A Few Links

Meredith Kline died on Friday. he was the author of Kingdom Prologue, Glory In Our Midst, Images of the Spirit, God, Heaven, and Har Magedon, The Structure of Biblical Authority, and The Treaty of the Great King. I have learned much from his writings.

Virginia Tech had a massive massacre today. This was very scary to me, because my brother is Ph.D. student there.  I am sure it was even more scary for him. I praise the Lord for His providence, even as I mourn for those who were lost. I understand that the body count is now 39.

We Lepers

Matthew 8:1-4

In 1873, a young Belgian Roman Catholic by the name of Father Damien went to Molokai island, which is part of Hawaii. Molokai Island is where the leper colony is located. He went to serve there. He always preached to them a sermon that started with this word, “Brethren.” He loved the people, who were all lepers. But he was not exceptionally careful, and that was on purpose. He did not want the people there to feel that they were excluded from him socially. And so, he would use the same pot that they used, smoke the same pipe that they did. One day, he poured hot water on his foot by accident, but didn’t feel it. The next Sunday, he got up into the pulpit, and started his sermon with these words, “We lepers.” It is a wonderful story of a pastor’s love for his congregation. Here in our passage, we see a very similar story. However, the differences are as instructive as the similarities.

Jesus has just finished the Sermon on the Mount. He has given us many words that are enormously important and helpful for living the Christian life. However, Jesus does not merely talk the talk. He also walks the walk. He does not merely say that He is God incarnated in the flesh. He does not merely say that He is the new Moses, coming down off the mountain. He is also going to show us by deeds that He is God, mighty to save.

Notice that Jesus is the new Moses. Just as Moses came off the mountain after receiving the law, Jesus comes down off the mountain after giving the law. But He is greater than Moses, as Moses predicted He would be. For Moses directed the people to keep away from unclean things, unclean animals, and unclean people. Jesus, however, goes to the unclean person and touches them. Their lives are never the same again. As for us, we should feel unclean after we hear the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus comes to do something about that.

A leper comes to Jesus. Now, leprosy actually describes a number of diseases in this time period, not just the disease that we know today as Hansen’s disease. Scholars think that the word covered psoriasis, ringworm, and lupus, in addition to Hansen’s disease. The important thing about this disease is not what it is, but what it does socially to a person. A person who was leprous had to keep away from other people. They were social outcasts. They had to cover themselves and cry out “Unclean, unclean,” whenever they got anywhere near anyone else. This was such a serious issue that the Rabbis devoted a great deal of attention to the matter in their official writings. Some of them even determined that you had to stay at least 100 feet away from a leper, especially if that leper was upwind of you. In fact, Jews usually regarded lepers as the walking dead. Under no circumstances, then, was a leper to approach someone who was ceremonially clean. The law for this is in Leviticus 13-14. You should go read it. It is too long to cite here. The upshot of it is not that it is a contagious disease, but that it contracts ceremonial uncleanness. Therefore, it is all the more remarkable that this leper approaches Jesus, something he was not supposed to do, according to the law. But rather than a reproach, it is actually a sing of his great faith. He knew that Jesus had the power to heal him. From chapter 4, we learn that Jesus went around healing people. Probably this leper had heard of Jesus. Therefore he came to him.

But notice how he came to Jesus. The text says that he “knelt” in front of Jesus. That is a good translation. The word has connotations of worship. The man came in deep humility, recognizing his own need of healing, recognizing that he could not heal himself, and recognizing that only Jesus was mighty to save. He was not arrogant and prideful, assuming that Jesus would heal him. Notice how humbly he asks Jesus, as well. He says, “If you will.” We need to remember those words always when we are sick and pray to God for healing. It can be God’s will that we not be healed. God can say, “no.” Notice though, that there was never any question in the leper’s mind about whether Jesus could do this thing. It was always and only a question of whether Jesus would do it.

So now, we come to the point of greatest tension in the story: will Jesus, or won’t He? All three accounts of this healing say that Jesus reached out and touched this man. For those of us who know our Old Testaments, that speaks volumes. Jesus was (supposedly) making Himself ceremonially unclean for this man. But this is the power of God: when Jesus touches us, He does not become unclean, but rather we become clean. Therein lies the main difference between the story of Father Damien, and the story of Jesus. When Father Damien touched the people, he eventually contracted the disease. But when Jesus came to earth, and touched our flesh, we became whole again.

The same thing is true of our souls. Our souls are unclean, because every manner of sin lies entrapped therein. However, when Jesus comes by the Holy Spirit into our souls, our souls are made clean. What a contrast to how we usually treat others! We like to hold them at arm’s length, and touch those kind of people as little as possible. But Jesus came down into the pit with us, and took us in His arms, and made us clean. Are we afraid of what might happen if reach out? We have a new neighbor, for instance. Some of us might possibly be afraid of him. But are we going to reach out and touch him with the love of Christ? I am not advocating recklessness. But I am advocating reaching out and touching them.

Jesus has concern for this man after he his healed. The important thing here to remember is that the man had to go through some hoops in order to be re-introduced to society. Those requirements are also listed in Leviticus 14. Jesus tells him that he is no longer an outcast. The former leper is now part of the people of God.

We must never underestimate the power of meeting people’s physical needs in getting to the place where we can discuss issues of faith. Medical missionary teams often experience this. When they bring healing, people will listen to their testimony. We can experience this too, even if none of us are medical experts. Any physical need can be a springboard to tell someone about the Gospel. You help someone move hay, or work cattle, or harvest crops. That person will want to know why it is that you are helping him. Ladies, you can help with someone’s children, baby-sitting. Or you can help clean their house. Then that lady will want to know why it is that you are doing this for them. But here’s the thing: we must not limit our actions to those people who can pay us back. It is not wrong to do nice things for people who can repay us. However, that needs to be only part of our goal. We need to focus especially on giving to those people who cannot pay us back in any way whatever. It is those people whom we can reach with this Gospel of soul-cleansing.

But even in doing that, we have to be careful not to seem better than they are. When I am counseling someone, for instance, I often say to that person, “You know, God is working on two people in this room, not just one.” And that is definitely true. We should think of ourselves as being in the same boat with these people. Like Father Damien, we should be willing to say, “We lepers.” Then, our actions will be interpreted as acts of love, and not acts of “charity,” in the sense of a great philanthropist helping out a poor, dumb, socially inferior dope addict. We cannot give that impression. Humility is required. Humility is required precisely because we were spiritual lepers. Maybe some of us still are. But if Jesus is willing, He can make us lepers clean.