He was one of the walking dead. It had almost been three years since the priest examined that suspicious spot on his left arm and looked at him with sympathy, “I’m so sorry. It’s leprosy. May God have mercy on you, my son.”
Leprosy made you die many times before it killed you. It cut you off from those you loved most in the world. It forced you to live with other unclean people in a hopeless colony away from the town. Those with more advanced cases showed you what you had to look forward to. It forced you to call out “Unclean!” whenever people approached, and suffer the humiliation of watching them cover themselves and hurry by, cutting you a wide swath. And worst of all, it excluded you from the worshiping community that once had been the center of your life.
He had once prayed that God would protect him from this disease. Then he had prayed that God would heal him. God had done neither. What had he done to deserve leprosy? It must have been some sin. But it didn’t make sense. He knew others who were living in sin and were perfectly healthy. He was confused and increasingly despondent.
Then news reached him that the Rabbi Jesus was in the area. Word was that Jesus’ teaching was controversial. But apparently he had healed sick people in Capernaum—some of them lepers. This was worth checking out. So he joined the crowd on the mountain, keeping his distance, to listen to the rabbi teach and see if the healing stories were true.
What he heard transformed him. Jesus was different—from everyone. He spoke with power and authority. It was as if his very words coursed with life. He talked about the kingdom of God and the end of death and the promise of eternal life. And Jesus claimed that he could grant it!
Normally he would have written Jesus off as another delusional “messiah.” A dying man didn’t have time for delusions. Yet here he was, hanging on Jesus’ words.
Maybe it was because Jesus wasn’t just talk. People he knew as sinners repented and received forgiveness. Demon-possessed people received deliverance. And diseased people received healing. But it was more than that. The joy his followers had seemed to go deeper than good health. They were clean inside. They were free. He wasn’t sure what it was, but the hope he tasted in Jesus’ words made him long for something beyond healing.
So he made up his mind. Whatever it took, he was going to get to Jesus and ask him to cleanse him from his leprosy and anything else that defiled him. And if Jesus granted him this gift, he was going to follow him.
So he trailed Jesus down the mountain, looking and praying for the right moment. He had an anxious knot in his gut. What if the moment never came? What if it came and Jesus said no?
It came just as Jesus reached the bottom of the mountain. So he moved quickly and dropped on his knees before the rabbi and blurted out, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”
He amazed himself at the confidence with which he said those words. Strangely, he somehow knew that Jesus had the authority to speak him clean.
Jesus looked at him. It seemed like a long time. All the conversation nearby stopped. The man could feel everyone watching. Then the kindest smile spread across Jesus’ face as he stretched out his hand and touched him. “I will; be clean.”
The first thing he felt was Jesus’ mercy. He had not been touched by a non-leper in three years. Then he felt heat course through his whole body. Then tingling! He felt tingling in the tips of his fingers—fingers he had thought would never feel again! There were gasps from the crowd. He pulled up his sleeves. No spots! He looked up at Jesus with stunned, speechless joy. He knew he was clean.
Jesus helped him stand up and firmly instructed him to tell no one, but to go show himself to the priest with the gift commanded by Moses “for a proof to them.” Nodding, the man stammered, “Thank you!” And with another smile Jesus was off.
This healing account in Matthew 8 is an illustration of what Jesus taught in Matthew 7:7-11: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” because our Father in heaven loves to give good gifts to his children. The leper asked and the Lord gave.
So as 2009 begins, we want to encourage you to ask God boldly to give you good gifts—especially the good gift of wanting and loving him more than anything else. And to do that we are highlighting John Piper’s message, “Ask Your Father in Heaven” this month.
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As the former leper walked toward the temple, Jesus’ words were ringing in his ears: “I will; be clean.” He shivered. “I will.” Jesus wanted to grant him what he asked for. “Be clean.” Jesus had the power to do it. That morning all he had wanted was to be healed of leprosy. But now it seemed like that was just a prelude to something much bigger.
God’s good gifts in this life all point to his greatest gift—one he really looks forward to giving us in full. If he did not spare his own son to give us the gift of forgiveness, righteousness, and eternal life, “How will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)
Trusting the God of the former leper with you,