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The Life of Jesus - Series 3: Episode 7

The man healed of leprosy

| Martin Charlesworth
Luke 5:12-16
Matthew 8:1-4
Mark 1:40-45

A leper is cured and sent to the priests, following regulations that they must declare him cured. Leprosy has severe social consequences. Jesus again takes time to pray.

A leper is cured and sent to the priests, following regulations that they must declare him cured. Leprosy has severe social consequences. Jesus again takes time to pray.


Hello and welcome to Series 3, Episode 7 and this is about 'A man healed from leprosy'. The text I'm going to use in a moment is Luke 5: 12 - 16. There are parallel accounts in Matthew and Mark as well.

Introduction and Recap

First of all, we'll remind ourselves of the setting: Jesus is in the height of his public ministry in Galilee, travelling around from place to place teaching, healing, casting out demons, and drawing huge crowds. This was an unprecedented event in the life of Galilee; people had never seen anybody quite like Jesus and they'd never seen any ministry quite like Jesus' - it was a sensation! Some people were beginning to wonder, “Well, you know, who is this - a prophet? Is this the divine Son of God, Son of David?” and all these questions were beginning to come to mind. It was still early days and the focus tended to be on his miracles. He'd started out in his headquarters, the fishing village of Capernaum, and he was now travelling around. In the last episode, going back to the beginning of Luke 5, we noted how Jesus was beginning to draw together a more coherent discipleship group and Peter, Andrew, James and John the fishermen were called, dramatically, through a remarkable miracle of catching an amazing number of fish. They were called through this incident to leave their fishing trade and their family business, and to follow Jesus - which is exactly what they did. As Jesus is travelling around now, we can imagine that he's got people travelling with him, disciples who are following him on the road. We come now to a particular healing miracle that has a lot of interest for us and is remarkable: for the very first time in the Gospel narratives the sickness, the skin disease called leprosy, is mentioned. Let's  read the account and then we'll talk a little more about leprosy and what exactly happened. Luke 5: 12 - 16:

‘While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. Then Jesus ordered him, “Don't tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.’

Luke 5:12-16, NIV

Let's talk a little about leprosy before we look at the account. In the ancient world, leprosy the skin disease, was greatly feared; it still exists in the world today. It's a bacterial skin condition that damages the nerves in the skin and spreads across the body and can cause a lot of damage to joints in the body (like elbows or wrists or knees) and if it spreads to the eyes it damages the eyelids so that you can't blink properly and, therefore, grit gets in your eyes which can lead to blindness. If it gets to your hands it can cause your hands to become fixed in a deformed position. You're not able to use your hands or you can lose the use of your hands, or even lose fingers. It can affect your legs and it goes all over the body. It causes clumsiness and accidents and the inability to live normally and to work. It's a progressive disease (so once you've got it, it just works through your body step-by-step) and it's infectious by touch. In the modern world, we can cure leprosy through drugs (medical drugs) and there is a great movement in our world today to overcome leprosy through medical intervention and health care - which is wonderful and we support that, but even in our world today, there are approximately 3 million people living who've got permanent deficiencies in their body and damage to their body caused by leprosy. There are about 250,000 new cases of leprosy diagnosed every year - particularly in some countries (such as India, Bangladesh, Brazil). There are a number of countries which are prone to leprosy and it disproportionately affects poor people. Leprosy in the ancient world is widely reported; it existed across many cultures and it existed in Israel and it was greatly feared. Every ancient society dealt with leprosy by excluding lepers: separating them from the main society, separating them from towns and villages and communal life and even from family. This was really tough for those who suffered leprosy. They would live either on their own or in lepers' colonies, or villages, where they would live together with fellow sufferers only and their social connection with the rest of society was restricted and certainly touch was forbidden. Generally speaking, they weren't allowed in villages and towns to mix with other people. This was also the case in ancient Israel. Similar to other nations, they excluded lepers and leprosy was regulated by the Law of Moses and in Leviticus 13 and 14, the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, there are regulations concerning how to deal with lepers. Here's something that Leviticus 13 says about lepers, just to give you an idea of the seriousness of the situation for those who are suffering. Leviticus 13: 45 and 46:

‘“Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.’

Leviticus 13:45-46

This was at a time when the Israelites were camping in the wilderness - outside of society, outside of community, lepers were socially excluded; the damage to lepers was not only physical - it wasn't only their skin and their joints and their eyes and their limbs that were affected - it was emotional and mental too. They were scarred by a sense of being excluded from society, of being second-class citizens, of being not wanted in their particular society. That's what we need to have in mind when we consider this particular story.

There is, interestingly enough, an outstanding example of a healing of leprosy in the Old Testament. In 2 Kings we find that the prophet Elisha is able to bring about the healing of a foreigner, a Syrian, by the name of Naaman (who was actually a military leader and had a Jewish servant girl in his family, who told him to go to Israel and seek out the prophet Elisha). He was told to wash seven times in the River Jordan which he did and then, immediately, he was healed and his skin became like a young man's skin all over again. Healing from leprosy was known but was very rare and it's an illness that didn't spontaneously overcome itself; people didn't recover spontaneously from leprosy easily.

The Leper comes to Jesus

What was interesting is that while he was in one of the towns it says, ‘a man came along who was covered with leprosy.’ Even that is a shock because they weren't allowed in the towns! This man was so determined to see Jesus that he broke social convention, and he broke even the Law of Moses, the religious laws that guided Israel at the time, by coming into the town and presenting himself to Jesus. ‘When he saw Jesus he fell with his face to the ground and begged him.’ This is real urgency; this is real courage! There's a real risk to this man coming into town; he could easily have been intercepted by other people who either recognised him, or who noticed his condition if it was visible, who would then prevent him going any further. He could have been beaten; he could have been excluded; he could have been told to leave; he could have been put in prison - all sorts of things could have happened. He was breaking the rules, breaking social convention and he was pursuing Jesus very determinedly. With great determination, he came and begged Jesus, putting his face right into the ground. This is a really graphic and moving description of a man who was desperate. There wasn't anything else there to help him but he'd heard about Jesus. Even in the lepers' communities (out of the villages, in the countryside) they heard about Jesus. They saw the crowds; they saw people who had been healed; they heard people saying that a prophet had come to Israel - someone with miraculous powers. He pleaded and he said, “If you're willing, please just heal me. Please heal me from leprosy.” Jesus movingly and wonderfully said, “I am willing ... Be clean!” Jesus so much wants people to be well.

The account tells us that he was immediately healed. It says, ‘immediately the leprosy left him.’ How would he know that? Sometimes it's hard to know whether an illness has left you, if you've been prayed for, or been treated for an illness. Time needs to pass before you can be certain. There's two things that might have guided him: one was that he could see changes in his skin - a bit like the story of Naaman in the Old Testament that I mentioned - you can see when your skin is leprous and you can see when your skin is normal. It's an easy thing to do visually. He could look at those parts of his body in which the skin was leprous and he could see a change. The other thing that he may well have done is to feel the difference because what leprosy does, as we mentioned earlier, is to damage the nerves. You're losing feeling, numbness comes, and clumsiness comes; it's difficult to feel things. That can happen in your feet, it can happen with your hands, it can happen with your skin. Maybe he felt the feeling coming back, literally. Maybe he could touch things and feel them more decisively; maybe his walking got better because the nerve damage in his feet was overcome. Either of these possibilities are true, probably both happened - he saw the difference and felt the difference and he knew that he had been healed.

Jesus Send Him to the Priests

Jesus asks him to do something unusual. This doesn't normally happen when Jesus heals; he doesn't give a particular request that people should do at that particular point. But Jesus was under the Law of Moses - so the regulations of Leviticus 13 onwards, concerning skin disease and leprosy was still in force, and there was still a rule in Israel. The people who were allowed to adjudicate, or decide who had leprosy and who did not have leprosy, were the priests. That was their authority and there was a system by which they had to examine the skin and look for various formations on the skin to see whether someone had leprosy or not, this was written in the Law of Moses. And so Jesus said, “Go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” When he said this to the man, he was basically saying go to Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the capital city, was the place where the priests worked and operated in the Temple. This is where it all happened: you make sacrifices: the priests conduct the investigation; and the priests make the declaration clean or unclean. It's under their authority; they make the decision. That process was still working in the day of Jesus - so he said to the man go to Jerusalem. That's a long journey; several days journey just to get there, several days journey to get back. You can't really make the journey there and back in much less than a week and spend maybe a day in Jerusalem, but it might have taken two weeks with all the processes that went on in the city - we don't know. This is actually a big thing that Jesus is asking him to do: leave your leper colony, travel up to the city of Jerusalem, walk into the city, present yourself to the priests in the Temple and they have the process of examination for you to go through. This was to be ‘a testimony to them.’

This is an interesting point too because Jesus was operating mainly in Galilee. He'd been to Jerusalem, we saw in John's Gospel, to cleanse the Temple and he'd spoken to Nicodemus, performed some signs (or miracles) and there was some beginning of concern about Jesus in Jerusalem. If this man went to the priests and said, “I've been healed of leprosy by Jesus of Nazareth, the prophet of Galilee - a healer and a wonder worker,” then this would go down in the priestly records. It would go before the Jewish ruling council at some point, there will be some consideration: “Who is this man? We've now got a documented miracle in front of us because we look at this man, he hasn't got any leprosy, we declare him clean.” So this was ‘a testimony to them,’ which is the words that Luke uses, and it provoked them to start investigating Jesus. Shortly after this, they send down teams of investigators to Galilee to find out what's going on - but that is not our story today. We'll come back to that point on another occasion.

This wonderful healing miracle shows Jesus' power, his compassion, and it shows how a man who is completely excluded, with no real hope in life, can find a complete new life. Remember lepers also were poor; they begged, they couldn't earn money in the ordinary way. They were separated from their land, very few of them could conduct any little craft or trade because they had difficulty with the use of their hands, and their goods may not be accepted in market trading because they weren't allowed to go to the marketplace. They were poor; they depended on charity, they depended on gifts, they depended on family members supporting them and that didn't always take place. A wonderful healing miracle and at the end it says, verse 15: ‘Yet the news about him spread all the more, (and the) crowds ... came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses.’ Jesus' reputation just keeps on growing through this period. We've seen it in previous episodes: more and more people hearing about him; more and more people coming to see him; more and more people seeking healing.

Jesus Takes Time to Pray

The final verse brings us back to an important theme: ‘But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.’ If you've been following this series (Series 3) you'll know that I've already mentioned that the Gospel writers describe Jesus as, as a matter of habit, withdrawing for periods of time for prayer on his own, getting away from the crowds, getting away from other people, and praying. ‘he withdrew to lonely places and prayed,’ that means he went out of the villages, out of the towns, into the countryside. It probably meant that he went up hills and into remote places in order to gain some privacy and in order to pray to his heavenly Father because, as he says in other contexts, he can only do what he sees his Father doing. The relationship between Jesus and the Father is very important and he listens to his Father's voice and takes guidance from him. A wonderful story, I hope you've enjoyed it.


What reflections and points of learning can we take from this story? First of all, the sheer boldness and humility of the leper is astounding! He hadn't been into town for years, probably. He'd been an outcast, excluded, forced to live elsewhere, and he braved it. He was brave enough to risk exclusion and rejection - the sort of rejection he'd experienced before - and he didn't know for certain what Jesus' response would be. He hadn't met Jesus before, he'd only heard about him; he didn't know him personally. It was a risk. It was bold. It was humility but it was vindicated: Jesus saw that humility and boldness and faith and responded warmly to it. You and I, in our lives, need to be very bold in approaching God, sometimes when there is a crisis or a need. Come to him in prayer, ask for his intervention, ask for him to do a miracle - maybe even a healing miracle. Can I encourage you? You can be as bold as that leper! You can come to Jesus with your urgent, or even critical, needs and say, “Lord, heal me. Lord intervene in my life. Lord touch me. Lord do something for me.” I want to encourage you to raise your faith and for some of you reading this, you'll know that this word and this message and this part of this message is for you because that's what you need to do right now.

Another interesting reflection I have is that divine healings and miracles can be verified or demonstrated by outsiders - either medically or, in this case, by the priesthood. Jesus was inviting the priests to check it out to see if it was true. Any Christian healing today will, ultimately, be validated by a medical assessment, or a professional assessment, or someone who understands illnesses. It would be easy to see that something remarkable has happened - this is what happened with the leper.

Jesus practised regular, extensive prayer on his own. It was a discipline, he made the decision: ‘he often withdrew.’ That was a decision. If you withdraw to lonely places, if you withdraw to be on your own, it's a decision. It goes against the grain sometimes when we want people's company, we want people's encouragement or to be with people but there is a certain sense in which we have to seek God and seek his fellowship and pray to him privately. This message has already come out in other episodes, it'll come out again when we study the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, but I encourage you to follow the practice of seeking out God's presence through private prayer.

The final thing I want to say is that this passage encourages us that social outcasts are welcomed in God's family because there's a deeper message here than just a message about healing. The leper was being reintroduced into society because when he came back to his own area (having been to Jerusalem, having been declared clean or healed) he would then have the right to re-enter society, to go back to his family home, to go back to his previous work, to go back to his village or his farm or wherever he had come from. He had the opportunity of joining the disciples of Jesus, joining the followers of Jesus, becoming part of Jesus' committed followers and he would be welcomed. Jesus welcomed social outcasts into his community and that community became the Church after the Day of Pentecost. We can legitimately say that the Church today is for those who society would reject: through class, through caste, through race, through illness or disability, or any other reason. This is a really wonderful story that encourages us that God's family embraces all types of people. I want to encourage you - don't consider yourself an outcast. If you have faith in Jesus then you become, automatically, part of his family. If you are in a church, or if you're a church leader, let me encourage you to have a heart that welcomes the outcast: the person who wouldn't naturally fit in, the person from another ethnic group, the person from another area, the person from another race, the person from another class, the person from another caste. This is the Kingdom of God. This is God's family. That leper, on that day, was given the opportunity not only to be healed of sickness but to join God's family and to have his heart healed from the mental and emotional scars of the rejection that would have lived with him for many years as he resided outside the town, outside the city, outside the village, amongst other lepers, in loneliness and in isolation, in poverty and rejection. That all ended on that day and he started a new life and had the opportunity to be part of God's Kingdom. That's a wonderful story. Many, many people have followed this leper and come into God's Kingdom and realised their significance and value isn't based on their background; it's based on how much God loves them and their response to his love and their faith in Jesus.

Thank you for reading.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Leprosy caused this man to be a social outcast. Who are the social outcasts of your society and are they welcomed by the church?
    2. The leper asks Jesus for healing. What healing miracles do you need to ask for? Ask God for them now!
  • Discipleship
    1. Once again, Jesus takes time to pray. Copy his example!
    2. Think about how to include people in the church? Are there people on the fringe of your community who need to know God's welcome?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. How important is it for healings to be verified by others e.g. doctors?
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