MESSAGE FOR OCTOBER 26, 2003 FROM MARK 1:40-45

 

            This week and next week, we want to take a break from a series of messages so we will be preaching two messages NOT in a series.  After I come back from a week of ministry away, we will begin a series of messages on true and false conversions that will seek to show us what it is to be a genuine follower of Christ as that is biblically understood.  Today we want to look at an incident early in the earthly ministry of Jesus.  At this point, Christ has been baptized, tempted by Satan and has called his first three disciples.  His ministry is just beginning but from its inception is marked by numerous miracles and a teaching that differs from the Scribe’s teaching because it is marked by spiritual authority.  Geographically, Jesus has not yet extended his ministry beyond his home region of Galilee.  He is still very much at this point a local phenomenon, but word is traveling fast about this miracle-marked ministry.  Beginning in Mark 1:40 we read, “And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, "If you will, you can make me clean."  Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, "I will; be clean."  And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.  And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, and 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 proof to them."  But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.”

            First, let’s set the scene.  Jesus meets a man who in ancient Israel was in tremendous need—he was a leper.  As a Jew living at this time in history—leprosy was about the last thing anyone would want for themselves or anyone else.  Unlike today, there was no known cure and Leviticus 13 has some very strong commands for people who were confirmed lepers.  Leviticus 13:45-46 says, "The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, 'Unclean, unclean.'  He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” Leprosy robbed you of two of elements so important for a happy life--community and dignity.  You were considered spiritually unclean and were therefore eliminated from participation in the life of the community.  Because of leprosy’s association with sin and sinfulness you were ostracized and in a humiliating expression of self-abasement you were forced to cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” to alert anyone you might meet on the road so they could stay away from you.  This says nothing of the horrific physical disfigurement and other grossly debilitating effects some forms of leprosy had on a purely human level.  It is safe to say that if you were a Jew with leprosy many people and perhaps yourself would have considered it better to be dead than to be a leper. In Mark chapter one of these untouchables comes up to Jesus gets down on his knees and implores or begs Jesus saying to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.”

            As we look at the brief exchange between Jesus and the leper I want us to see two points.  The first point is, the relationship between our human need and the sovereign will of God.    What is the relationship between these two areas?  We won’t be anything close to exhaustive in our treatment of this topic but this text is a fertile field from which we can harvest much good insight into this complex area of biblical truth.  Let’s begin to unpack this by looking at this initial statement of the leper in verse 40, when he says, “If you will you can make me clean.”  When you consider the context, this is a remarkable expression of faith.  This man was leprous and although the word “leprosy” was a word used for several skin diseases some of which went away with the passage of time, there are in the entire Old Testament only two cases where someone is cleansed of leprosy through a human conduit.  One is in Numbers chapter 12 when God cursed Moses’ sister Miriam with leprosy for openly opposing Moses.  Moses pleads with God for her cleansing and Miriam is restored after she spends a week outside the camp.  The second is the story of Naaman in Second Kings chapter five who is cleansed after he reluctantly follows the counsel of Elisha to dip seven times in the Jordan River. 

            If Moses and Elisha are the only two biblical examples of people who have been a part of people’s miraculous cleansing from leprosy (and Moses’ case is not a clear parallel given his relationship to Miriam) then that does not provide a great groundswell of confidence for the willingness of God to cleanse you by the hand of a man if you are a leper.  I suggest that for a leper to come up to Jesus who, granted was doing some spectacular things, but was very much a newcomer at this point—to come up to Jesus and on his knees begging and saying, “You can make me clean”—that is a statement of great faith. 

             What gave this leper hesitancy is in the end, what gives us pause when we ask God for miracles—he wasn’t sure about Christ’s willingness to make him clean.  Remember, he wasn’t suffering from a disease like cancer or a growth or even as a victim of demonic oppression—he had a disease that was virtually identified with sin—he was a leper.  In the mind of the culture leprosy was synonymous with sin.  So here comes this man Jesus on the scene who teaches the holy Scriptures with unique power and authority and this leper is suffering from an affliction that perhaps he (and certainly the culture believes) has because he is a wicked sinner.  I think we can see why this man might wonder about Christ’s willingness to cleanse him of this.  But this man somehow manages to fight off the shame of the mammoth stigmatism this disease carried with it and falls on his knees and says, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

            There are those who say that if you pray for healing or another form of miracle and you preface it with the words, “If you are willing” you are not praying in faith—that is not a prayer of faith.  I think this text undermines that notion but as long as we are here, let me give you two more reasons (of many) why it is not only not a bad thing to pray this way but actually a very good and biblical way to pray.  First, there is at least one faulty presupposition that underlies the notion that if you pray, “If it be your will” that is a faith-killer and therefore dooms your prayer to ineffectiveness.  One presupposition is—if a person has enough faith to be healed that in some sort of unalterable and even mechanical way compels God to heal.  This understanding ends up making of God a miracle vending machine.  Just drop in the currency of faith and out comes your miracle.  This places faith above the will of God.  This understanding is wrongly derived from texts like James 5:15 which says, “And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.  And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” Without a larger biblical context, it sounds like the healing comes NOT from God but from the prayer of faith.

Therefore, (so the “teaching” goes) if faith is present healing MUST occur by virtue of the presence of faith.  Again, not that FAITH, note God is seen as the all-important ingredient.  Texts like Matthew 9:22 is often cited in this context.  A woman who had been bleeding for 12 hears comes up from behind Jesus and touches the edge of His cloak and is healed.  In verse 22 we read, “Jesus turned, and seeing her said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.”  And instantly the woman was made well.”  Again, divorced from a larger biblical context that can sound like faith, not God is the agent of healing and Jesus was just there as some sort of uninvolved, supernatural healing fountain—He hadn’t even seen this woman and healing goes out of him to her in response to her faith.  This view where faith is the one necessary, essential ingredient has the effect of making Jesus all but irrelevant to her healing.  There are several accounts in the gospel where Jesus very tightly links a person’s faith to divine healing.

            Does that mean that the foundational element necessary for healing is faith or that a person with this kind of faith will be able to compel or perhaps even coerce God to do something simply by the presence of their faith?  This is a very important question on a practical level because if that is the case, then if my child dies of cancer, its owing to my deficiency of faith because if I had only had this kind of healing faith—if I were only to somehow work that up, then my child would not have died.  The truth is, although many people, including a few who own Christian television networks believe this; it is not true and represents a very twisted and ultimately cruel application of the Scripture.

            The main problem with this view is that it ignores the fact that faith, saving faith and healing faith and any other kind of faith that God works through is a gift of God.  Paul says in Romans 12:3, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”  The context is one of ministry in the church.  What Paul is saying in context is the ministries we perform that they are made possible by the faith God has given us to do that ministry.  Faith IS necessary for all aspects of Christ’s ministry to be done in his church, not just healing. “Without faith it is impossible to please God…”  It is the conduit through which God works, but it is always the gift of God given so he can be glorified not only through the ministry but also through the faith he gives for the ministry to be efficacious.  God wants to heal someone so he gives someone the faith to believe and pray for them and then he uses this gift of faith as a conduit through which to heal them.

            A closer look at James five reveals this.  Verse 16 says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.”  (NASB)  That word translated “effective” is best seen to be describing the kind of prayer that brings healing.  The root word in the Greek is “energeo” from which we get words like “energy.”  That word is a participle and it is perfectly legitimate to understand it as a passive voice verb and I believe that was James’ meaning.  The one who prays is acted on supernaturally by God.  That means the force of the phrase is “It is the prayer that has been energized with faith by God that is effective in accomplishing much—in this case, healing.”  When God chooses to heal someone, he supernaturally energizes the prayer with faith for the person to be healed.  And in the case of the leper in Mark chapter one—I believe that is what happened.  This man, through his witness of Jesus’ ministry and through the work of the Spirit had been given faith to believe Jesus had the power to heal him—the only question was—was he willing to heal.

            A second, very brief reason why praying for God’s will is not a faith killer is simply, praying without a reference to God’s will is self-centered not God centered.  If our ultimate goal is getting healed or whatever else we want or think we need and we aim to use faith to attain this without reference to what GOD wants—that DOES make God irrelevant doesn’t it?  It’s about ME!  As followers of Christ, our top priority should not be our healing or our comfort but God’s glory and if it is God’s will to be glorified through my suffering and affliction then God’s will be done.  Wanting God’s will and believing it is the best for us on an eternal scale even if it means suffering and pain on this earth—if that isn’t an expression of faith, then I don’t know what is.  And for those who believe it is always God’s will for sick people to be healed or delivered, they need to consider (among many other things!) Timothy’s chronic tummy aches and his “frequent ailments” for which Paul prescribes “a little wine” and the Apostle Paul’s thorn in the flesh.

            The leper in Mark one knows that his healing is not ultimately dependent upon his faith but on the WILL of Christ.  Though he, by the grace of God has faith to be healed, his faith is simply the conduit through which healing comes.  Healing is ultimately dependent upon the will of God and he knows that. Having gone down that rabbit trail, let’s get back to the story and in particular, Jesus’ response to this man.  Verse 41 says, “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.”  This is an intensely moving scene.  Jesus is moved with pity or “compassion.” The verb translated “moved” or “filled” is passive—compassion is filling Jesus at this man’s plight so much so that he does something that powerfully anticipates the cross here.  He touches this leper.  Numbers chapter five implies that touching a leper made a person ceremonially unclean.  It wasn’t sinful to do this but it did keep you from enjoying the full rights of Jewish religious privilege for a time period.  So we see Jesus allowing himself to become unclean so that this leper might be clean—do you see a foreshadowing of the cross here?  Didn’t Jesus become hideously, wretchedly “unclean” as he took our sin upon himself?  This leper, for perhaps the first time in years has someone reach out to touch him.  Jesus could have healed him without touching him—he did others.  But in this case the compassion of Jesus moves him to touch this man.  He wants him not only healed physically, but also—to some degree, emotionally.  With his mouth Jesus is saying, “Be clean” but with his touch Jesus is saying, “Be loved.”

            The lesson for us as it relates to our need and God’s sovereign will is simple.  First we do not need to feel the least bit self conscious about doing what this leper did.  That is, falling on our knees and begging God to heal, to deliver, to comfort, to do miracles of all kinds.  And we must know that God might be moved with compassion on our behalf—he is a compassionate God.  But we must also with this leper and with our Lord in Gethsemane say, “If you are willing.”  God’s will, not our need or sense of need is sovereign and if His answer is “no” then we are obliged to get on our knees a second time—this time in humble acceptance of his will for us.

            The second point I want us to focus in on from this exchange is found in this healed leper’s response to Jesus.  Beginning in verse 43, “And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, and 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 proof to them.”  But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.”  Mark is very clear in this text to show us the relationship between God’s goodness and our sin.  The way Mark puts this leaves no doubt that this man who had been healed by Jesus openly rebels against a clear command of Jesus and this rebellion on a human level carried consequences for Jesus.  That conclusion is inescapable from Mark’s account.  Jesus clearly tells the man to obey the law and show himself to the priests.  This was a dictate of Leviticus 14 and Jesus, who came to fulfill the law, wants him to do this to prove his cleanness.  But before he told him that, he “sternly charged him and sent him away at once,” and said literally “you say nothing to no one.”  Jesus tells him what he is to say about this—“nothing” and to whom he is to say it—“no one.”  That is obviously redundant and Jesus and that’s the point.  He wants this clearly understood.  He “sternly charged” him with this.  This is a very powerful word indicating the presence of real emotion.  This is the same word used to describe how Jesus felt as he approached the tomb of his friend Lazarus.  He was “deeply moved”—same word. 

            This is NOT Jesus simply giving the leper some friendly advice.  He is NOT saying, “If I were you, I wouldn’t say too much about this.  NO!  This is a stern imperative—a very stiff command from Jesus—even in the context of his great compassion--“You say nothing to no one—do what is required by the law but not one bit more.”  Also, notice Mark’s emphasis on the fact that Jesus does not himself want to draw attention to this miracle by adding “and [He] sent him away at once.”  Jesus quickly sends him away—he does not want this miracle put on public display.  This leper however disobeys Jesus.  He does not simply choose to not heed Jesus’ advice—he openly violates a direct command.  Verse 45 says, “But he went out and began to talk freely (the verb is from the word “kerusso” meaning to preach or to proclaim) about it, and to spread the news…” This man does precisely what Jesus had sternly charged him NOT to do. 

Our human response towards him at this point might be, “Hey, go easy on him—he was just excited about what Jesus had done.”  I would suggest that we instead understand it this way.  Jesus has just changed this man’s life forever for the good—he does an indescribably good thing for him and asks him to do only two things.  First, go to the priests, which the man would desperately want to do anyway because he wouldn’t be allowed back into community unless and until they had authenticated his cleansing.  The second thing was to sternly charge him, “Don’t tell anyone about this.”  You would think this man could have done this one difficult thing in response to what Jesus had done for him.  Does this sound all that unreasonable in light of what Jesus had done for him?  That is a more biblical perspective to have toward this man.

Finally, notice that Mark draws a direct relationship between this man’s overt, enthusiastic disclosure and the style of ministry Jesus adopted after it.  He says in verse 45, “But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, SO THAT Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.”  Mark sees a causal relationship between this leper’s loud and steady proclamation of his cleansing and Jesus having to stop openly entering towns but instead having to go out in the middle of nowhere to minister.  We must see that clear relationship in this text.  Do you suppose Jesus knew that if word got out that this new Teacher was the kind that cleansed lepers—that he not only had that kind of power but also that kind of compassion toward the outcasts of society—do you suppose he knew that this would change his ministry and that’s why he issued this stern prohibition?  I believe that is what Mark wants us to see.

Now, does this mean that this man had the power to control the hand of God as it relates to the style of Jesus’ ministry?  No—we mustn’t give this man too much credit.  God used this new development to magnify Jesus’ ministry by showing us it was the kind of ministry that people were willing to go out into the middle of nowhere to experience.  But that notwithstanding, Mark wants us to know that this man’s disobedience had consequences for Jesus and that should not surprise us because EVERY sin we commit carries with it a negative consequence for God.  One consequence is—it grieves him.  God is not unaffected by our sin—it grieves the Holy Spirit of God and on one level it is what put Jesus on the cross.  I would say that is a consequence!  If we see our sin as only a spiritual failure on our part and God is simply an unimpassioned, unaffected observer, we need to re think our doctrine of sin.  Our sin is GRIEVOUS to God—it affects him and that should be one of the chief reasons why we should desperately want to be rid of our sin. Because it grieves the One who is worthy of obedience and who has done so much for us in the cross of Calvary.  Our sin doesn’t diminish God—it doesn’t change him in any way, but it does grieve him.

Notice the lesson for us in this as it relates to God’s goodness and our sin.  How does this man’s sin against Jesus affect Jesus’ goodness to him?  We must see Christ’s compassion and cleansing of this man right alongside this man’s betrayal of God’s goodness to him.  And the reason we must see this is not to sanction disobedience—to express that God is in some way ok with it.  We must see all this together to remind us that God’s goodness to us is not dependent upon our performance.  Did God know that this man would blab to everyone?  Yes and he chooses to heal him anyway.  We must get this.  God knows every sin we will ever commit—every personal betrayal of him but he chooses to show his goodness to us anyway and our response to this should not be to presume on God’s goodness, but instead to worship God who roots his goodness to us in his very nature and what Christ has done for us on the cross, never on our performance.  May God give us the grace to worship God in response to the truth about his sovereignty and our need and his goodness and our sin.

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