by Rev. Christopher Sandoval
Gospel: St. Luke 5: 12-16
In Luke 5:12-16 we find another story of Jesus healing and showing compassion to a person who was physically sick and socially rejected. But was Jesus merely attending to someone’s bodily ailment or simply restoring an outcast back into the community? Is there a greater, deeper significance to what Jesus did for this leper who desperately sought cleansing?
What we find in this story is a pattern that we find throughout all of Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments. It is a pattern of physical things (tangible, visible realities) representing and symbolizing spiritual things (intangible, invisible realities). A clear example of this is when Adam and Eve sinned against God in the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit, the result was both physical and spiritual death. The day they sinned against God was the day they died spiritually, and this was represented physically by the decaying, corrupting, and “falling apart” of their bodies. Following this same pattern, the story of Jesus’ healing the leper is a representation of Jesus’ power to heal your worst disease, namely, the death that comes as a result of your sin. But in order to understand how we come to this conclusion we need to know and understand the story behind this story. We need to know and understand the Old Testament background for this New Testament story.
Dead Man Walking
So what’s the story behind this story? Luke tells us in verse 12 of our passage that there was a man who was full of leprosy. But to understand the full implications of this, we need to turn to Leviticus 13 in the Old Testament. Leviticus 13 (along with Leviticus 14) is the most exhaustive and lengthy biblical discussion on leprosy. As an aside, the word that our Bibles translate as “leprosy”, both in the Old and the New Testaments, strictly speaking, is not exactly what we call leprosy today. A better translation would be “serious skin disease.” But whether we use the phrase “serious skin disease” or whether we use the word “leprosy,” the idea is the same – whoever had leprosy had a serious problem. Leviticus 13:1-3 states,
“And the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: ‘When a man has on the skin of his body a swelling, a scab, or a bright spot, and it becomes on the skin of his body like a leprous sore, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests. The priest shall examine the sore on the skin of the body; and if the hair on the sore has turned white, and the sore appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous sore. Then the priest shall examine him, and pronounce him unclean.’”
And Leviticus 13:45 states,
“Now the leper on whom the sore is, his clothes shall be torn and his head bare [or loose or unkempt] and he shall cover his mustache [literally, put his hand above his upper lip], and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’”
According to these verses, leprosy had physical and religious effects upon a person.
Physically, the effects of leprosy were scaling, raw flesh, and discoloration of skin and hair. The person who had this serious skin disease, this leprosy, literally looked like he was rotting away. Additionally, the leper had to wear torn, ripped up clothes and his hair was to be messy and unkempt. In other words, the person who had leprosy not only looked like he was dying, but he also had to look like someone who was mourning and grieving his own death. In our day and age, the best way to visualize the biblical description of a leper is to think of zombies from movies and TV shows. Lepers were the living dead, and their bodies and clothes showed their physical death and decay.
Religiously, the effect of leprosy was becoming “unclean” or unfit to worship God. Leviticus 13:3 states that the priest had to declare the leper “unclean,” and Leviticus 13:45 states that the leper had to warn others that he was “unclean.” Additionally, according to Leviticus 13:46, the leper “shall be unclean. All the days he has the sore he shall be unclean. He is unclean, and he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” Note the particular emphasis on “unclean” in this verse, and also that the leper had to live alone and outside the camp. Not only did the leper have to make sure he did not make others unclean, but the leper, more importantly, was not allowed to be with God’s people within the camp or participate with them in the temple worship of God. The leper could not touch anyone, could not be around anyone, could not fellowship with friends or family, and could not do what was most important – worship God with His people.
Consequently, the physical and religious effects of leprosy all represented the spiritual death of the leper. By being expelled from the camp, the leper was expelled from God’s presence among His people. In other words, where God was, the leper could not be because leprosy represented death. God is life, and where God is there can be no death, no decay, no corruption. That is why the leper had to be outside the camp – not primarily for health or sanitary reasons, but for spiritual reasons. Like Adam and Eve, who were expelled from the Garden of Eden because of their sin and because of the death that was the result of their sin, the leper in the Old Testament was not allowed to stay in God’s presence because physical and spiritual death could not be where God was.
The Right Man for the Job
We return now to Luke 5:12, where we find a leper, a man full of leprosy, who has been cut off from his family, from his people and from worshipping God. This man was pitiful and desperate - so desperate to be healed and cleansed, in fact, that Luke tells us that he is in the city. The man is so desperate for life that he is willing to break the rules and come into the city. He was not supposed to be there, but he comes into the city because he’s heard of this man named Jesus. He has heard of Jesus’ teaching, preaching, and healing. This leper is familiar with who Jesus is, the words He speaks, and His power to heal.
In Leviticus 13, we saw that God gave the Jewish priests procedures on how to identify someone who had leprosy. And if we were to read Leviticus 14, we would see that God also gave the Jewish priests procedures on what to do with someone who has been healed of leprosy – procedures that were full of sacrifices and the shedding of blood. There is an assumption, however, that is made between Leviticus 13 and 14. The assumption is that the leper has been healed! But who does the healing? The priest identifies leprosy and performs rituals to allow the former leper to fellowship with God’s people and worship God, but the priest does not heal the leper. Who, then, does the healing? The safe Sunday School answer is “God,” which is correct. God can and does heal people directly. But in the Old Testament, God also healed people indirectly – through His prophets. Through Moses, God made bitter water sweet (Exodus 15) and healed Miriam’s leprosy (Numbers 12). Through Elijah, God raised a widow’s son from the dead (1 Kings 17). Through Elisha, God made the water of Jericho potable (2 Kings 2), raised a Shunammite woman’s son from the dead (2 Kings 4), and healed a Syrian military commander’s leprosy (2 Kings 5). And through Isaiah, God healed King Hezekiah (2 Kings 20). In the Old Testament, then, God healed people through His prophets, through whom not only the words of God came, but also the power of God.
And in Luke 5, to whom does the leper go to get healed? He goes to Jesus, the Prophet of God. The leper goes to Jesus, the one who not only speaks the word of God, but who is the Word of God made flesh. The leper goes to Jesus, the one who has the power of God because He is God. The leper goes to Jesus, who is the ultimate, preeminent Prophet. Throughout the book of Luke we find people calling Jesus a prophet. They may not acknowledge Him as the Messiah, but they notice in Him the power and the words of a prophet (Luke 7, 9, 22 and 24). Additionally, Jesus Himself implies that He is a prophet (Luke 4 and 13). And in Luke 5:12, the man with leprosy goes to Jesus, God’s Prophet, who alone has the power to heal and restore him completely.
The Leper in All of Us
Earlier, we saw that leprosy represents death. The leper outside the camp was a visual aid for God’s people inside the camp, physically demonstrating what happens to all of us spiritually as a result of sin. Leprosy represented on the outside what happens to all of us on the inside. Because of sin, Adam and Eve not only began to physically waste away, but they became spiritually dead as well. And because of your sin, you, too, are spiritually dead. Everything may seem normal on the outside, but on the inside, because of your sin, you are spiritually dead. You are dead, and you cannot save yourself from your sin, from physical death, or from spiritual death. And you cannot be where God is. You cannot come to God on your own. You must be outside of where God is. Leprosy was a physical, visible example of the spiritual, invisible reality of sin – the incurable disease that affects all of us.
Luke 5:13 says, “Then he [Jesus] put out His hand and touched him [the leper] saying, ‘I am willing. Be cleansed.’ Immediately the leprosy left him.” Jesus could have simply said the words “be cleansed” or “be healed,” and the leper would have been healed. But Jesus reached out to this man, this leper, whom you were not even supposed to get close to, much less touch. Jesus puts out his hand and touches this dead man walking. What an amazing act of compassion, kindness, and grace! And we could very easily read over this and not even catch that. Jesus touches a man who probably had not had human contact in years, a man who broke all the rules just for the chance to be healed. This man, this leper, is now touched by the Prophet, by God Himself, and he is healed. If leprosy symbolizes the death and decay of sin within us all, then the compassionate touch of Jesus represents the amazing condescension of God to sinners like you and me. God reached out to us! God who is holy, God who is completely clean and pure, God reached out to us who were dead, who were rotting away, who had no chance of saving ourselves. God reached out to His people, not only spiritually, but physically in Jesus Christ – and He heals. “If you are willing,” says the leper, “you can clean me.” Jesus reaches out, touches the leper, and says, “I am willing. Be clean.”
A Testimony to All
After touching and healing the leper, after performing this amazing act of kindness and condescension, Jesus commands the man to do something. Luke 5:14 says, “And He charged him [the leper] to tell no one, but Jesus said, ‘Go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as a testimony to them [presumably the other priests] just as Moses commanded.’” Why was there a need for the leper to go to the priest? He had been healed. He had gone to the right man for that healing. He no longer showed the outward signs of bodily decay or corruption, of falling apart or rotting away. Why, then, did Jesus send the healed leper to the priests? Because it was commanded through Moses.
From some manuscripts and historical accounts, we know that rabbinical tradition held that the chances of a leper being healed were as good as the chances of a dead man being raised to life. In other words, it did not happen – dead men did not rise from the dead, lepers did not get healed. If this is true, if it is impossible for a leper to be healed, why does God give Moses detailed rituals and ceremonies for the cleansing of a healed leper? If it is impossible, why even record the words? The reason is that even in the Old Testament, even in the middle of Leviticus, there is hope for salvation. There is hope that God can save people. There is hope that God can raise people from the dead. There is hope that God can heal a leper. And the priests of Israel were given a ritual, a list of things to do in the event that the impossible was made possible by God.
So Jesus commanded the healed leper to go to the priest, just as Moses commanded, but Jesus also gave two specific reasons why the man is to do this. The first reason is so that the man would make an offering for his cleansing – not simply because God commanded it through Moses, but because the God who is able to forgive us our sins, the God who is able to save us from death and give us life, is the same God who requires that blood be shed in order to restore fellowship between Him and His people. The death and shedding of the blood of animals for the cleansing of a leper represented the substitutionary death and shedding of blood of a Savior, of Jesus Christ, that God required for the forgiveness and cleansing of sin. The same hand that reached out, touched, and healed the leper in Luke 5 was the same hand that was nailed to the cross of Calvary for the sake of God’s people!
The second specific reason why Jesus sent the healed leper to the priest was so that man would serve as a testimony to others. God had done the impossible in healing a leper, and this was to serve as evidence to the priests that God was doing something new. This miracle, along with all the other miracles of Jesus, pointed to God’s new work of salvation that was being accomplished through His Prophet, and before the priests was a testimony of the saving power of Jesus. This was a testimony they could either accept, and thus receive new life by believing in Jesus as the Savior of God’s people – or deny, and thus remain dead in their sin and disbelief.
There is a testimony before you today in the preaching of God’s Word, but also in the lives of those sitting around you. Christians, those who have been saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, are people that have been raised from spiritual death by the saving power of Jesus Christ. They who were once separated from God and dead in their sins are now alive. They are a testimony to you of the amazing power of Jesus to raise people from the dead. What will you do with that testimony? To whom will you go for salvation? Do you think it’s impossible? That your sins are too many? What is impossible for man is possible with God. It is possible through the healing touch of Jesus Christ, our Savior.
Copyright Westminster Seminary California 2008. www.wscal.edu All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission
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