Make Me Clean!
A Sermon on Mark 1:40-45 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 5/10/99
Mothers: Do you always want your beloved child to run up to you and give you a big hug? On all occasions, at all times?
A couple of summers ago my boys discovered large clay deposits in the swimming hole we had built in the Green River. They also discovered that this clay made great body paint! They would get all wet, then smear clay over their entire body, head to foot. One day I noticed two boys in this condition, with gleams in their eyes, whispering among themselves; turning towards Beth, they declared, "We love you, Mommy!"-- and ran towards her with the intention of giving her big hugs. She ran the opposite direction.
Her actions declared: "If you really love me, you will clean yourself prior to hugging me!
But Mothers don't always run from dirty children, even though they may get covered with filth themselves. Imagine this: You hear the distressed cry of your child and look up: Your precious daughter has fallen face first in the mud, and now runs toward you, tears streaming through the dirt. Here she comes, with mud on her clothes, her face, in her hair, her eyes, her ears, her mouth.
What do you mothers do? Do you say, "Don't come near!" Do you say, "You made your mess -- now clean it up!" To an older, responsible child, you might say that. But not to one who can't clean herself. You take her in your arms, soiling your own clothes; you comfort her, then gently clean all the sand and dirt and refuse from her eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth. You love her, clean her, and comfort her.
That child has come to you, in effect saying through her tears: "I am a mess. I can't clean myself. If you are willing, you can make me clean." And you are willing.
Today we will see how Jesus responds in exactly this way to a leper -- for a Jew, the ultimate in uncleanness. And this incident gives us a beautiful picture of the way Jesus responds to us, when we come to him, admitting our own inadequacies, acknowledging that he alone can make us clean, and throwing ourselves on his mercy.
Last week we looked at verses 9-39 of Mark 1. This section begins by detailing Jesus' preparation for ministry through baptism and being tempted in the wilderness. But this preparation is for what ministry? Why did Jesus come?
In this first chapter of Mark Jesus engages in two different types of ministry: proclaiming the gospel, and relieving the immediate suffering he encounters. We saw that his preaching had six characteristics:
Given this content of his preaching, he called on his listeners to take two actions:
In addition to his preaching, Jesus has a compassionate ministry. This begins in Mark's account with his casting out a demon who interrupts his teaching. But then word spreads rapidly; Jesus heals Peter's mother-in-law and many more, late into the night. Crowds come to seek healing and deliverance from demons.
So Jesus rises early in the morning, and spends time alone with God in prayer. He asks, "Why did I come?" While on earth, am I primarily a healer? Or am I primarily a teacher? Jesus seeks out God's will, and submits himself completely to that will.
We see the result of this time of prayer when he tells Peter:
"Let us go somewhere else-- to the nearby villages-- so I can preach there also. That is why I have come." (Mark 1:38)
This brings us to today's passage, verses 40-45. Let us read the story:
40 And a leper came to Him, beseeching Him and falling on his knees before Him, and saying to Him, "If You are willing, You can make me clean." 41 And moved with compassion, He stretched out His hand, and touched him, and said to him, "I am willing; be cleansed." 42 And immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed. 43 And He sternly warned him and immediately sent him away, 44 and He said to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a testimony to them." 45 But he went out and began to proclaim it freely and to spread the news about, to such an extent that Jesus could no longer publicly enter a city, but stayed out in unpopulated areas; and they were coming to Him from everywhere. (Mark 1:40-45 NASB)
Why does Jesus heal a leper immediately after deciding to focus on the proclamation of the gospel? Didn't he just decide that he is not primarily a healer? Didn't he just leave dozens or perhaps hundreds of sick people so he could preach?
The key to understanding this passage is realizing that this story is about much more than a physical healing. In this story and the next, Mark shows us how Jesus deals with much more than the physical need of the sick person. In the process, he shows how salvation comes to the sick person, and provides us with a beautiful picture of God's grace extended to each of us.
We'll develop these thoughts by asking a series of questions:
WHAT IS LEPROSY?
The Greek word lepra from which we get the word "leprosy" encompassed many more diseases than modern leprosy or Hanson's disease. Any spreading disease that affects the skin but goes deeper, any disease that ends up exposing raw flesh, would be termed leprosy in Jesus' time.
As we discovered when preaching through Leviticus last fall, God gave the Israelites specific commands about lepers. Chapters 11-15 of Leviticus tell us what it means to be clean or unclean (See my sermon on these chapters). For the most part, these regulations governed temple or tabernacle worship. An unclean person had not necessarily committed a sin, but was not fit to worship God. The central idea is of the need for us to prepare ourselves -- on God's terms -- prior to entering His presence.
The idea of cleanness carries over into the New Testament. For example, in John 13, Jesus washes the disciples feet. Peter at first says Jesus will not wash his feet, but Jesus tells him in that case Peter would have no part with him. So Peter then asks Jesus to wash his whole body! Jesus replies:
A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean (John 13:10 NIV).
In the course of walking in this world, we pick up dirt and refuse; if we are Christians, we are fundamentally clean, but need regular foot-washing to make us fit for worshiping God.
Paul develops this idea in 1 Corinthians 11 when discussing the Lord's Supper. Paul warns his readers:
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. (1 Cor 11:27 NASB)
Jesus and Paul are pointing out that God is holy, God is pure. We cannot approach God in a lackadaisical manner; we can't come before God with minds full of lust, deceit, greed, and selfishness. We must approach God on His terms, and on His terms only. Like the mud-covered boys running to hug their mother, if we truly love God, we will show it through preparing ourselves for that embrace. That's the central concept behind being clean or unclean.
In Leviticus, leprosy is the most serious of all forms of uncleanness. Some forms of uncleanness -- such as that which comes from touching an unclean animal or insect -- were cleansed simply by waiting until evening (the beginning of a new day according to Israelite custom) and washing. Other forms of uncleanness, such as that which results from childbirth, required a longer waiting period and the offering of a sacrifice.
But leprosy is much different. All other forms of uncleanness require that the person stay away from the temple, but leprosy causes the person to live outside the camp, to be cut off from the congregation of Israel. Lepers had to wear signs of mourning; they could approach no one, touch no one. Whenever anyone began to walk near them, they were to call out, "Unclean! Unclean!" to warn them to stay away.
Interestingly, such regulations about leprosy are not specific to the Israelites. In many cultures, there are similar exclusionary rules. For leprosy is a repulsive disease. We don't know exactly what diagnosis a modern physician would give to the disease of this leper in Mark 1, but let's assume he had modern leprosy, Hanson's disease. This is a disease of the nervous system which causes its victim to lose all sense of touch and pain, initially in the fingers and toes, then spreading up the arms and legs. Without a sense of touch, the ill person eventually damages his toes, fingers, and feet. He will knock them, cut them, get infections -- and not notice.
Dr Paul Brand, a Christian missionary who conducted some of the most influential research on the disease, relates his investigation of why lepers in a colony in India were missing so many fingers and toes. There were isolated incidents of these digits being knocked off and recovered -- but many seemed to lose them at night, with no trace left. When attendants stayed up all night to watch, they found that rats were chewing off fingers and toes at night -- but the victims did not wake, for they felt nothing.
As the leprosy spreads, many lepers go blind -- not because of the disease itself, but because, without feeling in their eyes, they forget to blink.
So as leprosy advances, the leper hardly looks human. No fingers. No toes. Face disappearing. Isolated from others. No one wants to draw near, no one wants to touch. And in a sense, they can't touch, for they cannot feel another person.
Dr Brand writes this:
The loneliest people of all are the ones for whom leprosy has also destroyed their sight. Like many others in the world, they are blind, but unlike most of the blind they can't use their hands to bring them the sensations that their eyes are denied because they can't feel either. They are really alone
So leprosy is a symbol not of the need for preparation prior to entering God's presence, but a symbol of lostness. Leprosy is a picture of sin eating away, going deep into your being, gradually destroying who you are, making you less and less human, destroying all your relationships, in the end leaving you alone, despised, rejected, hopeless.
WHAT DOES THE LEPER ASK?
Let's now return to the story in Mark. Note that the leper comes to Jesus. This was a violation of the rules and regulations concerning lepers. He was supposed to shout, "Unclean!" to keep Jesus away! But instead he runs to Jesus. And Jesus does not run away; like the mother welcoming her crying, mud-covered daughter, Jesus allows the leper to approach him.
Then what does the leper ask? Does he say, "Heal my disease!"? No. "Make me clean!"
We miss a great deal if we think of this request as the equivalent to "Heal my disease." The leper is saying:
"I want to worship God!"
"I want to be a part of God's people, in relationship to Him!"
"I want to touch others, to be in relationship to the people of God!"
That is what the leper is asking. Of course he wants physical healing. But becoming clean is much more than becoming healed!
WHAT DO THE LEPER'S ACTIONS AND REQUEST TELL US ABOUT HIM?
The leper falls on his knees before Jesus, and begs him, pleads with him, saying, "If you are willing . . ." These actions tell us that he knows four important facts:
He knows he is unworthy. Indeed, he has had this truth drummed into him day after day, hour after hour, for many years. Even looking at himself in the reflection of a pool of water, he sees how despicable he looks. Oh, he knows he is unworthy.
He knows he can't heal himself or make himself clean. He probably has never even heard of a leper becoming cured. For years he has lived with no hope at all.
But he knows that Jesus can! Note his statement of faith: "You can make me clean!" How he comes to this knowledge, we don't know. But he believes with all his heart that Jesus is the one person in all the world who can cleanse him.
Finally, he knows that Jesus has the right to refuse. "If you are willing . . ." He makes no demands. He has no basis for a request, other than Jesus' mercy.
WHAT DOES JESUS DO?
Look again at verse 41: "He stretched out His hand, and touched him, and said to him, "I am willing; be cleansed."
Jesus touches him! When was the last time someone touched him? When was the last time anyone put his hand on this gross distortion of a human body?
Listen to Paul Brand again:
"More than any other person in the world the person with leprosy needs to be treated by somebody who will reach out his hand . . . and touch him. . . . Oh, I have seen men break down into tears at that time because they have found someone who would touch them.
What was the result of Jesus' touch? Verse 42: "And immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed."
Note that there are two results: Jesus heals the disease and he cleanses the leper. These are two, separate results, not two ways of saying the same thing. The NIV sorely misses the point here, by translating the verse "the leprosy left him and he was cured." If you have an NIV, I suggest that you scratch out "cured" and write "cleansed." Why the translators did this, I have no idea; the Greek is perfectly clear. Furthermore, Leviticus 14 is all about the cleansing of a leper who is already cured. So the Bible throughout considers healing and cleansing as two separate acts.
So this is not an example of Jesus only healing physically. By cleansing the leper, Jesus is providing spiritual healing as well as physical healing. Jesus is being true to the decision he made in prayer with God. We see more of this when we consider his commands to the leper.
WHAT DOES JESUS COMMAND?
After healing and cleansing the leper, Jesus says:
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 1:44 NASB)
This seems strange to us. Why would Jesus instruct the leper not to tell anyone, but to go to the priests and perform a ceremonial ritual? Verse 42 tells us the leper is already cleansed; why then go through a ritualistic cleansing?
Many commentators suggest that Jesus gives the leper these instructions because it is necessary for him to obey the ceremonial law until Jesus rises from the dead. But the leper has already broken the ceremonial law by approaching Jesus, and Jesus should be unclean because of touching the leper. Jesus never performs a ritual or commands someone else to perform a ritual simply out of formalism; rather, his intent is always to provide a picture of the reality symbolized by ritual.
There is another puzzle in the last phrase, "as a testimony to them." "Them" of course is plural; what is its antecedent? "Anyone" is singular, as is "priest;" the puzzle is present in Greek, not only in English.
I believe we get a better understanding of the meaning of this verse if we leave out the last comma (remember, there is no punctuation in the original manuscript), making the end of the verse read: "offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing as a testimony to them."
Another hint: quite possibly the ritual for the cleansing of a leper had not been performed for hundreds of years. Certainly at this time there was no cure for modern leprosy outside of a miracle of God; while it is possible that other, less serious diseases classified as leprosy could have been cured, we have no such records. The last healing of a leper reported in the Old Testament is that of Naaman, a Syrian healed by Elisha more than 800 years previously.
Given all this, I believe we can paraphrase Jesus' commands as follows:
I don't want you spreading the news about your physical healing; I already have more diseased persons coming to me than I can handle, and that is not the reason I have come. But instead of telling people, offer sacrifices! God had a reason for ordaining these sacrifices: they themselves are the testimony, they themselves picture my work much better than your words -- and they haven't been acted out for hundreds of years. Perform the sacrifices, and notice their meaning! Then tell others about the sacrifices: that is the testimony about me I want shared with the priests and the people.
If these sacrifices are so important to Jesus, we should look at them. We won't read Leviticus 14:1-20, but let me summarize the instructions found there.
The basic idea is common to many sacrifices: "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin." Blood is shed, symbolizing Jesus' own blood shed on the cross for us.
But Leviticus 14 is a good bit more complex than that simple statement. Blood is shed at several different times, symbolizing different aspects of the work of Jesus on the cross. Here is the chronology of events.
On the first day after the priest has declared the leper cured, two birds are brought. One is killed over a clay pot filled with clean water. Then the priest dips four objects into the blood of the sacrificed bird: a piece of cedar, a piece of scarlet yarn, a branch of hyssop, and the live bird; using these objects, the priest sprinkles the leper seven times with the blood for cleansing. Then the live bird is released, and allowed to fly away. The leper washes his clothes, shaves off all his hair -- even his eyebrows -- and then is allowed to enter the camp (although he still cannot enter his tent). He then waits seven days before performing the final ceremonies.
Let me comment on only two of these points. First, seven is the symbol for completeness or perfection. The priest sprinkles him with blood seven times, highlighting the efficacy of the sacrifice of Jesus for this cleansing. Atonement is complete; the blood is effective.
Second, consider the bird allowed to fly away. Do you recall another, similar ritual in Leviticus, where two animals are brought, one is killed, and one is allowed to wander off? On the Day of Atonement, as described in Leviticus 16, this is done with two goats. That scapegoat wanders off into the wilderness, never to be seen again, symbolizing the ending of guilt: God separates the people from their sins as far as the east is from the west (see my sermon on Leviticus 16). I believe God provides the leper with his own, personal version of the Day of Atonement here. The leper has been told for years through people's actions and words that he is unclean, despicable, not one of the people. God takes all that guilt and assigns it to this bird, which flies away, never to be seen again.
On the seventh day, the leper shaves and washes once again. Then on the eighth day, the final sacrifices are offered. First is the trespass offering, symbolizing the atonement for sins against people, and the restoration of those relationships (see my sermon on Leviticus 5). This ritual for the trespass offering in the case of the cleansing of a leper, however, is more complex than for the normal trespass offering. The priest puts some of the blood on the lobe of the right ear, the big toe of the right foot, and the thumb of the right hand. You may recall that a similar ritual is performed during the ordination of the priests (see sermon). The cleansing blood is put on the ear, symbolizing cleansing from all the filth and evil he has heard; on the hand, symbolizing cleansing from all the evil he has done; and then on the foot, symbolizing cleansing from all the evil in which he has walked. And then the priest puts oil -- the symbol of the Holy Spirit -- on those same places, so that henceforth he might hear, act, and walk only through the power of that Spirit. To conclude the trespass offering, the priest puts the remaining oil on the leper's head, showing his being filled with the Spirit.
After the trespass offering, the leper is to offer the regular sin, burnt, and present (or grain) offerings. There is no unusual ritual here. As always, the sin offering symbolizes Jesus' atoning sacrifice for sins against God (see sermon); the burnt offering symbolizes God's complete acceptance of us by the blood of Jesus (see sermon); and the present offering symbolizes our offering ourselves completely back to God (see sermon).
Through this set of offerings and rituals, God gives a complete representation of the work of Jesus. These offerings provide a picture of spiritual cleansing, the good news that Jesus is preaching, the reason why he came. By sending the leper to the priest, Jesus is preaching through illustration, providing an opportunity for the priests and those who witness or hear about these sacrifices to see illustrations of exactly what Jesus would accomplish. These sacrifices were the leper's God-designed testimony -- a much more complete and moving testimony than a simple statement about physical healing.
What does this mean for us today?
The same picture of these sacrifices holds; God is gracious, willing to forgive, to restore your relationships with others, to heal your relationship to Him; he is ready to cover with the blood all the hurtful and hateful things you have heard, all the pain you have caused through what you have done, and all the messes you have made because of where you have walked. God is willing to call you his own, to accept you completely; are you willing to offer yourself to Him?
Non-Christians: If you are here this morning and you have not received Jesus as Lord, you are like that leper. You are unclean. Indeed, you are despicable to God. Apart from the work of Jesus in our lives, all of us are despicable to him, for all of us are like that child covered with mud -- not fit to approach a pure, holy, and righteous God.
But like a mother willing to clean her helpless, filthy child, Jesus was willing to heal and then cleanse that leper -- and he is willing to heal and cleanse you. Like the leper, fall on your knees before him. Plead with him, saying "If you are willing, you can make me clean!" And I promise you, he is able and willing to make you clean. You will take on the perfect righteousness of Jesus himself; you will be clean and spotless, all sins forgiven; you will take the first step towards becoming a sinless, perfect being: And all heaven will rejoice.
So humble yourself. Fall before Him. Be healed and cleansed!
Christians: You are healed, if you have received Jesus as Lord; you are not symbolized by the leper. But you may be unclean. You may have been defiled through:
We too cannot cleanse ourselves. We too need to fall on our knees before him, saying:
"I know I have failed you. I see that I have lived a life unworthy of your calling. I have no right to come before you, to pretend to worship you, in this condition. But I know what it is like to be clean before you, and I want to be clean again! I want to have a perfectly clean conscience, with nothing separating me from you. I want to rejoice when I think of you, and not feel frightened knowing how I've failed you. If you are willing, you can make me clean."
He is willing! So be cleansed!
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 5/9/99. Ray Stedman's sermon on this passage, available at thePBC web site, was helpful.
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