Today Mark shows us the bold faith of a leper and the compassionate cleansing that Jesus gives him. The man is so overjoyed that he can’t help but tell everyone he meets about the Jesus who saved him. We are not likely to battle a disease like leprosy today, but Jesus still cleanses us of our sin and unrighteousness when we come to Him in faith.
The Text (Mark 1:40-45)
40 Now a leper came to Him, imploring Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.”
41 Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.” 42 As soon as He had spoken, immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed. 43 And He strictly warned him and sent him away at once, 44 and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing those things which Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
45 However, he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the matter, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter the city, but was outside in deserted places; and they came to Him from every direction.
Leprosy is a horrible disease. It slowly kills people and gives them ugly, scaly skin that dulls their sensation and can cause parts of their bodies to rot away and fall off. For most of history, it was incurable; only since the 1980s have we been able to treat it (it takes a combination of several antibiotics, and antibiotics weren’t in widespread use until the 1940s). It’s actually not as contagious as it looks, but in biblical times people didn’t know that. Lepers were forced to live alone or in special colonies with other lepers. They had to shout out, “Unclean!” as people approached to warn them that they were infected. Worse still, the Old Testament laws declared lepers to also be spiritually unclean, unable to participate in the temple sacrifices and worship.
Based on this background, we realize that Mark wants us to be shocked by what happens in this story. The leper truly believes that Jesus can make him well. He is willing to endure the disapproving looks and words of the crowds to come to Jesus. He humbles himself before the Lord Jesus and begs for Christ’s mercy and grace. Jesus does not turn him away. Did Christ also cleanse the man of his sins that day? We don’t know, but seeing the incredible joy of the man after he meets Jesus, I think it is very likely. Also, Jesus shows that He was the fulfillment of the law by having the power to make the unclean clean, yet still instructing the cleansed man to obey the Old Testament rules and show his cleansed body to the priest. This would allow him to participate in temple worship and the Jewish community again. I believe that Jesus had made him clean in more ways than one.
We want to be careful not to overspiritualize every story in Scripture. Not every literal thing is symbolic. This event is surely another example of Jesus’ physical healing powers like we saw with His healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. But Jesus’ commands regarding the priest and ceremonial rules and the continued use of the word “cleanse” instead of “heal” suggest that Mark does intend to show us more with this story. This story does show Jesus’ power to make the spiritually unclean person clean, which is exactly what happens when people are saved. Christians are people who have repented and turned to God in faith. Like the leper, we have surrendered our lives to Christ and begged for His mercy and grace. And like the leper, we have found that Jesus did not turn us away. He loved us, reached out to us, and healed us of our spiritual leprosy. He has made us clean in God’s sight – Amen! And thankfully, we are not commanded to keep silent about what Jesus has done for us (this was probably an issue of timing for this story – Christ did not want want His audiences to be too big because it restricted His ministry opportunities while also speeding up His showdowns with the evil religious leaders). No, quite the opposite. God wants us to tell others about the great things He has done. Rejoice again in your salvation today and look for chances to tell others about the Jesus who can “cleanse the leper’s spots.”