Jesus Heals a Leper (and Trades Places with Him)
In Mark 1:40-45, Jesus heals a leper. Although Jesus was notorious for defying social boundaries, the way he healed the leper was unthinkable: he reached out and touched him. In that context, people would never purposefully make contact with such a contagious and stigmatized condition. In so doing, Jesus didn’t catch the disease, yet he did trade places with the leper in another way.
What do we learn about Jesus and how reality works from this story of Jesus healing a leper?
A Less Familiar Side of Holiness
At first glance, the story of Jesus healing the leper in Mark 1:40-45 is fairly straightforward: A leper comes to Jesus, asks to be healed, and Jesus heals him. But even if you’re somewhat familiar with the Bible, there’s an idea repeated throughout the story that could sound a bit strange. Notice the word “clean,” “cleansed,” and “cleansing” in verses 40-44:
A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed. Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “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 1:40-44)
Wouldn’t the more accurate word be “healed”?
Actually, “clean” is the right word, but to understand, we need to rewind to the Old Testament, zoom out, and explore the bigger concept of “holiness.” “Holy” means separate. As holy, God is uniquely righteous; he alone always does what is right and just. This is the meaning of holiness we are typically familiar with: You live a holy life by doing morally good things.
“Holiness in the Old Testament is more than just ethical righteousness.”
Yet holiness in the Old Testament is more than just ethical righteousness. Holiness is also connected to God’s majesty, his glory, his awesomeness. Isaiah 6:3 describes the heavenly beings who see God as saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
God established a beachhead of sorts for his glory in his relationship with the Jewish people. The Bible describes how God established a covenant with them in which he would make them holy as he is holy (Lev. 11:44). He had them set up a tent called a tabernacle (later a permanent temple) which he filled with his holy presence. This was a meeting place between the people and God, and it was to remain holy.
Keeping the tabernacle holy meant that not just anything could waltz into God’s presence.
Clean and Unclean
In addition to his ethical commandments (e.g., not to steal, murder, commit adultery, etc.), God set up rules which further set his people apart (there’s that concept of holiness again) from other nations. The rules dealt with how to stay “ritually clean” so that you could enter the sanctuary. These cleanliness rules bound everybody in the community, priest and laity alike.
If you became “unclean,” in many cases, there were rituals you could do to become clean again. In the Old Testament law, there were five main ways people became unclean (even if just temporarily):
- Eating “unclean animals” (e.g., carrion-eaters)
- Giving birth
- Contracting skin diseases
- Genital discharges
- Contact with corpses
Some of these ways to become unclean connected with health reasons. Others seem to be ways of keeping the Jewish people “holy” (separate) from the surrounding nations when it came to how they worshiped. These rules made sure that the Israelites wouldn’t follow their neighbors in worship that included sexuality, necromancy, or ancestor worship.
“These rules made sure that the Israelites wouldn’t follow their neighbors in worship that included sexuality, necromancy, or ancestor worship.”
In the case of skin diseases, you would be examined by a priest to determine if the disease was spreading. Certain conditions meant that the priest would pronounce you “unclean.” Dozens of skin conditions fell under this category of “skin diseases.” The Greek word lepra, from which we get “leprosy,” was an umbrella term for a serious skin disease, which would have likely included, but not been limited to Hansen’s Disease (i.e., what we typically call leprosy today). What is in view in Mark 1:40-45 was malignant and could very well refer to Hansen’s Disease, but that’s not for certain. Those determined to have a skin disease had to live outside the camp. On recovery, they would again be examined by a priest, go through ritual washings, and offer a sacrifice.
So, the problem with this man’s leprosy was twofold, with one problem following after the other: First, he had a dangerous and contagious skin disease. Second, this skin disease prevented him from participating in community life with his fellow Jews. Until he recovered (if he ever did), he would have to remain outside the camp.
What We Would Expect the Leper to Do
Based on Leviticus 13:45-46 and what we know of the customs of the time, this is what we would have expected the leper to be doing: With torn clothes, hair unkempt, and the lower part of his face covered, he would have kept at least fifty paces away and shouted “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn others of his presence. It was a lonely life: Living outside the camp, he would have to live without his job, his family, and temple worship. Rabbis would sometimes refer to them as “living dead.”
Yet, instead of staying at a distance, what did the leper do? “A man with leprosy came to him and begged him…” (Mark 1:40).
Jesus heals a leper: “A man with leprosy came to him and begged him.”
Probably the biggest question scholars have about this story is how Jesus felt about being approached by the leper. Although over 99% of the Greek text of the New Testament is clear (we know what the original said), verse 41 is one of those rare times in the New Testament when the meaning of a verse changes based on which Greek manuscript we’re using. Most Greek manuscripts say that Jesus felt “compassion,” an early and important manuscript says Jesus was “indignant.” That’s a fairly big difference, although whichever translation we go with, it’s clear from Jesus’ actions that he showed the man compassion too. The 2011 NIV has opted with “indignant” (whereas its 1984 version went with “compassion”), and they may very well be right to have switched since it is easier to see how a well-meaning scribe could have changed “indignant” to “compassionate” rather than the other way around.
If he was angry, whom was he angry at? Perhaps the priests (verse 44 could be interpreted to say “show yourself to the priest…as a testimony against them”). Perhaps the leper (see verse 43’s “strong warning” and his disobedience in verse 45 to what Jesus told him not to do). Perhaps this was anger at the terrible suffering, both physical and social, this man had faced (e.g., Jesus appears to be angry and frustrated at death and suffering in John 11:33). After all, no one knew better than Jesus the way this world was meant to be.
Jesus heals a leper: “No one knew better than Jesus the way this world was meant to be.”
Defying social convention and health standards, the leper approached Jesus, got on his knees, and begged Jesus to make him clean.
What We Would Expect Jesus to Do
Jesus was able to heal from a distance (even miles away; see Matthew 8:5-13). Certainly, he could have healed the leper from however many feet away the leper was. That’s what we would expect. And yet, “He reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’” (Mark 1:41b). In touching the leper, Jesus was behaving just as defiantly toward social norms as the leper had in approaching Jesus.
Jesus heals a leper: “In touching the leper, Jesus was behaving just as defiantly toward social norms as the leper had in approaching Jesus.”
Here’s another thing we would expect from Jesus: Now that he had healed the leper, we would expect Jesus to release him to go tell the good news of what Jesus had done for him (e.g., as Jesus had told the former demoniac to do in Mark 5:19). Instead, Jesus gave him the following stern warning:
“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)
Now, why would Jesus tell him that? It does seem strange, yet it actually wasn’t uncommon for Jesus to keep things hushed up (e.g., Mark 1:34; 8:29-30) probably because of how important timing was for Jesus in his ministry (e.g., John 7:30; 8:20). Jesus always wanted to set his own agenda, and crowds easily got carried away with their own idea of what Jesus was there to do (e.g., the second half of John 6). In the case of the leper, we’ll see a related reason he wanted the leper to stay quiet.
Jesus heals a leper: “Jesus always wanted to set his own agenda, and crowds easily got carried away with their own idea of what Jesus was there to do.”
Showing the priest was actually a pretty involved process. Priests took turns serving at the temple in Jerusalem for two weeks a year plus during major Jewish festivals. A priest could give inspect a person’s skin condition from anywhere, but then the law called for a sacrifice at the temple 90 miles south. This sacrifice, involving birds and sheep, could take place some point in the future, e.g., at the next festival.
What Jesus Removes
According to the Jewish Talmud, a rabbi named Rabbi Meir wouldn’t eat an egg that came from a district in which lepers lived. It’s all too easy for what’s unclean to contaminate the clean. Rabbi Jesus, on the other hand, made it work the other direction. He touched the leper and the leper became clean.
C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, described a good kind of infection reminiscent of what we see in this story of Jesus healing the leper:
Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection, if you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry. Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?
Jesus heals a leper: “Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection.”
Jesus isn’t intimidated by our sin or the shame it causes. Our sinful condition doesn’t make him keep his distance or recoil from us. We may feel dirty, but Jesus makes us clean:
“Since we have a great priest [Jesus] over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:21-22).
This side of the cross, it’s the powers of darkness that are meant to lose ground. Throughout the Gospels, the demons are consistently and thoroughly terrified of Jesus (e.g., Mark 1:24). As John 1:5 describes, the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness does not overcome it. Psalm 23:4 says, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
Jesus heals a leper: “We may feel dirty, but Jesus makes us clean.”
What Jesus Becomes
The story of Jesus healing the leper ends happily for him but unfortunately for Jesus. The former leper is excited and can’t help telling everybody what Jesus had done, against Jesus’ direct order to stay quiet. Here’s verse 45:
“Instead he [the former leper] went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.”
So, even as the leper reentered society, it was Jesus who now took the man’s place, “outside in lonely places.”
Jesus heals a leper: “Even as the leper reentered society, it was Jesus who now took the man’s place, ‘outside in lonely places.'”
He switched places with the leper, just as he switches places with all of us sinners who place our faith in him:
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21)
The prophet Isaiah had prophesied that the Messiah would be “pierced for our transgressions…crushed for our iniquities” (Is. 53:5). Jesus switched places by both removing and becoming a curse for us: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13a).
It’s hard to imagine the most creative writer on the planet coming up with any possibility better than this: The Son of God took our place so we could become children of God. And there’s even more good news: Now that we’re living this side of Jesus’ death and resurrection, he gives us a green light to share what he’s done for us with everybody on earth (Acts 1:8).
 James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, Pillar New Testament Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 71.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Touchstone: New York, 1996), 153.