Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

33. A Leper Cleansed (Matthew 8:2-4; Mark 1:35-45; Luke 4:42-44; 5:12-16)*

Although that sabbath had meant anything but rest, in the sense of relaxation, for Jesus, he was up next morning long before the others. Mark’s expressive phrase is: “in the morning much in the night he went out and went away.” Jesus needed solitude for thought and prayer. The previous day had presented him with a problem. His deep sympathy for sufferers almost drove him to the working of miracles. But the excitement created was proving a serious impediment to the yet more serious work of teaching which was to be the fundamental activity of his ministry. His works of healing were bringing vast multitudes of sensation-crazy people together. This was not the kind of audience he sought. Then, for the sake of ridding himself of the unspiritual crowd, must he desist from the works of grace which also could be such a powerful means of instruction to those who had eyes to see?

Prayer about a Problem

At the first glimmer of dawn Jesus was walking purposefully up into the hills that he might lay this dilemma before his Father and seek in prayer the wisest policy to follow. “Morning by morning he wakeneth (me), he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned (or, as my disciples). The Lord God hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious” (ls. 50:4, 5). “I prevented the dawning of the morning, and cried: I hoped in thy word”. (Ps. 119:147, 148). And it was from God’s Word, if not from direct

revelation from the Father, that guidance came: “Mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to (Galilee of) the Gentiles. He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.” Nevertheless, “a bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench...” (ls. 42:1-3).

It was the second temptation once again. And again Jesus had to resolve to have no truck with sensationalism for its own sake. The message of God’s wondrous kingdom must not be cheapened by pandering to the crowd’s appetite for bread and circuses. At the same time God’s gracious gifts of healing must not be withheld from those who came to him making the piteous appeal of helpless faith.

Hunted down

The problem was barely resolved before the peace and solitude of this place of prayer was interrupted. As soon as people were astir they were clamouring for Jesus again. Not finding him in the house, they sought in every place they could think of, but without success. But Peter and the other disciples had a better idea where he might be found, and at last they “hunted him down” (Mark’s vigorous word) in his place of prayer.

When they came right up to him (Luke’s Greek perhaps implying that they picked him out first from some distance away), it was almost in tones of reproach that they said, rather obviously: “All men seek for thee” (Mk.) -- as if to say: ‘You have a duty to your public, you can’t disappoint them.’ But in answer Jesus reminded them that he had a duty to others also: “Let us go elsewhere (somewhere different from this! anywhere away from Capernaum in its present mood!) into the next towns, that I may preach there also: for therefore came I forth.” The reference is not to his escape from the Capernaum multitude, but either to his mission from God, or -- perhaps more probably -- to his leaving Nazareth, for the parallel phrase in Luke is: “for therefore was I sent” (4:43). That “Let us go...” was significant, for it meant that Jesus was set on having these, his called disciples, with him all the time. The heavenly duty which lay on him lay on them also, if less obviously.

The People’s Eagerness

By this time the crowd also had arrived, and when they realised Jesus’ intention they showed signs of forcibly restraining him, “that he should not depart from them” (Lk). It is only when the repetitious emphasis of the gospels is given due consideration that it can be appreciated what a problem the eagerness of the multitudes constantly created for Jesus. These additional examples are all from Luke’s gospel:

“The people pressed upon him to hear the word of God” (5:1). “They could not find by what way they might bring him (the palsied man) in because of the multitude” (5:19). “The whole multitude sought to touch him” (6:19). “His mother and his brethren could not come at him for the press” (8:19). “The people gladly > received him: for they were all waiting for him”(8:40). “There were gathered together an innumerable multitude of people, insomuch that they trade one upon another” (12:1). “And all the people came early in the morning to him in the temple for to hear him” (21:38).

“It is necessary”

From now on, his deprivation of peace and quiet was an incessant problem to Jesus. In this instance the motive of these sensation-hungry people was so palpably wrong that he was positively eager to be rid of them. And the call of duty required that he should. “I must preach the kingdom of God to other cities also” (Lk. cp. Mt. 8:18). This “must” was a moral1 obligation not to be evaded. It was also the imperative of Holy Scripture, the imperative of’ his Father’s will. The duty and work of the Messiah were already written in the Word of God. From the very first: “I must be about my Father’s business” (Lk. 2:49), to the last: “It. behoved the Christ to suffer, and to rise from the < dead the third day” (24:46), the life and* activity of the Suffering Servant of the Lord were I written beforehand. (See notes).

A very determined leper

The gospels proceed now to illustrate the new! policy of Jesus in the exercise of his powers of healing.

He had been busy preaching in some other; city, and was now indoors with the disciples (sot Mark’s record implies) when a man riddled with leprosy made his way in, determined to have; the help which he knew Jesus could give. Some have inferred from Luke’s graphic phrase: “full of leprosy”, that here was the very case’ described in Leviticus 13:12, 13 which the Law pronounced “clean”. This is a mistaken’ identification. The symptom when the skin is “allf turned white” indicates a relatively harmless’* skin disease which is not really leprosy at all.

This man was badly afflicted by the real thing.’ Officially he was banned not only from the house but from entering the city. It is a measure of his determination to be healed that he

penetrated to the presence of Jesus in this way. His achievement of this intention may readily be imagined. When Jesus was out of doors there would always be a crowd about him. Access was then impossible. So, always, from a distance, this poor outcast would be on the look out to learn where Jesus was going. The chance to get near him would not be easily come by. It is conceivable that hours and even days of vigilance and scheming were necessary before he was able to seize his opportunity. But now, at last, he was in the presence of the one he sought.

Health Restored

The unrestrained horror of the disciples (implied by Luke in one word) meant nothing to him. First, he stood before Jesus, displaying the hideousness of his plague. Then, still keeping his distance, he fell on his knees (Mk) and implored (Lk) Jesus to heal him. With face to the ground (Lk) he continued in an attitude of worship (Mt.), still begging Jesus to come to his aid: “Lord, if thou art willing, thou hast power to cleanse me in a moment.” Commenting on this “If thou wilt”, Plummer observes: “He has more trust in Christ’s power than in his goodness.”

Jesus paused, surveying with deep compassion the pitiful human wreck before him, and then -- no doubt to the consternation of his disciples -- he leaned forward and actually touched (or even grasped firmly) the importunate wretch still bowed before him: “I am willing. Be cleansed.” And in a moment the thing was done. A fit healthy man rose to his feet.

A Solemn Charge

His torrent of astonished and delighted thankfulness was cut short by Jesus whose mood seemed suddenly to have changed. With stern demeanour (Mk), and using a strong double negative (Mk), he gave him strict instructions not to talk about this wonderful recovery with which his faith had been answered. It was the first example of the new policy which Jesus sought to follow in the exercise of his miraculous powers. Heal he must. The profound human sympathy within him was not to be restrained, and indeed ought not. But as far as possible these cures must be done unsensationally. So let this leper show his gratitude by keeping quiet about it. And with that Jesus took him to the door and sent him urgently away (Mk). The mere fact of intimate contact with a leper, if it were known, could seriously impede the Lord’s public work, and could also damage the family who were then giving him hospitality. So the less said the better.

One other thing was impressed upon the man: “Go thy way, show thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing, those things which Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them” (Mk). There was a double purpose here. Witness to the religious leaders concerning the powers of Jesus was important and a very different matter from open display before an excitement-loving crowd. They would now learn that here was one whose power to cope with leprosy surpassed that of Moses (Num. 12:13). Also, it was essential that the authorities should have unmistakable evidence of the fundamental soundness of the attitude of Jesus towards the Law and the Temple.

Instructions disregarded

But the healed leper was not to be restrained (Ps. 66:13-20). Whether it was out of irrepressible gratitude or because he enjoyed the limelight and excitement, he blatantly disregarded the Lord’s express instructions, and went everywhere telling and re-telling his marvellous story (Mk). It is just possible that this reading of the text (as A.V. and practically every other translation) does the man an injustice. Mark 1:45 could read: “And he (Jesus) going forth began to proclaim many things and to spread the word abroad, so that...” But apart from the appreciable problem of the man’s disobedience (on which, cp.Mk. 7:36; Mt. 9:30, 31), the received reading goes more easily. (But on this, cp. Lk. 5 :15).

If correct, it means that Jesus’ intention to continue with his miracles of healing in a quiet unobtrusive fashion was defeated.

For a long while after this he was unable to enter a town at all, perhaps because the people were horrified to learn that he had had personal contact with a leper, but more likely because crowds eager for excitement and the marvellous, made almost impossible the proclamation of the gospel.

Disappointed and despondent, Jesus withdrew to a lonely place, and gave himself to renewed prayer (Lk). What was the answer to this difficult situation? It was a problem only to be resolved ultimately by the later change from popularity to disillusionment or hostility.

Symbolism again

To what extent, one wonders, did the disciples ruminate on the inner meaning of this latest astonishing display of divine power by Jesus? There are plenty of indications that in later days they saw most if not all of these miracles of their Lord as acted parables. Here, truly, was one of special value, for it taught them that the Son of God shared the defilement which sin had brought on all human nature -- shared this uncleanness and yet, marvel of marvels, remained undefiled, even though Mark’s phrase: “the leprosy departed from him” might mean that the uncleanness came from the man to Jesus. This notwithstanding, by his emphatic “Be thou clean” was not the Lord also asserting his office as a priest?

But the Law also declared that “whosoever shall touch the flesh of the Sin Offering (as this leper did when he touched Jesus) shall be holy” (Lev. 6:27). Thus the sinner cleansed of his sin through coming to Christ is under an obligation to permanent holiness! The only alternative for an “earthen vessel” is that it be smashed (v. 28).

Notes: Mark 1:35-45

A solitary place. The list of passages where the Lord sought solitude is impressive: 1:35-37; 3:7, 9, 20, 21; 4:35-38; 6:31; 7:17, 18, 24; 8:10, 11, 27; 9:30; 10:32; 14:32.

And there prayed. Other examples of prayer at night: Ps.119:62; Lam.2:19; Lk.11:5; Mt.26:39-46; Acts.16:25. Here praying doubtless about the tension already set up in his ministry between preaching and healing.
Followed after him. The verb is singular, indicating that Peter was the moving spirit in this pursuit.
The next towns. The word implies smaller places than Capernaum, which was a “city”.
In their synagogues, not in the market-places -- a strictly religious, and not political, campaign.
Heal me. The Greek aorist implies: right away; hence v. 42: “immediately”.
Touched him. Mt. 8:15 s.w. and its parallel in Mk. 1:31, krateo, might suggest a firm grip (as also in Jn. 20:17). Both Elijah and Elisha contracted technical defilement by contact with the dead; 1 Kgs 17:21; 2 Kgs 4:34.
He straitly charged him. This very unusual Greek word describes the snort of a horse or the roar of a lion. It certainly seems to suggest indignation; 14:5; Mt. 9:30; Jn. 11:33, 38. In LXX Lam. 2:6; Dan. 11:30; and in some versions: Jer. l0:10; 15:17; Ps. 76:7.
Say nothing to any man. This became the Lord’s settled policy for most of his ministry: 1:34; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26; Mt. 9:30; 17:9; 12:16 (one exception, and for good reason: Mk. 5:19). But in the last few months, a marked change: Jn. 9:3; 11:4; 7:37; Mt. 21:1-11.

For a testimony unto them (the priests). There might be a hint of rebuke here: 6:11; 13:9. Was Jesus so urgent because he feared that the priests, hearing about the miracle before the man came might out of spite refuse to accredit it as a genuine healing?
Blaze abroad the matter. Literally: spread the word. This might mean the word Jesus had spoken: “I will. Be thou clean.”

They came to him. Greek: they kept on coming.

Luke 4:42-44

When it was day. Literally: day coming on. Contrast Mk: deep in the night. Cp. the apparent contradiction in the resurrection narratives: Jn. 20:1; Mk. 16:2. No contradiction really. Lots of people set off for work in the dark and arrive there in daylight.

Stayed him. The word implies persistent and strong attempts to keep him there.
/ must. Other examples in Lk. 9:22; 17:25; 22:37; 24:7, 26, 44; Acts. 3:21; 17:3. This little Greek Word del (= it is necessary) merits attention. It is there also in ls. 50:4 LXX.
He preached. The form of the word suggests a sustained campaign through the area. This verse covers a period of weeks at least.

The synagogues of Galilee, some modern versions read “Judaea”. This is grossly misleading; even if textually correct (which is very doubtful), it must allude to the little Judah by Jordan (Josh. 19:34) which commemorated Judah’s special connection with Manasseh; 1 Chr. 2:21.

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