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Did Jesus Sin When He Touched the Leper?

Thursday, February 25, 2021

A few weeks ago, I got a request for a blog post on the issue raised in the title.  The question, of course, arises from the story described in Mark 1:40-44 and Luke 5:12-14.  The fact pattern here is simple.  A leper comes to Jesus (apparently in a town, where the leper shouldn’t have been) and asks Him to cleanse Him.  Jesus agrees, touches him, and cleanses him.  Was Jesus wrong to do so?

Here, we kind of already know the answer.  Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus was without sin, so obviously He didn’t sin in his interactions with the leper.  OK, but why not?

Though I hardly qualify as an expert on Old Testament purity laws, three lines of argument suggest themselves.  The first is that intentionally touching a leper doesn’t appear to be specifically condemned in the Law.  Unintentionally touching a leper (or any other human uncleanness) is, in Leviticus 5:3. 

In Numbers 19:11-22, elaborate rules are provided for those who intentionally touch a corpse, but no corresponding ordinances exist for intentionally touching a leper.  This may be because a leper who is isolating himself as per Leviticus 13:45-46 is not going to be touched by anyone anyway.  Who would chase down a leper for the joy of touching him?  Thus, the leper in Luke 5 would have sinned by going into the city, but Jesus would not have sinned by choosing to touch Him.

Second, it may be that Jesus is asserting His priestly status by touching the leper.  During the purification ritual of Leviticus 14:10-20, the priest touches the leper in multiple ways before the leper becomes ceremonially clean (he already had been declared clean from infection in Leviticus 14:9).  Clearly, priests could touch lepers.  Though Jesus was not a priest under the Law, He was a priest according to the order of Melchizedek, and His willingness to touch the leper may hint at that.

Finally, and most intriguingly, Jesus may be indicating His special status.  The usual rule for holiness, as per Haggai 2:10-12, was that it could not be communicated.  That which touched a holy thing did not itself become holy.  However, the Law provides three exceptions to the rule:  the tabernacle and its furnishings (Exodus 30:26-29), the grain offering (Leviticus 7:18), and the sin offering (Leviticus 7:27).  All of those did communicate holiness to that which touched them.

On its face, the communication of holiness is what happens in the story of Jesus and the leper.  Jesus touches the leper, but instead of the leper making Jesus unclean (at least, there is no Scriptural evidence that this happened), Jesus made the leper clean (which the Scripture explicitly says did happen).  Under the terms of the Law, this implies the presence of at least one of the three exceptions listed above.

Indeed, in Jesus’ case, all three exceptions are present.  His body was the tabernacle of the Word among us (John 1:18).  He is the bread of life, the true food of the faithful (John 6:47-51).  Finally, He is the ultimate sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:10-12).  Thus, before the threefold holiness that He possesses, even leprosy could not remain unclean.

Accepting God's Value for Us

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

The other day, I received a Facebook message from a Christian that said in part, “Possible idea for article.. addressing self hate when you’re a Christian. When you feel you’re not worthy of love, it can be hard to accept that God loves you and you’re not all the awful things you tell yourself in your mind, but also you want to have a healthy balance of self awareness and not being *too easy on yourself??”

To start with, let me say that receiving this message from this kind of Christian is both shocking and predictable.  Even judging by human standards, the author (whom I will not identify) has a lot going for them.  No one who knows them would assess them as being the least bit deficient in either gifts or godliness. 

However, it’s often people like that, top-tier Christians who are well loved, who paradoxically struggle the most with feelings of being unlovable.  Indeed, their life of good works is commonly the result of a doomed attempt to prove that they are worthy.  Their inevitable failure to do everything perfectly becomes yet another source of guilt and self-loathing.

Not that I would ever struggle with this myself, of course.

To such a person, the grace of God, properly understood, ought to become the most precious thing imaginable.  In Christ, we don’t have to do anything to prove ourselves to be worthy of love.  Instead, it is Christ Himself who has proved that we are worthy by dying for each of us.

His lifeblood is a thing of infinite value, and as any mathematician will tell you, infinity divided by any finite number remains infinite.  The tiniest portion of Christ’s blood, applied or even potentially applied to us, declares each of us to be a being of infinite worth.

Nor should we think that God overpaid.  In His infinite wisdom, He did not put a price on us that was more than we were worth.  He knows us better than we know ourselves, and His assessment must be right.  When He priced us at the cost of the precious blood of Jesus, He merely revealed the intrinsic value that every human soul had held since the beginning.

This is true for me.  It’s true for my correspondent.  It’s true for every human being that ever has existed.  None of us can do anything to prove that we are worthy of love.  All of us are worthy simply because of who we are.  No matter how greatly we sin, no matter how deeply we defile ourselves, no matter what anyone else does to us, we remain beings created in the image and likeness of God.  We remain beings whom the Son of God was willing to redeem with the payment of His mortal anguish. 

Of course we should strive to serve.  Of course we should strive to be holy.  However, we should not think that doing so must or even can add to our value in any way.  That’s both unnecessary and impossible.  Instead, we obey because we are moved by joy and gratitude for what we have received, for the One who has shown us who we truly are and has done so incomprehensibly much for us.

Fear and False Doctrine

Thursday, February 18, 2021

As nearly every preacher with a brain has observed, the response to false doctrine too often is itself false doctrine.  Just because Johann Tetzel promised works-based salvation through the sale of indulgences does not mean that you should conclude that salvation is by faith alone, without any human interaction.  Instead, the Scriptures commonly call us to more nuanced convictions that hold two paradoxical truths in tension.

Consider, for instance, opposition among brethren to the Calvinist doctrine of eternal security, also known as perseverance of the saints, the P in TULIP.  Countless sermons have been preached (by me, among many others) examining the passages that show that falling away is indeed possible.  Hebrews 6:4-8, holla!

So far, so true.  However, in focusing on the passages that highlight the holes in Calvinism, we have not paid equal attention to the passages that Calvinists like to use, which are no less true than Hebrews 6.  They interfere with the clarity of the message we want to promote, so rather than explaining them, we explain them away.  Yes, we are saved by grace through faith BUT WE STILL HAVE TO BE BAPTIZED.  Yes, no one can snatch us out of the hand of Jesus BUT WE CAN STILL FALL AWAY.

It certainly is true that we must be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins and that we must live faithfully thereafter.  However, a distorted emphasis on those truths at the expense of others leads us to a distorted view of our own salvation and our relationship with God.

This view maximizes the importance of right action and minimizes grace and the mercy of God.  No longer is He a God who longs to have compassion on us, who lavishes on us the riches of His grace.  Instead, He becomes a God who is a spiritual miser. 

He yields His grace reluctantly, always asking, “Can’t you do better?”  He watches our spiritual journey with gimlet eyes, and as soon as we set a toe over the line (“Even now it may be that the line you have crossed!”), wham!   Down comes the executioner’s axe!  Severed from Christ, fallen from grace, toast.

The spiritual and emotional consequences of this distortion are profound.  I know brethren who are wonderful A-list Christians yet nonetheless spend their lives staggering under the weight of fear and guilt.  “What if I haven’t done enough?” they ask. 

They sense, correctly, that they haven’t done enough.  No one has or ever will.  The problem is that they’re looking for justification in the wrong place.  Our sufficiency is not in ourselves.  It is in Christ.  We are not reliable, but He is, and because He is, we can contemplate the future with confidence and hope.

Rather than being so concerned about defeating false doctrine, we instead should open our mind to the full truth of the word.  Yes, it contains warnings, and those should concern us.  However, it also contains promises, and from those we should take great comfort.

Spiritual Sarcasm

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

In recent days, I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions with other Christians about whether sarcasm, especially in a tense confrontation with enemies of the church, is ever appropriate for God’s people.  A host of familiar passages would suggest that it is not.  In Luke 6:28, Jesus tells us to bless those who curse us.  In 2 Timothy 2:24-25, Paul insists that the Lord’s bondservant must be kind and gentle.  In 1 Peter 3:15, Peter counsels us to make our defense with gentleness.

And yet, all three of these men used sarcasm in confrontations with enemies of the gospel.  In John 10:32, Jesus sarcastically asks the Jews which of His good works has caused them to stone Him.  Similarly, in Acts 4:9, Peter asks the Sanhedrin (“Really, guys?”) if he is on trial for a benefit done to a sick man. 

In Acts 8:3-5, Paul calls Ananias the high priest a whitewashed wall (a hypocrite, as in Matthew 23:27) for claiming to try him according to the Law yet ordering him to be struck unlawfully.  I also believe that Paul’s “apology” in v.5 is not truly an apology but rather a sarcastic allusion to the fact that Ananias was not appointed high priest according to the Law either (#notmyhighpriest).  In doing so, he would have been playing to the Pharisees, who also did not believe that Ananias was rightfully appointed, and to whom he would appeal directly in a few moments.

There are plenty of other examples throughout the New Testament and still more in the Old Testament, many of which come from the lips of God.  However, these three suffice to show that the godly employed sarcasm in defense of the gospel.  Indeed, sarcasm is a much better attested practice than (for instance) partaking of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week!

However, there must be some way for us to distinguish between the general rule of gentleness and these exceptions in practice.  Otherwise, the exceptions will swallow the rule!  In fact, the use of godly sarcasm appears to be limited to a narrow set of circumstances:  first, it is in defense of truth; second, it is used in response to bad faith by adversaries; and third, it highlights the bad faith.

For example, the Jews in John 10 are clearly not acting in good faith.  The many miracles that Jesus has worked have provided abundant evidence that He is from God.  However, rather than considering Jesus’ challenging statement about Himself in the light of this evidence, the Jews react with closed-minded fury.  Jesus’ sarcasm in v. 32 emphasizes the chasm between their self-righteous rage and the unrighteousness of their conduct.

The truth will always have its opponents.  Those who disagree with us in good faith, even when they disagree strongly, are entitled to a courteous and kind reception from us.  Such good treatment, in conjunction with a vigorous defense of truth, will win the honest adversary over to the cause of Christ.

However, others are committed to opposing the truth no matter what.  They will not scruple at the use of any low, underhanded, hypocritical tactic if they believe it will bring God and his people into disrepute.  In such cases, we are justified in using sarcasm to shine a light on their bad faith.  The hypocrite will not enjoy the experience, but neither does anyone else whose evil deeds are exposed to light.

Women Participating in Bible Classes

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Recently, I’ve been engaged in an email discussion with a brother on the subject of women participating in our Bible classes.  He sees inconsistency in many congregations between Bible classes, in which women may read Scriptures, make comments, etc., and worship services, in which they are required to remain silent.  He believes that the appropriate way to resolve this inconsistency is to bar women from participating in Bible classes as well.

In a time in which all too many churches have chosen to ignore 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 altogether, I appreciate this brother’s zeal for God.  However, I believe his analysis overlooks some key aspects of our worship services and misunderstands the contextual meaning of silence in 1 Corinthians 14.

First, although many find it convenient to overlook the fact, I doubt there is a single church of Christ in existence in which women are literally silent during worship services.  They sing.  Indeed, according the language of Ephesians 5:19, they speak to the rest of the congregation in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.  Women speak in our assemblies!

This practice is uncontroversial.   I’ve never heard anyone argue seriously that women should not participate in our song worship.  Indeed, I’ve never heard anyone argue against alto-lead choruses, during which women often are the only ones singing.  It’s impossible to argue that women literally are being silent in the churches during “Paradise Valley”!

This leaves us with two choices.  We can read 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as a flat contradiction of Ephesians 5:19, so that Paul is divided against Paul (and the Holy Spirit against the Holy Spirit).  Alternatively, we can quit using 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as a proof text isolated from its context and consider if there is anything in that context that ought to inform our understanding of silence.

Indeed, though this commonly is overlooked, women are not the only group told to be silent in 1 Corinthians 14.  In 14:28, those with the gift of speaking in tongues are told to keep silent unless an interpreter is present.  In 14:30, if, while a prophet is speaking, a second prophet receives a revelation, the first prophet is to be silent and allow the second to speak. 

It makes little sense to take “silent” here literally, especially in the case of the tongue-speakers.  Tongue-speakers were allowed to participate in song worship.  If men, they were allowed to lead public prayers, as per 1 Timothy 2:8.  Paul means only that they were not allowed to be the sole speaker, to hold the floor in a situation in which they could not edify the church.  Similarly, Prophet #1 was not allowed to be the speaker, to attempt to maintain the floor in the face of Prophet #2’s revelation.

Contextually, then, the injunction of 1 Corinthians 34-35 to women to keep silent does not mean that women cannot speak.  It means that women cannot be the speaker.  They are not permitted to exercise authority in the assembly as a man may.

We glimpse the nature of the problem that Paul is addressing in the instruction of 14:35 for women to ask their husbands at home if they have questions.  Questions seem innocuous, but if I learned anything in law school, it is that the one asking the questions has the power!  The questioner is the one in authority, the one controlling the conversation. 

We see this displayed throughout the gospels.  Jesus uses questions to great effect to humiliate His enemies, and He commonly replies to trap questions by asking another question.  It stands to reason that women in the Corinthian church were using questions to similarly dominate assemblies, and it is indeed disgraceful for a woman to speak thus!

This reading of 14:34-35 resolves the apparent contradiction with Ephesians 5:19, and it also harmonizes more closely with 1 Timothy 2:11-12.  There, Paul instructs women not to teach or exercise authority over a man, but rather to learn quietly and submissively.  In times past, I made much of the difference between “quiet” in this passage and “silent” in 1 Corinthians 14:34, but a contextual reading of the latter minimizes the distinction.  Instead, both texts become about issues of authority and submission rather than 14:34 being about whether women are making noise or not.

Together, these two texts provide a useful framework for understanding the role of women in our assemblies.  First, it is firmly complementarian.  Men are men, and they are to behave like men, but women are women, and they are to behave like women.  As Paul’s analysis of Genesis 1-3 in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 makes clear, from the beginning it has been true that men, not women, are responsible for exercising spiritual leadership.  Though scholars may construct fanciful arguments about how these rules don’t apply to us anymore, we must seek the ancient paths and walk in them.

Second, it supplants an inconsistent bright-line rule (“Women can speak in Bible classes but not in worship services.”) with an opportunity to exercise spiritual discernment.  The woman singing an alto lead is behaving in a quiet, submissive fashion under the authority of the song leader.  By contrast, the termagant who is attempting to control the Bible class from the same pew where she’s been sitting every Sunday morning for the past 45 years is neither quiet nor submissive, even though she is talking during the women-speaking-allowed hour.

As with most of the law of Christ, this framework can be abused by those who want to act in bad faith.  I am reminded here of the Jehovah’s-Witness practice of essentially allowing women to preach sermons in response to open-ended questions from men.  Though formally complying with the letter of God’s word, such behavior is a Pharisaical perversion of its spirit, and we can expect it to be judged accordingly.  However, for men and women who sincerely seek the will of God, this reading will give them all they need to suitably honor Him.

This article originally appeared in the January issue of Pressing On.

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