Bibliotheca Sacra 113 (1956): 262-67
Copyright © 1956 Dallas Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
THE CLEANSING OF THE LEPER
By Charles C. Ryrie, Th. D., Ph. D.
The healing of Peter's mother-in-law in
followed rapidly by a sequence of events which led to the
miracle of the cleansing of a leper (Matt. 8:2-4; Mark 1:
40-45; Luke 5:12-16). That evening after Peter's mother-
in-law was healed, the whole city gathered at Peter's door
to beseech the Savior for deliverance from various maladies.
It had already been a busy day, but the Lord healed many of
them (Mark -34). In spite of His weariness of body, the
next day He arose early to seek His Father's face in prayer
but His disciples found Him and reported that many others
back in town were seeking Him. Our Lord's reply was to re-
mind them of the many others in other towns who also needed
I. THE LEPROSY OF THE MAN
It was while the Lord was on this preaching tour through
oldest diseases known to man, for the Egyptians recognized
it before 1500 B. C. It was evidently not at all uncommon in
this incident is the first record of cleansing in Christ's pub-
The characteristics of leprosy. Leprosy is a disease
which seems to know no climatic or social boundaries. Al-
though today's three million lepers are found chiefly in trop-
has appeared and does appear in all parts of the world.
"Race, occupation', social status and climate have no bearing
on the incidence" (John M. Musser, Internal Medicine, 4th
edition, 1945, p. 73).
Leprosy appears in two forms. One affects the nerves
The Cleansing of the Leper †††††††††††† 263
and the other the skin. It is the latter which seems to be the
type spoken of everywhere in the Bible, but neither type is a
disease of the blood. The bacilli appear in the blood only
during times of fever (ibid., p. 74; cf. C. I. Scofield, editor,
The Scofield Reference Bible, p. 141: "Leprosy speaks of
sin as (1) in the blood. . ."). A person may harbor the
germs for years before the disease erupts. When it does
appear, however, it takes the form of nodules or of swelling
of the extremities and usually affects the face, legs, or feet
first. From then on the disease runs a fearful and sometimes
lengthy course. "As the nodules enlarge the skin becomes
deeply furrowed; the ear lobes, lips and nose become thick-
ened, tending to cause resemblance to a lion's face. . .
[the skin] is often dusky or 'muddy,' dry or scaling. The
nails are often striated. Ulcerations occur easily.† Ulcers
may heal, but often penetrate deeply and spread, causing
appalling mutilation. Various digits may drop off. . . .
Destruction of the cornea and conjunctiva results in blind-
ness" (ibid., p. 75; cf. also Sir Henry L. Tidy, A Synopsis
of Medicine, 9th edition, 1949, p. 137).
††††††††††† The Jews evidently regarded the disease as contagious
though it is not readily so. Methods of arresting the disease
have been known for some time, and modern drugs can elim-
inate the germs from the body, but nothing can undo the toll
the disease takes upon a body before it is either arrested or
cured. These are the general characteristics of leprosy.
The consequences of leprosy. In the Old Testament
certain very specific tests were given for the diagnosing of
leprosy (Lev. 13). When it was discovered the afflicted per-
son was rigidly cut off from the community. He was com-
pelled to put on the marks of mourning as if he were dead.
He had his clothes rent, his head uncovered, his lips cover-
ed, and wherever he went he had to shout "unclean" in order
to warn others away (Lev. ; Num. ). Often a sep-
arate place was designated in the synagogues for lepers, and
infraction of any of these reg1llations of separation was pun-
ishable with forty stripes.
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It is these consequences that have caused leprosy to be
regarded as a type of sin. Actually the nearest Biblical ref-
erence which would justify this type is Psalm 51:7 ("Purge
me with hyssop"). Because the hyssop mentioned here is
also a part of the cleansing ritual for the leper (Lev. 14:4),
it is assumed that David's sin is being compared to leprosy
and thus leprosy is a type of sin. In reality, David may more
likely have had in mind the hyssop used in the ritual of
cleansing in connection with the red heifer offering (Num.
), and thus it seems doubtful at best to speak of leprosy
as a distinct type. It can, however, certainly be considered
as an illustration of some aspects of sin. Principally lepro-
sy illustrates the defilement of sin which results in separa-
tion. Insidiousness, loathsomeness, uncleanness, separation,
defilement, death, are all points of comparison between lep-
rosy and sin, but resemblance does not constitute leprosy a
type--only an illustration.
II. THE LOVE OF THE MASTER
The way the leper approached the Lord gives indication
of his great faith in the power of Christ. "If thou wilt, thou
canst make me clean." It was the love of Christ that moti-
vated His action in this instance as in all His work, but it
was love related to power. I might love to give each reader
a million dollars but I am not able to do so. The Lord of
glory not only loved this man and us but He was and is able
to do something about his and our miserable condition. Sal-
vation is not only related to the truth that "He loved the
world" but also to the truth that "He is able."
However, love and power are not enough; there must be
willingness, and the form in which the leper's question was
cast shows that lie recognized this fact. The question was
not, Could He do it? but, Would He do it? "There might be
the ability without the will, or the will without the ability,
but his hope was that in Christ there would be the combination
of both, and all that was needed for that, in his estimation,
was the will" (William M. Taylor, The Miracles of Our
The Cleansing of the Leper††††††††††††††††††††††††† 265
Saviour, p. 114).
Thus powerful and willing love resulted in active love,
and the Savior touched the leper. The act of touching the de-
filed man, which normally would also have defiled the one
who touched him, illustrates the deep mystery involved in
the Savior's identifying Himself with sin. Who can fathom all
that may be involved in the fact that He was made sin for us
(2 Cor. 5:21)? And yet this touching of the leper may illus-
trate something of that mystery.
III. THE LAW OF MOSES
After the cleansing came the command: "See thou say
nothing to any man: but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest,
and offer for thy cleansing those things which Moses com-
manded, for a testimony unto them" (Mark ). "Those
things which Moses commanded" are recorded in Leviticus
14. Briefly, the ritual of cleansing was as follows: two clean
living birds, a cedar rod, scarlet, and hyssop were taken;
one bird was then killed in an earthen vessel over running
water; the hyssop was then tied to the rod with the scarlet
band and it and the living bird were dipped in the blood of the
dead bird; next the blood on the rod was sprinkled over the
leper seven times, and the living bird was loosed. At this
point the leper was pronounced clean, but more was still re-
quired of him. He had to wash his clothes, shave, bathe,
stay away from his house for seven days, repeat the ablutions
and shaving, and finally on the eighth day offer at the temple
a sin offering, a trespass offering, a meal offering, and a
burnt offering. It is evident that the law was very detailed
about this procedure, and doubtless, because it had seldom
if ever been used, there would have been a lot of scratching
of priestly heads had the leper obeyed the Lord and gone to
them. Instead, he chose to disobey and publish his miracle
abroad so that it actually hindered his benefactor's ministry.
The power of the law. Certain important doctrinal facts
about the relation of the Savior, the sinner, and the Mosaic
266 ††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Bibliotheca Sacra
law are illustrated in this miracle. The first is
saic law was powerless to cleanse. It could after a length
time pronounce as true the fact that a man was cleansed,
it could not perform the cleansing itself. The nature of
law has not changed; it still cannot cleanse the sinner
matter how admirably he may try to keep its
"Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh
justified in his sight" (Rom. ). It was never given as a
means of spiritual salvation, and great is the error of
who so use it today.
The purpose of the law. The Lordís reason for com-
manding this leper to go to the priests was that the
law might be used as a testimony to them. In the process
performing the ritual of the law they might have been led to
the Savior. Such is a legitimate purpose of the preaching of
the law today. It may be used to lead a man to Christ. It is
for the unrighteous (1 Tim. 1:9), to shut him up to faith in
Christ (Gal. -24). Our Lord used it this way (Luke 10:
25-37) and so may we.
Although the law may be used to show a sinner his hope-
less condition, only Christ can save. What then is the place
of the law in the life of the redeemed? Being saved does not
exempt one from lawful living, but the law involved is no
longer the law of Moses but the law of Christ. So it was for
the cleansed leper (Mark ), and so it is for the cleansed
sinner in this age (1 Cor. ). He is no longer under any
part of the Mosaic law (including the Ten Commandments, 2
Cor. 3:7-11), but he is to live by the commandments of
Christ under grace.
But, someone will say, Are not many of the requirements
of the law (and especially the principles of the Ten Command-
ments) repeated substantially in the teachings of grace? The
answer is obviously yes. Then, one will say, Why insist
that the Christian is not under the Mosaic law (including the
Ten Commandments)? We insist on it for the evident reason
that the Scripture says so (2 Cor.
-12), and for the very practical reason that even though
The Cleansing of the Leper †††††††††††††††††††††††† 267
some of the standards may be similar under law and grace,
no one will ever possibly reach any of those standards in his
life if he tries to do so by keeping the law. The law can only
motivate to sin (Rom. 7) and never to sanctification. Legal-
ism is the greatest enemy of sanctification; thus to connect
the believer's sanctification with the law is to defeat him be-
fore he starts.
Love is the only workable motive for sanctification, but
love does not mean license. No doubt, the leper was so
overpowered with love for his deliverance and his deliverer
that he thought he was doing right by telling everyone else of
Jesus. But that was not real love, for if he had had genuine,
thoughtful love he would have obeyed. The law of Christ is
tailor-made and perfect in every detail. The love of Christ
b rings perfect obedience to each and all of those details.
May the lessons of this miracle be practice in a life of
obedience motivated by the love of the one who loved us and
gave Himself for us.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:† firstname.lastname@example.org