Posted in theology

The dramatic cleansing of the leper

By Elizabeth Prata

Jesus Cleanses a Leper; The Centurion’s Faith

When Jesus came down from the mountain, large crowds followed Him. And a leper came to Him and bowed down before Him, and said, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing; be cleansed.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, “See that you tell no one; but go, show yourself to the priest and present the offering that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” (Matthew 8:1-4).

Notice that in the Bible it’s almost always (with two exceptions) a cleansing of a leper, not a healing of a leper. This essay examines why that distinction exists, and looks at the life of a person in New Testament times who has the disease of leprosy.

As my online professor Dr. Kevin Zuber explained in his course “The Life of Christ”, we see Jesus going about and healing. The demographic of the healed, though, are social inferiors. Jesus healed a Gentile, a Roman soldier, Peter’s mother-in-law, people possessed by a demon, and a leper.

Leprosy was not just a disease, it rendered the person unclean in special ways. The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia explains,

"...even contact with a leper defiled whoever touched him, so while the cure of other diseases is called healing, that of leprosy is called cleansing (except in the case of Miriam [Numbers 12:13] and that of the Samaritan [Luke 17:15] where the word “heal” is used in reference to leprosy).

Upon observing a leprous spot, the unfortunate person according to the Law must present him or herself to the priests for examination. If the diagnosis was leprosy, their life just became one of the walking dead. Literally.

The leper must separate himself from all contact with society. He must rend his clothes and wear those torn clothes at all times. If approaching another person anywhere at any time, he must cry out “Unclean! Unclean!” so the others have time to avoid him. He must not come within 6 feet of anyone, including his own family. He is not allowed in the temple to worship. He may not live in any walled town. The disease was hated and people with the disease were hated. It was so revolting that the leper wasn’t permitted to come within 150 feet of anyone when the wind was blowing. He cannot even greet anyone, because greetings included embraces. It was illegal for a non-leper to greet a leper. The leper must cover his mouth with his mantle. He was not allowed in any crowd. In other words, he had to demonstrate in every way that he was not nor should be a part of the fellowship of society. Separation was key.

“There had never been a disease which so separated man from fellow man as leprosy did.”

Dr. Kevin Zuber The Master’s Seminary

As an aside, when Dr. Zuber was explaining this I thought of COVID. In today’s time this disease separates man from man. We weren’t allowed in the fellowship of society. Nor were we allowed in the temple church to worship (many places). We were not allowed in crowds. We were not allowed to greet one another. Embraces were forbidden. Masks announced we were “Unclean! Unclean!” If suspected of carrying the disease, we had to present ourselves to the priest doctor for a determination of whether we were allowed to participate in society or had to be removed from it.

The difference, of course, was not just that those sick with COVID were sequestered from society, but everyone was separated whether they had COVID or not. So I think that in reflecting on Dr. Zuber’s statement in the class (which was taped a few years ago) that no disease had ever separated man from man like leprosy did, I believe that COVID has now exceeded New Testament leprosy in terms of a disease separating man from man.

The Old Testament and New Testament people saw leprosy as a direct strike from the LORD. The word leprosy is “Hebrew tsaraʾath, a “smiting,” a “stroke,” because the disease was regarded as a direct providential infliction” says Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (p. 419).

Leprosy was the outward and visible sign of the innermost spiritual corruption; a meet emblem in its small beginnings, its gradual spread, its internal disfigurement, its dissolution little by little of the whole body, of that which corrupts, degrades, and defiles man’s inner nature, and renders him unmeet to enter the presence of a pure and holy God” (Maclear’s Handbook O.T).

Incurable by man, many believed God inflicted the curse of leprosy upon people for the sins they committed. In fact, those with leprosy were so despised and loathed that they were not allowed to live in any community with their own people (Numbers 5:2). Among the sixty-one defilements of ancient Jewish laws, leprosy was second only to a dead body in seriousness.” Source: GotQuestions

Back to Jesus. In Matthew 8:3, we read: Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing; be cleansed.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.

Jesus touched him. Jesus could have declared him cleansed. He could have prayed then announced his cleansing. Jesus did not have to touch the leper. Consider how dramatic this was, now that you know the severity of walking-dead life for the afflicted. This was the first touch the leper had received in many years, I’m sure. However long he had the disease was how long it was since anyone had not only touched him but even looked at him with anything other than disgust and revulsion. Read below the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible for that verse.

And Jesus—or “He,” according to another reading,—“moved with compassion,” says Mark (Mk 1:41); a precious addition.
saying, I will; be thou clean—How majestic those two words! By not assuring the man of His power to heal him, He delightfully sets His seal to the man’s previous confession of that power; and by assuring him of the one thing of which he had any doubt, and for which he waited—His will to do it—He makes a claim as divine as the cure which immediately followed it.
And immediately his leprosy was cleansed—Mark, more emphatic, says (Mk 1:42), “And as soon as He had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was cleansed”—as perfectly as instantaneously. What a contrast this to modern pretended cures! Source: Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 32). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Let’s end with Psalm 78:38-39,

But He, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity and did not destroy them;
And often He restrained His anger
And did not arouse all His wrath.
Thus He remembered that they were but flesh,
A wind that passes and does not return

We serve a great, mighty, and COMPASSIONATE God.

The caption to this stereoscopic photograph (1896) says “Unclean! Unclean!” Wretched lepers outside Jerusalem, Palestine.


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

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