Summary: An analysis of Jesus' cleansing of a leper in Luke 5:12-16 will teach us how to approach Jesus for cleansing.
Luke wrote his Gospel so that Theophilus might have certainty concerning the things he had been taught about Jesus (Luke 1:1-4). Luke wanted Theophilus—and others like him—to know for sure that Jesus is the Son of God who had come to seek and to save sinners (Luke 19:10).
Luke recorded 21 miracles by Jesus in his Gospel. Today we will examine the miracle of Jesus healing a leper.
Let’s read about Jesus’ cleansing of a leper in Luke 5:12-16:
12 While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” 13 And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him. 14 And he charged him to tell no one, but “go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” 15 But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. 16 But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray. (Luke 5:12-16)
Five miles off the coast of Cape Town is an island known as Robben Island. Only 3 square miles in size, it once housed a community of lepers. Hundreds of lepers were cared for on Robben Island from 1846 until 1931. The only structure that remains today from that time is a church building. The Church of the Good Shepherd was built by and for the lepers in 1895. It was difficult for a person with leprosy to get off Robben Island. To be certified to be free of leprosy was virtually impossible.
During Old Testament times it was virtually impossible to be healed of leprosy. However, on those rare occasions when someone was healed of leprosy there was an elaborate and extremely joyful ceremony that extended over eight full days in accordance with the instructions of Leviticus 14.
It began when the person requesting certification of healing would meet the priest beyond the perimeter of the community. The priest would examine the person to verify that he had indeed been healed of leprosy.
Then, still outside the perimeter of the community, two birds were presented along with some cedar wood, scarlet yarn, and hyssop. One of the birds was killed in a clay pot (so that none of its blood was lost). This was done above fresh water (which was symbolic of cleansing).
Next the live bird, along with the wood, yarn, and hyssop, was dipped in the blood. The blood was then sprinkled upon the healed leper seven times, and he was pronounced “clean.”
This initial ceremony concluded with the live bird being released in the open fields to wing its way to freedom (vv. 1-7). As a result, the blood-sprinkled person could once again join the community.
This ceremony is a beautiful picture of the effect of Christ’s blood, which reconciles a person to God and makes it possible for the sinner to join the community of believers.
After the bird’s release the cleansed man washed his clothing, shaved the hair from his body, bathed, and entered the community, where he, his family, and friends rejoiced for seven days (vv. 8-9). On the seventh day his head, eyebrows, and beard were shaved, and he again bathed, so that, like a newborn, he was ready to enter a new phase of his existence.
On the eighth day the former leper offered three unblemished lambs as a guilt offering, a sin offering, and a burnt offering. The guilt offering was not an atoning sacrifice but restitution for the offerings and sacrifices he was unable to make while a leper. His restitution and fresh commitment were then dramatically emphasized when the priest took some of the blood and smeared it on his right ear, thumb, and toe, then coated each smear with a second anointing of oil, thereby symbolizing that the man would listen to God’s voice, use his hands for God’s glory, and walk in God’s ways. Fittingly, his shaved head was then anointed with the remaining oil (vv. 12-18; cf. Exodus 30:23-25). Finally, having thus declared the leper to be in the Lord’s service, the priest made atonement for him with sin, burnt, and cereal offerings, the last being a joyous expression of gratitude (Leviticus 14:19-20).
Imagine the joy of the healed man and his family—and the community celebration that accompanied that great eighth day. It was as if a resurrection had taken place.
For Christians, the Old Testament’s description of these ancient ceremonies elicits incredible joy because this elaborate ritual speaks of the atonement through Christ and his power to deliver even the most hopeless in our society.