Do you remember? Jesus healed a leper. But if he was healed, why did Jesus him to see a priest? The event is recorded in three of the Gospels. And they all tell it pretty much the same way. All three leave us with questions. Why did the healed man have to go see a Jewish priest? Why was that necessary? And to make it even more odd, Jesus told the man not to tell anyone how he was healed! What’s going on?
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the incident. The differences are slight. More than that, the differences actually point to the answer to our question.
And it is an important answer. It helps us to realize something that’s important to understand when we read the Bible. When we read Jesus’ words, we must account for who He was, who He spoke to, and the culture of His time. Let’s answer the questions right away. Yes, Jesus was God. But Jesus was also human. And as a human, Jesus was Jewish. Jesus’ audience was Jewish, for the most part. The culture in the area where Jesus lived was Jewish.
Do you see the trend? Jewish. For a lot of us, that’s not how we live. Not Jewish. And certainly not 2,000 years ago Jewish! It is something I’ve spent a lot of time trying to learn about though. I have to say, it’s opened up a whole new view of what’s going on in the Bible. And while I’m Christian, it also puts a whole new perspective on what Jesus said. Therefore, on what He means as well. Truly eye-opening.
What happened when Jesus healed a leper?
Since the event is recorded in three Gospels, please bear with me while we check out all three of them.
First – Matthew
8:2-4 pp — Mk 1:40-44; Lk 5:12-14
Mt 8:1 When he came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. 2 A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Mt 8:3 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cured of his leprosy. 4 Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
Second – Mark
1:40-44 pp — Mt 8:2-4; Lk 5:12-14
Mk 1:40 A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Mk 1:41 Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.
Mk 1:43 Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: 44 “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.” 45 Instead he 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.
Third – Luke
5:12-14 pp — Mt 8:2-4; Mk 1:40-44
Lk 5:12 While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Lk 5:13 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.
Lk 5:14 Then Jesus ordered him, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”
Lk 5:15 Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. 16 But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
As you see, very similar. Jesus healed a leper in all three of them. Jesus sent the man to see a priest in all three of them. However, only Mark and Luke record the trip to the priest had something to do with cleansing. Finally, all three record Jesus telling the healed leper not to tell anyone how he was healed. A very strange request, isn’t it? Especially since Jesus told the man to go see a priest!
Let’s take a look, examining the items in this order:
- What is leprosy?
- Jesus healed a leper after a short conversation
- When Jesus healed the leper, Matthew recorded nothing about cleansing. Only Mark and Luke did that.
- Jesus sent the healed leper to go see a priest.
- Jesus told the man not to tell anyone about the healing.
Jesus healed a leper. But what is/was leprosy?
The first thing to straighten out here is what exactly is leprosy? Leprosy actually refers to different things in Biblical days than what it does today. In Biblical times, leprosy referred to a wide range of skin diseases, one of which might have been leprosy, as we know it today.
What is leprosy today?
Given advances in medical sciences, we have a very specific disease in mind when we talk about leprosy today. Here’s a layman’s definition of leprosy from the CDC:
Hansen’s disease (also known as leprosy) is an infection caused by slow-growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae. It can affect the nerves, skin, eyes, and lining of the nose (nasal mucosa). With early diagnosis and treatment, the disease can be cured. People with Hansen’s disease can continue to work and lead an active life during and after treatment.
Leprosy was once feared as a highly contagious and devastating disease, but now we know it doesn’t spread easily and treatment is very effective. However, if left untreated, the nerve damage can result in crippling of hands and feet, paralysis, and blindness.
As you see, it’s a very specific disease. Also, it has a treatment and can be cured if detected soon enough. Finally, people who have leprosy today can continue to lead an active life and can work.
One of the big dangers of leprosy, if left untreated, is the loss of feeling in extremities. The inability to feel pain results in severe damage to fingers, toes, and eventually hands and feet.
What was leprosy in Biblical times?
In Biblical times, leprosy encompassed a number of skin diseases. For a comprehensive look at what was included, I invite you to check out Leviticus 13. I’m not including it, because I do want to include a passage from Leviticus regarding the treatment of those diseases known as leprosy back then.
Does this mean the Bible was wrong about leprosy?
I have to include the question of whether or not the Bible was wrong about leprosy? In other words, did God not really know what leprosy was? The answer is a resounding No! Seriously, what do we want the Bible to say about leprosy?
What did we want God to say to His people thousands of years ago, when they lacked the knowledge we have today? Maybe we want God to say – I’m going to give you a bunch of rules about skin diseases. For now, let’s call them leprosy. But know this – in the future, people are going to call one specific instance of one of these diseases leprosy. And when they do that, they are also going to assign specific names to each of the other diseases we are now calling leprosy. I’m really sorry about any confusion this will cause in the future.
But you know what? It’s just more than you can understand right now. Therefore, given the choice between confusing you today or confusing people in the future – I’m going to make your lives easier today. And why not? They” be smarter in the future and more able to deal with it.
Do we really want the Bible to say something along those lines? Or should we just accept that there are knowledge differences between people now and people then? And that God chose not to go into details that the people couldn’t possibly understand? I don’t think so.
Why doesn't the Bible match current knowledge? There are many times in the Bible where we wonder whether God was wrong about something. We need to consider circumstances before deciding God is wrong. Circumstances like culture and knowledge. Our culture today is very different from Biblical times. In fact, early Old Testament culture is different from later Old Testament culture. And both are different from New Testament culture. As wars are won and lost, as people inter-mingle, customs change and adapt. It's normal. We have much more scientific knowledge today than ever before. And we don't even need to go back to Biblical times to see that difference. I worked in the IT (Information Technology) field - formerly known as the computer field. Even in my lifetime huge strides were made. Young people today have no concept of what I worked with early in my career. When we ignore these obvious changes and assume the Bible or God is wrong, we do so at our own peril. The peril of our own souls. Just think about the differences even between us and the God who created us and the universe we live in. Everything we learned as a people, from Genesis up to today, we learned from God. He is the creator and dispenser of knowledge. What if God only gave ultimate and complete knowledge, rather than teach us step by step? We'd be back in the Genesis culture, because we wouldn't have understood word one from what He tried to teach us. We must keep all these things in mind as we read and study the Bible.
Jesus healed a leper after a short conversation.
All three writers recorded very much the same sentence coming from the leper. The key part is:
if you are willing, you can make me clean
Two of the three record the leper calling Jesus “Lord”. But in all three cases, he acknowledges that Jesus has the ability to heal him. The only possible reason for not getting healed is if Jesus isn’t willing. Of course, He did heal the man.
The thing to notice here is the leper’s faith. Leprosy isn’t that common in most developed countries today. But back then, it made someone a complete outcast.
Today, so many people focus on faith as grounds for healing. Like, if we have enough faith, God will heal us. If we don’t have enough faith, God won’t heal us. I submit that this event is about more than “just” healing. When we focus only on faith, we miss the rest of what happened.
When Jesus healed the leper, Matthew recorded nothing about cleansing.
Why didn’t Matthew mention cleansing, while Mark and Luke did? As mentioned previously, Matthew was Jewish. And his target audience was largely Jewish. Mark and Luke wrote for different people. With different backgrounds. Different experiences.
In that light, Matthew doesn’t need to expressly mention cleansing. As a Jew, he knew cleansing was what Jesus spoke about. And, so did Matthew’s Jewish readers. Not necessarily so for Mark and Luke. Gentiles (non-Jewish people) don’t always have the knowledge that after being healed of leprosy, the next step for a Jew was to present themselves to a Jewish priest.
Today, if we only read Matthew, we might not know that either. But if we read Mark and Luke, we will know. So rather than think there’s a discrepancy or a problem, we should be looking at a case of 2+2=4. Complete information, rather than misinformation or mistakes!
Why should we read the same things in different Gospels? You've probably noticed that many events are recorded by more than one of the Gospel authors. Also, that sometimes they don't completely match. Is this a problem? Or is there maybe a reason for this? Each of the Gospels was authored by a different person. And each had their intended audience. Based on their own backgrounds and their expectations about their intended audience, we should expect variations. Different things are emphasized. Some things may be left out. But then, remember that we aren't all the same today either. We will pick up some things from one Gospel that we won't from another. And let's not forget about synergy. By reading all of them, putting the pieces together, including with the culture, background, and audience of each author, we come up with a much more complete version of what God is trying to tell us in His Word. So when we read the passage below in Matthew, as an example ... The Man With Leprosy 8:2-4 pp — Mk 1:40-44; Lk 5:12-14 ... we should also turn to Mark 1:40-44 and Luke 5:12-14. Put all of them together, and we have a complete picture, almost like in 3D. We see the events in the passages from different points of view. So don't skip that part - use it and learn more about God.
Jesus sent the healed leper to go see a priest.
Now that we worked out the issue of cleaning, it becomes more apparent why, after Jesus healed the leper, He told the man to go show himself to the priest. At least, it does if we know about Leviticus. Specifically, about the rules surrounding what to do after being healed from any of the various skin diseases known as leprosy back then.
Question – we know the Jewish leaders were against Jesus and what He was teaching. He was getting far too popular with the people. Plus, Jesus was pointing out all sorts of issues with what the Jewish leaders taught and did. So, did Jesus send the leper to the Priest just to make extra work for that priest? I mean, just look at what was involved when someone was healed.
Lev 14:1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 “These are the regulations for the diseased person at the time of his ceremonial cleansing, when he is brought to the priest: 3 The priest is to go outside the camp and examine him. If the person has been healed of his infectious skin disease, 4 the priest shall order that two live clean birds and some cedar wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop be brought for the one to be cleansed. 5 Then the priest shall order that one of the birds be killed over fresh water in a clay pot. 6 He is then to take the live bird and dip it, together with the cedar wood, the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, into the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water. 7 Seven times he shall sprinkle the one to be cleansed of the infectious disease and pronounce him clean. Then he is to release the live bird in the open fields.
Lev 14:8 “The person to be cleansed must wash his clothes, shave off all his hair and bathe with water; then he will be ceremonially clean. After this he may come into the camp, but he must stay outside his tent for seven days. 9 On the seventh day he must shave off all his hair; he must shave his head, his beard, his eyebrows and the rest of his hair. He must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water, and he will be clean.
Lev 14:10 “On the eighth day he must bring two male lambs and one ewe lamb a year old, each without defect, along with three-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering, and one log of oil. 11 The priest who pronounces him clean shall present both the one to be cleansed and his offerings before the LORD at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.
Lev 14:12 “Then the priest is to take one of the male lambs and offer it as a guilt offering, along with the log of oil; he shall wave them before the LORD as a wave offering. 13 He is to slaughter the lamb in the holy place where the sin offering and the burnt offering are slaughtered. Like the sin offering, the guilt offering belongs to the priest; it is most holy. 14 The priest is to take some of the blood of the guilt offering and put it on the lobe of the right ear of the one to be cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot. 15 The priest shall then take some of the log of oil, pour it in the palm of his own left hand, 16 dip his right forefinger into the oil in his palm, and with his finger sprinkle some of it before the LORD seven times. 17 The priest is to put some of the oil remaining in his palm on the lobe of the right ear of the one to be cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot, on top of the blood of the guilt offering. 18 The rest of the oil in his palm the priest shall put on the head of the one to be cleansed and make atonement for him before the LORD.
Lev 14:19 “Then the priest is to sacrifice the sin offering and make atonement for the one to be cleansed from his uncleanness. After that, the priest shall slaughter the burnt offering 20 and offer it on the altar, together with the grain offering, and make atonement for him, and he will be clean.
Lev 14:21 “If, however, he is poor and cannot afford these, he must take one male lamb as a guilt offering to be waved to make atonement for him, together with a tenth of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering, a log of oil, 22 and two doves or two young pigeons, which he can afford, one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering.
Lev 14:23 “On the eighth day he must bring them for his cleansing to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, before the LORD. 24 The priest is to take the lamb for the guilt offering, together with the log of oil, and wave them before the LORD as a wave offering. 25 He shall slaughter the lamb for the guilt offering and take some of its blood and put it on the lobe of the right ear of the one to be cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot. 26 The priest is to pour some of the oil into the palm of his own left hand, 27 and with his right forefinger sprinkle some of the oil from his palm seven times before the LORD. 28 Some of the oil in his palm he is to put on the same places he put the blood of the guilt offering—on the lobe of the right ear of the one to be cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot. 29 The rest of the oil in his palm the priest shall put on the head of the one to be cleansed, to make atonement for him before the LORD. 30 Then he shall sacrifice the doves or the young pigeons, which the person can afford, 31 one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering, together with the grain offering. In this way the priest will make atonement before the LORD on behalf of the one to be cleansed.”
Lev 14:32 These are the regulations for anyone who has an infectious skin disease and who cannot afford the regular offerings for his cleansing.
That’s a lot of work!
So, did Jesus do this just to make work for the priest?
I believe, just like focusing on the healing, thinking it was revenge on the Jewish leaders is also missing the point. Remember – Jesus, as a man, was Jewish. All through the Old Testament, Messiah is the one who will save the Jewish people. However, the Old Testament also says the people will reject Messiah. As they waited for Messiah, Jesus did nothing to make the people think He wasn’t Jewish.
Jewish followed all the laws. While the Jewish leaders disagreed, they were wrong. In those cases where they tried to trap or call out Jesus for disobeying the Law, Jesus turned the tables and told them that they didn’t understand the Law. And so, in this case, the reasonable belief is that Jesus told the healed leper to present himself to the priest was all about following the Law.
Jesus told the man not to tell anyone about the healing.
We are down to one item outstanding.
Jesus healed a leper. He sent the man to a priest so the cleansing rituals were followed. But Jesus told the man not to tell anyone how he was healed! Why? I believe there’s something for us to learn here as well. Christians talk about how God is sovereign. He can do what He wants. And that God has a plan. Including a plan for our salvation. Jesus being here for His short ministry is part of that plan. Even a pre-requisite, since Jesus had to be born in order to die – in order to be resurrected – in order to return to Heaven. A very complex and detailed plan indeed!
Part of that plan included keeping Jesus alive until the appointed time. Now, Jesus could have just hidden out all the time. But then the ministry portion of His life can’t happen. That’s not acceptable. Not according to plan. Balance that with the need for people to know about Jesus. To hear His words. To see Him. Get to know Him. So there’s this conflict between not enough people knowing Jesus is here and what He’s doing – versus stirring up so many people that Jesus has to hide out until the appointed time for His death.
This can be worked out in all sorts of ways that God can accomplish things. But one way we might understand is the timing of Jesus traveling and speaking, with time to hide out and pray. Knowing full well that pretty much everyone Jesus told not to tell was going to do the exact opposite, God can work around that. Balance the crowds with the alone-time. The teaching with the traveling. The appearances with the hiding. All part of the plan.
As one commentator put it:
But the man went out and spoke freely about this, spreading the news far and wide. Jesus’ fame increased all the more, making it impossible for Him to go openly into a city. Instead He had to remain in isolated places. Large crowds were assembling from everywhere to hear Jesus and be healed of their sicknesses.
Jesus continued, however, to slip away into the desert to pray. 1Cheney, J. M., Ellisen, S. A., & Cheney, J. M. (1999). Jesus Christ The Greatest Life: A Unique Blending of the Four Gospels (p. 61). Eugene, OR: Paradise Publishing Inc.
Conclusion – Jesus healed a leper then told him to see a priest. Why?
Well, this sure turned out longer than I expected! But there’s a lot in here. Only 4 or 5 verses, depending on which Gospel we read. And yet, look at what we got out of it. And there’s more. But this is what I’m after today.
I pray that this does give you more information on the short passage where Jesus heals a leper.
But even more, that you see the importance of going deeper into what we read. Read the other Gospel authors who may have a different viewpoint on what took place. Get into the culture of the time, because we cannot always pick up on the true message with our modern-time knowledge and customs.
And don’t be afraid of the Old Testament! To borrow a thought from Paul, the Old Testament, the Jewish Scripture, is the foundation on which the New Testament is built. All the prophecies pointing to Jesus are in there. So many of the things Jesus said can be more deeply and completely understood from an Old Testament point of view. And a Biblical culture point of view.
The Bible is God’s word for us. The more we put into reading it, the more we get out of what He left for us to know about Him.
- 1Cheney, J. M., Ellisen, S. A., & Cheney, J. M. (1999). Jesus Christ The Greatest Life: A Unique Blending of the Four Gospels (p. 61). Eugene, OR: Paradise Publishing Inc.