Jesus—His Life and Message: Miracles (Part 2)
February 14, 2017
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: Miracles (Part 2)
Healing of the Leper
As readers of the Gospels, we don’t know exactly how many miracles Jesus performed. We read phrases which tell us that all who had diseases pressed around Him to touch Him, He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and the sick were brought to Him wherever He was. The Gospel of John ends by telling us that what was written about Jesus is only a small portion of all that He did:
Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.1
While we don’t know of every miracle Jesus performed, we do know of many, as the Gospel writers recorded specific ones to give examples of His mighty works so that we, the readers, will understand that Jesus is who He claimed to be—the Messiah, the Son of God. Just as seeing or hearing about His miracles in His day convinced many that He was the Messiah, so reading about them today can also help people believe.
Each of the Gospel writers tells of certain miracles that are only mentioned in their Gospel. Mark has two such examples, Matthew three, and Luke and John both have five. There is only one miracle that is described in all four Gospels, and that is the feeding of the five thousand. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each share eleven miracles, though they place them in different settings. In this article and others in this series, when covering a miracle which is included in more than one Gospel, I will use one version as the basis, and will when necessary also comment on the differences between versions.
The miracle of Jesus healing the leper is one that is described in the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). I will use Mark’s version, which says:
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.2
Today, we use the term leprosy primarily to describe Hansen’s disease. However, in biblical times it was a broader term that included a variety of skin diseases, including Hansen’s disease. Some of the biblical skin diseases which fell into the category of leprosy—such as psoriasis, lupus, ringworm, and favus—were curable, as seen in Leviticus 13 and 14. At that time, Hansen’s disease was not curable. Any of the diseases labeled as leprosy in the Bible caused a person to be considered “unclean” and as such they were ostracized from society, from their neighbors and friends, and even from their own family and home, in line with Leviticus 13 and 14, until or unless they were healed. Once healed, they went through an eight-day religious ceremony, after which they were declared “clean” by a priest.
The reason for the separation was that the condition was contagious, but of course, it was difficult for the person to have to be apart from their family and the rest of society.
The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.3
Such was the condition of the man who came to Jesus that day and knelt down before Him asking for healing. He approached Jesus with humility. In the ancient world, bowing down before another person was an act of respect for the other’s dignity or power to deliver one from urgent distress.6 This man was willing to violate social norms by coming to Jesus in order to be cured. He desperately wanted to lead a normal life. The way he asked the question—If you will, you can make me clean—showed that the man acknowledged Jesus’ ability and power to heal him. Some translations render this as, if you are willing, you can make me clean. It’s interesting that he asked Jesus to make him clean rather than to heal him. One author points out:
Notice that the primary concern is with being clean so that he can reenter Jewish society, being a whole person. This is a very Jewish way of looking at disease, by focusing on its ritual effects, whereas a pagan would have simply said, “If you will, you can make me well.”7
Jesus, moved by compassion, did something extraordinary; He reached out and touched the man. According to the Mosaic law, when one is touched by or touches something unclean, they become ceremonially unclean themselves.
If anyone touches an unclean thing, whether a carcass of an unclean wild animal or a carcass of unclean livestock or a carcass of unclean swarming things … or if he touches human uncleanness, of whatever sort the uncleanness may be with which one becomes unclean … he shall bring to the LORD as his compensation for the sin that he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat, for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin.8
By touching the leper, Jesus became ceremonially unclean and exposed Himself to the disease, but clearly He was unconcerned about either. Rather than Jesus becoming unclean by touching the man, the man became clean when touched by Jesus. Jesus could have healed him simply by commanding the healing, but in His care and compassion, He instead touched him. As He did, He responded to both parts of the man’s statement. In response to “if you are willing,” Jesus answers that He is willing (I will); and in response to “you can make me clean,” Jesus said, “be clean.” We’re told that immediately the leprosy left him and that he was made clean.
After healing the man, 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.” In the accounts of this healing in Matthew and Luke, it does not state that Jesus spoke to the man sternly. The Greek word used here for sternly normally refers to being deeply angry and is translated elsewhere as harshly rebuked, scolded harshly, or criticized sharply. However, in John 11:33 and 11:38 it is translated as being deeply moved. One author writes:
It is best not to interpret “sternly warned” as a harsh, angry rebuke but, in light of how it is used in John 11:33 and 38, to see it as revealing that Jesus for some reason was deeply moved on this occasion.9
While the leper was healed from his disease, he was not yet proclaimed as being clean and therefore could not be reintegrated into society. For this to happen, he had to present himself to the priests and go through the necessary procedures. Therefore Jesus commanded him to show himself to the priest and to offer the sacrifices that were necessary for him to receive the certification of his cleansing. The process for this ceremonial cleansing took eight days and had to be done at the temple. The procedure, commanded in Leviticus 14, calls first for the priest to examine the person. If there are no signs of the disease, the next step calls for a sacrifice of a bird and the sprinkling of blood. Then the person had to shave all hair off of his body, and wash his clothes and body. On the eighth day, the person took two male lambs along with flour and oil for a sacrifice. In the course of the sacrifice, the priest took some of the blood of the lamb and put it on the tip of the person’s right ear, the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. Later in the ceremony, the priest also put oil on the same parts of the person. After the lambs were sacrificed as a burnt offering, the person was cleansed, and was then able to return to their family and society at large.
Jesus commanded the man to say nothing to anyone, but to show himself to the priest. There were probably two reasons for this: one was that Jesus wanted him to remain silent until he was officially declared clean by the priests, and the other was that He wanted to avoid generating too much excitement as a result of His healing work. Jesus added that He wanted the man to show himself to the priest “for proof to them.” Bible scholars debate the meaning of this phrase, but it seems to mean that this healing would be both a testimony of Jesus’ power to the priests as well as a testimony of the presence of the Messiah to everyone who would hear about the healing.10
It’s not clear whether the cleansed leper ever did present himself to the priest or go through the cleansing ritual, though presumably he did at some point. But what is clear is that he didn’t keep quiet about his marvelous and miraculous healing, as Jesus had instructed. Instead, 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.
Healing a leper was big news. Author Craig Keener wrote:
Some Jewish teachers, following Numbers 12:12 and 2 Kings 5:7, regarded leprosy as akin to death, and cleansing a leper as akin to raising the dead.11
The result of the healed man spreading the news about his healing from leprosy resulted in multitudes coming to see Jesus—so much so that whatever town He came to, people thronged Him to the point that it was difficult for Him to enter.
The healing of the leper shows us several things about Jesus. We see His love and compassion for those who are ill. When the leper said: “If you will, you can make me clean,” Jesus’ response was, “Yes, I want to!” He wanted to help those in need, to heal them, comfort them, and give them renewed life. His empathy is seen in understanding what it would mean to the man afflicted with leprosy to be touched, something which probably had not happened to him in years. Jesus could have healed him without touching him, but He took the extra step. This wasn't the only time Jesus touched, or was touched by, someone who was unclean. He took the hand of a dead girl, in order to revive her;12 allowed a sinful woman to touch Him;13 and was touched by the woman with the flow of blood, who was healed.14 Clearly, keeping the ritual aspects of the Mosaic law was much less important to Jesus than showing love and compassion to someone in need.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.
Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.
Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994.
Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.
Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Carson, D. A. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987.
Charlesworth, James H., ed. Jesus’ Jewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.
Chilton, Bruce, and Craig A. Evans, eds. Authenticating the Activities of Jesus. Boston: Koninklijke Brill, 1999.
Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.
Elwell, Walter A., ed. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.
Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.
Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27–16:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.
Evans, Craig A., and N. T. Wright. Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Flusser, David. Jesus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998.
Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.
Gnilka, Joachim. Jesus of Nazareth: Message and History. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.
Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.
Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.
Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.
Jeremias, Joachim. The Prayers of Jesus. Norwich: SCM Press, 1977.
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 2. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.
Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.
Manson, T. W. The Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957.
Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.
McKnight, Scot. Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.
Michaels, J. Ramsey. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.
Milne, Bruce. The Message of John. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.
Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1960.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.
Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.
Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 1958.
Spangler, Ann, and Lois Tverberg. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.
Stassen, Glen H., and David P. Gushee. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003.
Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
Stein, Robert H. Mark. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.
Stott, John R. W. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978.
Talbert, Charles H. Reading the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.
Williams, J. Rodman. Renewal Theology: Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
Witherington, Ben, III. The Christology of Jesus. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.
Witherington, Ben, III. The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.
Wood, D. R. W., I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman, eds. New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
Wright, N. T. After You Believe. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.
Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.
Wright, N. T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
Yancey, Philip. The Jesus I Never Knew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.
Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.
1 John 21:25.
2 Mark 1:40–45.
3 Leviticus 13:45–46.
4 Numbers 12:1–15; 2 Kings 5:25–27; 2 Chronicles 26:16–21.
5 Robert H. Stein, Mark, 105.
6 Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 260.
7 Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 103.
8 Leviticus 5:2–3, 6.
9 Stein, Mark, 107.
10 Darrell L. Bock, Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50, 447.
11 Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 261.
12 Matthew 9:25.
13 Luke 7:37–38.
14 Matthew 9:20–22.