Rev. Moore is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa.

When he was come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him. And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. 

Matthew 8:1-3

There is much comfort for God’s church in the passage quoted above, for we recognize that we have so much more need to be cleansed than did this leper. And in the cleansing of this leper we are given the assurance that God shall so cleanse us. Let us therefore consider the truth which the Spirit teaches in this passage, as He would lead us into this comfort.

Leprosy was a disease dreaded, above all others in Israel. It was an incurable disease besides. There were some in times of old who did recover from it; but there was no medical cure of which man had knowledge. The only cure was that for which there was no earthly explanation. There was no medicine that could produce a cure, and no surgery that could combat this disease. Any time there was a cure, it was attributed to the direct work of God only, without the means of man.

Therefore, when Naaman the leper was sent by his master to the king of Israel, Jehoram cried out, “Am I a god to kill and make alive?” (II Kings 5:7). In the mind of the king a cure could be wrought only by God.

The disease of leprosy is rightly called the “living death.” Not only did the one having leprosy have theappearance of death, but the skin and tissues affected actually were lifeless and filled with decay—so much so that parts of the body would drop off as the disease advanced. The sores caused by the disease stank, and, as the disease was incurable, it led to certain death.

It is in harmony with the nature of the disease that the Scripture also presents the leper as if he were already as good as dead. It is for this reason that in the old dispensation lepers were required to cry out to any that they approached or that approached them, “Unclean, unclean.” This was not due to the contagiousness of the disease, for it was not as contagious as many diseases today. Only by direct contact, and then only if one had, himself some open wounds, would there be a likelihood of catching the disease. This was the reason that Naaman could still be active as a captain in the army of Syria.

Rather it was because of the nature of the disease, that it corrupted finally all the vital organs and members of the body, and because it was in effect the poisoning of the springs of life, and a dissolution bit by bit of the whole body, that it became known as the living death. The leper in the Mosaic law was considered as the dead. According to the law, an Israelite who touched a dead body was unclean. For that reason the leper was required to call out and warn those about him to stay away lest they become defiled. According to Leviticus 13:45, lepers had to wear the clothing of those that mourn, the signs of mourning their own death.

For this reason leprosy was a fitting and the God-ordained picture of sin and its consequences. This dread disease of death, because of its character, because of the law stating its impurity, and because of the results for those so struck by the disease, was determined by God to be a powerful picture of the deep, inward, all pervasive, and corrupting and destroying power of sin in the life of man. The leper was a pitiful picture of the sinner. Now let us understand that the leper is a picture of you and me, as we stand in and of ourselves, that is, in our natural strength. The leper is a picture of the utter depravity of natural man.

Now, according to the law, the leper was cut off from the congregation .of Israel. He was separated from the fellowship of the congregation. He could find communion only with those that were lepers as himself. He had to cry out, in order that others might be warned to stay clear of any contact or fellowship with him. Thus it is a powerful testimony of the power of sin in our lives, for that sin cuts us off from all fellowship with God and with His people. Our sin has brought us into the depths of spiritual death. And there is no natural deliverance of man from this state that leads us to eternal desolation. A fitting picture indeed of natural man.

The leper of our text

Miserable but blessed was this man whom the Scripture calls merely a leper. The word of Christ had reached his ear, and by his actions and words we may be assured that the word of the Lord had touched his heart. Not only can we believe that the leper heard the fame of Jesus that had gone throughout the land, but we can assume too that he must have ventured near enough to the multitude gathered here before Jesus, so that he might personally hear Him. While during the sermon of Jesus he stayed’ back far enough so as not to cause alarm in the multitude, yet he stood close enough to hear His Lord. And the teaching of Christ was applied to his heart, as we are led to believe from his actions and speech. For he approached Jesus, coming through the multitude to Him. This can only be the result of the irresistible drawing power of the Word of Christ upon his soul. For he would not otherwise have dared approach to Christ—though he may still have cried out, “Unclean, unclean,” as he approached.

The crowd would have given way to make room for his passage as he came closer to Christ. For Luke says he was full of leprosy. This man was a miserable sight. Yet he left all apprehension behind, having the word working in his .heart, and he dared to approach unto Christ. He comes, too, in humility and adoration. We read in the text from Matthew, “And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him.” The leper sees in Christ the Son of God. He acknowledges that Christ is God. He does this by worshipping Him and by the request he makes. He says, “if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.”

The leper could do this only because of a faith that was worked in his heart by Christ’s Spirit. Only in faith can we possibly see Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God who can save. Beloved, we who are of the elect are symbolized by this leper. Of ourselves we are leprous spiritually, we are corrupt sinners. Our sins are just as deadly to our spiritual lives as was the leprosy to this leper’s physical life. And there is for us only one possible place to go in our spiritual leprosy, and that is, by the grace of God, to Christ.

We must do so acknowledging that we are just as full of spiritual leprosy as the leper was full of physical disease. We are dead in sin and trespasses, and there is no escape that man or we can effect, there is no natural escape from the corruption and death that is our portion because of our sin. It is therefore needful that we come to Christ as did the leper; and we must do so only with the confession that we are unclean. We must confess with the apostle that we are the sinner, the chief of sinners. We must confess the fullness of our sinful estate, and seek the Lord’s mercy alone.

Yet we nevertheless come to Christ, believing that He is the God of our salvation, who if He wills can deliver us from certain destruction. Thus we come trusting only in the love of the eternally merciful God to save. We seek forgiveness of sin and the cleansing work of Christ to make us whole, to make us to be worthy children; who may, fellowship with God.

The One cleansing

Jesus did not stop the leper from approaching him, nor does He prevent his worship of Him. The leper saw in Christ what many others did not. He saw in Jesus God come in our flesh, who could heal him and could save him from the depth of his misery. And Jesus was moved with compassion, according to the account of Mark. He touched the leper. When we have compassion upon one who is suffering misery, we may wish that we could bear some of his burden. However, we are often unable. But this is exactly what our Lord does!

God Himself, without any worthiness on our part, but in elective love in the Person of His Son, takes upon Himself the burden of our afflictions and misery. With respect to the leper, Jesus puts forth His hand and touched him. Jesus did not draw back from the leper, nor does He draw back from the terrible sin-cursed life of His people. But He willingly touched this miserable leper. He willingly enters our leprosy. He would become unclean that He might deliver us from the spiritual leprosy of our sin. Jesus says, “I will, be thou clean.”

In those simple words we hear His gracious reply. He wills that His chosen be clean. In obedience to Father and in love for those given Him from eternity, Jesus enters our flesh. He who knew no sin becomes sin for us. He stands before God as our Head, and carries our sins all the way to the cross. He bears our reproach, that He might make us clean. Beloved, so Jesus touches us. He becomes a spiritual leper for us. He wills to become sin for us, to bear our guilt, and take away, our death. And He covers our unrighteousness with the blessed cloak of His righteousness. This is the depth of Father’s love and the riches of His grace in Christ. May we never cease to praise the God of our salvation. Wonderful grace! It cleanses!