When a leper approached Jesus, he had no doubt that Christ could make him clean. It was a matter of Jesus’ willingness to do so. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the gospel of Luke to address questions about prayer and the will of God.
This morning we’re going to continue with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. We are in Luke 5:12–16, which is the record of Jesus’ cleansing of a leper:
And it happened when He was in a certain city, that behold, a man who was full of leprosy saw Jesus; and he fell on his face and implored Him, saying, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.”
Then He put out His hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing; be cleansed.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And He charged him to tell no one, “But go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as a testimony to them, just as Moses commanded.”
However, the report went around concerning Him all the more; and great multitudes came together to hear, and to be healed by Him of their infirmities. So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed.
This is one more account of the miraculous ministry of our Lord, of His power and compassion for those greatly afflicted. I remind you that this account comes to us from God Himself. It is His Word, and I implore you to receive it as such. Let us pray.
Again, our Father and our God, as we consider this mighty work of Jesus, give us insight into its significance for our understanding of who Jesus is, what it means for us, and our walk with Him in this time. For we ask these things in His name. Amen.
A Sentence of Living Death
Luke has told us repeatedly that multitudes of people were brought to Jesus, and He healed them of all kinds of calamitous diseases and afflictions. On a few occasions, however, Luke isolates specific cases where Jesus manifested this ministry. In this case, he singles out the occurrence of Jesus healing a leper.
When we encounter lepers in the New Testament, we understand that the concept of leprosy among the Jewish people was not as specifically defined as modern-day leprosy, or Hansen’s disease. There was a multitude of serious afflictions subsumed under the general category of leprosy, so we don’t know exactly the type of leprosy afflicting this man.
If you go back to the book of Leviticus, you will see extensive instructions for diagnostic purposes to find out if the rash, scab, or lesion on a person’s skin was a harmless problem or more serious and deemed to be leprosy. It was the priests’ task in Israel to make the definitive diagnosis as to whether the person’s condition was simply a minor skin affliction or the dreaded form of leprosy.
As we read those texts, they seem foreign to us, and many people grumble at sacred Scripture and lose their interest going through all these detailed matters. But to the Jew in that day, if he woke up with a rash and he didn’t know what it was, he would read those instructions carefully, knowing his life was at stake. It was, in a sense, much worse for the Jew going through this process of diagnosis than it is for a modern person awaiting the results from the lab of a biopsy that may indicate a malignancy.
For a person to be diagnosed with leprosy was not only a sentence of a miserable illness, but it was considered among the Jews to be a kind of living death. One who was diagnosed with leprosy was not simply confirmed to be ill, but considered to be unclean.
Notice that with the other diseases that Jesus confronts, He heals them. The leper that comes to Jesus, however, doesn’t ask to be healed. He asks to be made clean. That is, the leper was asking for more than to be healed. He was asking to be healed of a disease that made him an outcast from the covenant community of Israel. Lepers had to live outside the camp, outside the community, outside the church, as it were, and outside the town.
Sometimes, lepers gathered in colonies because the only people they were allowed to have contact with were other lepers. This man, however, was by himself. Somehow the word had gone around the countryside about the power of Jesus’ ministry, and this was his last hope to get rid of this walking death.
If You Are Willing
Luke tells us that the leper was not merely afflicted with the beginning touches of leprosy, but his case was severely advanced. Luke, the physician, tells us that the man was full of leprosy, all over him, and in a most miserable condition. When he saw Jesus, he fell on his face in front of Him and begged Him.
Notice first what the leper said when he was begging Jesus. He said: “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean. Lord, if You are willing, You can.” The leper made a distinction between Jesus’ power and His willingness to exercise that power on behalf of a poor wretch. At this level, as badly mangled as this man’s health was, his theology was sound. He was absolutely correct in his assessment that Jesus could make him clean, and in his whole life he had never met anyone else who had the power to make him clean. In your whole life, you will never meet anyone else who can make you or me clean, save this one, Jesus, who met this poor leper on that day.
Also notice that when the leper begged Jesus and made his request, he said, “If You are willing.” He didn’t say to Jesus, “I know You’re willing to heal me if You can.” That is not where he put the question. He essentially said, “I know You can; I don’t know if You’re willing.” Another way to understand this is that the leper is saying to Jesus, “If it be Thy will, please make me clean.”
There are all kinds of healing ministries sprinkled across the Christian landscape in our day, and various types of these movements have come and gone in the past. One of the most dangerous concepts we hear in these circumstances is the idea of faith healing. It teaches that for you to be healed, you must have faith that you are going to be healed. If you don’t have that faith that you are going to be healed, that lack of faith will be the fatal impediment against becoming healed. This goes along with the kind of thinking that if you ask for healing or mercy from God and preface your request by saying, “If it be Thy will,” you’re somehow manifesting a lack of faith, and, in the very request, committing a sin.
Accusatory Faith Healing
Years ago, I told the story of a young man I met on our campus in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania, where Ligonier Ministries began. Every January, we had a one-month course of collegiate studies, called a January term, because many of the colleges and universities in the eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania area had divided their calendar years between two major terms plus the intersession, which they called the January term.
Our January term at Ligonier was begun at the request of one of the local colleges, and several colleges gave academic credit for work done at the study center for the January term. So, we would have a flock of students coming from different colleges, and among them was our dear friend, Harvey Watson.
Harvey was an exceptionally bright young man, alert and contagious with his loving spirit and attitude, and deeply devoted as a Christian. He suffered from a severe form of cerebral palsy. In fact, he used to laugh at himself when he would try to negotiate the pathways on campus during the snow, because it was always literally a matter of touch and go for Harvey, but he had a great spirit.
One day he came to me, the second time he came for the January term, and he was very distressed and upset. He looked at me and said, “R.C., do you think I’m demon possessed?” I said, “What?” He said, “Do you think I’m demon possessed?” I said, “Harvey, what in the world ever gave you the idea that you might be demon possessed?”
He went on to relate the story to me that he had some friends, zealous charismatics in his dorm, and they had prayed together and decided to lay hands on Harvey so that he may be healed of cerebral palsy. In the name of Jesus, they demanded that Harvey be cured of cerebral palsy, but Harvey wasn’t cured of cerebral palsy. The next thing these students did was tell Harvey that he wasn’t cured of cerebral palsy because he didn’t have the faith. He needed to have faith, and then he would receive his healing. They explained that you had to believe you were healed before you could be healed.
They might say to a blind man, “If you want to have your sight back, you have to believe that you can see before God will open your eyes.” Can you imagine the poor souls, blind people, who were told that? They would say, “I believe, I believe,” and open their eyes to only darkness. To believe that you can see when you can’t see is not faith, it’s credulity, and it’s destructive to the soul.
Back to Harvey—the students became harsher with Harvey, chastising him for his lack of faith, which had to be the reason he hadn’t been healed. Finally, when he persisted in his “unbelief,” they accused him of being demon possessed. These young students went from the virtuous posture of concern and compassion for one of their fellow students to serious intercessory prayer for that student. They ended up accusing the poor soul of being demon possessed, leaving him in a state far worse than he was before they began their intercession.
That was the story Harvey gave me, and he asked again if I thought he was demon possessed. I responded, “Of course not,” and I prayed with him. As I was praying for him, I noticed that his burden was being removed from him, and when I was finished praying, he was weeping.
I asked, “What’s the matter?” He said, “I thank you not only for praying, but you know what happened when you prayed for me?” I responded, “No, what’s that?” He said, “When you prayed for me, you said to God, ‘Lord, be merciful to this man who suffered in this manner.’” He said, “R.C., nobody has ever called me a man before.” Wow.
I am happy to report that Harvey, who is still burdened with cerebral palsy, has not let that become a real impediment to him. He has had a very productive Christian life in the business world and continues his devout faith and brilliant testimony to the Lord. When he prayed, he would say, “If it be Thy will,” and he was happy with however God responded.
A similar testimony comes from Joni Eareckson Tada, who remains triumphant in her faith in her crippled and paralyzed condition. She trusts that God is good even when God does not answer our prayers the way we might want Him to answer them.
The Sovereign God Answers Prayer
I often hear people talk about the difficulty of dealing with unanswered prayer. I am not really sure what that means. I’ve never had an unanswered prayer. Sometimes the answer is “no,” but that’s an answer. If the answer comes from the Lord God omnipotent, who is more compassionate than any of us could possibly be, then it is a good answer. He is saying, “That’s not My will right now for you,” at least in the immediate circumstances.
God’s promises remain for the glory that awaits us in heaven, and He tells us that the afflictions we deal with in this world aren’t worthy to be compared with the glory He has laid up for us in heaven. In the meantime, we may experience great pain, great suffering, and great affliction, and it is according to the sovereign will of God.
Recently, Vesta and I were at Florida Hospital visiting our son, who was there with his daughter. She is a special needs child who has suffered from birth and has already far exceeded the normal life expectancy of a child with lissencephaly. She became very ill and she has been in the intensive care unit at Florida Hospital.
Vesta and I went to see Shannon and R.C. Jr., and he mentioned that the chaplain had been in to make some small talk and asked him how he was doing. R.C. told me that he said: “I’m a Christian, and I’m a Christian of that particular stripe that’s Reformed in my theology. We are people that really believe in the sovereignty of God.” I asked, “What did the chaplain say?” He said, “He didn’t want to discuss that,” so that was over.
Some people act like they are Stoics, not Christians, like they sing “Que Será, Será,” as if they are victims of some fortuitous fate. To believe in the sovereignty of God, however, is to believe in the sovereignty of a holy God, a righteous God, a good God who does all things well, and a God who is filled with mercy and compassion. That is the God whose sovereignty we trust.
The Necessity of Ritual Cleansing
I do not know how developed the leper’s theology was at this point, but he certainly got it right: “If You will, You can.” Jesus reacted by saying: “I am willing. Be cleansed. I am willing. I hear your prayer, and my answer is yes. Be clean.”
We hear many modern faith healers of the “name-it and claim-it” variety who say: “Though the healing isn’t evident right now, we’ve prayed the prayer of faith. Your healing has begun, and you just have to wait a little while for it to be made manifest.” In this case, however, just like in every case in which Jesus healed people, the response was immediate and complete. Immediately, the leprosy left this man, and he was cleansed.
Luke continues: “And He charged him to tell no one, ‘But go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as a testimony to them, just as Moses commanded.’” To what was Jesus referring? He said: “You have been made clean, but just because I’ve cleaned up your body does not mean that the church, as it were, in Israel knows that you have been cleansed. It does not mean they will automatically welcome you back into the fellowship of the village, into the synagogue, and into the temple. Before those things can happen, and before your exile from your family and your community is lifted, you must follow the prescriptions of the Law God gave through Moses in the Old Testament. That means you must go and see the priest. I can cleanse you, but only the priest can verify that you have been cleansed and are now legally permitted to join your family and the community. You have to go through all of the ritual that is involved, including the offering of the sacrifice.”
Let’s take a moment to look at a bit of ritual cleansing that we find at the beginning of Leviticus 14. We read this:
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “This shall be the law of the leper for the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the priest. And the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall examine him; and indeed, if the leprosy is healed in the leper, then the priest shall command to take for him who is to be cleansed two living and clean birds, cedar wood, scarlet and hyssop. And the priest shall command that one of the birds be killed in an earthen vessel over running water. As for the living bird, he shall take it, the cedar wood and the scarlet and the hyssop, and dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the running water. And he shall sprinkle it seven times…”
After going through this cleansing rite, the man was determined to be clean and would be allowed to come from the wilderness back into the camp.
The Meaning of “Baptize”
There are some secondary ramifications of this seemingly obscure ritual in the Old Testament. Just this week, a member of Saint Andrew’s came to me with a question. He said, “R.C., do I have to be immersed to be truly baptized?” I responded, “I don’t think so.”
He said: “I met somebody this week who asked me if I had been immersed when I was baptized, and I said I had not, so the man said I wasn’t really baptized. Not only that, but he also said I couldn’t be saved without baptism by immersion.”
This was not a Baptist, to clear the record. This was another, more obscure denomination that teaches baptism is an essential requirement for salvation, and that baptism, to really be baptism, must be by immersion. That man went on to say to this member of our church that the biblical word baptize means “to immerse.” This member of the church asked me if that was the case, and I responded: “No, that is not the case. Τhe verbs bapto and baptizō do not always mean immerse. It may mean immerse, but it is used in certain places to refer to an activity that is less than immersion.”
For example, one of the most important documents we have is the Septuagint. The Septuagint is named that because it was composed by seventy scholars who translated the Old Testament Scriptures for Hellenistic Jews, the Jews of the Diaspora, who had lost their command of the Hebrew language and were now speaking Greek. The teachers translated the Old Testament Hebrew into Greek with great care and meticulous concern. Ironically, when they translated this portion of the fourteenth chapter of Leviticus that I just read for you, they used a future form of the Greek verb bapto to describe the process by which the two small birds were taken. One bird was sacrificed, and its blood was drained into a basin. When that had been done, the second bird was baptized into the blood of the first bird. It would be impossible to immerse the second bird into the blood of the first bird. There was not enough blood. That is why the English translation is to “dip” the second bird into the blood of the first bird.
As an aside, the earliest portrait of Christian art was found in the catacombs, and there was a scene depicting the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. Jesus went down into the Jordan, stood alongside John, and John took water and poured it over His head. That is not sacred Scripture, it’s just a painting on a wall in the catacombs, but it is the earliest art that we have of Jesus’ baptism.
Infant Baptism and Covenant Sanctification
I want to mention another matter because we have people from all different backgrounds in our congregation. Every time we baptize infants, the question comes up: “Should we be baptizing infants?” One small but significant related point is that when Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he addressed a practical matter that the believers in the church in Corinth encountered, and it had to do with mixed marriages.
The Apostolic command is that a Christian is not allowed to marry a non-Christian, and that still applies. If you are a professing Christian and you fall in love with somebody who is not, I will not marry you. If you are two pagans who come and ask me to marry you, I will marry you. If you are two Christians, I will marry you. But if you are a Christian and a pagan, I am not allowed to perform that ceremony.
Paul is addressing what happens when you start with two pagans, but one is converted and the other is not. Now you have a mixed marriage, not by design, but by consequence. Paul was asked, “What is the status of the unbeliever in this relationship?” In response, Paul gives this strange advice: “The unbelieving husband is sanctified by the believing wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the believing husband” (1 Cor. 7:14).
What does Paul mean? Does he mean that there is more than one way to be justified? If sanctification is that which follows justification, then can we be justified either by faith or by marriage? If I don’t have the faith to be justified, all I must do is get married to somebody who does, and if I’m an unbeliever, I’m sanctified because of my spouse’s status?
In this text, the term “sanctified” does not refer to being conformed to the image of Christ after our conversion. Rather, Paul is speaking in Jewish covenantal language. When he says, “The unbelieving husband is sanctified by the believing wife,” he means that the unbelieving husband is set apart, consecrated, not sent outside the camp, not considered unclean, but is ritually clean and allowed to be involved within the congregation of the faithful.
That seems strange. Why would Paul allow an unbeliever to be consecrated or sanctified and to be within the broader confines of the covenant community of the church? We don’t have to guess, because Paul gives the reason: “Otherwise your children [the word there is “infants”] would be unclean.” Your infants would be unclean, that is, your children would be outside the covenant. “But,” Paul says, “now they are holy.” They are holy not because they are righteous, but because they are considered as consecrated or sanctified inside the covenant community.
That is one reason—not the only reason—why most Christians for two thousand years have included their children in receiving the sign of the covenant, just as God commanded Israel for two thousand years to do with the Old Testament sign of the covenant. So, we recognize our children as members of the covenant house and the covenant community, and we give them the sign of the new covenant. We must understand this language in the Bible of being clean and unclean, as we’ve seen dramatically how the most unclean, the leper, was made clean through the power of Christ.
Seek the Father’s Strength
Let’s come back to the text: “However, the report went around concerning Him all the more; and great multitudes came together to hear, and to be healed by Him of their infirmities. So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed.”
When my car almost runs out of gas, I go to the gas station because I know it won’t work once it’s completely out of gas. Jesus wasn’t driving, but every time He healed somebody, it cost Him. On some occasions, we read explicitly that power went out of Him. The more the people came and the more they demanded from Him, the more important it became for Him to withdraw, to be alone with the Father, to have His strength recharged.
I close this morning by simply saying to you that if it was necessary for the Lord Jesus to find strengthening and intimate power from being alone with the Father, how much more important is it for us to be before the Father, gaining strength from His Spirit? Let’s pray.
Father, we are indeed spiritual lepers, save that You have been willing to make us clean, to forgive us of our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. O Lord, we thank You and praise You for that power that You alone can make manifest, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.