Be Clean!

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Mark 1:40-45 (Jesus Heals the Leper)

INTRODUCTION: So what is happening in this story? Mark has already told us that Jesus was healing all sorts of people with all sorts of diseases. Why does he now stop to tell us this particular story? There is a reason the individual miracle stories are recorded for us in the Bible, and God intends for us to learn from them. So, as we look more closely at this story, I want us to consider three things. First of all we will consider the leper; secondly, we will consider Jesus; and thirdly we will consider the deeper meaning of it all.

I. Consider the leper (verse 40)

First of all, consider the leper. Look at verse 40:

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” (Mark 1:40)

    A. His hopeless condition

There are a number of things we can learn from the leper. First, consider his hopeless condition. Have you ever felt hopeless? Have you ever felt like there was no way out and nothing worthwhile in your future? Then you can identify with this poor leper.

The word used for “leprosy” here can refer to a number of different skin diseases, but leprosy is a particularly dreadful disease that has afflicted many people over the years. Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is caused by bacteria that attack your nervous system. You begin to lose the feeling of sensation in your body, which leaves you vulnerable to all sorts of problems. It is a progressive disease which if not caught early can cause permanent damage to your skin, nerves, limbs and eyes.

Dr. Paul Brand, who spent decades studying leprosy among lepers in India describes its effects:

The gradual loss of the sense of pain leads to misuse of those body parts most dependent on pain’s protection. A person uses a hammer with a splintery handle, does not feel the pain, and an infection flares up. Another steps off a curb, spraining an ankle, and, oblivious, keeps walking. Another loses use of the nerve that triggers the eyelid to blink every few seconds for lubricating moisture; the eye dries out, and the person becomes blind. (Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, p. 37)

Leprosy was not only physically debilitating; it was also a socially isolating disease. People were so scared of contracting the disease that lepers were banned from the community and had to live outside the towns in colonies. They were outcasts from society and even from their own families and homes. Those with leprosy had to keep their distance from others, and if they did enter a town, they had to cover their faces and either ring a bell to announce their presence or cry out “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn others about their condition. The sad thing is we know now that leprosy was not as contagious as everyone feared. 95% of people are immune to the disease, and those who are vulnerable to it can live safely among lepers as long as they exercise proper care and hygiene.

Leprosy was also an emotionally scarring disease. When you contracted leprosy, your disease became your identity. You didn’t just have leprosy. You were a leper. You were untouchable. The disease affected your physical appearance. We all want to look good in the mirror, right? Imagine a disease that progressively disfigures your body and especially your face. The emotional fallout from leprosy was severe.

Not only that, there were spiritual effects as well. Most people at the time viewed leprosy as God’s punishment for sin. So not only did you struggle with the disease, you were blamed for it as well. You were also unable to participate in the religious community, although some synagogues set apart a special section for those with leprosy.

Although leprosy can be treated today, there were no cures in those days. A leper was at the mercy of the disease and had no hope for healing or re-entering society. That was the leper’s condition here in Mark 1. He was physically suffering, socially isolated, emotionally scarred, and spiritually abandoned.

    B. His desperate plea

But then, all of a sudden, a ray of hope entered his hopeless life. He heard about this new teacher in town who was able to heal. Could it be true? Was there any chance this teacher could heal him? And so the leper “came to [Jesus] and begged him on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean.’” (Mark 1:40)

I want you to notice how desperate the leper is in making this plea. First of all, he comes to Jesus. That was not allowed. As a leper, you were supposed to keep your distance from people. But he is so desperate he comes right up to Jesus, close enough for Jesus to reach out and touch him.

Secondly, he doesn’t just ask Jesus. He begs him. Have you ever begged God for something? It is a whole different ballgame from just saying your prayers. When you are desperate, you cry out; you call out to God and plead with him to help you. This leper begged Jesus.

Not only that but he fell on his knees before Christ. When someone falls on their knees to ask you something, you know they are desperate. I’ve only got down on my knees once to ask someone something, and that was just one knee, and that was when I asked Rose to marry me. Yes, you could say I was desperate! (Maybe if she had said no, the other knee would have gone down!) This leper comes to Jesus, falling down on both knees before him, begging him to help.

    C. His determined faith

And then notice his determined faith. “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” He does not presume on Jesus to heal, but he does not doubt his power or ability. He has heard the testimony of others whom Jesus has healed. He knows this is his only hope for healing. He does not demand that Jesus heal him, but humbly puts himself in Jesus’ hands. He puts it all on Jesus. “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Simple, humble, determined faith. I believe that is the way God still wants us to approach him today. Yes, your situation may be hopeless in human terms, but never with God. Come to God, pour out your heart to him, tell him your need, and then leave it with him. “If you are willing, you can heal me. If you are willing, you can help me. Oh God, I know you can do all things. I trust myself to you.” That was how the leper approached Jesus.

II. Consider Jesus (verses 41-45)

So, that’s the leper. let’s consider Jesus next in the story. Look at verses 41-42:

Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured. (Mark 1:41-42)

    A. His compassionate response

The first thing I want you to notice about Jesus is his compassionate response. “Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.”

Nothing is ever routine with Jesus. Jesus wasn’t just healing people out of a sense of obligation or to demonstrate the truth of his message or to fulfill his mission. But Jesus had genuine compassion for people. He cared for their needs. When Jesus looked at this leper who had suffered so much and now had come to him desperate but determined, he was filled with compassion for him. Jesus was genuinely moved and felt this man’s hurt deeply.

Not only that Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. Now Jesus often touched people when he healed them, but there is another aspect to this that I don’t want you to miss. Think about it, would you touch a leper? How about an aids patient? Okay, now you’re getting the idea. I can just imagine everyone shrinking back in horror as Jesus reached out his hand. “Is he really going to touch him? Is he really going to do that?” In touching a leper, Jesus made himself ceremonially unclean and exposed himself to the disease. But none of that mattered to Jesus because he had compassion on this man.

You see, nobody touched a leper, which means a leper was never touched. Physical touch is so important. We all need a hug, or a touch on the arm, or a slap on the back now and then. But if you were a leper, you were cut off from all human touch. Can you imagine going days, or months, or years without anyone touching you? Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. Why? Because Jesus was filled with compassion for him.

    B. His power and willingness to heal

The second thing I want you to notice about Jesus was his power and willingness to heal. I love the interchange of words between Jesus and the leper. The leper says, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus says, “I am willing. Be clean.”

Jesus was not only willing, but he also had the power to heal. Touching the leper had the opposite effect from what people expected. Instead of Jesus becoming ill, the leper became well. Jesus merely spoke the word, and the man was immediately cured. That word “cured” in verse 42 is the same word for “clean” that both Jesus and the leper used. So Mark emphasizes not only that the leper was cured, but that he was “made clean,” something we will return to in just a few minutes.

    C. His instructions to the cleansed leper

But before we get to that, I want you to notice Jesus’ instructions to the cleansed leper. Look at verses 43-44:

Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” (Mark 1:43-44)

Jesus’ instructions were two-fold: 1) Don’t tell anyone, and 2) Go show yourself to the priest. Going to the priest was necessary for the man to re-enter society. You can read about it in Leviticus 14:1-32. It was a long, elaborate procedure involving birds, water, bathing, shaving, the washing of clothes and the sacrifice of three lambs. Although Jesus would later criticize the man-made traditions that the Scribes and Pharisees had added to the law, we see from this incident that Jesus respected the law itself and encouraged others to observe it.

As far as not telling anyone, we have already seen Jesus stopping the demons from telling who he was. Now he gives a stern warning to the leper: “Don’t tell this to anyone.” The form used here is the strongest possible prohibition in the Greek language.

You might wonder why Jesus didn’t want him to tell. There are a number of other instances in the gospels where Jesus performs a miracle and then instructs people not to tell as well. We don’t know all the reasons why Jesus wanted to keep his identity and his healing miracles a secret, but we do get a clue here in verse 45. When Jesus told the man not to tell anyone:

Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere. (Mark 1:45)

Jesus’ mission was to go to all the various towns and villages preaching the good news of God’s kingdom. And yes, he intended to heal people in those villages and cast out demons, but the message always came first. Now because his fame was spreading, he could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in the lonely places. And yet the people still came to him from everywhere.

III. Consider the deeper meaning

We have considered the leper, and we have considered Jesus, but now I want us to take a minute to consider the deeper meaning behind this miracle. You see, Jesus did not just perform miracles, but the Bible tells us that they were also signs. A sign is something that points to something else. And that means that Jesus’ miracles had meaning beyond themselves.

On one level, they were a demonstration that God’s kingdom had indeed come with the arrival of Christ. But the individual miracles also pointed to deeper truths. When Jesus fed the five thousand, he then pointed to himself as the bread of life. Physical blindness was a symbol of spiritual blindness to God’s truth; physical deafness was a symbol of the stubbornness of man in not hearing God’s word; and physical leprosy was a symbol of spiritual uncleanness before God. And that is really the whole point of this passage: that Jesus can make clean that which is unclean. And so let me share three truths of Scripture that I believe God wants us to understand from this passage.

    A. We are all spiritually unclean.

First, we are all spiritually unclean. Isaiah 64:6 says, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” We have all sinned, and therefore we are all spiritually unclean. We are all like the leper, except that we are cut off and separated from God himself. Do you understand the seriousness of your sin? Unless the sin in your life is taken care of, you cannot enter heaven. You cannot be a part of God’s family.

    B. We cannot cleanse ourselves.

And so we are all spiritually unclean. Not only that, we cannot cleanse ourselves. The Bible says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) We are spiritually unclean, and we cannot cleanse ourselves. No amount of good works or effort can make you clean before God. The leper could not make himself clean, and neither can you or I.

    C. Only Jesus can make us clean.

Ephesians 2:12 speaks of a time when we were “without hope and without God in the world.” Doesn’t that sound like the leper? He was cut off. He was unclean. His condition was hopeless. But then he met Jesus. And he cast himself on Christ’s mercy and said, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” And Jesus said, “I am willing. Be clean!”

That is the third truth I want you to understand this morning. Only Jesus can make you clean. You are a sinner, and you are separated from God because of your sin. You cannot cleanse yourself. Without Jesus you are hopelessly lost. Only Jesus can make you clean.

Jesus didn’t say to the leper, “You are clean,” for the leper was not. He didn’t say to the leper, “Go clean yourself,” for the leper could not. Instead, he said, “Be clean,” and the leper was immediately cleansed from his disease.

It is the same way with sin in our lives. Jesus does not say to you, “You are clean,” for you are not. He does not say to you, “Clean yourself,” for you cannot. But when you come to him confessing your sin and putting your trust in him, he says to you, “Be clean,” and you are immediately cleansed from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

We read King David’s words from Psalm 51 earlier this morning: “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51:7) Acts 22:16 says, “What are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name,” the name of Jesus, the only one who can make you clean.

CONCLUSION: Last week I shared with you a way of applying the gospel narratives to your own life. After you have read through the narrative, stop and identify with each person in the narrative asking what you can learn from their place in the story. We have already spent a good deal of time identifying with the unclean leper in the story. But what about Jesus? As followers of Jesus, what can we learn from Jesus’ role in the story?

Well, this story does not mean that we should go around touching sick lepers and making them well. But it does mean that we should be reaching out with love and compassion to the lonely and isolated in society.

Let me talk to the teens here for just a minute. Did you know that you have lepers in your schools? No, they don’t have the disease of leprosy, but they are the untouchables, the ones that no one will talk to or befriend. You know who they are. And just like lepers, they sometimes hang out in colonies, separated from everyone else at school. As a follower of Jesus, how will you respond to them? What might Jesus be asking you to do, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps in the cafeteria during lunch time?

Adults, we too need to be reaching gout with Christ’s love to the marginalized and lonely in our community. What might Jesus be asking you to do?

Jesus’ healing of the leper was a tender act of compassion. It was a wonderful miracle and a marvelous demonstration of Christ’s power over sickness and disease. But it was also much more than that. It was meant as a sign to you and me. We are spiritually unclean. We cannot clean ourselves. Only Jesus can make you clean.

© Ray Fowler

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