Jeffrey C. Nesbitt
In this grand and touching miracle of the Lord Jesus, we are exposed to the compassionate and substitutionary nature of Christ’s ministry.
Our appreciation of the fullness of what happened there can be greatly improved when we consider the place in which Matthew was inspired to place his record of this event. What immediately precedes is Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount”, where Jesus showed Himself to be without question one who taught with authority, and not as the Scribes and Pharisees (7:29). His teaching was an exacting and illustrative exposition of the Law of God, but unlike His contemporaries He showed that the Law was not to be regarded as coming from a tyrant, but rather from a God of compassion who desired the best for them as would a father for his own children. Thus the healing of this poor leper, being placed directly after Christ’s “Sermon”, is a beautiful testimony to the One who was not only a true Prophet of the Law, but one who was a true “Doer” of the Law.
Notice how Matthew introduces us to what is to follow with the phrase, “And, behold. . .” There is a sense of amazement; something out of the ordinary is taking place. We see a leper doing that which was normally unheard of and in fact, forbidden. To be a leper in those days was to be as dead (cf. Num. 12:12); with the priestly pronouncement, “Unclean!” This was an incurable disease and so the leprous individual was subject to all forms of castigation. He was to rent his clothes as did those who were in mourning, probably to manifest the fact that he was exposed to the full view of God and man in his horrid state of corruption and putrification. His head was to be bare. No covering was allowed, again as one who was mourning for the dead, but in this case, for himself. Another stipulation required him to put a “covering upon his upper lip.” (Lev. 13:45). He was no longer able to speak unto his fellow man nor, implied, to God who was inexorably holy. For indeed this curse of leprosy grossly illustrated the repugnant manifestation of sin in some measure, as God perceives it.
Further, the only communication that was allowed of him was the pitiful cry to passers-by, “Unclean, unclean!” No one was to be exposed to his sickening form nor to the stench of his breath. And so with each passing of an individual could be heard the mournful utterance, “Unclean, unclean!” He was cut off from the land of the living though still clinging to life. Finally the leper was to remove himself outside the camp. He was rejected and ejected from his family, friends, and the temple, where God was worshipped. And so the leper was cut off from the fellowship of his fellowman and alienated from the presence of God, (Num. 5:3).
The horror of leprosy to the eyes is but a semblance of the condition of the human heart. Sin is repulsive and horribly ugly. And like the leper, all men are born dead in sin due to the corruption of their hearts, yet...they continue to live and experience the accompanying pangs of its affects upon their lives. And as leprosy was incurable by men, sin too is an incurable condition. Sin is impervious to any human remedy. Only the miracle-working power of the LORD God can effectively eradicate sin in the heart of man.
In spite of all that was known to this poor leper in the demands of the regulations and restrictions concerning those like him, he made his way through the crowd to come to the feet of Jesus. We might imagine how the throng of people when seeing this leper in their midst clamored over each other trying to avoid him as he stumbled along trying to reach the Great Physician. Upon reaching Jesus, Mark records that he “knelt down”, (Mark 1:40) and Luke says that he “fell on his face” (Lk 5:12), which describe the outward appearance, but Matthew brings us to the very disposition of this man’s heart; “and worshipped him ,”.
“Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.” What faith this poor man shows in Christ Jesus, and what a confession to Christ’s deity. Only God was able to rid one of this plague, and such beliefs were commonly held in Israel from years gone by. Even kings threw up their hands in despair when faced with requests to heal poor lepers. Joram, king of Israel, after receiving a request to heal the leprous Naaman, tore his clothes and lamented, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man doth send me to recover a man of his leprosy?”, (2 Kgs. 5:7). Yet this leper believed exactly that; “thou canst make me clean.” The ability to cure was not doubted. However, the most important issue in this man’s mind was, “Is Jesus willing to do this for me ?”
Could this poor leper have found anyone more compassionate? Could he have called upon one more merciful? Was there anyone else who had such power? No! Christ is the Great Physician. He and He alone is able and willing to save all those who come to Him by faith.
But we must not focus our attention upon the miraculous healing of this leper, although it truly manifests the deity of the Lord Christ in His power to heal. What should capture our full attention is the manner in which Jesus performs this miracle. He did not tell the leper to go and dip himself seven times in the Jordan River. He did not tell him to go away for seven days and return to be inspected once again by a priest. He did not command the leprosy to leave him instantaneously by His all-powerful word. No! What we are told is that this Holy and Anointed of God “put forth his hand, and touched him,”! What could have motivated Jesus to do such a thing? For to touch a leper meant that you became “unclean”! All that pertained to lepers now would be yours upon touching such a one. Let there be no doubt, that this is exactly what the Lord Christ intended to do and was in fact prophetically spoken that this should be, “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.” (Isa 53:4)
You might be asking what does this passage in Isaiah have to do with leprosy and even more so, with the Lord Jesus Christ? Let me assure you that the touching of the Leper was no mere coincidence. God’s ways are perfect and perfect are all His ways (Deut. 32:4). This cleansing of the leper was foreordained by God to be fulfilled by, in and through Christ unto the glory of His name. This prophecy was fulfilled in good measure even down to the very words themselves. In Isaiah 53:4, “smitten of God” is connected with “stricken” as if the stroke of leprosy were a direct infliction of God, and in this immediate situation, self-inflicted, (the word, leprosy is the same as the root word, “stricken” in the Hebrew.) Jesus Christ, vicariously took this leper’s affliction, which was representative of his sinful spiritual nature and took it upon Himself, while substituting His own perfect righteousness, clothing him as it were, with a new garment of skin. Well did Isaiah also declare, “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isa. 1:18).
With His tender touch of mercy, Christ proclaimed His intention to suffer the consequences associated with leprosy; to go outside the camp, to be alienated from God’s people, and to be ultimately forsaken by God. This, of course, was ultimately seen at the cross where He lived through that hellish agony, alone, bearing the sins of His own people, under the wrath of God so that they would be perfectly and eternally cleansed; purified an