Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
March 9, 2014
When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”
— Matthew 8:1-4, ESV
Matthew makes reference to Jesus’ miraculous powers at the end of the Gospel’s fourth chapter, including it in an overall description of Christ’s public ministry of “teaching, proclaiming, and healing.” The next three chapters give us selections of our Lord’s finest teaching and preaching, commonly known as “The Sermon on the Mount.” Then, the healing begins in chapter eight as Matthew describes some specific incidents in which Jesus performed a medical or otherwise notable miracle.
Matthew’s first miracle is a classic. It demonstrates Christ’s deity and sovereignty. It displays His great compassion for people. It results in the complete, organic, verifiable, healing of an otherwise incurable disease. And, as is almost always the case in the Gospels, the potent miracle is a powerful parable of the gospel itself. Let’s take a look at the miracle and the parable.
The sickness that Jesus encountered on this fateful day was the dreaded disease of leprosy, for which there was no known cause or cure in Jesus’ day. The Gospels record such encounters with the ancient curse only here (paralleled in Mark 1:40ff and Luke 5:12ff) and with the ten lepers mentioned in Luke 17:11ff. Other general references are made to the healing of leprosy, but it never gets any more personal than in this case.
Leprosy was a mysterious, contagious, outrageous condition that deadened nerve endings, particularly in the hands and feet, turning skin unsightly and numb, resulting in frequent injury, infection, and ultimately death. Nothing was really known about leprosy until the late 19th century, when Dr. Hansen discovered the cause that ultimately led to the cure of what is now known as “Hansen’s Disease.” Obviously, the famous physician was not one of Jesus’ first followers, and without an understanding or a cure for the disease, lepers were ostracized from their families and communities, pushed into diseased colonies, dependent upon handouts from passers by, and suffered in misery and isolation until their premature deaths.
One day one of them escaped the confines of the leper colony and came to Jesus. He “knelt,” which could also be translated bowed or worshiped. He came with humility and hope. He came with an acute awareness of his problem and enough information about Jesus to know that He was the man, the only man, who could do anything about it. “You can make me clean,” the leper, no doubt from a safe distance, said to Jesus.
The Lord Jesus Christ then did two things that were stunning. He touched the leper and He healed his leprosy. Lepers were hardly talked to in those days and were never, never touched. Lepers were required by law to loudly proclaim, “Unclean, unclean,” before walking into a populated area. Lepers were obviously unattractive, assumed to be worse sinners than the others, and, in fact, contagious. And Jesus — as a fellow human being, as the great High Priest, and as God incarnate — touched him, and made him physically, emotionally, and perhaps spiritually whole.
In the aftermath, Jesus maintained His “messianic secret,” lest the clamor for His miracles would make them more important than His teaching and preaching, or otherwise interfere with His slow, steady walk to the cross. He told the healed leper to keep a low profile and demonstrate a high obedience to the word of God, pointing him to some passages in the books of Moses (ref. Leviticus 13-14) concerning leprosy, healing, and most importantly, worship.
What a classic miracle story from a day in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ! The kingdom had come and the King was in control. A deathly sick man was made well by a touch from the Master’s hand. Jesus loved, the man believed, and worship and obedience to the word of God was on display. What a miracle! What a parable!
The whole world is a leper colony. Every person on the planet is infected with a contagious disease. It spreads from parent to child, brother to sister, friend to friend, and foe to foe. It is airborne, blood-borne, obtained by being, and spread by doing. We know the cause and we try to cure it with penalties, therapies, isolated societies, and changed names in our dictionaries. But sin is still sin. Sin is still a curse to the human race. Sin still results in loss of life on a temporal and eternal scale. And for sin, there is one and only one cure.
You can pretend you don't have it, but that won’t make it go away. You can claim your case is lighter than most, which is actually means it is worse. You can try to tame it with secular psychology or religious legalism, which while making it more manageable only makes it more malignant. Sin is so much like leprosy.
Sin is invisible at first, you don’t even know you have it. Once it begins to spread, it makes you numb to your mistakes. You tend to do things with your hands and feet, mind and mouth, that hurt you and other people in exponential ways. With your fellow lepers, I mean sinners, your infection spreads to them and theirs to you, so that a downward spiral begins to take effect. Before you know it, and sometimes you never do, you are deeply infected, marred, ruined, dead.
But God so loved this leper colony that He sent Himself in the form of His Son into it, full blown. Jesus teaches, still, through the inspired pages of the word of God. Jesus preaches, still, through the voices of prophets and preachers called to bear His name and bring His gospel. Jesus heals, still. His patience and providence provided a cure for leprosy. His grace — with the faith it brings in the gospel He wrote — is the cure for sin.
How can a leper, I mean a sinner, demonstrate a desire for grace? Perhaps the leper in Matthew’s first miracle can show us sinners the way.
You must come and worship God. The leper fell to his knees. He recognized in Jesus a higher power at least and the presence of God at most. Driven by his need, knowledgable of Jesus’ reputation, sensing Christ was near, he literally threw himself at the feet of God. Saved sinners don’t have to be dragged to worship God, publicly or privately. It is an innate response to the prospects of sins forgiven and fellowship enjoyed. It is a transparency, not hiding from God that which is wrong with us. It is a joyful confidence that if I can just get to God, God was waiting for me all along. Come, now is the time to worship.
You must trust in God’s grace for salvation. Oh how the Great Reformation mantra is true! Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ, alone! In Jesus’ day only Jesus could cure leprosy. In every age Jesus is the only One who can save your soul, grant you forgiveness and cleansing, and give you eternal life.
You must follow in obedience to God’s word. If God is real to you, if Jesus Christ has saved you to the uttermost, then you are possessed of a deep desire to obey, to be faithful, to show your love by devotion and dedication to His word and to His church. Grace without repentance is a myth, faith without works is dead. Paul preached that grace through faith results in good works (ref. Ephesians 2:8-10). Jesus, saying it perhaps simpler and better, said those who love Him will keep His commandments (ref. John 14:15, 14:21, 15:10, etc.).
This not a three-step slide show, but rather one complete picture of grace. It drives us to worship. It completely saves the soul. It flows in a faithfulness immersed in love.
The first miracle that Matthew chose to write out in some detail is a great parable of a changed life. It shows the difference that Jesus can make, when we surrender ourselves and our sin to Him. It is an outstanding miracle that can make a beautiful parable out of your life.