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.
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.
Acts 11:1-18 contains one of the most remarkable examples of good behavior in the entire Bible. Peter returns to Jerusalem to Caesarea, fresh from the triumph of baptizing the household of Cornelius, the first Gentile converts to Christ.
However, this poses an ideological problem for Christians whom Luke describes as being “of the circumcision”. These are brethren who believe that in order to follow Christ, you have to follow Moses too. That required observant Jews to maintain the bewildering tangle of dietary laws from Leviticus, laws that no one but Jews followed.
Thus, to eat with a Gentile was to violate the Law, and in observing that Peter ate with the household of Cornelius, this is precisely the accusation that the Christians who are of the circumcision are making. They don’t condemn him right out, but it’s fair to imagine their feet tapping impatiently as they wait for an explanation.
Of course, an explanation is precisely what Peter is delighted to give. He has associated with Gentiles only because the Holy Spirit has shown him a vision, a vision that simultaneously identifies Greeks as fit prospects for the gospel and declares all foods clean. The baptism of the Holy Spirit, poured out upon those in Cornelius’s household, confirms that this dramatic change is the will of God.
Here is where we come to the remarkable thing. The party of the circumcision causes plenty of trouble later, pressuring Peter into hypocrisy and provoking Paul to write the epistle to the Galatians, among other problems. In Acts 11, however, they make the godly choice. In the face of evidence that Peter had done righteously, they walk back their implied accusation and acknowledge that God has opened the door of salvation to the Gentiles too.
This is hard. Indeed, this is very hard. At one point or another, all of us have found ourselves in a place where we have jumped to the wrong conclusion. Maybe, like the party of the circumcision, we stated the facts and then raised an accusatory eyebrow. Maybe we went so far as to say the ugly part out loud, to accuse another of wrongdoing on the basis of inadequate information.
When we find out the truth in such cases, the temptation is to double down on the error. We will stick to our guns on the mistaken assessment of the situation, the mistaken interpretation of Scripture. We will manufacture additional arguments, additional claims, attempting to shift some or all of the blame for our mistake to the other. If we do so with sufficient volume, these efforts may even persuade bystanders and silence any opposition.
However, they will not change the truth, and they will not please God. He desires truth in the inmost parts, and choosing to continue in error is knowingly insisting on a falsehood. Though it is painful to our pride, the righteous choice is to retreat, to acknowledge that we assumed too much. Only this kind of honesty and self-honesty will produce the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
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.
Give the King Your judgments, God,
And Your goodness to the Son;
May He judge with righteousness,
Bringing peace to everyone.
Helping those who are oppressed,
May He give the needy rest!
While the sun and moon endure,
May their fear of You not cease;
Like the rains that bless the field,
May His rule abound with peace.
May His enemies bow down,
Doing homage to His crown.
When the needy cry for help,
In compassion He will save;
They are precious in His sight;
He will keep them from the grave.
Let them name Him as they pray
And show thankfulness all day.
May the harvest crown the hills;
May the city flourish too;
Ever may His name increase;
Let men honor it anew;
For the wonders of Your ways,
Let the earth be filled with praise!
Suggested tune: DIX
(“For the Beauty of the Earth”)