Summary: At first reading, this story has the tones of a divine miracle but it is so much more.
At first reading, this story has the tones of a divine miracle. Something that would have been incredible to see as a member of the crowd. The image of a poor wretched man, probably on his last days on earth, begging the Lord Jesus for a new lease on life, and getting just that. In reality, it is exactly that, but so much more. If we stop and consider what is going on here on a deeper level we find some amazing truths in the richness of God’s Word; which is why we do what we are doing every Sunday morning.
Dr. Luke spent the last 4 chapters establishing the identity of Jesus as the eternal, omnipotent God, supreme in authority over all nature, all sickness, all sin, and overall the kingdom of darkness. The healing of a leper would be the supreme healing of sickness. There is no ambiguity here. It is undeniable and the early readers of Dr. Luke’s words would undeniably know this because Leprosy was among the most dreaded diseases.
Leprosy attacks the skin, peripheral nerves (especially near the wrists, elbows, and knees), and mucus membrane. It forms lesions on the skin and can disfigure the face by collapsing the nose and causing the folding of the skin (leading some to call it “lion’s disease” due to the resulting lionlike appearance of the face). Contrary to popular belief, leprosy does not eat away the flesh. (John F. MacArthur)
What is important to understand is that leprosy, or Hansen’s disease as it is better known today (named after the man who diagnosed its cause), is not a rotting infection as was once commonly thought, nor are the sufferer’s outward physical deformities horribly disfigured by the disease. In recent years the research of Dr. Paul Brand and others has proven that the disfigurement associated with Hansen’s disease comes solely because the body’s warning system of pain is destroyed. The disease brings numbness to the extremities as well as to the ears, eyes, and nose. The devastation that follows comes from incidents such as reaching into a charcoal fire to retrieve a dropped potato, or washing one’s face with scalding water or gripping a tool so tightly that the hands become traumatized and eventually stump-like. In Third-World countries, vermin sometimes chew on sleeping lepers without the lepers even knowing it. Dr. Brand, after performing corrective surgery on a leper, would send a cat home with him as the normal postoperative procedure. Dr. Brand calls the disease a “painless hell.” The poor man in Luke had not been able to feel for years, and his body, mutilated from head to foot, was foul and rotting. (R. Kent Hughes)
Just as devastating to the physical deformity is the social destruction. The leper is an outcast of society. Unable to be touched by anyone. Levitical Law required the Leper to live outside of the camp and if they came anywhere close in proximity to someone, they were to cry out “Unclean, Unclean.” They lived in virtual isolation. It is still a common disease today in third-world countries with nearly 800,000 cases reported annually.
In the Old Testament, Leprosy is a picture of sin and it certainly fits the narrative here. With this information in mind, let's look at the text:
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. (Luke 5:12–15 ESV)
1. The Desperate Condition of the Man
One thing we notice immediately is Luke’s description of the man. Luke tells us that he is “full of leprosy.” By this, we understand that the disease had run its course. None of us needs a detailed description of the poor man’s loathsome appearance. If you have seen one picture of someone full of leprosy, it is enough.
What Luke wants us to know is the desperation of this man. He is literally on the last legs of his life. This poor outcast had not to hope, humanly speaking. His disease was incurable, he lost all other human contacts, and many people viewed his condition as a punishment from God for his sins.
So great was the fear of contagion that lepers were barred from Jerusalem or any other walled city (2 Kings 7:3). They were forbidden to come within six feet of a healthy person (one hundred and fifty feet if the wind was blowing from the direction of the leper) and were restricted to a special compartment in the synagogue. One rabbi refused to eat an egg bought on a street where there was a leper. Another advocated throwing stones at lepers to force them to keep their distance. (cf. Alfred Edersheim)