Now please would you take a Bible in your hands and turn with me to the Gospel according to Mark, chapter 1; Mark chapter 1. Look down at the account of Jesus’ healing of the man with leprosy, verses 40 through 45; the last story in the opening chapter of Mark’s gospel. You’ll find it on page 837 if you’re using one of our church Bibles. This is a passage that is honestly quite hard for us to understand in our relatively clean, relatively healthy, relatively affluent time and place. We have no sense of the horror that an infectious skin disease like leprosy evoked in the days when Jesus ministered in Galilee. And so one of the great dangers, as we read this passage, is to read these six verses and to see Jesus performing a sweet, kindly act as He makes this sick man all better. "Isn't it nice." When in fact, this is a deeply shocking text for a number of different reasons.
Actually, there are three shocks, three jolts of electricity that are delivered by this passage. You can see them if you take a quick look at it with me. The first shock has to do with this leper and his approach to Christ. It’s a shocking thing if you understand what leprosy is and some of the stigma that was involved with it. That’s shock number one – the leper’s approach. Shock number two – the Savior’s touch. The Savior’s touch. He reaches out His hand and touches him. And then shock number three has to do with Jesus’ command. We’ll see that Jesus sternly warns the man not to speak about what had happened and to go back and present himself to the priests and offer the sacrifice that Moses had commanded as a witness against them. He has something to say to us about the law that is also shocking. So this is a shocking passage, a challenging passage. But before we begin to wrestle with the shock that it delivers – and by the way, although it does deliver these shocks, it aims to demonstrate to us the power and potency of the Gospel of grace; that’s the real heart of the matter. Before we begin to wrestle through the passage together, however, let me ask you to pause and pray with me. Let’s pray.
Lord Jesus, we come to You this morning, and the truth is, we are in the same condition as the poor man in our story. We are coming to You, as it were, on bended knee, asking for the touch of Your hand and for the word of Your grace. And so we look to You now. We pray that You would give us ears to hear what Your Spirit says to the church through this portion of Your Word. For we ask it in Your name, amen.
Mark chapter 1 at verse 40. This is the inerrant Word of Almighty God:
“And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, ‘If you will, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, and said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.’ But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy Word.
We are the Leper
I said earlier that there are three shocks that this passage delivers and we’ll come to them in a moment, but there’s another sense in which there’s really only one; one painful jolt in our text. You see, the key to understanding Mark 1:40-45, these six verses, requires us to recognize that we all come to Jesus in the same condition as this poor man. We read the text, and isn't it easy to distance ourselves from him? We are healthy, for the most part. We have money, enough. We have friends and family. We exist within the web and network of human relationships for which we are generally very grateful. We're not at all like him. Are we? His problem isn't our problem, and at one level, of course, we're quite right, superficially. The big idea of the passage, however, is not that Jesus can take the extreme cases and fix them. The big idea of the passage is actually that we are all lepers and only Jesus can make us clean. We’re all lepers and only Jesus can make us clean. And that’s actually pretty hard to hear – that the only way I can come to Jesus is the same way this man does, on bended knee, casting myself, abandoning myself to His mercy.
The story is told of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, who was the patron of the great 18th-century evangelist, George Whitefield, inviting her friend, the Duchess of Buckingham to come and hear Whitefield preach the Gospel. And the Duchess answered the invitation with disdain. "It is monstrous," she said, "to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting and I cannot but wonder that your ladyship should relish any sentiments so much at variance with high rank and good breeding."
The big shock of our passage, the real offense of it, is coming to the realization that we are the leper – I am the leper – and we need to be made clean. That our hearts really are as simple as the common wretches that crawl the earth. J.C. Ryle, once Bishop of Liverpool, remarked that leprosy was almost unheard of in the England of his day, “But is there nothing like leprosy among ourselves?” he asked. “Yes, indeed there is. There is a foul soul-disease which is engrained into our very nature and cleaves to our bones and marrow with deadly force. That disease is the plague of sin. Like leprosy, it is a deep-seated disease infecting every part of our nature – heart, will, conscience, understanding, memory, and affections. Like leprosy, it makes us loathsome and abominable, unfit for the company of God and unmeet for the glory of heaven. Like leprosy, it is incurable by any earthly physician and is slowly but surely dragging us down to the second death. And worst of all, far worse than leprosy, it is a disease from which no mortal man is exempt. We are all in God’s sight as an unclean thing – Isaiah 65:4.” Seeing that, admitting that, is the great shock of our passage.
But hard as it is, we need to remember the words of Christ. You remember the words of Christ? It's not the healthy that need a doctor but the sick. "I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners." It's only once we begin to see the truth about ourselves that we are just like this leprous man, helpless apart from the mercy of Jesus. It's only then that we'll ever go where the cure may be found. It's only then that we'll turn to Christ for cleansing. We must come to Jesus, which is precisely what the man in our story does.
The Leper’s Approach
Which brings us to the first of the three shocks that I said our passage delivers. It has to do with the leper’s approach; the leper’s approach. You’ll see it in verse 40 if you’ll look there with me for a moment. Verse 40, “And a leper came to him, imploring him and kneeling, said, ‘If you will, you can make me clean.’” You may know that in the Bible when you see the word, “leprosy,” it doesn’t usually or always refer to the disease we typically think of by that name, but can be a sort of coverall, catchall term for a whole array of infectious skin diseases. However in Luke’s account of this same event in Luke chapter 5, Luke says the man was “full of leprosy.” That is to say, he was covered, he was riddled, he was disfigured such that anyone who saw him knew immediately what was wrong with him, which may, in fact, mean that the disease we, in fact, think of as leprosy was his particular problem.
What you may not know was what was entailed for someone who had been diagnosed with leprosy in those days. According to Leviticus 13, a leper had to wear torn clothes, leave his hair unkempt and he was to go everywhere crying out, “Unclean! Unclean!” as a warning to anyone who may cross his path. He was required to live apart, separate from human society, forbidden entry into the temple for worship. In addition to all of that, the scholars tell us that by the time of Jesus the rabbis had added to the Levitical restrictions some additional regulations of their own. For example, they had made it illegal even so much as to greet a leper were you to see him at some distance. A leper, when around others, was to remain one hundred cubits away if they were upwind and four cubits away if they were downwind. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, said that those with the disease were treated “as if they were in effect dead men.” Another writer calls it “a living death, who healing was equivalent to being raised from the dead.”
Shut Out From Fellowship
So you get the picture. This poor man is shut out from the fellowship of the people of God, he’s excluded from the temple, he is entirely estranged from human society. He was considered a walking corpse. People who saw him coming turned and ran the other direction. Everywhere he went he had to name himself by his shame, “Unclean! Unclean!” If he so much as stuck his head in the door of your home the whole house was rendered unclean by his presence. Anything and anyone that he touched he made unclean. He was considered to be a physical and a spiritual contaminant, a disease-vector.
But did you notice, despite the regulations and restrictions of the rabbis, on this occasion he does not hang back. He does not hesitate; he does not keep his distance. Instead, he doesn’t stay a hundred cubits away; he comes so close to Jesus that he can be touched. He comes right up close to Christ. And look at what he does and what he says. He throws himself onto his knees before Jesus and we’re told he implores Jesus. The Greek word means to entreat with a certain earnest urgency in his cry. He’s bold and sincere as he presses his case upon the Lord Jesus. “If you will, you can make me clean.” There’s absolute confidence, isn’t there, that cleansing, wholeness, lies entirely in the gift of Jesus Christ. At His will, this man can be made clean again. It would have been an incredibly shocking thing for him to do in those days.
What makes it all the more extraordinary considering how shocking it was, is that I think Mark is really presenting it to us as a kind of model of what it means to be a Christian. Here is the heart and core of it. It’s actually a marvelous picture of authentic Christianity. It is coming to Christ, on our knees as it were, in an acknowledgment of His Lordship, imploring Him for the help only He can give; acknowledging our desperate need, our uncleanness of soul. He can make us clean. There's no attempt, do you see, to persuade. He doesn't try to bargain. There's nothing but total abandonment of Himself to the mercy of Jesus Christ. Friends, that is what it means to be a Christian. This is the one thing needful. Nothing else will touch the deep need of your soul. Nothing else can make you clean but Jesus. This is the kind of faith that obtains cleansing. This is what you need. Have you done this?
When people join a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America, we require them to take some vows, to answer some membership questions. There are five, and the first of them, you will remember, is this. “Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?” Here, this leper, falling at the feet of Christ, is saying, “Yes I do. Yes, I do. But You can make me clean." He casts himself on the sovereign mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ. Have you said the same thing? It really is very simple and uncomplicated, isn't it? Acknowledge your helplessness. You can’t fix this. You can’t save you. Acknowledge His sufficiency. Only He can do it. Come and trust in Christ. He can make you clean. Shock number one – the leper’s approach.
The Savior’s Touch
Shock number two – the Savior’s touch. Verse 41 – would you look there for a moment? “Moved with pity, He stretched out His hand and touched him and said, ‘I will. Be clean.’ And immediately the leprosy left him and he was made clean.” Now let’s just break that down piece by piece for a moment or two. First, Jesus was moved with pity. The word means compassion. We’ve already seen something of His compassion last week as our Savior, with a touch, raised Simon’s mother-in-law from her fever. Here is His compassion. It’s the same word that Jesus uses in the parable of the Good Samaritan. You remember? When everyone else thinks only of themselves and they pass by on the other side of the road, the Good Samaritan, “moved with compassion,” comes and sees to the needs of a man who has been beaten and robbed and left for dead; helpless. And the Good Samaritan, in his compassion, rescues him.
That’s what animates the heart of Jesus Christ. When Jesus looks at you, He does not look at you with disdain or reproach. He looks at you with eyes full of compassion. Let that sit for a minute. My Savior looks at me with compassion. He never responds, He never responds when we go to Him hurting and afraid, we go to Him aware of a bankruptcy of our spiritual condition, He never responds when we go to Him guilty and in need of pardon, dirty and in need of cleansing, He never responds slowly, begrudgingly. He responds with compassion. His heart answers to your need with compassion.
Interestingly, there’s a very early variance in the manuscripts that uses a different word to describe the deep emotions that Jesus felt. It’s actually a word that means anger. “Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him and the leprosy left him.” If that’s the correct reading, then that’s telling us how Jesus feels about the broken wreck that He sees before Him. He responds to the suffering of this man with an inner rage at the consequences of the fall that He has come, one day, to make right. But whatever the correct reading, you get the point. Don’t you? Jesus is never unmoved when people turn to Him calling out for help.
Here’s a great argument by which to overcome the inner resistance your heart may feel when you’re called upon to see the truth about yourself as you really are. I don’t like to think of myself as wretched and unclean and helpless as this leper. My favorite line is, “I’ve got this!” I don’t want to be helpless. It’s hard to come to terms with that, to face that and embrace it. But here’s an incentive to overcome that reluctance. The one to whom I go in my helplessness, His heart beats with compassion for me. He loves me and He stands ready to answer with more grace than I have need. You can go to Him. He will make you clean.
Then, notice what Jesus did. Not just what He felt but what He did. He reached out and He touches the leprous man. What an amazing, wondrous moment that must have been for him. Having lived for so long without any human contact at all, cut off from human society. Had he lived perhaps years in isolation and pain without a single touch of another human hand – can you imagine what that would have been like? And you remember, of course, that even the briefest touch, casual, unintentional, would render someone unclean. And so he may naturally have hung back, but not today. No, today there’s a touch and this one touch changes everything. It is like the pivot point in his life.
Notice in the text how Mark slows everything down as he retells the story. Every act is described. The camera sort of zooms in and we see it unfold in slow motion. Jesus, filled with pity, stretches out His hand. The man’s eyes grow large, wondering, “What is He doing? Doesn’t He realize?” Did he momentarily flinch back? And then, the grip lands. One scholar says that the word Mark uses means more than just a superficial contact. It means that Jesus took ahold of him, clasped him. Even despite the nerve-numbing effects of his leprosy, he would have felt it. The first time in years; a moment of extraordinary tenderness. Here’s compassion enacted as Jesus communicates to him His love.
But think about what it would have meant for Jesus to reach out His hand and touch this leper. When He said to the man with His lips, “I will. Be clean,” He was saying something additional with His touch. You see what He was saying. “Not only am I willing for you to be clean, I am willing for you to make Me unclean. I will become unclean that you might become clean.” It’s 2 Corinthians 5:21 isn’t it? “For our sakes, God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Here is the shocking sight of this man riddled with the appalling effects of his skin disease, coming to Jesus, shattering every stigma and social taboo. And here is Jesus, still more shockingly, reaching out in love to touch him, to identify with him.
Grace is shocking too, isn’t it, in its extravagant generosity, in its freeness and fullness. Here is Jesus identifying with the unclean that He may make the unclean, clean. It’s actually a picture of the cross, isn’t it? There at the cross, the holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners Savior, the Lamb of God without spot or blemish is fully identified with wretched rebels, with unclean sinners like me and like you. Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” He took it that we might be delivered from it at the cross.
That brings us to the third shock of the passage. First, there was the leper’s approach. Then, there was the Savior’s touch. And then thirdly, notice Jesus’ command. Verses 43 through 45. We’re told in verse 43 and 44 that “Jesus spoke sternly to the man and sent him away.” He told him not to tell anyone. You might find that strange, but when we discover how disobedient the man was and completely disregards Jesus’ words and goes and tells everyone anyway, we see why Jesus told him not to tell. Because His fame spread so much that Jesus couldn’t get into town anymore. He had to remain encamped out in the wilderness for fear of being overwhelmed by the demands placed upon Him. That’s what He told him not to do.
Look at what He tells him to do in the second half of verse 44. “Go, show yourself to the priests, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded for a proof to them,” or maybe better, “for a witness to them,” or “a witness against them.” You see what He’s saying he is to do? He’s to fulfill the requirement of Leviticus 14. It required anyone who had been cleansed or healed of leprosy to show themselves to the priests and the priest was to certify that it was true. And then you were to go to the temple and worship in gratitude and thanksgiving. And Jesus sends the man back to the temple to perform what the law required as a testimony to the priests as though to say to them, “What you couldn’t do, what the law couldn’t do, Jesus did. The law, all the law said to me all these years in my suffering, all the law said to me was, ‘Unclean! Excluded! Shut out!’ But now that I’ve come to know Jesus, Jesus could do for me what the law never could. Jesus makes me clean and now I’m brought in. Now I’m welcome and now I belong.”
The Law’s Condemnation
The law did not have a mechanism to deal with his condition, only a mechanism to exclude him. But Jesus could deal with his condition. It’s Romans 8:3. “What the law was powerless to do weakened by the flesh, God did by sending His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, He condemned sin in the flesh in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us.” That’s what’s happening here, isn’t it? The law couldn’t help this man. Only Jesus could. That’s still the condition we are all in apart from Jesus Christ. The law condemns us, it shows us our sin, shows us our uncleanness. It says, “You’re guilty, condemned. You stand today under the wrath and curse of God and you may not draw near.” That’s what the law says apart from Jesus Christ. But when like this man you come to Jesus Christ, “No condemnation now I dread. Jesus and all in Him is mine. Alive in Him my living Head, and robed with righteousness divine!” The law no longer condemns. Now I’m clean at last.
"Let us love and sing and wonder! Let us praise the Savior's name! He has hushed the law's loud thunder. He has quenched Mt. Sinai's flame! He has washed us with His blood and brought us nigh to God." I wonder if you can sing that song? I wonder if Jesus has really made you clean today? Have you come to Him? Have you come to Him knowing yourself guilty, helpless, defiled, unclean? His heart beats with compassion for you, with love. He is willing and He will make you clean. He takes the curse, you see, that you might have the grace. So why not come to Him today, right now, and find in Him all the grace you need. Let's pray together.
Lord Jesus, the truth is, that often our hearts shrink back from facing the truth about ourselves. We are guilty and ashamed and we often run away from You instead of running to You. We’d rather bury our heads in the sand than come clean. Help us to learn from this poor man in our story who knew his helplessness and he knew Christ was sufficient and he found cleansing in a compassionate Savior. Please, as each of us anew runs to bend the knee at the foot of Christ, please, O Lord Jesus, won’t you make us clean too. For we ask this in Your holy name, amen.
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