Sermon --- Sunday, 03-Sept-2006

 

Peter Flowers, Elder, Bethel Evangelical Free Church

 

Matthew 8:1-4:  The compassion of Jesus

 

Our scripture text this morning is from the gospel of Matthew, chapter 8, verses 1 through 4:

 

1 When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. 2 And behold, a leper[a] came to him and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, if you will, you can make me clean." 3 And Jesus[b] stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, "I will; be clean." And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. 4 And Jesus said to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them."

 

[Prayer for enlightenment]

 

In India, where caste is very important, the untouchables are still untouchable, or so I read.  They are outcasts and can at best expect a job sweeping up dung.  No one will associate with them, no one will even talk to them, except others in their caste.  They are without hope and without a future, barely able to survive from day to day.

 

We in our enlightened western society, of course, are ever so much more tolerant than those benighted people in India.  We have no outcastes, except, of course, for the people who we don’t like and would rather stay away from, as if they would pollute us, such as gays or lesbians or people afflicted with AIDs.  If someone admits he has AIDs, don’t we grab our children in order to pull them away from that person?  Aren’t we even a little wary about people who have cancer?  When someone says, well, I have cancer, doesn’t that cast a pall over the conversation?  Don’t you feel yourself inching towards the door?

 

When we read the gospels, we must not forget that our authors have several messages at several levels to convey to us.  At least one of the messages in our passage today is that, in contrast to our own frailty, Jesus always had compassion.  But there is more in this passage than just his compassion.  As we shall see, Matthew intends for this short passage to be central in how we come to understand who Jesus is, and what that understanding should mean to us.

 

The four verses break naturally into four sections:

 

  • Verse 1 is a transition in which Matthew helps us understand the context of what is to follow
  • Verse 2 contains a leper’s plea
  • Verse 3 reveals both Jesus’ compassion and his power
  • Verse 4 is what Jesus commands

 

 

 

First, then, let us look at the context of today’s text.

 

Verse 1 tells us that what follows occurs when Jesus came down from the mountain.  So our first question is, what mountain?  Casting our eyes back of the previous three chapters, we see that Jesus has just finished delivering the Sermon on the Mount.  So these events follow on from that sermon. 

 

In fact, Matthew tells us this at conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount in the two verses which precede our passage this morning (Matt 7:28-29):

 

28 And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, 29 for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.

 

The teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is quite untypical of the Jewish teaching of that day.  Rabbinic teaching was much like what I was taught was involved in scholarly research.  It involved endless quotations and cross references to the opinions of others in order to attempt to establish some point or principle.  This is not at all what Jesus’ teaching is like.  He says, over and over again, “You have heard it said,” followed by some scribal distortion of the Old Testament.  And then he follows by saying:  “But I say to you.”  And what he says clearly has authority and power.

 

So the crowds are astonished.  They ask: who is this man?  Where does he find the authority to say these things?  What is he doing?  What does he mean?

 

Before he started his description of the Sermon on the Mount, in chapter 4, verse 23, Matthew tells us this about what Jesus did:

 

23 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.

 

Immediately after telling us this, Matthew launches into the Sermon on the Mount.

 

And it is immediately after the account of the Sermon on the Mount that we get to our passage this morning, describing the healing of the leper.  Matthew, then, has very clearly told us what he is going to do – he is going to show us both Jesus’ teaching ministry and his healing ministry.  And in the description of Jesus’ healing ministry, the crowds are going to learn – and we are going to learn – what the answer is to the questions being asked by the crowds.  Who is this man?  How should we respond to him?  We are about to find out.

 

 

In verse 2 we are introduced to the leper.  2 And behold, a leper[a] came to him and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, if you will, you can make me clean."

 

Behold!  This is a wonder!  Matthew wants to call our attention to this event in a forceful manner.  Behold, a leper came to him.

 

Leprosy was God’s appointed picture of sin in the Old Testament.  It was a living death, a source of misery, a center of defilement.  And this is what sin is.

 

There is some debate about whether the actual disease of leprosy covered by the Old Testament laws is the same as what is now known as Hansen’s disease.  But perhaps that is not important.  What is important is that God, when he ordained that leprosy was a picture of sin in the theocracy, ordained that once a man was a leper, he should be regarded as unclean in himself, and so polluting that every person and thing that he touched became unclean. 

 

Hence the leper was dreaded in his every approach to those around him.  The rabbis said that you had to stay at least six feet away from a leper, and, if a wind was blowing and you were downwind, you had to stay 150 feet away from him.  So he was looked upon as dead while he lived, and his case was viewed as beyond human help.

 

Luke, in his account of this meeting in chapter 5, verse 12, of his gospel tells us that the leper was “full of leprosy” – the disease was far advanced, and he knew he was in the final stages of his malady.  He is desperate.  To all around him, he is not only untouchable, but must seem to be without hope.  Yet he makes his way through the crowd, which must have parted before him as he shouted out “unclean,” and comes to Jesus.

 

For the leper was not without hope, no matter how desperate his case seemed.  This is one of the most encouraging things in this passage.  He would seem to be without hope, but he is not!  Perhaps he had been standing, away from the rest of the crowd, up on the mountain, and had heard Jesus’ Sermon.  Or perhaps he had learned what Matthew told us in 4:23, that Jesus was going around and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people. 

 

Here is what he must have said to himself:  I am a leper, yes.  But in fact God sometimes  healed lepers in Old Testament times.  I am a leper in the worst state, for I am full of leprosy – but with God, all things are possible!  This man is sent of God, and the power of God is with him!  Therefore, I conclude that he can cleanse me if he will.

 

The leper realized that everything depended upon our Lord’s will.  Some say that the leper doubted the willingness of Christ.  I greatly doubt this interpretation of his words.  He simply stated a great truth.  If Jesus only willed it, the leper could made clean without his saying or doing anything.  The whole work depended on the Lord’s will that it should be done.  His will was the spring of the healing power.

 

Christ has a right to save whom he pleases; and though he saves all who trust him, this also is not without his will.  He said to this man, “I will”; and there is no instance in Scripture of a suppliant for healing to whom he said, “I will not.”  Yet his saving grace lies under the control of his own sovereignty:  he may do as he wills with his own.  As Paul says in Romans chapter 9,

 

15 For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion,[a] but on God, who has mercy.

 

So then, the leper kneels before Jesus, and casts himself upon Jesus’ mercy and Jesus’ will.  He trusted Jesus when he knelt before him, and knelt before him because he trusted him.  With humble but importunate prayer, he sets forth his case and leaves it in the Savior’s hands.

 

 

In verse 3 we learn of Jesus’ response to the plea by the leper:  3 And Jesus[b] stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, "I will; be clean." And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.

 

The leper did not come to Jesus in vain.  Jesus looked at the leper with a different look from what the leper had ever received before.  When others glanced at the leper they went by as quickly as they could.  If someone came face to face with him, he turned away his eyes from the horrible sight.  Nobody pitied lepers in those days, for they judged them to be smitten of God.  They were the objects of horror among men because they were viewed as objects of the wrath of the Most High.

 

But when Jesus saw the afflicted man, we read in Mark that “he was moved with compassion.” 

 

Compassion is a lovely word.  It means to have pity and sympathy.  Others despised and loathed the leper, but Jesus loved him and sympathized with him.

 

And isn’t this what we need as well?  Do we think we are so strong that we do not need the compassion of Jesus?  Oh, no – ever week brings news of some catastrophe disturbing our peace – illness, family troubles, anger, bitterness.  Sometimes we reach above ourselves and are capable of being compassionate, but too frequently we fail.  So we too are like the leper – we desperately need a friend, an omnipotent friend, who will never turn away from us in disgust, who always will have compassion on us.

 

Jesus was moved with compassion, and he reached out and touched the man. 

 

As I imagine the scene, I imagine the leper down on his knees about six feet away from Jesus.  That would have to be where he would stop.  He could not come right up to Jesus, for he was unclean.  But that barrier means nothing to Jesus.  He takes a quick stride towards him and touches him.  I imagine this would have been the first time the leper would have had physical contact with anyone in many years. 

 

And then Jesus rewards him with the sovereign word:  “I will; be clean.”  And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.  The leper is not only healed – he is cleansed, his pollution is removed.

 

We see here the reversal of all that leprosy stood for.  Leprosy, as we have noted, was symbolic of sin, of its polluting nature.  It had to be shunned, as sin is to be shunned.  But this is reversed when Jesus says, “I will.”  Instead of Jesus being polluted, the leper is cleansed.  Instead of the leper communicating his disease to Jesus, Jesus communicated heavenly health to the leper.  And again, isn’t this what we need as well?  We need not only compassion, but healing of our sins, and a restoration to health.  In one stride, one word, and one touch, Jesus shows not only the leper, but also us, that all this is available to him. 

 

Did you notice the word “immediately”?  There is an interesting story about leprosy in the book of Numbers, in chapter 12.  Miriam and Aaron spoke with jealousy of Moses’ prophetic gifts.  Immediately God appears and rebukes them.  We read as follows in verses 9 to 15:

9 And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he departed.

 10 When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous,[a] like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous. 11 And Aaron said to Moses, "Oh, my lord, do not punish us[b] because we have done foolishly and have sinned. 12 Let her not be as one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes out of his mother's womb." 13 And Moses cried to the LORD, "O God, please heal her--please." 14 But the LORD said to Moses, "If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be shamed seven days? Let her be shut outside the camp seven days, and after that she may be brought in again." 15 So Miriam was shut outside the camp seven days, and the people did not set out on the march till Miriam was brought in again.

Here is one of a couple of cases in the Old Testament when leprosy was put away by God.  But the interesting thing in this story is that the cure was not immediate.  Miriam is outside the camp for seven days; only then is she readmitted and only then do the people march out again.

 

But when Jesus heals, the healing is immediate and complete.  There is no waiting around for seven days. 

 

There is another interesting story about the healing of leprosy in the Old Testament which a Jew in the crowd would have been thinking of as he saw Jesus heal the leper.  In 2nd Kings we learn that Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, became afflicted with leprosy, and learned from his wife’s maid that the prophet in Israel would be able to cure him.  So the king of Syria wrote a letter to the king of Israel which said:

 

"When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy." 7 And when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, "Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?

 

The person in the crowd watching Jesus must be thinking of this story.  Only God can kill and make alive, and only God can cure a man of his leprosy.  Yet right here, right now, I have seen Jesus not only touch this leper, but also I have seen this leper be cleansed immediately.

 

Yes, Jesus not only has compassion, he has power, the kind of power that only God has.  When we watch Jesus healing the leper, we have seen that same power which created the fabric of existence transform illness into health, uncleanness into cleanness.  When we look on Jesus, we look on God.

 

 

Finally, in verse 4 we hear what Jesus commands the leper to do:  4 And Jesus said to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them."

 

By the end of verse 3, the answer to the question being asked by the crowd must be clear to all who are present.  Who is this man who speaks with authority?  He is a person who does what only God can do – he cleanses a leper in an instant.  Not only that, when the leper kneels down and confesses that Jesus is the one who can do this, Jesus does not repudiate what the leper says.

 

Yet when we turn to verse 4, Jesus tells the leper to say nothing to anyone.  And he repeats this instruction to secrecy at various other times, sometimes, as here, in the context of not spreading stories about his ability to do miraculous healings.  It seems best to understand this instruction as reflecting a real danger that Jesus would achieve unwanted popularity merely as a wonder worker, which would be a serious misunderstanding of the true nature of his mission.

 

The Mosaic law commanded lepers who thought they were cleansed to submit to priestly inspection and offer sacrifice to thank God (Lev 14:1-9).  Until Jesus’ death and resurrection, the sacrificial laws remained God’s will for his people.  Jesus never encouraged anyone to contravene them during his lifetime.  Here he instructs the leper to do as the law commanded.

 

However, he also instructs that this obedience should be “a proof to them.”  In what sense would the leper going to the priest and being declared healed be a proof or a testimony?

 

First, it would be a proof or testimony in the limited sense that what the people had seen was in fact certified to be true.  The leper indeed really was healed. 

 

But the phrase is used elsewhere in Matthew and in those other uses appears to suggest more than a simple validation of the healing.  In Matthew 10:17-18, Jesus warns his disciples:  Beware of me; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles.  In this passage, then, to bear testimony or proof is to witness to the good news of Jesus.  And later, in the famous passage addressing the end times, Jesus says in Matthew 24:14:  And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come.  Again, in this passage the testimony which is being borne is a testimony to the whole truth about Jesus.  The testimony is a call to believe in him.

 

In our passage today, then, it seems appropriate to conclude that the proof or testimony which is being offered is not only that the leper is healed, but also proof or testimony about who Jesus really is.  As we have seen, the Old Testament shows that only God could heal leprosy.  So when the leper shows himself to the priests, the proof of his healing is a proof, for those who have eyes to see, that Jesus truly is God.

 

But what if you see this proof, this testimony, but still do not believe?  In the gospel of Mark, Jesus also talks about a negative proof or testimony in this sense in chapter 6, vers 11:  And if any place will not receive you and they refuse to hear you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet for a testimony against them.

 

In the end, then, objectively speaking, this miracle, as all of Jesus’ miracles, gives convincing testimony that he truly is the Messiah, the son of God.  On this side of the cross, we have no reason to keep any part of that message secret.  But to those who will not receive the evidence, who deliberately attempt to suppress the truth, then the proof is a testimony against them.  They stand condemned for their lack of belief.

 

As we close, I would like to think one last time about what we have learned about Jesus.  We have seen that he not only was a great teacher but a great healer.  We have seen that when we seem to be in a situation without hope, yet still there always is hope, for salvation always is available to Jesus if we turn to him.  We have seen that he has compassion on the outcasts, the untouchables, the hideous and malformed.  Where we in our frailty flinch and pull back, he reaches out in love.  And he not only offers us his pity, he gives us total cleansing.  Although our sins are as scarlet, yet they shall be white as snow.

 

Finally, like the leper, we have all the evidence before us.  We have seen his words.  We have seen his deeds.  We have seen the mighty wonder of his death and resurrection.  What more proof do we need?  But woe betide us if we do not believe.  So let us, like the leper, turn to him in trust, prayer, worship, and adoration, and receive him whom to believe is eternal life.

Amen.

 

Prayer of Thanksgiving for the Word