Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Why Did Jesus Send the Leper to the Priest?

Reading: Matthew 8:1-4; Leviticus 14
There is an account in the gospels that puzzled me for a couple of decades—it is just that it didn't seem to make sense. Jesus cleanses a leper, then tells the former leper not to tell anyone what Jesus did but to go show himself to the priest who would offer the sacrifices Moses prescribed. It just seemed that the priests would get all the credit and Jesus would get none. How could that be in the interest of His Kingdom?
When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. 2A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean." 3Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. 4Then Jesus said to him, "See that you don't tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." (Matthew 8:1-4 NIV)
The Role of the Priest
Part of the problem is that I thought of the priests, as it relates to lepers, more in line with doctors. The priests, however, had no ability to cleanse a leper. He could not make a leper well nor clean. He could not make him a leper either. He only did diagnoses and then informed everyone whether the person in question was clean or unclean. And if he determined that an unclean person was now clean, there was an offering Moses told him to make. I was also unfamiliar with what Moses had told them to offer.
When I understood the role of the priest, and the nature of the offering, this text suddenly made complete sense. First, I understood that when the cleansed leper went to the priest, the priest would unwittingly confirm the power of Christ to cleanse a leper. The leper knew Jesus could cleanse him if He was willing, but the priest would not have thought so. However, the priest was a professional diagnoser of leprosy. If he declared the man clean, rest assured, he was clean. By declaring him clean, he was giving expert witness to the authenticity of the miracle. Therefore the Law (Moses through this priest) was testifying to Jesus.
The Nature of the Gift
Second, when I saw the nature of the “gift Moses commanded” I saw a beautiful portrait of how Christ cleanses all of us from our spiritual leprosy.
3The priest is to go outside the camp and examine them. If they have been healed of their defiling skin disease, 4the priest shall order that two live clean birds and some cedar wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop be brought for the person to be cleansed. 5Then the priest shall order that one of the birds be killed over fresh water in a clay pot. 6He is then to take the live bird and dip it, together with the cedar wood, the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, into the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water. 7Seven times he shall sprinkle the one to be cleansed of the defiling disease, and then pronounce them clean. After that, he is to release the live bird in the open fields. (Leviticus 14:3-7 NIV)
This offering could not more clearly point to Jesus than it does. In this very act the leper would begin to get a clearer picture of how Jesus' cleanses him, and we too get a clear picture of how Christ cleanses us. Two birds are used. One dies (a guilt bearing sacrifice), and one lives (a living sacrifice). The blood of the first bird is mixed with water and the living sacrifice is to be dipped in that blood/water combination representing a cleansing (with blood) and then it is set free.
Ironically, coming in contact with the blood doesn't make one unclean but clean. The leper himself is sprinkled with the blood/water mixture too. He is like the live bird. The leper, like the living bird, goes free, while the blood of the sacrificed bird makes that possible. Christ would ultimately cleanse us with his own blood. He dies, we go free. What a glorious picture.
The Recipients of the Testimony
This picture helps me answer one remaining question from Matthew 8:4. Who is the “them” that this offering would be a testimony to? There are 3 possible antecedents to the “them”. First, “anyone.” “See to it that you don't tell anyone.” Second, the priest. Third Moses. Those are the only people mentioned to whom it could be referring. We can rule Moses out because at this point Moses is quite clear on who Jesus is. And since “them” is plural, and the “anyone” and priest are both singular, it must be referring to both. Moses (the law) and the priest (under the law's authority) would be testifying to the power of Christ to heal. This testimony would be heard/seen by the priest himself and all the “anyone's” that the leper might want to know. They would also testify through this redemptive sacrificial picture of how Christ through His own death would cleanse us of our spiritual leprosy (sin).
This concise account immediately follows the Sermon on the Mount. What a glorious picture of how Christ calls us to live that sermon is. However, the Sermon on the Mount, as wonderful as it is, will never make us clean. We can never live our way into cleansing. Rather, as this leper shows us, the only way we can be clean is through Christ. One word from Christ (“be clean”) will cleanse us completely and make us whole. Why? Because it is backed by His sacrifice. He bore our guilt. We are cleansed and now we are the living sacrifice (Romans 12:1) that is set free to live in the glory of the Sermon on the Mount... conformity to the image of Jesus Christ!
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,