The apostle Paul describes the sad reality of man’s spiritual state apart from Christ.
…remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. – Ephesians 2:12 ESV
Then he provides the good news.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. – Ephesians 2:13 ESV
The man in the story had been restored to health. But he had also been restored to community and been given the right to enter the temple and to offer sacrifices to God. He was no longer alienated. he was not longer a stranger and social outcast. He was no longer without hope and without God in the world. All because he brought his need to Jesus and received the healing touch of the Savior.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.