The Miracles of Christ: The Cleansing of the Leper
Read Luke 5:12-15
Christ’s miracles were intended to show different aspects of the gospel. Whether He drove out a demon, healed someone who was diseased, or raised someone who had died, the Lord proved each time that He had come to deal with the curse that had come as a result of sin. The miracle performed upon the leper in Luke 5, however, pictures more clearly than others what Christ does when He cleanses us from our sins.
Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord made clear that leprosy particularly exhibits what sin does to someone. The prophet Isaiah used the picture of a leper to describe the spiritual state of Israel:
From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores.Isaiah 1:6
The comparison was highly appropriate. Leprosy was a terrible disease that rendered a person unclean. Lepers could not enter into the communion of people or places of communion with God. They were avoided by most and suffered under the stigma of the disease. Physically, the lepers would waste away until they would become unrecognizable and then finally die.
The ceremonial laws dealt very rigorously with whatever could potentially be leprosy. There was undoubtedly a medical reason for this, for the ceremonial laws would help check contagion throughout the society of Israel. However, the detail, dread, and decisiveness with which the priests treated leprosy (Lev. 13-14) was certainly telling. Offerings of atonement had to take place, as well as an elaborate ritual of cleansing (Lev. 15). The legislation concerning leprosy in a person ends ominously:
This is the law of him in whom is the plague of leprosy, whose hand is not able to get that which pertaineth to his cleansing.Leviticus 14:32
Indeed, there was no known cure; any evidence of a cure (e.g., Miriam, Naaman) was only because God had intervened. A miracle needed to take place, and in our passage we see such a miracle – in fact, we see three miracles that comprise the miracle of the cleansing of the leper.
The Leper came to Jesus
We don’t know how this leper heard of Jesus, other than that Jesus’ “fame spread abroad throughout all the region round about Galilee” (Mark 1:28). Perhaps an old relative or friend came to the edge of where this leper lived and called out to him, “We believe Messiah has come. It’s Jesus of Nazareth. He may be your only hope!”
What is more remarkable, however, is that the leper came to believe that Christ could heal him. Though Christ cast out demons and healed many from various diseases, there was not yet any record of Christ healing someone from leprosy. It is not likely that lepers would be among the crowd of those He had healed on the Sabbath evening in Capernaum, for those healed came from the city (Mark 1:33-34), and any lepers would have been outside the city.
Had someone told the leper about Christ’s sermon in Nazareth, when Christ made clear that He had been anointed to “heal the broken-hearted” (Luke 4:18)? Certainly, this man’s heart had broken beneath the stroke of leprosy. If he had known the words of Psalm 38, he would have found them applicable:
I am troubled; I am bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day long. For my loins are filled with a loathsome disease; and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and sore broken: I have roared by reason of the disquietness of my heart.Psalm 38:6-8
Could word have reached this leper that Christ in that same sermon had referred to “Naaman the Syrian,” the pagan leper who had been cleansed (Luke 4:27)? Whatever the means, it is clear that the Lord of heaven was drawing this leper to His Son (John 6:44). He had worked in him faith that was firmly persuaded that Christ was indeed the Son of God, “able to save ... to the uttermost” (Heb. 7:25) even a leper like himself. After all, since this Jesus was the Son of God, not even leprosy would be too strong for Him.
Of the Lord alone is it said,
Who healeth all thy diseases; who redeemeth thy life from destruction.Psalm 103:3b-4a
Thus one day this man, whose leprosy was very advanced (v. 12: “a man full of leprosy”), arose from his quarantine. Against the odds and obstacles facing him, he threw all caution to the wind and made his way toward Jesus. At this moment, Jesus was “in a certain city” (Luke 5:12), surrounded by “great multitudes” (Matt. 8:1). How the shrieking crowds would have run from this awful specimen of a man! Yet, nothing can make this man turn back.
Jesus touched the Leper
The crowds may have drawn back, but Jesus did not. The great Physician had not come to save the healthy, but the sick (Mark 2:17). He remained standing as this leper knelt down (Mark 1:40), “fell on his face” (Luke 5:12), “worshipped him” (Matt. 8:2). He hurls all that is left of him – a leprous bundle of corruption before the Holy Son of God. Scarcely have two more opposites ever met. He – wretched; Christ – the worthy One. He – foul; Christ – the Fountain. He – powerless; Christ – all Power.
There is no doubt from this man’s words and actions that he understood the exalted character of Christ. Nevertheless, this exalted view did not keep him from the Savior, but drew him to the only One great enough to deal with his desperate case. Sometimes people think that Christ is too great to deal with them.
The Word of God teaches us the exact opposite here through this leper’s story. Because of his extreme case, the leper needed a great Savior, and none less than the Son of God would do. In fact, he confessed it clearly: “Thou canst make me clean” (v. 12).
It is precious to note that this man didn’t speak of healing, but cleansing. What plagued him most about this disease was the fact that it rendered him unclean before God and man. Contrary to what many would have wanted, this leper didn’t just want his body, his life, or his future back. Like David, his chief concern was: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Ps. 51:7).
Though he was firmly persuaded of the ability of Christ, he still cherished some doubt about the willingness of Christ to cleanse him. His petition makes this evident: “If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean” (v. 12). This man portrays to us what countless have thought, felt, and said when coming to Christ: they are convinced in their hearts of Christ’s ability; yet, they doubt and fear whether Christ is willing to cleanse them, personally and specifically. Often our shame for sin and the realization that we do not deserve to be cleansed and forgiven by God hide from our view the willingness of the Lord that He so frequently and tenderly conveys in His promises (e.g., Isa. 1:18; Jer. 3:12-13, etc.).
Notice, however, that this man’s doubts and fears did not keep him from the Lord. His need and desire are stronger than his fears and doubts: he must have this Savior’s cleansing. You can almost hear his mental processes: “I cannot delay any longer. I am full of leprosy. I may not have much longer. How do I know that this Savior will still be here tomorrow? What if my delay will turn into regret? If He is not willing, He will have to tell me Himself, while I lay at His feet. I am perishing now anyway without Him. I must go, today, while I still can.” So he went and lay at Christ’s feet.
The second miracle of our passage is that Christ did not shrink away from this polluted heap in front of Him. Instead, He “put forth his hand, and touched him” (v. 13). The priests of the Old Testament would never touch anyone who was unclean (cf. Hag. 2:11-13), but this High Priest can still be touched with the feeling of our infirmities (Heb. 4:15). To His touch, the Savior added precious words to this leper: “I will: be thou clean” (v. 13). The Lord drove away His doubt about His willingness: “I will,” He said. He is mercy in the flesh, and there can be no doubt that every sinner who comes kneeling at His feet with the plea for cleansing cannot and will not be turned away.
Jesus cleansed the Leper
“And immediately the leprosy departed from him” (Luke 5:13). Christ had showed His willingness by touching the leper, and He proved His power by cleansing the leper. The picture is of the leprosy leaving the man dramatically and decisively, driven away by the almighty power of the Savior. The disease that had taken hold of this man and turned him into little more than a corpse slinked away powerless in a moment. Down to the sole of his foot, the disease vanished and wholeness returned. The leper had been thoroughly and completely cleansed.
Christ then commanded the man to show himself to the temple priests (v. 14) as Moses had specified in the law (see Lev. 14). Here Christ proved that He had come not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17-20). He “magnify(ies) the law and make(s) it honorable” (Isa. 42:21). He wanted the sons of Aaron to know that the Cleanser of lepers had appeared on the scene. Christ had not yet fulfilled the ceremonies, though He would soon in the shedding of His blood on the cross. In a few short years,
Christ Himself would be, 'cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgression of his people he would be stricken.'Isaiah 53:8
Until then, there was still the need for animal blood to be shed. However, the priests should know now that they would soon be out of a job.
Though the leper indeed became a witness, he did not obey Christ exactly. We can’t be sure that he did not go to the priests at all; we only know that he began to spread the news far and wide, though Christ had told him differently. Before we fault the leper too severely, we ought to examine our hearts to see whether we always render exact obedience to Christ’s commands in His Word. Too often we have the exact opposite problem as this leper. We are too silent, while this man is too outspoken. Without excusing this man, however, we can say that where Christ’s cleansing power is at work, His renewing power will also prevail until those who have been cleansed from sin will forever testify of His power, glory, and grace.
- Review some of the ways the plague of leprosy pictures the plague of our hearts.
- Do we have “untouchables” living around us? How might followers of Christ deal with such modern-day “lepers”?
- Matthew records this miracle after the giving of the Sermon on the Mount (see Matt. 8:1-4). Most students of the Bible think Matthew does that to show the power of Christ not only to teach the law, but to cleanse those who are defiled with respect to the law. Read Romans 8:2-4 and discuss how Paul makes that same point.
- How would this story have been different if the leper had doubted Christ’s ability instead of His willingness? In other words, what would have been the problem if he had said, “If thou canst, thou wilt make me clean”?
- Christ brought this leper into the community once again, while He Himself was forced to withdraw to desert places (see Mark 1:45). What might this have reminded people of from the Old Testament ceremonies (see Lev. 16:21-22)?
- How should the disobedience of the cleansed leper both convict and correct us?