Think of the most socially shameful and defiling sin you can. Now add the fact that this person had a contagious and incurable disease. If you can, you might get close to an Israelite’s attitude toward leprosy.  Leprosy was not only seen as a dangerous contagion, but as a sign of the curse of God (Numbers 12:10-13). That is why Jesus’ healing of the leper in Luke 5:12-14 is so important.

Jesus’ authority is so great that He can cleanse and restore without risk of being defiled. He can bring about a saving work that restores someone to himself and the family of God. The gospel we speak is powerful enough to cleanse, heal, and restore the most defiled sinners. Our time is not unlike Israel’s. Our church cultures often have their man-made list of ‘defiling sins’ accompanied by their consequences. We also have a set of what Jerry Bridges titles ‘respectable sins’.  Respectable sinners are welcome and comfortable among us. Defiled sinners are often not. Jesus levels the playing field and still, He is the King who can cleanse.

The gospel we speak is powerful enough to cleanse, heal, and restore the most defiled sinners

Luke and the other gospel writers are meticulous and pervasive in establishing the authority of Jesus as the Son of God. From the baptism of Jesus, (Luke 3:22) Luke shows that He is the promised Son of David (Psalm 2:7).  He is the one who can set captives free and usher in the favorable year of the Lord (Luke 4:17-19). His teaching has authority (Luke 4:32). He has authority over demons (Luke 4:36). He has authority to forgive (Luke 5:24). Early in all the gospels, Jesus exercises his authority to save and heal. The healing of the leper is one of the most socially and emotionally gripping.

While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, "Lord, if you will, you can make me clean." And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, "I will; be clean." And immediately the leprosy left him. And he charged him to tell no one, but "go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.

Luke 5:12-14

The Blight of Leprosy

Leprosy was a general term for numerous skin diseases. This man had what we now know as Hanson’s disease. It is a highly contagious bacteria that lodges in the skin of the hands, face, and knees. Today, this is a curable disease. Then, it was not. People lose fingers, noses cave in, eyelids droop. It resulted in permanent disfigurement. To make matters worse, leprosy was synonymous with spiritual defilement. Leprosy was the disease of the unclean, the impure, and the accursed.

Leviticus chapters 13 and 14 give extensive instruction on how to handle this disease. The priests were tasked to diagnose and quarantine anyone with leprosy. This prevented a leper from worshipping in the synagogue or temple. It resulted in immediate expulsion from the home and village. It was the priests' task to declare when a victim was cured. Lepers were isolated in refugee camps. They needed to keep fifty paces from others and, if they came near people, they were required by law to cry out, “unclean, unclean.” Every leper was the Job of his own community.

The Dramatic Meeting

And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, "Lord, if you will, you can make me clean."

Luke 5:12

Here was a man in such desperation that he was willing to push legal limits and disregard all propriety. He had heard about Jesus’ miracles and did not for one moment doubt Jesus’ ability to heal. He does though wonder about Jesus willingness to help. His question is not merely about this new and popular rabbi’s attitude toward the defiled. No self-respecting, ministry-conscious rabbi would let such a person come near him and allow himself to be defiled. He actually addresses Jesus as “Lord.” In Luke, Lord always refers to God or His Messiah. Is Jesus, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, willing to heal the defiled and accursed of God? In asking, he puts himself under the sovereign mercy and grace of Jesus.

Jesus makes a shocking gesture

It is what Jesus does, and what Jesus says, that gets our attention. It would also get the attention of the religious authorities. To be this near to a leper would automatically violate Jesus’ ritual purity.

And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, "I will; be clean.” 

Luke 5:13

Notice the order. Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. Then He spoke. This would rattle the sensibilities of all who looked on. James Edwards writes, “An ordinary Jew could be expected to recoil at the intrusion of the leper, but the compassion of Jesus supersedes social indignation. The outstretched arm of Jesus was a long reach for his day…for any day.” (The Gospel According to Luke, page 160). This was a scandalous action.

When was the last time this leper embraced a nephew, a wife, or attended synagogue? It would likely have been just before he had been declared unclean. It could have been months, even years.  Here, the first tender compassionate touch came from Jesus, the Son of God.

Luke continues:

And immediately the leprosy left him.

Luke 5:14

Jesus the holy and merciful Son of God could not be defiled, and instead extended purifying healing. He, not the Levitical priests, made a declaration of cleanness. Jesus told him to take the trip to Jerusalem and make the appropriate offerings at the temple (see Leviticus 14); he would then be free to go home. The Leper was not only healed, but reconciled to God the Father. Even more, he was restored to family, friends, work, synagogue, and, above all, to temple worship with the people of God.

The response of the region was incredible.

But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities.

Luke 5:15

Spiritual Cleansing by Jesus

The gospel writers implied that physical healing was a mirror to the spiritual healing everyone desperately needs. In Matthew’s account, the entire section of healings was summed up saying, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: 'He took our illnesses and bore our diseases' (Matt. 8:17 ESV). This quote from Isaiah 53:4 speaks of the spiritual healing that would be brought about by Messiah’s sacrificial and atoning death.

Leprosy was the physical mirror to the spiritual reality of the defiling nature of sin. In our sin we are defiled, and in turn defile others. We are accursed by God until we come to Jesus begging to be made clean. It is only the full payment of Jesus on the cross that provides this much-needed cleansing. The death of Jesus provides expiation - the removal of sin. It provides propitiation - the satisfaction of the wrath of God. It also provides cleansing from our defiled nature.

There is no sin for which Jesus cannot forgive and provide cleansing

The writer of Hebrews says this about the King who can cleanse: He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high," (Heb. 1:3 ESV).

The implications are far reaching and glorious. There is good news for a non-believing sinner. There is no sin for which Jesus cannot forgive and provide cleansing. What is the most defiling sin you can think of?  Is it sexual sin? Is it a violent sin? Is it angry abusive sin? Is it a sin of gossip and slander? There is cleansing for all of these.

This is good news for the Christian. The sins of pornography, adultery, homosexuality, slandering, and gossiping can all be cleansed. There are certainly repentance and reconciliation issues between you and the people you have hurt. Abuse and violence have legal consequences. But you can go to Jesus if, like the leper, you humbly bow and repent.

John 1:19 promises, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

Are you in need of cleansing? Do you know someone so buried in sin that he thinks it impossible to be restored? There is a king who can cleanse - Jesus Christ the Son of God.