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Lesson 19: The Cleansing Power of Jesus (Luke 5:12-16)

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Have you ever been around someone who was filthy, but who did not seem to be aware of his condition? How would you like it if that person were your doctor? Just as he is about to examine you, you notice that his hands are grimy and caked with blood. And he isn’t wearing rubber gloves! The fact is, just 150 years ago, medical doctors did not know that infection is spread by dirty hands. The finest hospitals were losing one out of six women after childbirth to what they called “childbed fever.” A doctor’s daily routine would begin in the dissecting room where he performed autopsies. From there he made his way to the hospital to examine expectant mothers without ever washing his hands!

A Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865), was the first man in history to associate not washing with the resulting infection and death. He washed with a chlorine solution before examining expectant mothers and after eleven years of practice, his death rate was only one in fifty. But in spite of his success, he spent his life arguing in vain with his colleagues. Although he lectured widely, virtually no one believed him. Doctors and midwives had been delivering babies for centuries without washing, and no outspoken doctor was going to change them now! Semmelweis died insane at age 47 with his colleagues still laughing in his face.

That seems incredible, and yet there is a spiritual parallel. Millions of sinners are spiritually defiled, caked with years of filthy sins, but they are oblivious to their need for cleansing. Every day their minds are filled with pride, lust, greed, jealousy, anger, hatred, vengeance, ingratitude, and a host of other sins. Their lips spread damaging gossip, they distort the truth when it is to their own advantage, they tell off-color jokes, their common speech is punctuated with filthy words, and they even take the holy name of the Lord in vain. They watch with approval TV shows and movies filled with sensuality, violence, and every form of corruption. Their behavior is motivated by whatever is to their own advantage, even if it hurts others. And yet, if you ask such a person, “Why should God let you into heaven?” invariably he will answer, “Because I’m a basically good person.”

The doctors who denied the connection between their unwashed hands and the infection of their patients needed a microscope to see the bacteria that caused the infection. A sinner who does not see his need for cleansing needs the conviction of the Holy Spirit through God’s Word to open his eyes to his filthiness before the Holy God. Once he sees his great need, the sinner can then come to Jesus, who alone can deal with that need.

Our text shows us a leper who came to Jesus for cleansing. In the Bible, leprosy is a dreaded disease that is a picture of sin. This is alluded to in our text by the fact that the leper does not ask for healing, but for cleansing, which Jesus granted. The words “clean,” “cleansed,” and “cleansing” occur three times (5:12-14) to underscore the analogy. Leprosy rendered a man ceremonially defiled, so that if he was healed, he still had to go to the priest and carry out an extensive ritual of cleansing before he could be accepted back into the religious community and worship.

In the Bible “leprosy” can refer to a number of skin diseases, but in its worst form, it was what we know as Hansen’s disease (R. K. Harrison, The New Testament Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. by Colin Brown {Zondervan], 2:463-366). This awful disease takes two forms (according to R. H. Pousma, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. by Merrill Tenney [Zondervan], 2:138-139). Both start with either a white or pink discoloration of a patch of skin. The more benign form is limited to this skin discoloration in a number of places, and even untreated cases heal in from one to three years.

William Barclay (The Daily Study Bible: Matthew [Westminster Press], 1:295) describes the hideous progression of the worse form of this disease:

It might begin with little nodules which go on to ulcerate. The ulcers develop a foul discharge; the eyebrows fall out; the eyes become staring; the vocal chords become ulcerated, and the voice becomes hoarse, and the breath wheezes. The hands and feel always ulcerate. Slowly the sufferer becomes a mass of ulcerated growths. The average course of that kind of leprosy is nine years, and it ends in mental decay, coma and ultimately death.

Leprosy might begin with the loss of all sensation in some part of the body; the nerve trunks are affected; the muscles waste away; the tendons contract until the hands are like claws. There follows ulceration of the hands and feet. Then comes the progressive loss of fingers and toes, until in the end a whole hand or a whole foot may drop off. The duration of that kind of leprosy is anything from twenty to thirty years. It is a kind of terrible progressive death in which a man dies by inches.

It was this form of leprosy, no doubt, that the Bible refers to when it describes the leper as being “like one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes from his mother’s womb” (Num. 12:12). The rabbis said that the leper was under “the stroke.”

While the physical disease was horrible, the terrible social consequences in ancient Israel only added to the misery. According to Josephus, lepers were treated “as if they were, in effect, dead men” (cited by Barclay). The Mosaic Law prescribed that the person be cut off from society, including his family. He had to wear torn clothing, have his head uncovered, cover his lips and shout “Unclean! Unclean!” wherever he went to warn others to keep their distance (Lev. 13:45).

Luke the physician tells us that this man was full of leprosy (Luke 5:12). His disease was in advanced stages. But he was desperate enough to break the taboo and approach Jesus, falling on his knees before Him, begging, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” I can see the disciples recoiling with a gasp of fear at being so near to this diseased man. Imagine their further shock when instead of drawing back, Jesus stretched out His hand, touched the man and said, “I am willing; be cleansed”! And rather than Jesus becoming defiled, the man became instantly clean! This miracle shows us the cleansing power of Jesus, not only over leprosy, but also over sin. The spiritual lesson is the great news that …

Jesus cleanses every sinner who senses his need and appeals to Him.

At first you might wonder, “Why wouldn’t everyone want to come to Jesus for spiritual cleansing?” But, the problem is, sinners are blind to their defilement, and so they see no need to come to Jesus. Thus,

1. Sinners must recognize their desperate situation and appeal to Jesus for cleansing.

The first step in this process is that …

A. Sinners must recognize their desperate situation.

This leper knew that he was in bad shape and that if Jesus did not help him, he had no hope. He must have heard of Jesus’ many miracles of healing, so in desperation he risked possible flogging by approaching Jesus. The man’s desperate situation caused by his leprosy is a picture of the devastating nature of sin:

(1). Sin defiles and incapacitates the sinner.

Just as lepers were ceremonially defiled and cut off from public worship, so sinners are defiled in the sight of the Holy God. Uncleansed sinners can never be in heaven with God who dwells in unapproachable light. Just as leprosy not only affects the outward appearance, but also the internal organs, so sin takes a toll both on the body and on the soul. Even the sinner’s good works are contaminated like filthy rags in God’s sight (Isa. 64:6).

(2). Sin causes distance and breakdown of relationships.

The leper had to live separately from his family and friends. He could never feel the warm, caring touch of his wife. He could not hold his children or grandchildren on his lap or feel their arms around his neck. He could not share meals with his family or be present to enjoy a moment of laughter. Obviously, such isolation caused a breakdown of what formerly were close and caring relationships. In the same way, sin causes strain and often a complete rupture of human relationships. Husbands and wives who once felt deeply in love are bitter and alienated by sin. Fathers who once would have protected their children from any enemy are harsh and cruel toward their defiant, angry teenagers, due to sin on both sides. Because of this breakdown of relationships, …

(3). Sin results in loneliness for the sinner.

Can you imagine the loneliness that must have engulfed this leprous man after he had to move out of his home and live apart from his loved ones? As soon as sin entered the human race, the first couple, who had enjoyed total intimacy with each other, expressed as being naked and unashamed in each other’s presence, now covered themselves with fig leaves and Adam blamed Eve for his troubles. Since sin isolates us from each other and from God, it results in loneliness. Sinners are often like two porcupines who need to huddle together because of the cold, but when they get close, they prick each other.

(4). Sin grows progressively worse, ending in spiritual death.

Just as leprosy grew progressively worse until the leper died, so with sin. If it is not cleansed by Jesus Christ, the sinner faces physical death and then what the Bible calls “the second death,” eternal separation from God in the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:14-15). It’s interesting that the same instruments of cleansing used to restore the leper—cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet—were used only in one other situation, namely, the cleansing of one who was defiled by touching a dead body (Num. 19:6, 18; Lev. 14:4-7; R. C. Trench, Notes on the Miracles of Our Lord [Baker], p. 135). As James 1:15 puts it, “when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.”

(5). Sin has no human cure.

This leper had no human hope for a cure. No doubt there were some quack doctors with their “snake oil cures” who would take every dime a poor leper had, but they couldn’t cure him. Probably well meaning family and friends would tell the leper of some folk remedy that supposedly had cured another leper. Perhaps he tried a change in diet. But nothing worked. All the will power in the world would not cure him. No amount of good intentions or positive thinking or promises to live differently would help. He had no hope apart from a miraculous cure through Jesus.

Even so, there is no human cure for sin. You can make resolutions and promise to change. You can go for psychotherapy and try to gain insights into your past. Some of the wisdom of the world may help you learn to get along better with others, but none of it can reconcile you to the Holy God whose law you have broken. You can deny your guilt and tell yourself that it isn’t there. But it is there, and there is no human way to remove it. This leper shows us the only hope for us as spiritual lepers:

B. Sinners must appeal to Jesus for cleansing.

Alfred Edersheim tells us that a leper who violated the necessary separation was threatened with 39 lashes (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah [Eerdmans], 1:493). But this man, full of leprosy, figured that he had nothing to lose. If they beat him he would probably die, and that couldn’t be any worse than his living death. So he boldly came near to Jesus and cried out in faith, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” We don’t know if the man meant for title “Lord” to carry its full sense of deity, since it could mean only “sir.” But in light of his faith that Jesus had the power to heal him, at the very least the man was acknowledging Jesus to be a great prophet. By the phrase, “if You are willing,” the man was not questioning the Lord’s compassion. Rather, he was submitting to His sovereignty, since clearly it is not God’s will to heal every person physically. He was not demanding healing, but was coming submissively in faith.

This leper is a great example of how sinners can and should appeal to Jesus for cleansing from their sins. We should come in faith that He is able to cleanse us. We know that He is willing to cleanse every sinner who comes to Him, because He Himself declared, “the one who comes to Me, I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). But, even so, we should not come demanding cleansing, as if we somehow had a right to it, but with the submissive spirit that says, “Lord, you could justly condemn me for my many sins, but if You are willing, you can wash me and make me whole.” What happens when a sinner thus comes to Jesus?

2. Jesus willingly grants complete cleansing and then He commands obedience to His word.

We see Jesus’ compassion for this miserable man both in His physical touch and His kind words: “I am willing; be cleansed.” Jesus could have healed the man by speaking the word without touching him, but, to the utter shock of those who saw it, Jesus touched this diseased man. William Barclay observes, “To the Jew, there would be no more amazing sentence in the New Testament than the simple statement: ‘Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the leper’” (ibid., p. 296). Any ordinary man would have contracted ceremonial defilement by that touch. But rather than being defiled, Jesus imparted complete, instant cleansing to this man. Someone has said that Jesus’ words, “I am willing,” backed up with this work of power, are the words of God and God only, whose almighty will is the cause of all things (cited by J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:140). It shows:

A. Jesus grants complete cleansing to every sinner who appeals to Him by faith.

This leper did not get dressed up in his finest, cleanest clothes and try to hide the horrible sores and disfigurement that covered his body. He came to Jesus with all the ugliness of his disease and appealed for cleansing and Jesus responded by instantly, permanently cleansing him from every trace of the disease. Sometimes people think, “I can’t come to Jesus until I clean up some of my worst sins.” Or, they come to Jesus but try to hide or minimize the awfulness of their corruption. Don’t do that. Come to Jesus with all your foulness and oozing sores. Hold up in His sight the stumps of hands that have been eaten away by sin. The instant you do, you will feel Jesus’ healing touch as He says to you, “I am willing; be cleansed.” He grants it freely, based only on His grace, not on anything in the sinner.

The cleansing that Jesus offers is not just cosmetic. It cleanses the defiled conscience, the inner man. Just as this leper was instantly and totally healed, so the sinner who trusts in Christ is instantly and totally cleansed, reconciled completely with God. Any religion that teaches that you are saved gradually by your good works and deeds of penance is both cruel and evil. It is cruel because it holds sinners in the bondage of guilt. They never know whether they have done enough good works to tip the scales of heaven in their favor. It is evil because it denies the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood and righteousness freely granted to the believing sinner. But the Bible clearly affirms that “to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). Even though you are full of the leprosy of sin, come to Jesus and appeal to Him for cleansing and He will freely, instantly grant it.

Some legalistic folks object that if God grants complete forgiveness apart from our works, then people will live as they please. But Scripture clearly teaches that this is not so:

B. Jesus commands complete obedience from every sinner who appeals to Him by faith.

Jesus ordered this cleansed leper to tell no one, “But go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, just as Moses commanded, for a testimony to them” (5:14). Luke only reports the result, that the news about Jesus spread even farther (5:15); but Mark 1:45 tells us that the reason the news spread even farther was that the cleansed man disobeyed Jesus and proclaimed his healing freely. Probably the intent of Jesus’ command was not for the man to be forever silent about his healing, but rather that he first go and fulfill the requirement of the Law. Jesus wanted to bear testimony to the Jewish priests both that He came to fulfill the Law and that He is the Messiah who has the power to cleanse not only lepers, but also sinners (see 5:20).

This cleansed leper’s disobedience is understandable—who wouldn’t be inclined to shout it from the rooftops? But that still doesn’t excuse him; he should have obeyed Jesus (see Mark 1:43). From this we can learn that …

(1). Obedience will be compromised if we act on the basis of our feelings.

No doubt the man did not understand why Jesus would command him to be silent. It was kind of strange, to have a situation where a man was disobedient for witnessing! But Jesus was concerned about the witness to the priests and He knew that proclaiming this miracle would only bring larger crowds who wanted healing but who were not interested in obedience to God’s Word. But the man acted on the basis of his feelings, not in obedience to the Lord Jesus.

We live in a feeling-oriented culture. Often when I ask a young person about their conversion, the answer I get goes something like this: “I just felt the Lord in the meeting and in the music and I felt good all over, so I went forward and prayed the prayer, and I’ve never felt so good in all my life. I really feel the Spirit here in your church, too.” A few weeks later when they’re having serious problems in their Christian walk, I hear, “I haven’t felt the Lord’s presence like I did before.” It’s all feelings, but hardly any knowledge of God’s Word and no concept of obedience. Hear me on this: If you live your Christian life on the basis of feelings, you will not be obedient to the Lord. How then should we live?

(2). Obedience will be complete if we act on the basis of God’s Word in a spirit of prayer.

Jesus based His command to this man on what Moses commanded (Leviticus 14). There was a specific, elaborate process of cleansing which the leper was to follow. If he had followed it, he would have learned a lot about God’s holiness, man’s defilement and God’s forgiveness. Even when we do not understand the reasons behind God’s commands, if we obey, we will be blessed.

The Lord Jesus is our example of complete obedience. To keep His focus in the face of mounting popularity and increased demands on His time, we read that Jesus “would often slip away to the wilderness and pray” (5:16). Jesus had to make time to do that! So do you and I. It does not happen accidentally in the face of the busy schedules and many responsibilities we all wrestle with. But if you have experienced Jesus’ miraculous cleansing from your sin, then He calls you to a life of total obedience to His Word. To be obedient, you must make time to get alone with God and His Word to commune with Him.

Conclusion

By nature, some people are neatness freaks while others are “messies.” A little clutter of junk here and there and a little dust may be okay in your house, if you can live with it. But a little clutter of sin in your life is not okay. None of us should be “messies” when it comes to sin. A few years ago, NASA built a nine-story “clean” room, so clean that it filters out all dirt and dust bigger than .3 microns. A human hair is between 40-100 microns. What if Christians took that much effort to clean the sin out of their lives! The Lord who has cleansed us from our sin by His grace calls us to complete obedience to His Word. “You shall be holy, for I am holy,” says the Lord (1 Pet. 1:16). Jesus cleanses every sinner who appeals to Him and then He calls us to a life of cleanliness through obedience to His commands.

Discussion Questions

  1. In witnessing, how can we help sinners to see their desperate condition before God?
  2. Does “grace” mean hanging loose about sin? If not, what does it mean?
  3. Some contend that it is legalism to preach the necessity of obedience to God’s Word. Is it? Why/why not?
  4. What part should feelings play in the Christian life? How can we know if our feelings are valid or not?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1998, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Man (Anthropology), Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation), Forgiveness