The King’s Authority Over Disease: Jesus and a Leper (Exposition of Matthew 8:1-4)

In Matthew 4:23 the ministry of Jesus is summarized as follows:

And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.

In chapters 5-7 we see Jesus “preaching the gospel of the kingdom”.  In chapters 8-9 we see Jesus “healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people”.

In chapters 5-7 we find the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus asserts His Kingly authority by issuing the commands of His kingdom.  In chapters 8-9, Jesus demonstrates His Kingly authority by healing the sick, casting out demons, and calming the sea.

In 8:1-17 Matthew records three miracles which Jesus performed on three different social outcasts of His day: a leper, a Gentile and a woman.  The first of these is found in Matthew 8:1-4.

When He had come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed Him.  (2)  And behold, a leper came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.”  (3)  Then Jesus put out His hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing; be cleansed.” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.  (4)  And Jesus said to him, “See that you tell no one; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”  Matthew 8:1-4

I.    An Incurable Disease, v. 2a.
Leprosy is an infectious disease that is characterized by disfiguring skin sores, nerve damage, and progressive debilitation.  In Biblical times the term could be used to refer not only to what is know today as “Hansen’s Disease”, but also to any kind of infectious skin condition.  These skin infections caused a person to be ceremonially unclean and to be cast out from among the dwelling places of the people.

Now the leper on whom the sore is, his clothes shall be torn and his head bare; and he shall cover his mustache, and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’  46 “He 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. Leviticus 13:45-46 

Among the Jews leprosy was considered to be a curse from God and incurable apart from divine intervention.  To illustrate this consider the king of Israel’s words in 2 Kings 5:7 after he received a letter from the king of Syria requesting help for his servant Naaman who had contracted leprosy.  Jehoram responded, “Am I God, to kill and make alive, that this man sends a man to me to heal him of his leprosy?”

Because leprosy was both hideous and incurable, as well as caused separation between an individual and the rest of society, including the worship of God, leprosy has been considered by many to be the perfect metaphor for man’s sinful condition.

As Donald Hagner writes:

There is a sense in which leprosy is an archetypal fruit of the original fall of humanity. It leaves its victims in a most pitiable state: ostracized, helpless, hopeless, despairing.  The cursed leper, like fallen humanity, has no options until he encounters the messianic king who will make all things new. . . . As Jesus reached out to the leper, God in Jesus has reached out to all victims of sin.  (Matthew 1-13, p. 200)

In other words, leprosy like all human disease and death is a result of the fall, but this disease depicts the state of fallen human beings apart from Christ.   Isaiah 64:6 says, “But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags.”  I believe that Isaiah is saying that we are all like lepers and all our righteous deeds amount to are the rags with which a leper would wrap his putrefying and oozing sores.

II.    A Humble Request, v. 2b.
This leper came humbly before the Lord.  He knew that Jesus was Lord and that he was a leper.  He shows this both by his posture and his petition.

First, look at his posture.  Notice how this leper came:  he came and fell prostrate face down at the feet of Jesus.  That’s what the Greek word prosekunei translated “worshiped” in the KJV and NKJV means.  This was the posture of worship and of humility before a superior.

Second, consider his petition.  Notice what he says, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.”  He doesn’t march up to Jesus and begin to make demands.  This man recognizes that he is at the mercy of a sovereign Lord.  He cries out from the dust of the ground at the feet of Jesus.  In this petition he recognizes both the King’s sovereign right to bestow mercy on whomever He wills to give mercy and the ability of the King to do whatever He wills.  This is a might confession of faith on the part of the leper.

This is the way that a sinner must come to Jesus.  Not flippantly, but humbly.  Acknowledging that there is no other source of salvation and that his/her hope rests in the mercy of Christ alone.

III.    A Compassionate Response, v. 3a.
Jesus’ response must have thrilled the soul of this unnamed social outcast lying at the feet of Jesus.  He said, “I am willing; be cleansed.”  Then He reached down and touched him!  This was an unheard of act.  Doesn’t Jesus know that He could catch the disease?  How long has it been since this man had been touched by another human hand?  But Jesus doesn’t fear being contaminated because whatever He touches becomes whole.  When everyone else touches a leper they get leprosy, but when Jesus touches a leper the leper becomes healed!

But this picture of Jesus touching the leper shows us something about the mercy of our Lord.  He could have healed without touching.  We can tell that by looking at the very next healing recorded in Matthew 8:5-13.  He touched this man on purpose to communicate His love for lepers and sinners!  It is this great truth that moved the songwriter Erdmann Neumeister to write:

Sinners Jesus will receive; Sound this word of grace to all
Who the heavenly pathway leave, All who linger, all who fall.

Sing it o’er and over again; Christ receiveth sinful men;
Make the message clear and plain: Christ receiveth sinful men.

Come, and He will give you rest; Trust Him, for His Word is plain;
He will take the sinfulest; Christ receiveth sinful men.

Now my heart condemns me not, Pure before the law I stand;
He who cleansed me from all spot, Satisfied its last demand.

Christ receiveth sinful men, Even me with all my sin;
Purged from every spot and stain, Heaven with Him I enter in.

IV.    An Immediate Cure, v. 3b.
When Jesus touched this leper, “Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.”  We just sang this morning: “The vilest offender that on Jesus truly believes that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”

V.    A Legal Evidence, v. 4.
Then Jesus tells the cleansed leper, he tells him to go present himself to the priests.  This was to be a testimony to the priests that one was present who could heal leprosy.  The laws for the ceremonial cleansing of a leper are given in Leviticus 14.  There are pictures of Christ present.  The bird killed and the living bird dipped in blood which is released which points forward to the death and resurrection of Christ  The hyssop dipped in blood and applied to the leper being cleansed indicating the application of the benefits of the death of Christ to the individual.

The psalmist David recognized that this physical ceremony to deal with a physical condition pictured a spiritual work that deals with a spiritual condition.  After committing his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah, David cried out for mercy from God in Psalm 51.  He had the ceremony of the cleansing of the leper in mind in verse 7 when he said, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.”   This spiritual cleansing could only come from God and it would be effective.

Jesus came to live and die to provide the kind of spiritual cleansing which David and each of us need.

Have you come to Jesus, humbly confessing your sinfulness and need of cleansing?  Have you experienced His touch and heard His voice say that He is willing, be cleansed?  Come to Jesus!  All who come to Him will not be cast out!

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