When He came down from the mountain, large crowds followed Him. Right away a man with a serious skin disease came up and knelt before Him, saying, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” Reaching out His hand He touched him, saying, “I am willing; be made clean.” Immediately his disease was healed. Then Jesus told him, “See that you don’t tell anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses prescribed, as a testimony to them.” (Matthew 8:1-4)
As we move out of the Sermon on the Mount, we enter a section of Matthew in which a series of encounters are related. Many of these involve healing or the casting out of demons. But there is much more going on here than just improving (or saving) the lives of a handful of people.
The Bible tells a long and layered story, and each one of these encounters touches on that story and brings it to a breathtaking climax.
Jesus is not just walking around Galilee randomly healing people so he can prove he is God. His actions have heavy prophetic significance that stretches all the way back to Genesis and all the way forward to the end of Revelation.
Before the eyes of his people Israel, he is reversing the curse.
In this first healing, called in many Bibles “The Cleansing of the Leper,” Jesus does not just cure a man of a disease. He does much, much more.
To see it, though, we’ll need to step away from our usual lens for a moment and take a wider view.
Will the Real Curse Please Stand Up?
If you ask most Christians in the Western world to define the curse of Genesis 3, I suspect they would say the curse is “sin.” Mankind is cursed with a “sinful nature” that separates us from God.
This is not, strictly speaking, accurate. Actually, the curse is death. It is a consequence and a control on sin, which came about through human choice.
Humanity was created to live forever in a position of rulership and to mediate the presence of God in creation (i.e. to be “priests and kings,” Revelation 5:10).
But instead, because of sin, we die. We are trapped in bodies that age, break down, and eventually kill us. Among other things, this is for the protection of the world. Broken people with dangerous proclivities, we do not have the power to enact our wills without limit, as we originally did.
The understanding that the curse is death, not sin, relates directly to the concept of redemption, which literally means to “buy back.” Some envision Jesus as having “paid off” the devil in his death, or perhaps having “paid off” the wrath of God. I would argue that Jesus entered the cycle of sin and death to buy us out of it. It is not God or Satan who is paid in this picture; it’s Death itself.
But that’s maybe going a little deeper down the rabbit hole than we have time for here.
I bring this up because when we look at the “cleansing of the leper,” most Western preachers are quick to allegorize the healing as a picture of our being cleansed from guilt and sin. And it IS a good picture of that.
But contra our Western mindset, the gospel is about much more than simply being forgiven. It is about being redeemed, set free, and made new in a far more holistic way.
A Tale of Three Worldviews
Sociologists have identified three major worldviews that define how we primarily see the world. (All cultures are a mix, but most cultures tend to major in one or another.)
The Western worldview is usually termed “guilt-innocence,” which means that we see things in terms of right and wrong, individual responsibility, and law and judgment.
Given this worldview, it’s not surprising that we tend to relate to God primarily in terms of judgment and forgiveness. It’s also why we are highly individualistic in our relationship to God.
But this isn’t the only worldview, and I would argue that on its own, it isn’t a complete picture of reality (aka truth).
The other two major worldviews are “fear-power” (the supernaturalist worldview in which the world is largely controlled by spirits, and what matters is power and protection); and “honor-shame” (the worldview in which what matters is community, family, and upholding the honor of oneself and one’s ancestors).
(The above is oversimplified, but it’s a start.)
Remarkably, the Bible speaks equally to all three worldviews. It does so in the Genesis 3 story of the curse, where sin makes humanity guilty before God (guilt-innocence), brings shame and covering up (honor-shame), and introduces the rule of death and the devil (fear-power).
Equally, the Bible speaks to all three worldviews in the cross.
But before we ever get there, we see Jesus reversing the curse on all three levels during his life and ministry.
Leprosy: The Curse Writ Large
Not long after this encounter, John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus to ask if he was the promised Messiah. Jesus gave a prophetically fraught answer, in which one line is “The lepers are cleansed” (Matthew 11:5, KJV).
Interestingly, out of the whole answer Jesus gives, “cleansing lepers” is the ONE item that isn’t explicitly prophesied about the Messiah. The rest—healing the blind, the deaf, the lame, and so on—are.
Yet within an Old Testament context, cleansing lepers is an incredibly significant act.
The HCSB renders “cleansing lepers” as “healing those with serious skin diseases.” This is actually a more accurate translation in a way, since the word translated “leprosy” in our Bibles (from the Greek lepra, or scaled) can indicate many different diseases that afflict the skin, not just Hansen’s Disease (modern-day leprosy).
But the translation “cleansing” does a much better job of getting at the significance of this act. In the law of Moses, this group of skin diseases was named by the term tsara’ath, which literally means a smiting or stroke.
In the broader Ancient Near East, an affliction with tsara’ath was considered to have one of two probable causes: divine judgment for sin or an attack of black magic, sent by an enemy. (See “Leprosy,” Jewish Virtual Library).
A man or woman who came down with the first signs of the disease would present themselves to a priest at the temple.
The afflicted went through a process of inspection, temporary quarantine, re-inspection, and eventually the passing of a verdict: clean or unclean.
If he was found to be “unclean” (afflicted with a chronic skin disease and not simply presenting a temporary scab or blemish), he entered long-term isolation until such a time as the disease disappeared (if ever).
During this time he was forced to remove himself from his community, living alone (or with other “lepers”) and warning off anyone who would approach with torn clothing and the cry, “Unclean! Unclean!”
Likewise, the leper could not enter the presence of God. Those who were afflicted with these diseases were barred from the temple as ceremonially unclean—not just for a week or two, but potentially for a lifetime.
There was no cure. If the disease should clear up, the afflicted would go back to the priests and undergo an elaborate purification ritual involving sacrifices and ceremonial washings. But the ritual didn’t heal. It just proclaimed the person clean or unclean based on what had already happened in his or her body.
If the disease did not clear up, it would likely lead to death.
The Lepers Are Cleansed: A Sign of Kingdom Come
This was the case of the leper Jesus encountered immediately after preaching on the mountain. In the presence of great crowds, this outcast approached with the incredible words, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Think of what this means.
- Lord, if you are willing, you can restore me to my family, my community, and my place in society.
- Lord, if you are willing, you can restore me to the presence of God.
- Lord, if you are willing, you can cleanse me of guilt and forgive the sin that brought this judgment upon me—or, you can defeat the evil power that afflicts me.
- Lord, if you are willing, you can defeat the death that has already set into my body.
- Lord, if you are willing, you can do what laws and religion cannot: rather than simply judge me, you can change me.
To cleanse the lepers would be a powerful sign that the kingdom of God had truly come to earth: that it was here with the willingness to forgive sin, with the strategy to restore community, with the power to defeat death and the powers of darkness, and with the love to bring an outcast back into the presence of God.
And Jesus said, “I am willing; be made clean.”
Immediately, Matthew tells us, his disease was healed.
One man was restored.
But more than that.
The kingdom of God had come.
Wholly Healed: A Whole Redemption for a Wholly Broken World
Perhaps more than any other disease, the Bible’s “leprosy” presents an incredible picture of the multifaceted effects of the fall.
Therefore, the cleansing and healing of the leper presents an incredible picture of truly holistic healing and redemption.
In leprosy’s traditional connection with sin and judgment, and in its effect of barring the afflicted from God’s presence, we see the offer of Jesus to forgive and reconcile us to God.
In its power to isolate and separate from community, we see the power of the gospel to restore the human family to unity in Christ, and to restore the disgraced to a place of honor.
In its physical affliction, disfiguring, and death, we see the power of Jesus to heal and ultimately, resurrect—to defeat death and the devil once and for all.
For us, just as for the leper in Matthew 8, absolutely everything hinges on one phrase:
“If you are willing.”
And on the answer:
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This is Part 99 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.