Bibliotheca Sacra 113 (1956): 262-67

Copyright © 1956 Dallas Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.





By Charles C. Ryrie, Th. D., Ph. D.


The healing of Peter's mother-in-law in Capernaum was

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 1:32-34). 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





It was while the Lord was on this preaching tour through

Galilee that a leper accosted Him. Leprosy is one of the

oldest diseases known to man, for the Egyptians recognized

it before 1500 B. C. It was evidently not at all uncommon in

Palestine in Jesus' day (cf. Matt. 10:8; 11:5; Luke 7:22), but

this incident is the first record of cleansing in Christ's pub-

lic ministry.

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-

ical Africa, South America, India, and China, the disease

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. 13:45; Num. 12:12). 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.


264†††††††††††††††† Bibliotheca Sacra †††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ††††July, 1956


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.

19:18), 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.




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.




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 1:44). "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 that the Mo-

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. 3:20). 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. 3:23-24). 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 1:44), and so it is for the cleansed

sinner in this age (1 Cor. 9:21). 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. 3:7-11; Rom. 10:4; Heb.

7:11-12), 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.



Dallas, Texas



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