Hope for the Hopeless

12 While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” 13 And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him. 14 And he charged him to tell no one, but “go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” 15 But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. 16 But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray. Luke 5:12-16 ESV

Once again, Luke presents what appears to be a slightly different timeline for this event. But he is far less concerned with presenting an accurate chronology than he is with focusing on what Jesus said and did. In other words, the when takes a backseat to the what in his mind. His primary point of emphasis is the interaction between Jesus and the various people He encountered during His public ministry. And it will soon become clear that while Jesus was attracting a growing number of followers, He was also drawing the attention and, ultimately, the ire of the Jewish religious leaders. These powerful and influential men were growing concerned about His increasing popularity among the common people, and it would not be long before they were forced to deal with this threat to their authority.

But as Jesus entered yet another city, He was approached by a man who suffered from the debilitating effects of leprosy. Not only did he have to deal with the pain and suffering inflicted by this dreaded disease, but he also had to endure the social ostracization that accompanied it. He was an outcast who was deemed to be unclean and unapproachable by his own people. He was unwelcome in the synagogue and considered a social pariah. But all throughout the gospels, those who suffered from this incurable disease seem to represent the spiritual state of the people of Israel. Whether they realized it or not, they were considered unclean and unapproachable by God. Their sin had infected them to such a degree that they were unwelcome in His presence and doomed to a life marked by helplessness and hopelessness.

Yet, this leprous man took his hopeless condition to Jesus. He had heard about the miracles Jesus had performed in other cities, so when he discovered that the famous rabbi was in town, he made the bold decision to approach Him. This would have been considered an egregious breach of social protocol and the rest of the crowd would have been angered by the man’s presumptuous behavior.

But this man was desperate and had nothing to lose. He no longer had any dignity and his only hope of ever living a normal life was bound up in this stranger from Nazareth. So, he fell at the feet of Jesus and pleaded, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean” (Luke 5:12 ESV). What jumps off the page is the depth of the man’s faith. He displays a profound belief in Jesus’ capacity to heal him of his disease. In fact, he believed the only thing standing between him and his complete healing was the willingness of Jesus to make it happen. And in his gospel account, Mark records that Jesus, moved by compassion for the man, reaching out and touched him. You can almost hear the audible gasp from the crowd as they watched Jesus do the unthinkable. In touching the diseased man, Jesus had just made Himself unclean. He ran the risk of contamination and, subsequently, social ostracization. But Jesus knew something they didn’t know. He had come to conquer the ravages of sin and death. His entire ministry was aimed at bringing healing to the spiritually diseased and dying. And a few verses later in this same chapter, Luke records the words of Jesus concerning His mission.

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” – Luke 5:31-32 ESV

The leper’s illness was readily apparent. It was highly visible and undeniable. But the spiritually sick are harder to spot. They can disguise their terminal illness with good works and pious acts of self-righteousness. Yet Jesus knew that all those in the crowd were just as hopeless and helpless as the leper. But he had something they lacked: Faith. He believed that Jesus could do something about his condition. And Jesus did not disappoint.

And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” – Luke 5:13 ESV

We’re not told how long this man had suffered from his condition, but when Jesus touched him, it would have been the first human contact he had experienced in a long time. Notice that Jesus places the emphasis not on the man’s disease but on his state of uncleanness. Jesus didn’t say, “Be healed.” He said, “Be clean.” He was restoring the man’s dignity and ability to worship as part of the faith community. That’s why Jesus commanded him, “Go to the priest and let him examine you. Take along the offering required in the law of Moses for those who have been healed of leprosy. This will be a public testimony that you have been cleansed” (Luke 5:14 NLT).

Jesus was requiring that the man follow the proper requirements as outlined in the Mosaic Law. His cleanness would not be complete until the proper sacrifices were made for the atonement of his sins.

The priest shall offer the sin offering, to make atonement for him who is to be cleansed from his uncleanness. And afterward he shall kill the burnt offering. And the priest shall offer the burnt offering and the grain offering on the altar. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be clean. – Leviticus 14:19-20 ESV

Jesus was not suggesting the man’s leprosy was the result of sin, but He knew that the man would not be accepted back into fellowship until he met the required conditions. He could appear cleansed and whole, but it required a blood sacrifice and the blessing of the priest before he could be officially declared healed and purified.

This entire scene brings to mind the words of the apostle Paul, written to the church in Ephesus. He reminded them that they too had once been in a similar state as the leprous man. They were the walking dead, living in a state of spiritual helplessness and hopelessness, separated from God by their own sinfulness.

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else. – Ephesians 2:1-3 NLT

But Paul adds the good news.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!). – Ephesians 2:4-5 NLT

All those who come to Jesus as the leper did, expressing their faith in His ability to heal their disease, will hear Him say the very same thing: “I will, be clean.”

Having received his healing, the man did as Jesus had said and made his way to visit the priest. But according to Mark’s gospel, the man disobeyed Jesus’ warning to tell no one what had happened. Instead, “as the man went out he began to announce it publicly and spread the story widely, so that Jesus was no longer able to enter any town openly but stayed outside in remote places” (Mark 1:45 NLT).

These miracles were intended to prove Jesus’ authority as the Son of God. They demonstrated his power over demons and disease. With just a word, He could set people free from their captivity to demonic possession or the ravages of a disease or disability. But the risk Jesus ran every time He performed a miracle was that the people would see Him as their hope for political liberation rather than spiritual deliverance. He knew that they longed for a Messiah who would restore Israel’s prominence and power. He was well aware that they were looking for a political Savior, not a spiritual one. So, He was forced to seek refuge from the growing crowds and their increasing anticipation that He was going to put Israel back on the map politically speaking.

And Luke reports that Jesus “would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16 ESV). In the midst of all the circus-like atmosphere that surrounded His ministry, Jesus sought time to get alone with His Heavenly Father. He remained focused on doing His Father’s will and sticking to the timeline established for His earthly ministry. He was not going to allow the peoples’ agenda to distract or deter Him from His God-appointed mission. Because He knew that true cleansing and complete forgiveness from sins would only come through His atoning sacrifice. And that day, while drawing closer, had not yet come.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson