The Jewish Background to Leprosy
Pp Mark 1:40-44, Luke 5:12-14
The Leper’s Initiative
No publicity please!
Beginning with the passage which deals with the cleansing of the leper, this entire section runs through to the close of Mtw 9:34 and represents a kind of ‘Greatest Hits’ passage of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. I have previously noted that many of these incidents should not be taken as having been recorded in chronological order or that they all occurred on the same day as the narrative may be forced to be read for this does not seem to be the intention of the writer of the Gospel, even though the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) should necessarily be taken this way.
Having said that, Mtw 7:28-29 is better not separated from 8:1 where two sets of crowds are mentioned. If we were to take this literally, the text apparently reads that it was only when Jesus had descended from the mountain that the crowds massed together and followed after Him, even though it seems more likely that, after the end of the discourse, they simply got up and followed Him as He journeyed down towards the lower lands, perhaps near the coastal strip of the sea of Galilee.
This incident, which occurs in different places in both Mark and Luke, appears naturally here after a delivery of teaching to His disciples.
I have previously noted that, whereas Jesus has just demonstrated His own authority in teaching what God requires from them (Mtw 7:29), He now goes on to demonstrate that authority in deeds by healing, delivering, cleansing and setting free, Matfran summing the situation up well when he notes that
‘The crowds who have been impressed by the authority of Jesus’ words...are now to be the witnesses also of His deeds’
The ‘crowds’, who have been gathering as Jesus has been speaking to His disciples (Cp Mtw 5:1-2 with Mtw 7:28-29), are a group that the writer chooses to inform his readers concerning on numerous occasions throughout the Gospel (Mtw 4:25, 5:1, 8:18, 9:8, 9:33, 9:36, 11:7, 13:2, 13:34, 13:36, 14:13, 15:30, 19:2, 21:9, 23:1), thus emphasising not only His popularity but also the high regard that the populace must have held Him in.
After all, while a handful of men and women may group together to hear a visiting speaker, if some star in the Entertainment world was to be visiting your city, the crowds that would mass together would be significantly more because of the higher regard that men and women have for them.
But, having said that, Mathag is quite correct when he notes that
‘The majority followed more out of curiosity than belief’
If the multitudes which followed Jesus even in Jerusalem had been devout followers and believers in both Himself and His mission, they wouldn’t have been the same crowds who gathered together to voice their condemnation of His way of delivering them from their physical oppression and so choose for themselves someone who more resembled the type of liberator that they’d hoped for (Mtw 27:15-23).
The Jewish Background to Leprosy
I have dealt with much of the background to leprosy and the leper in various places on the other web pages on this site and it is best that the reader refers to these to grasp the detailed implications of the illness and the Mosaic Law’s background to it.
Firstly, here I dealt with leprosy and the leper in connection with a critique I wrote about Gary North’s book ‘Leviticus - An Economic Commentary’ in which he sought to interpret the Biblical Book as having relevance to modern day man but, more especially, to the kind of society that christians should be seeking to bring in as and when they find themselves in positions of authority and influence.
Though most of my comments on that page deal with what is wrong, I countered Gary North’s arguments with what I understood could positively be gleaned from Leviticus chapters 13 and 14 so that a careful reading of my notes will give adequate background to the passage.
It was there that I noted that there was a great deal of significance in the way Jesus dealt with both lepers and leprosy for, even though it might be assumed that the Jew of the first century perceived leprosy as some sort of judgment of God upon man’s sin, the Levitical instructions did no such thing and neither did Jesus.
The passages which deal with Jesus’ reaction to both leprosy and the leper are therefore significant and represent not a new dealing with the problem which cuts against God’s will but one which cuts against what was generally accepted within the society of His day. I noted there that
‘Jesus’ dealing with the lepers that He encountered is significant here (Mtw 8:1-4, Mk 1:40-45, Luke 5:12-16, Luke 17:11-19) for on no occasion does He forgive the individual their sin before healing them - as He did when He encountered other physical problems that needed this first (for instance, Mtw 9:1-8) and neither do we find Him breaking any curse that hung over the people concerned - He simply spoke the Word and the leprosy left them, they became “clean”’
In my notes on the subsequent web page, I went on to try and add comments to the Biblical text and leave North’s exposition behind. I therefore dealt with the types of skin ailments that were classed together as ‘leprosy’ (even though not each one of these is what is known today as the ‘Hansen’s Disease’ that is the classic illness normally though of) and the day of the leper’s cleansing at the hands of the Levitical priesthood in Leviticus chapter 14. In verse 2 of that chapter, we read that the following legislation was intended for
‘...the law of the leper for the day of his cleansing...’
but we shouldn’t be moved into thinking that, through certain religious ceremonies which occurred on the first, seventh and eighth days, the leper was being miraculously healed from his illness but that, having now considered himself clean from the sickness, there was a set procedure for re-admitting the Israelite into the fellowship of Israel, each ceremony restoring to Him one aspect of the privilege of the children of Israel.
This is where Jesus concludes His encounter with the (now-ex) leper by telling him (Mtw 8:4) to
‘...show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to the people’
paralleling Lev 14:2-4 where the leper was to be
‘...brought to the priest; and the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall make an examination. Then, if the leprous disease is healed in the leper, the priest shall...’
and so on. After the healing, Jesus instructs the leper plainly that he’s to begin his restoration back into the community by being subject to the legal requirements contained in the Mosaic Law (an action which would have required him to journey south towards Jerusalem and the Temple) even though, as Mark 1:40-45 shows us (the parallel passage)
‘...he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town...’
an example of how many people were quite willing to allow Jesus to be Lord of their sickness but were uncooperative when it came to Jesus’ demands upon them for Him to be Lord of their entire lives. Luke 6:46 is a good commentary on this passage for the leper, realising his need for cleansing, approaches Jesus by calling Him precisely what Jesus must have heard on many occasions as He travelled throughout Galilee - the term ‘Lord’.
He is wholly willing to have Jesus demonstrate Lordship over an area of his life with which he is dissatisfied and needs removing but, after the miraculous takes place, the mundane requirements of Jesus’ commands fade into insignificance because he wants to do what he wants to do.
Notice also that the leper comes to Jesus and kneels before Him (Mtw 8:2), an action which is the response of a servant to his master and which also indicates the servant’s willingness to obey. What the leper was outwardly demonstrating, however, was different to what was in his heart.
We shouldn’t marvel at this, however, for the Church has often found itself able to fill empty pews at the least mention of a ‘healing crusade’ which, after its over, fails to see a great improvement in the numbers that are attending during its normal services!
Men and women have not changed - they are still just as willing to have Jesus become Lord over areas of their lives that are problematical to them while still desiring to maintain authority and control over their own destiny.
Incidentally, Jesus’ command that he tell no one is possibly evidence that the crowds were not now present or, at least, were not very close by (see the following section). After all, if a leper came running toward you in first century Israel, one’s natural reaction would probably have been to run the other way!
The final place in my notes where I deal with leprosy is in the unlikely place of my notes on the Feast of Tabernacles here under section 3bii where I have added a section under ‘NB3’ which deals with the Rabbinic belief concerning Living Water and its significance for the sayings of Jesus in the Temple recorded for us in John 7:37-39.
I noted there that the Rabbis taught - quite Scripturally, I hasten to add - that Living Water (that is, water which is freely flowing) was the only type of water that could be used to cleanse three specific types of individuals from ceremonial defilement, one of these being the leper (Lev 14:5-7) but, even so, this was only on the day of their cleansing when the leprosy had already been declared to have left.
This Living Water which Jesus would give to His disciples which would flow out from them would do the very same thing in principle as natural Living Water did for the ceremonially unclean, in this instance being able to cleanse those people in the world who lived in uncleanness and death and who needed God’s presence in their lives.
I noted there that
‘The leper had to be obedient to the demands of the Law and depart from the congregation of Israel, living away from the presence of God who resided in their midst (Lev 13:46). He was dead to the presence of God, to the fellowship of God’s people and was unable to enjoy His inheritance that had been given to Him by God.
‘His entire life was considered to be one of “living death” (notice that the Law made no provision for the leper to be cleansed in his state of death - all it could do was condemn him to an existence away from the life of God).
‘The (ex-)leper’s cleansing was progressive (a. Fellowship with God's people was restored [14:8], b. The inheritance was restored after a further 7 days [14:8-9], and, c. Fellowship with God was restored on the following day [14:10-11]), but it began by killing one of the two birds over Living Water and sprinkling the “mix” on him.
‘But the Living Water that Jesus was going to give His believers would be able to cleanse the leper while he was still living in death/uncleanness as Jesus demonstrated on a number of occasions (eg - Mtw 8:1-4).
‘Not only is Jesus able to physically cleanse a leper, but the Living Water that flows out from His believers is able to change the lives of those people who constantly live in death and who find themselves exiled away from what God has for them.
‘Instead of individuals finding that there is “no way back” from the situation they live in and the person that they’ve become, the life of God flowing from believers provides opportunity (if there is a change of will) for there to be a radical transformation’
What is significant here is that, although natural Living Water could cleanse the ex-leper from his ceremonial defilement, the real Living Water of the Holy Spirit which flowed from Jesus was able to cleanse the person who was currently experiencing the illness and transform him into a state of wholeness apart from the Law.
There’s no doubt that, to the Jew of the first century, leprosy was more thought of as being ‘cleansed’ rather than ‘healed’, and it’s interesting to note that, if I’ve read Leviticus chapters 13 and 14 correctly, there’s no definitive statement that contact with the leper or leprosy defiled ceremonially (the implications of Lev 13:46 suggests this, however) and commentators normally have to rely on the statement of Lev 5:3 as a proof text which states that
‘...if he [anyone] touches human uncleanness, of whatever sort the uncleanness may be with which one becomes unclean, and it is hidden from him, when he comes to know it he shall be guilty’
But leprosy was considered as an uncleanness in the Scriptures rather than as an illness and there is no good reason to doubt this, even though a definitive proof text is lacking.
The Mishnah makes it certain that this is how the first century Jew understood leprosy when it notes (Kelim 1:4) that
‘[The uncleanness of] the woman that has a flux is exceeded by [the uncleanness of] the leper, for he renders [a house] unclean by entering it’
while Negaim 13:11 goes on to give more precise details when it notes that
‘If a leper enters a house, every vessel therein becomes unclean, even to the height of the roof beams’
Kelim 1:7 speaks of the holiness of the cities in the land of Israel which it regards as so important that their purity must be protected. Therefore
‘The walled cities...must send forth the lepers from their midst...’
so that they can maintain their ceremonial purity before God rather than have the lepers contaminate their habitations and be rejected by Him. Even a direct contact with the leper was not always sufficient for the clean Israelite to become unclean for, in Negaim 13:7, we read the instruction that
‘If a man unclean [from leprosy] stood beneath a tree and one that was clean passed by, he becomes unclean...’
Indeed, so important did the Jews regard leprosy that there’s an entire tractate (Negaim) devoted to the identification and procedure to be followed with the signs of leprosy on an individual and in houses (an indication that the word ‘leprosy’ more rightly meant a fungal disease rather than the normal illness which it’s used as a label for today).
To try and keep the reader of these notes awake, I have only quoted a very few of the enormous range of literature available from the Rabbis but those interested can find volumes which would seem to make my entire commentary on this Gospel look small!
Though it would have been interesting to listen to a conversation between two Rabbis discussing the difficulty posed by Jesus when He touched the leper (after all, should they think of Jesus as having ceremonial uncleanness because He’d touched the leper? Or had the leprosy gone before He had touched Him so continuing Jesus’ ceremonial cleanness before God? Perhaps we should ask Jesus to do the miracle again so we can decide which happened first?). When such power is unleashed on earth from heaven most of our man-made principles and religious rules and regulations have to get thrown out the window - it’s one of those rare occasions when both the baby and the bath water are thrown out together!
Finally, we should notice that, in Mtw 11:5, the cleansing of lepers is one of the signs that Jesus gives to the messengers sent from John the Baptist that He is the One who is to come. Therefore it would appear that, because leprosy was incurable in that day and age, the fact that a man could heal people in an instant who had contracted it was proof enough that He was the Messiah.
Of course, as noted above, the healing of leprosy meant far more than the removal of ceremonial defilement and demonstrated to the Jews, who associated the Living Water of the leper’s day of cleansing with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, that the One who would give the Spirit to them had arrived.
The Leper’s Initiative
I noted in the overview to this large section which runs 8:1-9:34 that there was significance in that Jesus didn’t go out looking for those who needed to be healed but that each of the ten physical healings took place in the context of the people either bringing the afflicted to Jesus or of them coming to Him themselves - with the one exception, perhaps, being the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law even though it should, rightly I feel, be included.
It would be very easy to think of the approach of the leper as something ordinary and in keeping with every other miracle performed but, because of the illness of the individual, the circumstances are extraordinary and would have caused those present to have witnessed a scene which was not the most usual occurrence in Jesus’ ministry.
We know that, when Jesus came down from the mountain after the completion of the Sermon on the Mount, great crowds followed Him (Mtw 8:1) and that, if they were anything like the crowds which often met Jesus where He was (Luke 8:45), they wouldn’t have been following at a discreet distance, letting Him make His way calmly to His destination but pressing all around Him - either trying to touch Him or listen to the words He was speaking (some commentators believe that the writer of Matthew is not recording this incident in chronological order because the parallel passage of Luke 5:12 speaks of the incident happening ‘in one of the cities’ - as noted above, the lepers were normally to be excluded from Israelite walled cities and the outer edges of such a place could be referred to here, the leper approaching from the countryside towards it.
The assertion that it couldn’t have happened because Jesus was descending the mountain where there was no city is, however, unfounded, for we have no way of knowing how much time elapsed from the ending of the discourse of chapters 5-7 and the incident where the leper approached Jesus, or of the nearness of the closest city).
Into such a situation, I imagine, came the leper. As we saw above, the leper was an outcast of society who, even by his close association with another Israelite, could have imparted ceremonial uncleanness which would have needed cleansing by Temple sacrifices in Jerusalem. The leper was to wander the countryside alone crying ‘Unclean!’ so that no one would approach so close as either to contract that uncleanness or to risk being touched by him (Lev 13:45-46).
How then, could the leper ever have got as close to Jesus as he needed to be able to ask Him to cleanse his leprosy? But this is precisely what the leper appears to have done for he kneels before Jesus, an action which, in its ultimate religious sense, is an attitude of worship (though, in the present context, the idea of worship seems to be absent from the scene. The leper appears to be kneeling before Him as a mark of respect and subservience in much the same way as a slave kneels before their master). When the ten lepers of Luke 17:12 encountered Jesus, they stood at some distance from Him in obedience to the Mosaic requirements laid upon people such as they but, for this leper, that was worth ignoring for the possibility of receiving the healing which he wanted from Jesus (I shall continue to use the word ‘healing’ for the miracle which takes place, even though the regular word in the NT is ‘make clean’ as leprosy was considered to be a religious problem rather than bacteriological. The leper being made clean, however, would also necessarily have meant that the infection was removed from his body).
It must have been quite some sight when the leper approached the crowd, with his torn garments and his long flowing hair (Lev 13:45). Even if he didn’t shout ‘Unclean!’, the crowds couldn’t have failed to recognise the man as a leper and have withdrawn fairly speedily from his direct line of movement, leaving Jesus to run for His life Himself, no doubt!
But, what was really strange was that Jesus stood where He was, even though the crowds were scattering to the four winds faster than people who think there’s a car bomb in the street about to go off - and Jesus would quite possibly be standing alone with the leper kneeling in front of Him and asking to be cleansed from his leprosy.
In the context of such a scene, it’s not unimaginable that Jesus’ words that he say nothing to anyone about his healing (Mtw 8:4) was heard by no one save the leper himself and that the miracle went largely unknown except for the testimony of the leper who seems to have spread the information about the healing just about anywhere and everywhere he could (Mark 1:45).
Mathen states that
‘There were ever so many eye-witnesses’
and this would indeed be the case if we mean by the statement that there were many people present who saw what had transpired. But I remain doubtful that the crowds had actually heard Jesus’ words and it would have been difficult at the distance that they were from the incident to be able to testify that the leprosy had gone. What actually happened seems to have been propagated primarily by the leper who’d been cleansed and then, perhaps, by Jesus’ recounting of the incident to the disciples at a later date - maybe they even asked Him what had happened once the leper had gone and the crowds were, once more, pressing around Him.
Having said that, the leper knows that Jesus can heal him and is in no doubt that what he requests is not a matter of ability on the part of the Healer but upon His willingness (Mtw 8:2). Although I included this passage as demonstrating faith in the individual who receives the miracle in my notes on the overview to Mtw 8:1-9:34, it has to be noted that the leper’s faith didn’t stretch to ‘I will be healed’ which is what is often required by people who pray with others for their physical wholeness.
The leper had the faith to believe that Jesus could heal him but, for the time being, whether Jesus would heal him was another matter entirely and wasn’t resolved in the leper’s own mind until shortly before the healing was received and his body cleansed.
Finally, as hinted at above, cleansing the leper was the same as performing a restoration of the individual into both Israelite society (the community of the people of God) and into the presence of God itself. Therefore there is a great degree of symbolism here which would have been fully realised after the death and resurrection of Jesus and the preaching of the Gospel to the nations of the world.
What Jesus does here is not, as we like to think, a healing but a cleansing in the eyes of first century Judaism and the action of Christ is different to, say, it would have been had the man been cured of lameness or blindness. In the latter two cases, the person was already a member of Israelite society and their physical healing merely enhanced their relationship with God. In the former, the cleansing gave back to the recipient the possibility of a return into the community of Israel in a progressive eight day process of cleansing in the Jerusalem Temple.
In my notes on the Feast of Tabernacles, I commented (previously quoted above) that
‘The (ex-)leper’s cleansing was progressive (a. Fellowship with God’s people was restored [Lev14:8], b. The inheritance was restored after a further 7 days [Lev 14:8-9] and, c. Fellowship with God was restored on the following day [Lev 14:10-11])...’
and outlined the details fuller in my Leviticus notes where I have also spiritualised the procedure in NT terminology. What needs to be noted here in passing, though, is that the cleansing of the leper was a type of the cleansing that was to come after the cross - that the person who was unacceptable to God because of their sin would be cleansed and, through that application of the work of the cross, would be accepted by God into the community of those who God regards as His people, would receive the promised inheritance in Christ and would begin to experience the presence of God moving in their lives as they never had done before.
The ‘type’ or ‘shadow’ of the cleansing of the leper, therefore, is a good illustration of what it means to become a christian.
The word translated by the RSV’s ‘touch’ in Mtw 8:3 (Strongs Greek number 680) means much more than a brushing of the arm or a casual contact that could have taken place. As Vines notes, the word is more rightly conveyed by the verb ‘to fasten to’ and implies a firm contact is being made between two objects.
While one would not say that an ornament is fastened to a mantelpiece, one would say that a picture is fixed to a wall and it is this sort of adherence that is conveyed by the use of the word here. The use of the Greek word elsewhere in the NT, however, brings to the reader more of the intention of the word.
In John 20:17, when Mary Magdalene met Jesus at the tomb after the resurrection and recognised Him, Jesus told her in her excitement
‘...Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father...’
Jesus’ words here are meant to convey more than a gentle touch by Mary for, in her delight at what had happened (though I’m sure she didn’t fully understand the implications of it at that time), she would have wanted to embrace Jesus. The actual intention of Jesus’ words are disputed by commentators but there certainly does appear to be a parallel truth that He was trying to teach her - namely that she shouldn’t get settled on the idea that she was always going to have Him around on earth for the time was shortly to come when He would need to ascend into heaven until His Second Coming to judge at the Resurrection of the Dead.
However, the intention of Jesus’ words that He meant more than ‘don’t even let your hand brush mine’ is certain.
Similarly, there is an intensity in the word when used in I Cor 7:1-2 where Paul commands the church that
‘...It is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband’
Paul isn’t talking here about mere physical contact with members of the opposite sex - for then every believer would have to go out of the world and live in distinct sexual groups - but of the sexual union whereby a man ‘fastens himself’ or ‘joins himself’ to his wife in marriage. It was better that, in the present distress that the church found itself in, marriage relationships were not started (I Cor 7:26) so that one’s energies could be given over wholeheartedly to service to God (I Cor 7:32-35).
Even though this was to be the Corinthians’ aim in matters relating to marriage, yet it was no sin to either be married or to continue in the marriage that one was in before one came to know Jesus. But the force of the word here means more than a simple touching and refers to the sexual union which seals the marriage and fastens two people inseparably together.
The Greek word is used in a compound word in Acts 28:3 (Strongs Greek number 2510) and there is no reason to assume that the word has lost its inherent meaning here. It’s recorded that, as Paul began gathering sticks for the fire after the shipwreck on Malta
‘...a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand’
Again, this simply can’t mean that a snake brushed itself passed Paul’s hand for the text goes on to state that the inhabitants saw (Acts 28:4-5)
‘...the creature hanging from his hand...’
and that he
‘...shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm’
The intention is simply that the snake attached itself to Paul’s hand for a while before being shaken off into the fire that was being built to keep the shipwrecked survivors warm.
Finally, John tells us (I John 5:18) that
‘We know that any one born of God does not sin, but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him’
where the normal word under consideration is translated, as it is in Mtw 8:3, by the English verb ‘to touch’. If this meant that the evil one was unable to do anything to God’s children at all then we would do well to immediately drop any reference we make to satan trying to tempt us or doing things around us to influence us.
As we know from other Scriptures, satan is an adversary who seeks to damage those who have escaped from the world and have given over their allegiance to God in Christ (for example, I Peter 5:8-9). What John is actually trying to say is that God watches over and guards those who have been born of Him so that the adversary does not have the ability to attach himself to their lives.
Again, the idea is of a fastening rather than merely a brief encounter that ends in the twinkling of an eye.
Therefore, we shouldn’t think of Jesus’ touching of the leper as a mere brushing of some dandruff from off his collar (if they had either collars or dandruff in those days) but a fastening of Himself to the leper securely with a firm grasp and a clear indication that Jesus had no intention of letting go.
While some may have put up a hand to resist the advance of the leper, Jesus stretches out His hand and grasps the leper firmly to join Himself with him in his physical suffering and ceremonial defilement.
Jesus could just simply have spoken the word for him to have been healed (Mtw 8:8,13) or commanded him to go and wash in the Sea of Galilee to prevent Himself from becoming legally defiled with uncleanness (John 9:7) but, instead, He chooses to associate Himself with mankind and risks condemnation from those present who were Pharisees.
No publicity please!
I have previously noted that the scene which is played out before the reader is one which implies that the leper stood before Jesus alone, with the crowds some distance from them, perhaps even still withdrawing to get as far away as possible from any change of direction which might have taken place after the leper had encountered Jesus.
It is not unusual, therefore, for Jesus’ command in Mtw 8:4 to be heard only by the leper and that the words that he says
‘...nothing to any one; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to the people’
were words which had gone unheard by the multitudes. But, the question we seek to answer here is this: Why did Jesus feel the need to forbid the leper to tell anyone what had just transpired? Why wasn’t the leper given the liberty to freely testify to the cleansing power of the man He’d just encountered?
Firstly, though, we need to deal with the phrase of the RSV which speaks of the action laid upon the healed leper as being ‘a proof to the people’ and which has often caused a great deal of differing interpretations amongst the commentators.
There are various ideas, Mattask noting a couple when he opts for the meaning that it conveys as being
‘...“that the priests may be able after the necessary examination to certify your cure without necessarily knowing how it has come about”. Some commentators, on the other hand, understand them to imply “that the priests may know that I possess supernatural power’
and Mathag, even though citing various possibilities, comments that most commentators interpret Jesus’ words as implying
‘...a witness to the priests or the people (about Jesus’ faithfulness to Torah commandments)...’
even though the assertion remains unsubstantiated by anything that occurs within the text itself.
More interesting is the proposition of Matfran. If the dusting off of one’s feet is a testimony against people that they have rejected the Kingdom of God (Mark 6:11), a life which has been healed of leprosy could be a testimony for the priests that the Kingdom of God has come - but, although this is a nice parallel use of the Greek word, it isn’t necessarily the correct interpretation of its usage here in Mtw 8:4. But it’s compelling enough for Matfran, who states that his preference is to believe that
‘...it is a witness to Jesus’ Messianic mission, as the conqueror of disease...’
even though, as we were able to note above, leprosy was regarded more of an uncleanness than a physical illness.
That the Jewish leaders (of whom the priests formed a part) rejected the works of Jesus as being not from God (Mtw 9:34) bears witness to the fact that, had the leper visited Jerusalem, his healing could have been a positive testimony which would have borne witness to them of the healing power of Christ. After all, the crowds of people could perhaps have evidenced that he was now cleansed but the priests, who had originally pronounced him ‘unclean’, would have had all that they needed to have accepted the power of God both in and through Jesus.
This does have a sense of wisdom about it were it not for the command of Jesus (Mtw 8:4) to
‘...say nothing to anyone...’
a command which would have contradicted Jesus’ clear intention had He intended for the man to show himself to the officiating priest. Besides, John 2:23-25 records that, at Jesus’ first Passover after beginning His ministry to Israel
‘...many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did; but Jesus did not trust Himself to them, because He knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for He himself knew what was in man’
That is, Jesus was not in the habit of presenting His healings to anyone - let alone the priests and religious leaders - because He knew the state of man’s heart and chose not to receive testimony and approval from the lips of men and women. Rather, He chose to receive praise solely from God alone for doing all that He’d been commanded (John 5:41, 8:50).
It seems better to take the phrase ‘a proof to the people’ simply as a statement by Jesus that the man now cured was expected to go through the procedure laid down in the Mosaic Law, that the same religious organisation which had rightly condemned him to exile under the Law might be able to declare him restored into the people of God by the very same.
There is no doubt that he was already cleansed by the work of Jesus in His life because the leprosy had left him but, whilever the sentence of the priests hung over him, he was still under constraint not to be accepted back into the Israelite society of His day (Lev 13:1-44).
As Mathag comments
‘The man was to go to the priests and make the offering not because of the need to be faithful to the stipulations of Leviticus 13-14, nor because he yet needed cleansing, but for the pragmatic reason of being able to gain [entrance] into society as fully clean and restored’
We have touched on the air of ‘secrecy’ as we’ve considered this phrase but we should note now, as we go on to consider it in a little more detail, that this sort of command was by no means unusual on the lips of Jesus when some great miracle had taken place or revelation made known.
For example, when Jesus healed two blind men (Mtw 9:30-31), Jesus
‘...sternly charged them “See that no one knows it”...’
and the ruler whose daughter was dead (Mark 5:43) was ordered
‘...that no one should know this...’
even though the parallel passage of Mtw 9:26 records for us that
‘...the report of this went through all that district’
which probably means that, as the ruler and his wife were the only ones present along with Jesus and the disciples (Mark 5:40) that they were the ones who spread the news concerning what had taken place - even though it would have been very difficult to have kept the details of the event from public notice (funerals were public gatherings not private functions).
Again, in Mark 7:36 where Jesus encounters a deaf man who had a speech impediment, He
‘...charged them to tell no one...’
and, finally, on an occasion when Jesus healed various illnesses and diseases (Mtw 12:15-16), He ordered everyone present
‘...not to make Him known’
As previously noted, the command to keep silent about what had transpired seems to have been just the incentive the people needed to go out into the streets and make sure that everyone heard (Mtw 9:30-31 and Mark 7:36 are two further places from the above passages where this took place).
But this ‘secrecy’ wasn’t just laid upon those who witnessed the miraculous either at first hand or in themselves. Jesus also, having declared Himself to the disciples as being the long awaited Messiah after the confession of Peter (Mtw 16:20)
‘...strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that He was the Christ’
and, after the three disciples James, John and Peter had been present with Him at the Transfiguration (Mtw 17:9) He commanded them that they were to
‘...Tell no one the vision, until the Son of man is raised from the dead’
Perhaps the best comment on the reason for Jesus’ choice of requesting the crowds not to go out and declare the things He’d done is to be found in John 6:15 where, upon feeding the five thousand on the east side of the Sea of Galilee (John 6:1,10 - the Bible actually says that were five thousand men, not, it would seem, including the number of women and children among them) and because the crowds (John 6:14)
‘...saw the sign which He had done...’
perceived that the multitudes
‘...were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king [so] Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by Himself’
What stimulated the people into desiring to make Jesus their King was not some vote that they’d taken amongst themselves but because they had witnessed the great sign which He’d done by feeding them with a supply of food - through supernatural multiplication - that was less than sufficient (John 6:9,11).
The truth of why this secrecy was insisted upon is not, then, as Matfran points out
‘...an apologetic device of Mark to explain why so few responded to Jesus during His ministry...’
which has been asserted in a very great many commentators but that, being made known for what He was doing posed
‘...a real danger that Jesus could achieve unwanted popularity merely as a wonder-worker, or worse still as a nationalistic liberator, and so foster a serious misunderstanding of the true nature of His mission’
Mathag is more specific in his comments by stating that
‘Jesus desires simply to avoid inflaming popular, but mistaken, messianic expectations that looked for an immediate national-political deliverance’
tying in well with the comments included in the text of John’s Gospel previously noted.
Jesus’ reason for the secrecy, therefore, was due to the fact that He knew that the natural response to such a demonstration of the Kingdom of God on earth was to see in it the intention of God in having brought their Messiah to earth for the sole purpose of elevating Him over their enemies and of establishing a visible Messianic Kingdom in their own time.
Certainly, in the political climate of Galilee where many religious zealots had found their home and from where they operated in their militaristic campaigns against the controlling Gentile powers, this was a very real danger.
Jesus didn’t want His mission misunderstood (even though there would have been people who could have never perceived of the Messiah in any other role) and therefore charged people with keeping to themselves what had taken place.
Mark 1:45 gives us a side effect of this declaration of the masses, though, when it tells us that, as a conclusion to the story of the leper now being considered and of the ex-leper’s witnessing that
‘...Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in the country; and people came to Him from every quarter’
It would have been difficult for Jesus to have travelled about freely as His ministry to Israel continued in Galilee and this is due to, mainly, the role of the crowds who not only came to Him to have their needs met but who actively sought out others to tell who also came out to Him. To have visited many of the cities would have been to court Roman displeasure - not to mention that of the Jewish authorities who could have persuaded the Romans to intervene as they did in Jerusalem for the crucifixion - so it was important that Jesus stay away from the main centres of Jewish life though He did, on occasions, visit them.
And this came about through the misguided testimony of those who had been healed but commanded to remain silent concerning what had taken place.
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