Sunday, 23 April 2017
Jesus Heals a Leper (Matthew 8:1-6)
Matthew mentions that Jesus was followed by great crowds and no doubt each of them had a story to tell about what they thought of Jesus and perhaps some of them had received a great blessing from him. Nevertheless, Matthew chooses to describe isolated incidents in which Jesus helped unlikely people.
The Gospel of Matthew was constructed by him so that we could learn about Jesus. In this chapter he includes several occasions when Jesus performed a miracle. Matthew has already mentioned that Jesus performed miracles, but he did not say very much about them. Now he chooses several that reveal among other things the power of Jesus over disease, death and demonic destruction, things that were the consequence of sin. Each incident tells us other details about Jesus as well, but the overall design is to reveal the incredible power of Jesus over other kinds of power.
As far as the ritual religion of Israel was concerned, lepers were banned from the temple and could not participate in any of the services. This did not mean that a leper could not worship God in private. Yet the nature of his illness meant that he lived life in isolation because he was not allowed to mix with society. Lepers were outcasts both as far as religion and daily interaction was concerned.
Why did Matthew include this story? One obvious reason is that the performance of such miracles was evidence that Jesus was the Messiah. The Old Testament contains many predictions about the activities of the Messiah and one was that he would help people in great need. A second reason would be his desire to tell social outcasts, of which there were many at that time, that Jesus, although now exalted to heaven by the time Matthew wrote his gospel, welcomes such outcasts into his company. A third reason is that leprosy is a picture of sin and therefore when someone was cured of leprosy they illustrate what Jesus can do for sinners in the gospel.
How leprosy depicts sin
Most of us are familiar with the various ways in which leprosy did this. We have already mentioned how leprosy prevented someone from approaching the temple to worship God. This means that leprosy illustrated someone who was separated from God, and sin does this in a far more serious way that leprosy does. There will be lepers in heaven who were never healed of their leprosy, but there will be no sinners in heaven who were not healed of sin and its consequences. It is a solemn fact that sin creates a separation between us and God.
Another feature of leprosy is that it is not a static disease. The person who has it knows that his state will get worse. That is what sin does to people as well. We see young children and they seem so innocent, but who knows what they will do when they become adults. Many a teenager played with a sin and they are now under its grip and they are very different from what they once were. Everyone knows that bad habits have consequences. The real name for bad habits is sin. The fact is, if we don’t do something about our sins, our sins will do something to us and make us worse.
A third way in which leprosy depicts sin is that it brings sorrow in its path. Imagine the devastation that would come into a family if one of the members was affected by the disease. What sorrows and disappointments there would be! And sin leaves a trail of sorrow behind it. How much sorrow is in the world, no one can say. But we can say about the sorrows that in one way or another they are here because of sin.
There is a fourth way in which leprosy depicts sin and that is that it leads to death. We know that some illnesses are incurable sadly and will lead eventually to death. And that is where sin is taking every person living today, it is where it has taken every person who lived in the past, and it will take every person who will live in the future. Sin guarantees a definite result. Those who are sinners will die, not just physically but also eternally.
So we see four ways at least in which leprosy is a picture of us in our sins. It separates, it progresses, it saddens and it will bring about death. We can imagine how desolating the poor leper must have felt. The reality is that our sins should make us feel far more desolate because sin is a worse disease than leprosy. For most of his life, at least since he had become a leper, this man would have had no hope. But one day he heard about Jesus and determined to see if he could be helped by him.
The approach of the leper
We are not told how the leper knew he could come to Jesus nor why he should want to come to Jesus. The assumption is that he had heard of the miracles that Jesus had already performed (Matthew 4:23) and decided that since Jesus had helped others he could help him as well. Such a deduction is part of the logic of saving faith because it learns from the experience of others. He had heard that others had been helped by Jesus and therefore was optimistic that he would help him also.
The leper’s approach to Jesus shows to us how a sinner should come to Jesus for mercy. First, he acknowledged that Jesus was divine. It would be possible to suggest that the title ‘Lord’ was only one of respect, yet when combined with his action of kneeling we can see that the leper recognised that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Here we have an example of God’s amazing grace in which he enlightens an unexpected person to confess the superiority of Jesus.
At the same time, the leper expressed his submission to Jesus when he focussed on whether or not the Lord was willing to help him. Of course, the leper is not suggesting that Jesus would be reluctant to heal. Instead he is expressing his conviction that Jesus is sovereign even in how he chooses to help needy people. The leper recognised that he was not in a position to make demands of Jesus. And we must come to that realisation. Desperation is not a valid reason for disrespect.
The leper’s confession also highlights his spirituality. After all, he did not ask Jesus to heal him. Instead he asked Jesus to make him clean. His focus on cleansing informs us he wanted to worship God in the temple with his people. If all that he wanted was to be able to go in and out in the community, he only needed physical healing. But he also wanted to be right with God, which tells us that there was a spiritual desire in his request.
His grasp that he needed cleansing points to the reality that he recognised that he was a sinner. So we can deduce that in his request there was an expression of repentance. This recognition can also be seen in his awareness that Jesus was divine. Why else would he come to Jesus for help?
The response of Jesus
The first detail that Matthew highlights is the willingness of Jesus to identify with needy sinners. This is revealed in his response of touching the leper. In the eyes of the community, this action made Jesus unclean (Leviticus 5:3), whereas in reality the opposite was taking place. Jesus was cleansing the leper! His response on this occasion also shows the eagerness with which he comes to the aid of those in spiritual distress.
The second detail that Matthew underlines is the immediate nature of the cure that Jesus provided. He did in a moment what the best doctors of the time could not do in a lifetime of treatment. What he did physically here is also true spiritually as far as salvation from sin is concerned. Of course, we cannot push the picture too far. Although a sinner becomes spotless in God’s sight when he believes in Jesus (justified), he does not become sinless. He remains a sinner while on earth, although he is a forgiven sinner.
The third detail mentioned by Matthew is that Jesus gave instructions to the cured leper about acknowledging the commandments of God’s Word (Leviticus 14). The ceremonial law detailed a process to follow when a leper professed to having been healed. If the leper, after his healing, had ignored those requirements, he would have no credibility in the eyes of those who worshipped God. This is a powerful message for us as well. Obedience is necessary for showing we put Jesus first in our lives and also for showing to others that we are the disciples of Jesus.
Fourthly, Jesus tested the healed leper by this command to go to the priests. He told the man to go to the temple in Jerusalem, which was a long way from Galilee. If he failed to go, he would have failed the test of obedience. Moreover, Jesus was requiring that the man should put God first. One assumes that there were other people he might want to tell – perhaps, his wife and children, maybe his parents or brothers and sisters. Instead of going to tell them, he was to go and do what God required and after he had done that he could tell others.
Fifth, the priests in the temple would have learned two things about Jesus. One is that Jesus wished to honour the law of Moses and the other is that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament concerning his ability to perform incredible miracles. Imagine being the priest who had to deal with this man. It is unlikely that he would have dealt with many such cases. Surely he would inform his fellows about the astonishing situation he recently had to deal with.
The sad detail is that Mark tells us that the leper did not do what Jesus wanted him to do. Instead he went and told everyone what had taken place, and the outcome was that the mission of Jesus was disrupted. Here we are reminded that the people whom Jesus help do not become sinless. Sometimes they use their own wisdom instead of his and when they do they lose out spiritually.
It is also the case that the healing that Jesus provided restored a wide area of blessings to the leper. Previously he was isolated, now he could enter into society. Before he was debarred from going to the temple, now he could participate in the worship of God. In the years in which he was a leper, he had to live in communities composed of lepers, those without hope; now he could join the community of hope as he faced the future and shared in the blessings of the kingdom that Jesus had commenced. His restoration depicts the range of blessings that salvation brings. Salvation gives us fellowship in the family of God, gives us access to the presence of God, and provides us with hope eventually of the glory of God.