Initially, as he approached, He seemed to be just yet one more joining the crowd to see this One who spoke with such authority and worked wonders. But as he drew nearer they noticed that his clothes were torn, his hair hung loose, and his upper lip was covered. He was an outcast. He was a leper! Surely he would divert his path, at least he would soon cry out, “Unclean, unclean!” so that the crowd could divert theirs.
Leprosy could refer to several diseases that could affect the skin in a particular way including Hansen’s Disease (Leviticus 13). Hansens’ disease is a peculiar disease. It is not dreaded for the pain it causes (though in the initial stages there is some), but for the pain it anesthetizes. Leprosy does deform, but the most severe damage comes precisely because the leper doesn’t feel any pain. But to the Jew the most dreaded aspects of this disease were not physical, they were religious and social. According to the law the leper was unclean. That is why the leper asked to be cleansed rather than healed. You were healed of other diseases, but you were cleansed of leprosy. Being unclean he dwelt outside the camp. He dwelt alone. He was a picture of sin, cast away from God and God’s people.
Perhaps others started to slow down and murmur. They didn’t want to touch this leper and render themselves unclean. Jesus’ pace and trajectory didn’t change, neither did the lepers. The holy Christ and the unclean leper were on a collision course. The crowd gasps, they are shocked, they step back. This is taboo. The leper’s boldness was matched only by his reverence and humility. Now “Lord” could mean nothing more than “sir” in this culture, but when applied to God it was a title of supreme sovereignty. This bold leper, this bowing leper was not simply being polite, he recognized in Jesus a supreme kind of authority. The question was not whether or not Jesus could heal him, but would He heal him?
Later in the 5th century the Talmud would say to stay at least 6 feet away from all lepers, 150 feet if the wind was blowing. This dread disease is contagious by contact and can be airborne; hence the prescriptions in the law (such as covering the upper lip) had a practical as well as spiritual purpose.
The lepers boldness is not the most socially starling thing in our text. Though the leper’s behavior is both shocking and a violation of the law, it is understandable from a human point of view. One can understand the loneliness and desperation this man must have felt. No, the most astonishing actions here are not those of the leper, but Jesus. Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him!
Leprosy wasn’t something one was commonly healed from, this is one of the reasons it was so dreaded. In the Old Testament only two persons are healed by leprosy, Miriam via Moses’ prayers (Numbers 12), and Naaman via Elisha’s advice (2 Kings 5:1-4). Both were healed without touch, from a distance.
Jesus would later heal from a distance in this chapter. Jesus didn’t need to touch this leper, He wanted to touch this leper. Just imagine what that touch must have felt like. Just to be touched by someone must have been wonderful, but to be touched by Jesus! Moreover to feel His gracious healing touch, well, we can only speculate as to the bliss that leper’s heart was filled with. This leper could never come close to God’s temple of stone, but in the temple of Jesus’ flesh God came close to Him.
Jesus cleanses more than sin defiles. Edmund Clowney well writes,
Ceremonial symbolism in the Old Testament uses the fundamental distinction between the clean and the unclean. The comparison of sin to filth is linked with the need for cleanness to approach holy things of the holy Lord. The prevailing power of sin is shown in the fact that the unclean pollutes the clean, never the other way round. Haggai’s message focuses on this feature (Hag. 2:10-14). In fulfillment, the prevailing power of Christ reveres this principle. When Jesus touches a leper, Jesus is not defiled, the leper is cleansed…
You are cursed with a greater malady of which leprosy is a fit, but faint analogy. You have only one hope, His name is Jesus, and He is willing to heal would you reverently bow to His supreme authority.
One thought on “Matthew 8:1-17 & The Leper”
Beautiful truths beautifully written.