If I were to ask you, what is it that you need in life, what would be on the list? What are the top 1 or 2 things that you would say that you most want or need? For some of you it might be a life partner; a job or promotion; to have a child; to find a new place to live, to be physically healed, to have a relationship restored. There’s so much that could be on that list.
But what if we were to ask Jesus, Jesus, what is it that we (I) most need? What do you think he would say? Would it match what we would say that we most need?
I’m not trying to pit those two things against each other, but here’s what I want us to lean into today. Jesus came not only to meet the needs we know we have; but he also came to meet the needs we don’t know we have. And that’s what we are going to see revealed to us in today’s passage. We have needs, that many times we are not even aware that we have, that only Jesus can meet. And he will when we put our trust in him.
Mark 1:40-45 - Jesus Heals a Man With Leprosy
40 A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
41 Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.
43 Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: 44 “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.” 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.
Let me give you a bit of context and something that I find extremely interesting. Just prior to this story about Jesus healing the man with leprosy, Mark tells us that Jesus was off praying in a solitary place. And he must have been gone for a long time because his disciples go and look for him. And when they find him they frantically say to Jesus, Everyone is looking for you! We’re not the only ones looking for you. Everyone is!
Now, why was everyone looking for Jesus? Why was his popularity growing? Well, just in one chapter (Mark 1) Mark tells us two main things that are evident in Jesus’s ministry. For starters, the people are amazed at his teaching -- there was something different about it compared to the religious leaders of the time (Pastor Ben talked about this two weeks ago; Jesus taught with authority); secondly, Jesus has the ability to cast out demons and heal the sick. So his ministry is one of word (teaching) and deeds (healings and miracles).
But let me ask you, what do you think the people wanted more from Jesus: his teaching, or what he could do for them? The summary of Jesus’s teaching can be found in Mark 1:15. His teaching was that the Kingdom of God was near/close -- because he had arrived. And so he called on the people (and he calls on us) to repent (to turn from a life that is absent of God) and to believe in the Good News -- to believe in him.
This is the whole reason why Jesus came -- bearing this message. And so in response to his disciples' statement that everyone is looking for him, he says, Let’s move on to other towns so that I can PREACH there also. He doesn’t say let’s move on so that I can preach, heal, and cast out demons. No. Just preach. What Mark is showing us, what we find throughout all of the gospels, is that the people want Jesus for his deeds but he’s focused on the word.
Just look at John 6. There we have the account of Jesus feeding the five thousand miraculously with just a few loaves of bread and fish. And after he does that the people keep looking for him. Which is great! But he calls them out on the reason why they are after him -- their motivation. He tells them, You guys just want me because I fed you bread. But you must realize, (John 6:35) I am the bread of life. That bread I gave you will make you hungry again. But anyone who comes to me will never go hungry. Friends, Jesus is what we most need!
Jesus came not only to meet the needs we know we have through his deeds and miracles; but he also came to meet the needs we don’t know we have through the preaching of his word.
Now don’t get me wrong, Jesus wants to take care of your physical needs, your wants and desires. We read in verse 39, after he tells his disciples that they will move on to other towns to preach, as he’s going through the region of Galilee teaching in the synagogues it says that he’s also casting out demons. He just can’t help himself -- to bring freedom and deliverance to the people -- to meet their physical needs. But again, the most important thing that the people need (including us) is his teaching -- it’s that he is the bread of life; but nevertheless, he doesn’t withhold from meeting our wants and desires. I say all of this because I don’t want us to get caught up with the wrapping paper and miss the true gift.
And so with that context we now come to this story. Verse 40 says that A man with leprosy came to him… Let’s first just state the obvious; but extremely profound reality: Jesus has the power to heal a disease with simply a touch. It says in verse 42 that the leprosy left the man immediately. That’s amazing! Jesus has the power to heal our physical pain and diseases. We have to believe that. And taking it a step further, we have to believe that God wants to use some of us to heal in that way.
But this story is so much more than just a healing story; again, which is profound in and of itself. However, the condition of the leper is a reflection, a mirror image, of our spiritual condition when we live apart from God. One commentator writes this: Leprosy is a symbol of sin that must be cleansed.
Now I don’t know everyone’s skin situation here, but my guess is that very few of us, if any of us, are suffering from leprosy -- and definitely not in the way that people in biblical times suffered from it (as we will see shortly). But here’s why this story is important and relevant to us: because we are that man with leprosy. You see, there is a deeper meaning to this man’s skin condition that infects all of us. Leprosy is at the surface level; but it’s a visible representation of the state of our soul when we are cut-off from God and community.
So let us compare this man’s condition with ours. Here you have a man dealing with the most dreaded disease imaginable. The Hebrew word that is translated ‘leprosy’ in the Bible is a broad term that is describing more than just the skin disease we know today as leprosy. It included other skin diseases and conditions like boils, burns, itches, ringworm, and scalp conditions. I read somewhere that scribes counted as many as seventy-two different afflictions that were defined as leprosy.
Now, we have no idea which kind of leprosy or skin disease this man had; but regardless, the fact of the matter is that his condition made him unclean. But hear me, I’m not just saying that he was sick -- that he was viewed as unwell. But for the people of Israel leprosy was the most dreaded of all diseases because it separated people from family and community. Moreover, it was believed that leprosy was a curse from God -- so it was a sign, or evidence, that one was already separated from God. Leprosy was considered a “living death.” (walking dead)
Just think about it. Leprosy impacted its victims physically, socially, and spiritually. Physically, to be a leper meant you were literally falling apart. It was a skin disease that was literally eating you alive. You were suffering from pain and misery.
Socially, you were an outcast. You were contagious, and so you were not allowed to get anywhere near where other people roamed freely. (Sounds familiar?) You had to stay out in lonely places -- you were quarantined. Babies can’t live without touch, but lepers had to live without touch. Absolute emotional isolation from the community. (Do you know how hard that must have been? Yes! Many of you do know; because you lived that way for so many months during this pandemic. But guys, we were never meant to live that way. One of the hardest things that we have to learn and hold in tension during this pandemic is that while protecting our physical bodies is realizing that we are more than just physical beings. We are not fully thriving unless our spiritual man is thriving. And that simply is not possible in isolation.)
And then spiritually, if a priest declared a particular skin problem to be leprosy, the sufferer was labeled as being religiously impure. So hear this: a leper’s exclusion from the community was not as much rooted in any fear of spreading the disease but of spreading religious impurity. Impurity could be passed simply by occupying the same airspace.
Now let me make the connection: just as leprosy separated those who were infected, sin does the same to us. It separates us from God, first and foremost; and it also separates us from each other. As I mentioned earlier, leprosy was considered a ‘living death’ -- the walking dead. In Genesis, and indeed for much of the Old Testament, the controlling image for death is exile. Just think about this. Adam and Eve were told that they would die on the day they ate the fruit that was forbidden, right?! But what actually happened? Their sin and disobedience led to them being expelled from the garden -- they were cut off from God. And moreover, a part of the curse was that there was now conflict -- friction -- between Adam and Eve. Sin always negatively impacts our relationships -- our relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and our relationship with each other.
So what is sin? Sin is anything that goes against the character and commands of God. It’s when we fall short of his glorious standard. And let me just say that we all sin, even after we have placed our faith in Jesus. But this is why Jesus taught us to pray daily to the Father for our sins to be forgiven. Not a day goes by that we don’t sin.
We don’t like to talk about sin. We don’t like to view ourselves as sinners. But that’s what we are. We are born sinners. The Psalmist (51:5) writes, Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. And anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar and doesn’t have your best interest at heart. Because although we are sinners we are not without hope. There is one who is able to forgive you and cleanse you of your sins.
And we need to be cleansed. Just like this man with leprosy. Do you know what’s interesting? This man with leprosy comes to Jesus and says, If you are willing, you can make me clean. One commentator writes: If he was a Greek or Roman leper, he would have said, “If you’re willing, you can make me well,” but he doesn’t do that. He says, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” That meant clean before God, clean before his community, clean physically. Whether or not he knew he needed it all, he came to the right person because Jesus was the only one that could give it to him.
The Bible never speaks of healing leprosy, always of cleansing it. Jesus healed a lot of people. He healed people who could not walk. He healed the blind. He healed a woman with an issue of blood. He healed many; but he cleansed the leper.
The same goes for our sin. That's the good news! We can’t make ourselves clean or well. But we have one who is willing and able to cleanse us and forgive us all of our sins. It doesn’t matter what you did yesterday. It doesn’t matter how cutoff or separated you have been. It doesn’t matter how unworthy or dirty you feel. If you come to Jesus you will find mercy, grace, and compassion; and you will be cleansed.
Now, do you know how much boldness and courage it took for this man with leprosy to break through the social and religious divide that told him that he was not welcome -- that told him that he had to stay on the outside? The restrictions placed on lepers were no joke. It was heart wrenching and embarrassing. Look at what was expected of them: “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ … He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:45–46).
Now lepers were allowed to have some freedom. They could attend a synagogue if a screen was erected, but they had to enter first and leave last. But humans -- we always make things worse. In rabbinic tradition rabbis would argue that one should not pass within four cubits (which is six feet) to the east of a leper or within one hundred cubits when a wind was blowing. Another tradition relates that when a certain rabbi saw a leper, he would throw stones at him and shout: “Go to your place and do not defile other people.”
It took a lot of courage just for the leper to come to Jesus. What if Jesus rejected him? What if he said no? What if he couldn’t heal him? But the leper must have heard, somehow, that Jesus had the power to heal. But he wasn’t so sure on whether or not he was willing to heal him. Remember, he said “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” He knew that Jesus had the power to make him clean; but he wasn’t so sure that he was good. I believe someone must have told him that he was good -- they left him a note in a care package or something. But the trauma from all of the mistreatment from religious leaders and others was causing him to doubt that part of Jesus. But there was a sliver of hope because he took the risk and came to Jesus.
And can I tell you, Jesus is good. Any of us who have felt his touch, experienced his grace and forgiveness, can tell you, he is good.
But with that said, verse 41 has an interesting line. Verse 41 says that Jesus was indignant. (v.41) Jesus was angry. It’s a strange comment in this story. But Mark is never shy about showing Jesus’s humanity. But was Jesus angry at the man for breaking through the divide and coming close to him? No. Because the very next line that we read is that Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. A man who hadn’t been touched in who knows how long was touched. It was an act of great compassion. Jesus could have just spoken a word and healed him (or cleansed him). But he intentionally touched him. Probably just as much as being cleansed the leper needed to be touched. Jesus loved this man, and restored his dignity and humanity with just a touch.
Another thing to note, is that Jesus was not angry because he was afraid of becoming defiled -- unclean -- by this man. Throughout the Old Testament the pattern that we see is that the unclean infects the clean. But with Jesus the clean purifies the unclean. This is similar to when the prophet Isaiah mentions that he has unclean lips. But then the angel takes a coal from the altar and cleanses Isaiah. That is a visual image of what Jesus would come to do and has done for us.
(It’s also an image of what we are meant to do. The best thing you can do is be healthy. For in the kingdom of God health infects ill-health.)
When it says that ‘Jesus was indignant’ it wasn’t an anger directed at the man with leprosy. I love what one commentator writes: “Might he, however, have been angry at the rules that compelled lepers, already physically afflicted, to live alone outside the town, to dress in rags, and to approach others shouting, “Unclean, unclean”? The further burdens we place on those already suffering are just the sort of thing that did make Jesus angry.”
I believe that when Jesus looks at us he is angry -- he is indignant. Not because he’s mad at us. But because he’s mad at the sin that keeps us separated from him and each other. He’s angry that we have believed the lies of the enemy that tell us that we are not wanted by God. He’s indignant that some of us don’t see our sin or believe that we need a savior.
But if you come to him, like this leper did, he will touch you too -- he will show you compassion.
Let me close with this. Verses 43-45. This man, who was on the outside living in lonely places, came to Jesus during Jesus’s preaching tour of the different towns in Galilee and asked Jesus to cleanse him. Up to this point, even though Jesus was growing in popularity, he was able to move about freely. And so Jesus cleanses the man and sends him away with a strong warning: Don’t tell anyone about this. But just go show yourself to the priest because now you are cleansed; now you are welcome; now you are on the inside. But even though Jesus strongly warns him not to say anything, he goes out and begins talking freely, spreading the news. And from that day forward Jesus could no longer enter a town openly, but he had to stay on the outside in lonely places.
Friends, this is exactly what Jesus did for us. He went outside to lonely places so that we could come close. He was rejected so that we might be accepted. Even though he was perfect and did not deserve it, he was punished (crucified) so that we might be cleansed and forgiven. Hebrews 13:12-13a says, And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp…
We are invited to come to him. Mark closes the story of Jesus cleansing the leper by stating that although Jesus had to stay outside in lonely places, the people came to him from everywhere. Wherever you are today (spiritually, emotionally, physically) come to him. You will be brought close. You will be made whole. You will be restored. You will be cleansed.
Some of you need to put your faith in Jesus today and come to him. Receive him as your Lord and Savior.
Others of you need to come to him by publicly declaring your faith in Jesus through baptism. (Don’t forget the posture of the leper.)