Introduction: I have been gripped this week by the biblical truth that a perfectly holy, perfectly happy, and all-glorious God, lacking nothing in the way of company, has desired to pursue me, a sinner; and to bring me into fellowship with Himself, so much so that he would send his Son into the world to seek me out by his own life and death and resurrection, and by his grace, give me eyes to see salvation in him, to believe upon him and be reconciled to God. That has gripped my heart, that God is a God who pursues sinners in and through Jesus.
What we are beginning to see in Mark’s Gospel is Jesus intensely pursuing and calling sinners to himself. And what we have in our text, Mark 1.40-45, is one of the first of many individual accounts of this passion that will ultimately lead Jesus to the cross. We have seen it in the calling of sinners as His disciples (1.16-20), the freeing of a man with an unclean spirit (1.21-28), and the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (1.29-31). Tonight, we are brought to see Jesus’ interaction with a leper, a gross, unclean, unholy person in the sight of all.
A few truths that I want us to see tonight:
1. The leper’s leprosy is not his main problem. Sin is.
Leprosy had terrible physical effects. It often produced spots and lesions upon the surface of the skin. At it’s worst, it could damage nerve and bone and lead to the retraction of body parts. Disfigurement was quite possible. This man, Luke tells us (5.12), was “full of leprosy.” He was in dire straights, physically. Leprosy was also contagious to some degree. So even today, in some countries, there are leper colonies. For the Jewish nation, the leper was cast out of the city, living in isolation or in groups of other lepers.
The leper, then, had obvious social issues also. To contract leprosy was to be cut off from spouse, from children, from family, from community support, from the worshipping community, and, ultimately, from God’s presence in the temple in Jerusalem. The leper was viewed, in keeping with Leviticus 13-14, as one unclean, sinful, and impure. He was, as one has stated, viewed as a dead man walking.
His disease was met with nothing less than a sentencing in Leviticus 13.45-46, “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease, He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” There was no hiding his calamity.
By the way it is no coincidence that both the sin offering and the Tent of Meeting were outside the gate, the same place where the unclean were to reside.
However, the leprosy was not his main problem. Sin was. We see this three ways:
First, This is implied in that word “clean.” It is used four times in some fashion in a short space. That means it is important to understand. This is what needs to be understood: to be clean in Israel, and according to the Law, one need not only be cured of a disease but also have their sins atoned for (Lev 14.1ff). To be unclean was to be unholy. It carried with it the idea of sin. Cured did not equal cleansed. The man could be cured of his leprosy and yet not be cleansed without having his sins atoned for, hence Jesus’ admonitions in v. 44. When the leper and Jesus use this word, it is pregnant with this greater and deeper meaning.
Secondly, that Jesus commands the man, now cured, to go and offer the necessary gifts in response to the mercy of God in the case of his healing, Jesus means to remind him that to be fully restored to God’s people and presence, he needed to have his sins atoned for. In essence, Jesus is reminding him that his greatest need was not the curing of his physical leprosy but the cleansing of his spiritual leprosy brought on by sin.
Thirdly, after his leprosy is gone, the presence of sin remains. We know this because after Jesus mercifully cleanses him, He gives a commandment that the man immediately disobeys. The power of sin was, I think, broken in this man’s life, but the presence remained. That this is so shows that his greatest illness was not leprosy but personal sin.
Leprosy effects the body; sin both body and soul. Leprosy separates from God’s presence (in Judaism) for a time and season; sin, if final and unrepentant, results in eternal separation in hell. Leprosy infects some; sin has infected all. It is universal. Sin is our greatest problem. Therefore, God’s grace in Christ is our greatest and only remedy.
2. The leper comes to Christ in daring, desperate and typical faith.
It is daring because the leper was not to approach ceremonially clean people, such as Jesus. A statute held that they were to keep 50 paces at minimum. But this leper, probably having heard the reports about Jesus, sees Jesus and, in Him, his opportunity to be made clean. So he comes in daring faith.
It is desperate. He “implores,” he “kneels.” This is the evidence of true faith, when a person comes to the end of themselves such that they approach Christ as all their hope.
It is typical. We see this in his words: “If you will, you can make me clean.” The leper does not doubt whether Jesus is able to cleanse him. He is certain of it, “you can make me clean.” But is Christ willing? That is, will Jesus exercise a merciful will towards this outcast, and utilize His authority and power to make him clean? That is the question of the text. Is the will of Jesus a merciful (as well as an omnipotent) will? Oh, if He can cure the leper’s spots, He can cleanse the sinner of his sins. But is He willing? Is He merciful?
I think that Christian seldom doubt the power of God and of Christ to do a thing. I wonder, though, if we, like this leper, question his willingness to do so, to exert His authority for our good? There should be no doubt! That is what we discover in this passage.
3. We cannot overestimate the willingness of Jesus to be merciful to those who come to Him in faith.
Christ displays both affection and action. He is moved with pity, v. 41. He has great affection for the leper and his condition. It is probably the case that Jesus is also moved with anger (as has been posited by the earliest manuscripts), but that anger in any case is surely directed at the man’s condition, at his leprosy and uncleanness, and perhaps even the social marginalization of this man. Where are those fulfilling the greater things in the Law, like love towards this man? Either way, the Lord acts in mercy towards the man, himself.
We must not miss that He touches him. This leper who has been without such touch, now receives from Christ a touch. My mind has gone frequently this week to Hebrews 2 and the priestly ministry of Jesus, how He partook of flesh and blood that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest for the children of Abraham in the service of God . . . and, ultimately, to make propitiation for our sins (Heb 2.14-18). Oh that God the Son put on flesh in order that, here, He might lay His hand upon the leper and, ultimately, die on a cross for sinners like us.
He also speaks: “I will; be clean.” That is all He says. But in it we behold a divine miracle that touches both surface and soul, while teaching us that Christ is more merciful than we dare imagine.
With a word, the leprosy is gone, v. 42. The leper who awoke in the morning disfigured and ostracized, went to bed with the skin of a baby and the hope of reconciliation. [speak to the issue of miracles]
But Jesus says, “be clean.” And that cleanliness includes the forgiveness of sins. It is forward looking. It is spoken in full view of the cross, where Jesus will die for the sinner’s sins. Jesus cleanses the leper where he most needs cleansing.
And the lesson, in the words of J. C. Ryle, is this: “A man is not lost because he is too bad to be saved, but because he will not come to Christ that He might save them.”
I have spoke with a man many times who, because he has not faith, cannot be convinced that a sinner such as Hitler, if he had repented of his sins and believed upon Christ on his death bed, would have been saved. He underestimates the mercy of Christ. This same man thinks he is too bad to be saved. He underestimates the mercy of Christ. I say to him what the Holy Spirit says to us through Paul, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim 1.15-16). Jesus came to save sinners . . . no matter how bad. His mercy is infinitely greater than all our sins.
The leper comes to Christ for a small mercy; Christ bestows the greatest. “I will; be clean.”
4. Jesus commands; the leper disobeys. Why?
I have struggled with this question: why are vv. 43-45 here? What should we learn from them, chiefly. I think ther are at least 5 things to say, but I’ll lean on two.
First, Contextually, Mark has emphasized the preaching ministry of Jesus. Jesus is, mainly, a preacher. In speaking, He reveals the Father, He reveals Himself, He reveals His mission, He reveals salvation, He preaches the gospel, He clarifies His deeds, people are saved, etc. And this man’s disobedience hinders all of this, v. 45.
Secondly, it foreshadows confrontation and cross. Jesus not only has the man go to the priest so that he will be restored to the people and presence of God, but as a proof to the Jerusalem brass that while Jesus touched one unclean, the only thing He is guilty of is fulfilling the greater things in the Law: love and mercy. For this, they will seek to crucify Him. So we get a picture of the cross in all of this. The leper, cast off, is brought near to God because God in Christ went out to him; and Christ, the holy, the merciful Savior, is left in the leper’s place, the desolate places. This looks forward to the cross, where for our sins He will willingly be led outside the city gate to the place of criminals and condemnation, and die on a Roman cross, condemned by God in our place . . . and then be raised from the dead!
To the unbeliever: you will never come to Christ until you treasure Him above all else in the world. “He was out in desolate places, and people were coming to Him from every quarter” (Mark 1.45). To the place of criminals and the unclean they went, leaving off custom, comfort, social marginalization, popularity, public opinion, and the like. Why? Because the salvation of God was out in the desolate places, and this required a prizing of Christ above all the glitter of the world. This is the brilliance of faith.
To CCC: Let us be challenged to go to those who look least likely to receive the gospel of Jesus. The leper king in the movie “Braveheart” was not a pretty sight. His appearance was repulsive; but not more than his character (see first point). And while it is true that the leper in our story came to Jesus, it would not have been possible unless Christ had been out in those desolate places where lepers live. The truth of the matter is that Christ spent a great deal of His time on earth with obviously sinful people. What about us? Do we look at the gruesome, or the blind, or the deaf, or the hypocrite, or the gossip, or the enemy, or the boss, or the co-worker that got the raise when we didn’t, or the aged, or the youthful, or the prostitute, or the black, or the ethnic, or the white, or the divorced, or the unmarried, or the Pharisee, or the rap artist, or the sexually promiscuous, or the drug pusher, or the alcoholic, or the wife-abuser, or the grungy, or the pristine, or the persecutor, or the terrorist and think, “The gospel of Jesus is precisely for them!”? The infinite value of Jesus is displayed in a local church of and the testimony of a local church that indiscriminately goes to all peoples. Insofar as we only go to those with whom we are most comfortable, we put a bushel over the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Therefore, let us go, as the author of Hebrews would have us, “to (Christ) outside the camp and bear the reproach He endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb 13.13-14). If we are to walk in obedience to Christ, following Him (Mark 1.17), so that we become fishers of men, we must go to the desolate places and cast our nets.