Bible boy_reading_bibleThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 8:1-4

Jesus Cleanses a Leper

1 When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. 2 And behold, a leper[a] came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus[b] stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”


This miracle took place after Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, not far from Capernaum. It also resumes the widespread healing recorded at the end of Matthew 4, which I covered in April 2015.

As we saw last week, the crowds were in awe of His authority. They followed Him afterward (verse 1). That did not indicate that all — even most — of them were going to follow His teachings. Most were merely intrigued and curious.

A leper approached our Lord (verse 2). This was unheard of. Those diagnosed with leprosy had to isolate themselves from the rest of the population and when anyone walked past say, ‘Unclean’.

Leviticus 13 details what the Lord told Moses and Aaron about leprosy. A priest had to diagnose the condition and attempt to cure it. Not every skin condition was leprosy, hence the lengthy descriptions therein of what it is and what it is not.

As a disease Matthew Henry explains leprosy’s severity, its connection to personal sin in the Old Testament and how Christ is the only One who can heal and save us (emphases in bold mine):

This is fitly recorded with the first of Christ’s miracles, 1. Because the leprosy was looked upon, among the Jews, as a particular mark of God’s displeasure: hence we find Miriam, Gehazi, and Uzziah, smitten with leprosy for some one particular sin and therefore Christ, to show that he came to turn away the wrath of God, by taking away sin, began with the cure of a leper. 2. Because this disease, as it was supposed to come immediately from the hand of God, so also it was supposed to be removed immediately by his hand, and therefore it was not attempted to be cured by physicians, but was put under the inspection of the priests, the Lord’s ministers, who waited to see what God would do. And its being in a garment, or in the walls of a house, was altogether supernatural: and it should seem to be a disease of a quite different nature from what we now call the leprosy. The king of Israel said, Am I God, that I am sent to, to recover a man of a leprosy? 2 Kings 5:7. Christ proved himself God, by recovering many from the leprosy, and authorizing his disciples, in his name, to do so too (Matthew 10:8), and it is put among the proofs of his being the Messiah, Matthew 11:5. He also showed himself to be the Saviour of his people from their sins for though every disease is both the fruit of sin, and a figure of it, as the disorder of the soul, yet the leprosy was in a special manner so for it contracted such a pollution, and obliged to such a separation from holy things, as no other disease did and therefore in the laws concerning it (Leviticus 13:1-14:57), it is treated, not as a sickness, but as an uncleanness[;] the priest was to pronounce the party clean or unclean, according to the indications: but the honour of making the lepers clean was reserved for Christ, who was to do it as the High Priest of our profession he comes to do that which the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, Romans 8:3.

Note that the leper knelt before Jesus and said that He had the power to cleanse him, should He see fit to do so (verse 2). It is possible that, even though he was not allowed to go anywhere or interact with anyone, he overheard conversations about Jesus from passersby.

Jesus responded by touching the leper (verse 3). This was also unheard of. Leprosy is highly contagious. He then verbally agreed to the man’s request: ‘I will; be clean’.

The man was completely cleansed straightaway. This was true of all of our Lord’s healing — what theologians refer to as creative — miracles. People were restored to immediate full health.

From a physical and social perspective, the Gospels show us our Lord’s temporal mercy. The leper, and others, had disorders which prevented them from engaging with life and people.

From a spiritual perspective, the appeals from the afflicted and resulting creative miracles show that only Christ has the power to deliver us from sin.

Matthew Henry explains:

Sin is the leprosy of the soul[;] it shuts us out from communion with God, to which that we maybe restored, it is necessary that we be cleansed from this leprosy, and this ought to be our great concern. Now observe, It is our comfort when we apply ourselves to Christ, as the great Physician, that if he will, he can make us clean and we should, with an humble, believing boldness, go to him and tell him so. That is, (1.) We must rest ourselves upon his power we must be confident of this, that Christ can make us clean. No guilt is so great but that there is a sufficiency in his righteousness to atone for it no corruption so strong, but there is a sufficiency in his grace to subdue it. God would not appoint a physician to his hospital that is not par negotio–every way qualified for the undertaking. (2.) We must recommend ourselves to his pity we cannot demand it as a debt, but we must humbly request it as a favour “Lord, if thou wilt. I throw myself at thy feet, and if I perish, I will perish there.”

Jesus instructed the cleansed man to go to the priest, without talking to anyone else beforehand, and offer the requisite sacrifice (verse 4).

Did the man do so? Mark 1:40-45, a three-year Lectionary reading, tells us that he couldn’t stop himself from telling others about his cleansing.

Luke 5:12-16, which I wrote about in July 2013, does not say whether the leper went to the priest or whether he told anyone else about it. In any case, word spread rapidly, necessitating Jesus’s retreat to desolate areas as He was besieged by crowds. My post on Luke’s account of the leper’s cleansing cites John MacArthur’s sermon in which he surmised that Jesus might have wanted the man to go to the priests for some breathing space. It would have taken them a week, in line with Leviticus 13, to pronounce the man as being cleansed.

John MacArthur gave his sermon on Matthew’s account of the leper in the 1970s. He says that what we call leprosy today is actually Hansen‘s Disease. Whilst the two are somewhat different, they are also similar:

Diseases can take different forms.  Some can be eliminated altogether, and so we don’t really know if it was exactly the same. But it seems best to assume, from the description of Leviticus 13 … that it was extremely similar; and the only real comparison that we can draw to whatever this disease was will come from our understanding of the disease of leprosy.  Throughout the history of study of these things, most people have drawn that parallel

This disease, leprosy, as it’s called in the Bible, was no doubt picked up in Egypt.  Most of the classic writers feel that leprosy originated in Egypt and, by the way, it is caused—they now know in medical science—by a bacillus or bacteria called mycobacterium leprae.  And this disease has been found in at least one mummy that’s been uncovered in Egypt and it’s manifest on the physical body (because of the mummification) that this particular person did have leprosy. So we know it stretches way back into ancient times.  This disease then, of course, as the children of Israel were in the land of Egypt, was transmitted to them; and when they came into the Promised Land, they carried this disease with them.

Now, it was a problem, because of the horror of the disease itself. And so God, as he built in many laws to the life of Israel to protect them from plagues and things, gave them laws to deal with leprosy, so they would not contract this disease. 

MacArthur also told his congregation that Hansen’s Disease exists in the United States. This was its status in the 1970s:

By the way, you might also be interested to note that it is on the rise in the United States of America, and the state that leads America in incidents of leprosy is CaliforniaTen years ago, we had thirty to forty new cases a year, and now we’re over 300.  So it can be controlled also today by what is called DDS Dapsone, I think it’s called.  It’s some kind of a drug that is used, and it can only control the superficial elements of leprosy.  It can’t eliminate it altogether, because it’s one disease that you can’t kill.  It’s there till you die, as far as they can tell.  There may be some cases, but normally, that’s the way it runs.

His sermon explains how it is contracted today:

Leprosy is passed—and I read this just in an up-to-date LA Times journal thing on, on the, on the medical analysis of Hans[e]n’s disease—leprosy is passed when it is inhaled through the airIt comes from the mouth into the mouth.  That’s one way it is passed, and that’s why, when he goes around, he covers his mouth.  Also, they found that people have contracted leprosy when they have both touched the same object; that the bacillus can exist on the same object.  For example, they have cases where people have gone in to get tattooed, and when they were tattooed by the same needle, they came up with the same kind of leprosy

This is what happens:

The first thing that leprosy does, it attacks—apart from its physical symptoms, what you see, the patchiness and so forth—it attacks the nervous system and immediately anesthetizes the limbs.

People say, “Well, their noses just fall off, and their fingers fall off.”  Not really.  Part of the problem is, when they lose all their feeling, they literally rub their extremities off.  They found in the leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, in the United States, that when they’ve studied people who have leprosy that this is what happened.  For example, a man who has leprosy has ill-fitting shoes, and because he can’t feel that they’re ill-fitting at all, they rub his toes off.  And a woman who works with her hands finds that she rubs her fingers off, because she has no sensitivity to what’s happening to her hands.  And they rub their faces the same way; and you add to that that leprosy further attacks the bone marrow.  It infects, then, the blood supply. The bones begin to shrivel, and as the bones shrivel, they draw the skin and the tissue in so that they appear to have fingers like claws and feet like claws that do the same thing.  And there is then that oozing that occurs, as well as the skin disease has its infection; and all of that combined when, when you use those infected, atrophying fingers, results in rubbing them off.  Horrible thing.  They literally lose their limbs.

It attacks the eyes and brings blindness, the teeth, and they fall out.  It attacks the internal organs so that sterility occurs.  Frankly, it’s not that painful. It’s just the most ugly thing imaginable in the world.  Starts with a white or pink patch on the brow, the ear, the, the nose, the chin or the cheek.  Then it begins to spread and becomes spongy, tumorous, bulbous, swellings all over the face.  Then it becomes systemic, and that’s when it begins to come into the liver and the bone marrow, the blood supply.  You lose your feeling, blindness.

Leprous suppurations emit a strong, unpleasant odour, repulsive to those around them.

We can well understand how it is seen to be a curse. Sin, too, is a curse. Our only Physician is Christ our Lord:

I see in this an analogy.  This text, to me, is analogous to a conversion.  Follow this thought in conclusion: leprosy, ceremonial unclean, demonstration of sin, it’s just like sin.  Sin is pervasive.  Sin is ugly.  Sin is loathsome.  Sin is communicable.  Sin is incurable.  Sin makes you an outcast. But the leper came with confidence.  Why?  Because he got desperate enough over his leprosy, right?  That’s how conversion happens.  People don’t get saved unless they get desperate over the loathsomeness of the disease of sin.  And, beloved, that is so missing in the evangelism of our time.  The man came.  He lost all the social stigma.  He lost all of the fear of being ostracized.  He didn’t care about that anymore.  He was overwhelmed with the loathsomeness of his disease.  Coming to Christ is not getting on the bandwagon.  It’s being wretched and knowing it.

Next time: Matthew 8:5-13