Leprosy. This was one of the worst, and perhaps the most dreaded diseases of all time. If anyone were to contract this disease, he or she practically had received a death sentence. Everyone who contracted this disease faced expulsion from society, including home, family, friends and everything else the leper had to leave behind. The leper had to wear special clothing, had to live outside the camp, and had to shout, “Unclean! Unclean!” when he or she saw others approaching so they would not get too close and be stricken with leprosy, as well.
The Old Testament contains several records of people who contracted leprosy. This included Miriam, Moses’ sister (see Num. 12:10), Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the prophet (see 2 Kings 5); Naaman, a mighty man of valor (2 Kings 5:1)—although he was from Syria. Even the four lepers who found the camp of the Syrians deserted after the nation of Israel had suffered siege and famine (see 2 Kings 7). There were others, recorded and not recorded in Scripture. Further, leprosy could affect clothing and houses (Lev. 13 and 14). We also find in Leviticus 14 that there were provisions for former lepers to be restored once he or she was clean or healed.
Leprosy didn’t go away, though, after all the years between the days of the kingdom and the days when Jesus walked the earth. There were several occasions when Jesus healed lepers. This is the first recorded instance of such a healing.
The text is from Matthew 8:1-4, with a parallel passage in Mark 1:40-45. Luke also records this incident, making it one of the few events recorded by three of the four gospels:
“When He had come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed Him. Behold, there came a leper and worshiped Him, saying, ‘Lord, if You’re willing, You can make me clean.’ Jesus put forth His hand, and touched him, saying, ‘I will. Be clean.’ Immediately, his leprosy was cleansed, and Jesus said to him, ‘See that you tell no one; but go your way and shew yourself to the priest. Offer the gift that Moses commanded for a testimony to them’” (Matt. 8:1-4).
“And there came a leper to Him, beseeching Him, and kneeling down to Him, and saying unto Him, ‘If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.’ And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth [his] hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, ‘I will; be thou clean.’ And as soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was cleansed. And he straitly charged him, and forthwith sent him away; and saith unto him, ‘See thou say nothing to any man: but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing those things which Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.’ But he went out, and began to publish [it] much, and to blaze abroad the matter, insomuch that Jesus could no more openly enter into the city, but was without in desert places: and they came to him from every quarter” (Mark 1:40-45).
The Request: What Did the Leper Ask from Jesus?
Several of us, myself included, may have missed something when we read Matthew 8. The leper himself was near the very place where Jesus had just finished preaching the Sermon on the Mount! Did the leper go close enough to hear Jesus preach?
Other questions come to mind. What was the leper’s name? What about his family? What city had he lived in previously? Where was he living now? When and how did he come down with leprosy?
We’re not given the answers to any of these questions. We know this person had the disease of leprosy and that there was little hope of the disease going away. We’re not told how he came to know about Jesus and His power to heal. Nevertheless, he did find out and wanted to be healed!
So he asked Jesus—actually, he appealed to Jesus—”If You are willing, You can make me clean.” Notice the helplessness of the leper in that he couldn’t heal himself, and I doubt any physician of that time would see him for fear of becoming a leper himself; thus, the plea for help from Jesus. Remember, the crowds were coming down the mountain with Jesus after He had preached the “Sermon on the Mount.” What was Jesus going to do?
The Response: What Did Jesus Do for the Leper?
Matthew tells us that Jesus reached out and touched the leper, saying, “I will,” or, “I am willing,”and, “Be clean.” It was as simple as that. The leper knew he had no hope of ever being healed or becoming clean unless Jesus was willing to do this. Now, he was healed! Matthew adds (see v. 3) “immediately his leprosy was healed.”
We can compare this with two other examples of people who became leprous but were healed. Both examples happened in the Old Testament, but it would be hard to find two more different people. Miriam was the sister of Moses, and she generally followed his leadership, respecting the authority God had given her little brother. However, there was one time when she went too far in her criticism (of Moses’ wife!), and God struck Miriam with leprosy. Numbers 12:10 records that Miriam was white as snow with her leprosy. God meant business when He knew the motive behind the criticism, and apparently Miriam, along with Aaron, needed a lesson.
Thankfully, Moses and Aaron both prayed to the Lord, asking for Miriam to be healed. God answered that prayer. Ironically, these are the last words recorded in Scripture that Miriam ever spoke. I’m sure she would tell us to not have our last words be words of reproach!
The other example, one mentioned earlier, was Naaman, a high-ranking officer in the Syrian (Aramean) army. The books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles give details of several wars between Israel and Syria, although David had conquered a great deal of territory. We read in 2 Samuel 8:6 that David had put garrisons in Damascus!
All of that was gone by Naaman’s time, though, and a Hebrew girl was captured, becoming the slave of Naaman and his wife. We’re not told her age, her name, to which tribe she belonged or if she had been a believer in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We know she had knowledge of Elisha and God’s power and relayed that to her mistress.
Eventually, Naaman received word about how to be healed but not how he thought it would happen. Read the narrative in 2 Kings 5 to get Naaman’s overall opinion about what he must have thought was either a waste of time or a wild goose chase—Elisha didn’t even come to Naaman personally! He sent a messenger to tell Naaman, “Wash in the Jordan River seven times” to be healed.
Naaman swallowed his pride and took seven dips in the Jordan. Subsequently, he was healed. This was a true miracle and literally made a believer out of Naaman!
So, the people of Jesus’ day were at least somewhat familiar with these healings, but others were apparently few and far between. This was one of the first miracles Jesus performed, and it was something nobody expected to see happen. In Miriam’s case, God struck her with leprosy and then healed her. Immediately. No medicine, no touching. God did it all. In Naaman’s case, God used the faith of a pagan responding to the word of a prophet to bring healing. Here, in this case, God in the flesh, Jesus Christ, reached out and touched the leper—and healed him!
The Requirements: What Jesus Told the Leper to Do
It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t send the former leper back to his home or anywhere else other than to direct him to the requirements of the law. Remember that Jesus lived under the Dispensation of Law and came here to fulfill the Law of Moses. Jesus said as much during the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps just minutes before this healing! The law was still in effect during this time, and the leper was required to make a visible presentation to the priest in order to be declared clean. The leper further was required to bring a few things as an offering (see Leviticus 14). This is what Jesus told the now-cleansed leper to do— please remember the law was still binding on the Hebrew people at that time.
There is an irony here, too, in that the former leper promptly broke the very commandment Jesus gave him! Matthew’s account doesn’t mention it, but Mark records that the man “began to publish it much” (Mark 1:45). The testimony he gave promptly caused Jesus to have to leave where He was because so many people were coming to Him!
Finally, there is one other bit of sadness. Nowhere do we read that this man ever came back to give Jesus thanks. We don’t know why this didn’t happen, and there is no need to speculate. Similar to him, however, we always can rejoice whenever we’re healed or when someone we know receives God’s healing.
This is perhaps the second time where Jesus told someone, “Go thy way.” Here, it was the result of a man who had an incurable disease, condemned to live a living death due to leprosy. The leper asked Jesus, in faith, to be healed; and Jesus healed the man immediately. Jesus warned him not to spread the word, but to present himself to the priest and give proof that he had been healed, all according to the Law of Moses. The man seemed not to be able to keep the good news to himself and promptly gave witness to what Jesus did.
When we receive healing, may we, too, be willing to go our way and give glory to the Lord for all He has done for us!