Jesus Compassionately Curses the Leper ( Mark 1:40-45)
The healing is effortless. The healing is perfect. It is instantly effective. And his desire to touch this defiled outcast shows, again, his yearning for a close relationship with sinners. At the end of this sermon, I’m going to seek to show how this account is written to give us a sense of an amazing reversal. Jesus took the outcast’s place as an outcast himself. Therefore, this is a beautiful picture of the gospel of Christ’s compassionate work for sinners like you and me. But it’s only available for those who know that that is their true spiritual condition apart from Christ. How we really are the spiritual lepers and we need him to touch us and we need him to save us.
I. The Leper’s Plea
So we begin with the leper’s plea. Look at verse 40, “A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean.'” So we come to the terrors of this disease, leprosy. I’ve already described somewhat how awful this disease was seen to be in Jesus’ day. The word leprosy comes from the Greek word lepros meaning scale, like the scales that fell from Saul’s eyes after his conversion. It gives us a sense of the scaly nature of a leper’s skin because of the ravages of the disease.
Now there are actually a wide range of skin diseases that fell under this category and not all of them were equally serious. The book of Leviticus describes a wide range of skin conditions that were addressed in the Law of Moses. Some just had to do with eczema or some other forms of dry, scaly skin that really were no threat, or maybe running sores or scabs. Others were far more serious.
Biblical scholars believe that the most serious form of leprosy, the one that brought terror to the population and devastated the lives of all who had it was Hansen’s disease, which is a communicable bacterial infection that could be spread through the air by physical touch. Even today, there is no cure for Hansen’s disease, though its symptoms can be greatly mitigated by modern medical science. Leprosy of that sort usually begins with pain, but then is followed by numbness as the disease attacks the nervous system.
The leper’s skin loses its color and hair begins to fall out. The skin swells and bunches. The leprosy often causes the body to emit a foul odor, making the leper even more repulsive. But perhaps most devastating of all is, as I mentioned, the numbness that results in a loss of the sensation of pain. Thus lepers frequently destroy their own bodies unknowingly. They injure themselves because they don’t feel anything while the injury is going on.
Philip Yancey wrote a book about pain entitled Where Are You God When It Hurts? and speaking about how essential pain is to protect us from greater damage. He described how awful it is for people who are suffering from Hansen’s disease to feel no pain at all. “For thousands of years, people thought that Hansen’s disease caused the ulcers on hands and feet and face, which eventually led to rotting flesh and the loss of limbs. But modern research has shown that in 99% of the cases, Hansen’s disease only numbs the extremities. The destruction follows solely because the warning system of pain is gone. How does the decay happen? Well, in villages of Africa and Asia, a person with Hansen’s disease has been known to reach directly into a charcoal fire to retrieve a dropped potato. Nothing in his body told him not to. Patients at a leper’s hospital in India would work all day, gripping a shovel with a protruding nail, or extinguish a burning wick with their bare hands, or walk on splintered glass. The daily routines of life ground away at the patient’s hands and feet but no warning system alerted him. If an ankle turned, tearing tendon and muscle, he would just adjust and walk crooked.”
So that’s what’s going on in the bodies of the lepers. But beyond this is the religious or spiritual defilement, the religious defilement of leprosy. In order to protect his chosen people from infectious diseases, the Lord made certain laws causing sick people to be quarantined from the rest of the community. Leviticus 13:45-46 says, “The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as he has the infection, he remains unclean. He must live alone. He must live outside the camp.”
Imagine what this was like. Socially, people need to be together. Scripture says it’s not good for man to be alone. People need to be touched. They need to be hugged. They need to be patted on the back. They need a good firm handshake from time to time. We’re all like this. They need to be able to greet family members with a kiss. They need to be able to sit across the table with friends and eat a meal together, see their faces, listen to their voices, to be together. But all of that is over for the leper. All of it. Even worse, they’re effectively cut off from corporate worship, as if they were cast out of the sight of God. Since the temple was the center of Jewish religious life, the spiritual exile was a devastating condition for lepers. It was like a living hell for them.
Psalm 31:22, “In my alarm I said, ‘I am cut off from your sight!'” Psalm 88 says, “I’m set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care. You have put me in the lowest pit in the darkest depths.” That’s what it felt like, cut off, out in the darkness, excluded. So that’s the condition of this poor man who came to beg healing from Jesus that day.
And so look at his plea. He casts off all concern. He approaches the Lord. He would not stand far off as he was ordinarily required to do. He had heard of Jesus’ healing ministry and hope rose in him that he could be healed, and he wanted to be healed. So he broke all of the societal and religious norms. He came close to Jesus. He fell on his knees in reverence before Jesus. He called him Lord.
In Luke’s Gospel, he goes even farther. He falls on his face before Jesus. And he’s moved by faith. He’s heard the accounts of Jesus’ healing, and faith is rising up in him. Hope is rising up in him that Jesus can do anything. And so he’s beyond, “Can you do it?” He knows he can. It just comes down to Jesus’ willingness. “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean,” he says. Now this humble plea, I think, shows great faith. There’s no doubt whatsoever that Jesus can do this. The only question is, will he? This is a pattern of prayer that I think we could all follow. Convinced, constantly convinced of God’s omnipotence.
We know that God can do anything. As Job said in Job 42:2, “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.” That’s the basis of a healthy prayer life. A sense of God’s omnipotence. But if God has made no specific promise to us in any area, we don’t know for certain what his will is. We cannot presume on him for healing. John Calvin said, “This man ought not to expect more than God promises.” The leper had not learned by any inspired communication or any promise of God what Christ would do. It would’ve been improper of him, therefore, to go beyond these limits. We cannot make demands. God does not owe us healing. The leper knew it was well within Jesus’ power. It’s just a matter of Christ’s willingness.
Now the leper’s desire is clearly stated: If you are willing, you can make me clean. It’s a beautiful word, a Greek word, the cleaning or the cleansing of his body from this defilement, this pollution of leprosy. Now I wonder what the crowd must have been thinking as this leper comes and falls right in front of Jesus. John MacArthur in commenting on it said this, “One can only imagine the people’s reaction as they watch this dramatic scene unfold. Horror mixed with indignation must have swept through the crowd of onlookers. Some probably shrank back in startled fear covering their mouths as they quickly retreated. Perhaps others glanced around for stones or sticks to drive away this unwanted outcast. Others surely stood watching in stunned silence, wondering how Jesus would respond.”
II. The Lord’s Compassionate Power
So that’s the scene. That’s what’s going on. Now let’s look at the Lord’s compassionate power, verses 41-42. “Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing, he said. ‘Be clean!’ And immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.” So we come to this great topic of the compassion of Jesus. The text actually says that Jesus was filled with compassion or moved by compassion. The Greek words for compassion root his feelings in his bowels, like in his intestines. KJV frequently uses that word. He feels it within his gut what it must have been like to be this leper. That’s his compassion. Jesus in general displayed a very healthy, perfectly healthy and robust emotional life. He was an emotional man. Unlike the gods of the Greeks, the Stoics who thought of their gods as thinking machines, untouched whatsoever by the deplorable human condition.
Jesus was nothing like that. Jesus perfectly displayed the emotions of our Heavenly Father. A God who says again and again that he is gracious and compassionate. And so he pities and seeks to relieve the miseries of his creatures. By far, the most common emotional state ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels is compassion. He feels it again and again. We’re going to see it as the reason for his teaching ministry in chapter 6, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. He has compassion on them, and they need the word of God. And so he teaches them. He’s going to openly declare his compassion for the crowd in Mark chapter 8. He says, “I have compassion for these people. They’ve been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they’ll collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.” He just is able to immerse himself in the condition of other people. He’s moved deeply, and so it is with this leper. Jesus is moved with compassion for his plight.
That’s why I said, as I was preaching through the Book of Job, I felt that the worst thing that Job ever said about God is in Job 9:23. This is what Job said about God. “When a scourge brings sudden death, he mocks the despair of the innocent.” That was probably Job’s lowest moment, I think. As though God gets some kind of twisted pleasure out of enjoying just watching his creature suffer. He doesn’t. He’s moved with compassion for the suffering of the human race. And Jesus lived that out. Consistently moved with compassion for people. He would weep before raising Lazarus from the dead. Not, I think, just because of the obvious abject sorrow of Martha and Mary. But he knew all that death would cost his people in grief and sorrow over the centuries to come, and so he wept. He would also weep over Jerusalem because of the destruction that was going to be coming on them because of their rebellion, their failure to recognize the time of the Lord coming, and he wept over them.
So I just want to pause and just apply it to us. What about us? The parable of the Good Samaritan—the priest and the Levite, these religious people, see the guy bleeding by the side of the road and then just walk right on by. They’re not moved with compassion. They’re not able to immerse themselves in that other person’s situation. Though I usually reserve applications for the end of the sermon, I just want to do it right now. Just look in the mirror and say, “Lord, Spirit in me, the Spirit of Christ, move me with compassion for lost people. Help me to see what it feels like to be without hope and without God in the world.” What is it like to be that person in that situation? If I were in that family, what would I feel? If that were happening to me, what would I feel? Jesus is compassionate, and it’s part of his healing work in us to make us so. To make us so.
But with Jesus, it’s not just a feeling only. He has power to do something about it. Amen? The power to do something about it. And so moved with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched him. “I am willing,” he told him. “Be made clean.” He doesn’t just have feelings. He physically extends his own hand to touch this man.
Now, what must that have been like for this leper? Who knows how long it has been since the last time a human being touched him? He was used to people running and screaming from him, even his own family, even his own friends. This was in some ways exactly where the law of Moses took this man. In order to protect the community from the communicable disease, this man had to be made an outcast. Anyone who touched him would become unclean himself and liable to contract the same disease himself. Holiness does not move to defilement. It’s the other way around. Defilement moves and defiles holy people. That’s how it works. That’s the normal pattern. Leviticus 5:3, “If anyone touches anything that would make him unclean, whether he is aware of it or not, when he learns of it, he’s guilty.” Just touch, you’re unclean.
Haggai chapter 2, “This is what the Lord Almighty says: Ask the priests what the law says: ‘If a person carrying consecrated meat in the fold of his garment, he’s carrying that meat, and that fold touches some bread or stew or some wine or oil, some other food, does that become consecrated?’ The priests answered, ‘No.’ Then Haggai said, ‘If a person defiled by contact with a dead body touches one of those things, does that become defiled?’ The priests answered, ‘Yes, it becomes defiled.’ Then Haggai said, ‘So it is with this people and this nation in my sight. Whatever they do and whatever they offer has become defiled.'”
But not Jesus. Hallelujah, not Jesus. He is the exception. His touch produces cleanness in this man, in this defiled man. We’ve noted before that Jesus deeply desires a personal relationship with each of the people he healed and sees this a lot in touching people. He loves to touch people to heal them. We already saw that with Peter’s mother-in-law. He touched her, and the fever left her. He loves to touch people. Now keep in mind, he doesn’t have to do this.
Do you remember the story in Matthew 8 of the Roman centurion whose servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering? Jesus says, “I’ll go and heal him.” And the Centurion says, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. Just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; I tell that one ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’, and he does it.” “The Roman emperor doesn’t need to come from Rome when he wants the legions to go do something in Palestine, he just gives the order and it’s done. You don’t need to come.” Jesus said, “I’ve not found anyone in Israel with such great faith,” and he was healed just like that.
He actually does this a number of times. The royal official’s son in John 4, Jesus doesn’t go, he just heals him. The guy goes and travels, the next day finds out, oh, he’s healed. When did it happen? Lines it up, that’s when Jesus said it. Or Syrophoenician woman, her daughter’s lying at home in bed, demon possessed. Jesus never saw the girl. He actually never said anything to the demon, just thought it and the demon left. He didn’t have to go anywhere or be anywhere. He didn’t have to touch somebody. But he wanted to touch this leper. You would think of any cases that you’re going to heal, healing from a distance would be good here, right? Now, this would be a prime example to heal from a distance, but not Jesus. He just reaches out and touches him. Maybe grabs his hand. “I am willing. Be clean.” And why is this? Because perfect health is going to flow from Jesus, the source of all life.
I picture it like the river of the water of life flowing clear as crystal from the throne of God. It goes from God out. It goes from Jesus out. So picture two rooms, side by side, one of them in deep darkness, the other one brilliantly lit, and a door between. You throw open that door, which wins—the darkness or the light? Friends, the light wins. And that’s what it was like with Jesus. When he touches his hand, health flows from the Savior into this man’s body.
But more than that, I think just at the personal level, he wanted this lonely, sad outcast to feel human touch for the first time in years. And he also uses this word, “I am willing. Be clean.” You see the word of power, the word of power coming from Jesus. “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth,” Psalm 33:6. That’s how God made everything. Let there be, and it is. And Jesus we’re told in the Gospel of John is the Word of God. He is the energetic power of God moving out, and so he just speaks and it is. And immediately the leprosy left him and he was made clean. Immediately.
I just continually marvel over the instant healings, physical healings that Jesus did. No convalescence needed, no walker for a while, no week of getting better. Don’t you wish that our sanctification were that quick? Just like that. Oh yes, we’re going to see what a journey it’s going to be for these disciples to become stronger in faith. It’s a hard journey for them. But physically, instantaneous, the healing comes and he’s clean. I love that word clean. Think about the story of Naaman, the Syrian general, who is a leper and he washed in the river, as Elijah told him to do, and it says, 2 Kings 5:14, “His flesh was restored,” and listen to this, “became clean like that of a young boy.” Oh, isn’t that awesome? A little glimpse maybe into your resurrection body future. It’s like, “I don’t want to be like a young boy anyway.” Just think it through. You’ll understand what I mean. Completely healed. The flesh is restored.
And he would command him to go from Jerusalem to show himself to the priest. That’s about a 100-mile hike. No need to convalesce. He’s healthy, he’s energetic, he’s strong, he’s ready to go. I wonder what happened at the cellular level. That’s the geeky pastor you guys have. Like what happened to the cells? But you remember how Peter cut off Malchus’ ear and Jesus touched him and gave him a new ear. New cells, new structure, just done. That’s God. That’s Christ.
But again, all of our healings, I believe, are a picture of our future resurrection body. That’s where the real healing is coming. We should pray for each other when we’re sick. We should ask God to heal. But you understand all those healings are temporary, they’re localized. You’re going to have some other sickness later. It’s right for us to pray. It’s right for us to seek God for healing, but the real healing, you know, is the resurrection. 1 Corinthians 15:42-44, we are going to get our resurrection bodies. “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” At the resurrection, Jesus will instantly give all the redeemed imperishable, glorious, powerful spiritual bodies. That’s where we’re heading.
III. The Leper’s Disobedience
All right, well, unfortunately, now I have to tell you about the leper’s disobedience. The leper’s disobedience. Jesus commanded the leper, former leper now, very sternly, 43-44. “Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning. ‘See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing as a testimony to them.'” So the Greek word here, a strong warning implies a certain strictness, like a sharp command from a superior officer or a king. He does not say it gently. He says it clearly. He is the King of Kings. He is the Lord of Lords. He has every right to expect to be obeyed. Notice again, the word “at once” or “immediately.” He wanted immediate obedience from this man. And don’t tell anyone. More on that in a moment, but we’re going to talk about, “go show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifice Moses commanded for your cleansing.”
Jesus is the most law-abiding Jew in history, perfectly obeyed the law of Moses. And this is what was required to do for the cleansing of a leper. The law in Leviticus 14 required the priest to evaluate this man and prove his right to reenter society. The priest would take two birds. They would kill one of them in an earthenware vessel with running water. The live bird, along with cedarwood, scarlet cord, and hyssop were dipped into the blood of the slain bird. The leper was sprinkled seven times with the blood. And then the priests were to examine his skin and pronounce him clean.
And the live bird was to be set free in an open field. Then the former leper was to wash all his clothes, shave off all his hair, go into a seven-day quarantine. On the eighth day, the priest would offer a final round of sacrifices for him, and he would be clean officially. He would be able to rejoin Jewish society, would be able to worship at the temple. So that was what’s supposed to be done for him. But notice Jesus says, “Go offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded to the priest as a testimony to them.” Some of those priests, I believe, were going to get converted. Some of those priests, it says in Acts 6, “A large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”
And so Jesus wanted to witness to these priests and testify concerning his healing power. That’s what he wanted this leper to do. And he gives him this command to tell no one. Now this is the first of many such commands we’re going to see in Mark’s gospel. It’s in all the Gospels, this command. Don’t tell anyone. Don’t tell anyone. This happens a lot actually. Some scholars call it the Messianic Secret. Keep in mind, it’s not a secret anymore, friends. Okay, see right here on the page. This was a temporary injunction. The Holy Spirit inspired Mark to write this. We all know about the healing now, so the reasons are temporary.
But right at that moment, there’s a practical issue. And it comes as a result of the man’s disobedience. Look at verse 45, “Instead, he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly, but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.” So this is in part, I believe, about crowd control. Crowd control. The people were hugely motivated to throng around Jesus and get physical healings. Jesus did not primarily come into the world as a physical healer. As we’ve said, death is the final enemy. Physical healings were all temporary signs. They’re real healings, but then there’ll be other diseases, other injuries that would come later.
The most important aspect of Jesus’ public ministry would always be the proclamation of the Word, the message of the kingdom of heaven, the preaching of the Word. That was it. The people all greatly overestimated the importance of their physical healing and greatly underestimated how much they needed spiritual healing. Because of this man’s disobedience, huge crowds flocked to Jesus for healing. Immediately in the next chapter, God willing next week, chapter two, we’re going to see such a huge crowd in his hometown that four friends can’t get a paralyzed man to Jesus. They have to dig through the roof. And the frenzy got so high, these people thronging around Jesus did not really believe in him. As John chapter 2 says, “Jesus would not entrust himself to them for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man for he knew what was in a man.”
The frenzy got so high that at one point in John chapter 6, the crowd wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king. You could picture a triumphant team at the end of the Super Bowl, picking up the coach, putting him on their shoulders and carrying him off in triumph. Jesus did not want to be made king that way. It wasn’t time. He had a different vision. And so, he’s got to turn down the heat under the pot. He’s got to control the crowds. He tells him, “Don’t tell anyone,” but he disobeyed. Isn’t it interesting how, at least at one level, superficially, the demons are more obedient to Jesus than people are? I mean, this happens a lot. I mean, we should do better than demons, don’t you think? Amen. We should do better than demons, but this guy didn’t. He just disobeyed, told everyone. Isn’t it sad too that the ministry of reconciliation is now committed to us? And we are called on to tell everyone and we don’t? We don’t.
You are free to tell this story to everyone in your workplace this week. You’re free to do it. The injunction’s off now. Tell everyone that Jesus healed a leper. “Oh, what’d you do this weekend?” Start there at the workplace. Say, “How was your weekend?” Ask them. “Oh, it was good. It was good. What’d you do?” All right, hoping they’ll say, “What about your weekend? How was yours?” They probably will. And say, “I heard the best sermon on Jesus healing a leper.” And you are free to tell the story, so tell it. Jesus has power, not just to heal physical leprosy but to heal spiritual leprosy. And our sins are like that.
IV. The Lord Becomes an Outcast
Now, the final insight, something I hadn’t thought of until I read it from another guy. I thought this was interesting, how there’s a sense of reversal, how in this regard then Jesus becomes somewhat of an outcast. Jesus can no longer enter a town openly, but stayed outside in lonely places. Jesus intended to go throughout Galilee preaching the message everywhere. Mark 1:38, he said, “Let’s go somewhere else in the nearby villages so I can preach there also. That is why I’ve come.” “And he went around,” Mark 6:6, “teaching from village to village.” Josephus tells us, first century historian, there were 240 towns and villages in Galilee, 240 of them, but he can’t go there like he’d like to. And he stays outside in lonely places, in a desert.
So, Jesus had become to some degree a practical outcast. So a commentator put it this way. I thought this was fascinating. “Mark began the story with Jesus on the inside, the leper on the outside. But at the end of the story, Jesus is outside in lonely places. Jesus and the leper have traded places. Early in his ministry, Jesus is already an outsider in human society. Mark cast him in the role of the servant of the Lord who bears the iniquities of others and whose bearing of them causes him to be numbered with the transgressors.”
It’s a beautiful insight. I can’t help but think about 2 Corinthians 5:21 speaking of Jesus, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him, we might become the righteousness of God.” You see that exchange. Our filthy defilement, our corruption laid on Jesus, and he dies. And as it says in Hebrews 13:12-13, he died outside the city gate, outside the camp as a reject. And he died outside of intimacy with God in a mysterious way, crying out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And so, Jesus became sin for us and died on the cross in our place that we might be forgiven. And now we come full circle to how I began. You’ve got to see the truth about yourself and recognize the defilement of sin and find in Jesus the only healing that there is. Through simple faith in Christ, you can be clean. Like Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today, you’ll be with me in paradise.”