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The Ten Lepers and Their Spiritual Leprosy Luke 17 and Leviticus 13

The Ten Lepers and Their Spiritual Leprosy (Luke 17:11-19 and Leviticus 13)

In Luke 17:11-19 Jesus cleansed ten lepers of their physical leprosy. Only one of them returned and ended up being cleansed of his spiritual leprosy.

Leprosy and its variants are mentioned 68 times in the Bible. The number of references alone makes it worth understanding. Regarding the account of the ten lepers in Luke 11:17-19, understanding leprosy helps us better understand:

  • The lepers’ desperation when they came to Jesus
  • How dramatic and wonderful it was for Jesus to heal them
  • How thankful they should have been when Jesus healed them

Understanding Leprosy

Leprosy’s Physical Effects

Leprosy began as small, red spots on the skin. Before long the spots grew and turned white, with a shiny or scaly appearance. Then the spots would become dirty sores and ulcers because of the poor blood supply. The sores and ulcers would spread until they covered the body.

Lepers would lose feeling in affected areas, and without pain as a warning system they’d experience other injuries:

  • They might twist an ankle but continue walking, worsening the tearing of the ligaments.
  • If they were cooking with a fire, they wouldn’t know if they got too close and burn themselves.
  • Because they were forced to live away from civilization in unsanitary environments, they might not notice – and I’m not kidding – if rodents were chewing on them while they slept.

The body would start to fall apart:

  • Hair would fall out.
  • Fingernails and toenails would become loose and fall off.
  • The joints of fingers and toes would rot until the fingers and toes themselves fell off.
  • Gums would shrink until teeth fell out.
  • The disease would affect the larynx, producing a grating quality in the leper’s voice.
  • The skin around the eyes and ears would begin to bunch, with deep furrows between the swellings, so the face started to look like that of a lion.
  • Leprosy would eat away at the victim’s face until their nose, palate, and even their eyes would rot away.

Since lepers had parts of their bodies rotting, they put off a terrible odor, and these are only the physical consequences. There were spiritual, mental, and emotional consequences as well.

Leprosy’s Spiritual Effects

Spiritually, because lepers were unclean, they were removed from the religious life of the nation. Say goodbye to ever being able to corporately worship the Lord again.

Leprosy’s Mental Effects

Mentally, leprosy was terrible because there was no cure. Lepers had to live with the reality that their condition would only get worse. As terrible as this week was, the next week would be even worse and the week after that even worse.

Leprosy’s Emotional Effects

Emotionally, leprosy was terrible because it meant the end of human relationships. Unless you want to risk your spouse, parents, children, siblings, or friends contracting leprosy you stay away from them. All suffering is helped by the love and support of family and friends, but lepers couldn’t even experience that.

Imagine for a moment, you can never kiss your spouse again, hug your children or parents again.

Because lepers were like living dead people who could have no more relationships with others, there would be funerals for them while they were alive.1

Lepers became complete outcasts, shunned by the rest of society. The only relationships they had were with other lepers, but even this was painful, because the relationships served as constant reminders of the fate that awaited them: they had to watch other lepers rot away knowing the same would happen to them.

Why Lepers (Sadly) Weren’t Pitied

You could read this and think, “Everyone must have felt terrible for lepers.” No, and let me explain why:

Luke 13:1 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Jesus was told Pilate murdered some Jews. If you were told this, how would you respond? Wouldn’t you say something like, “This is terrible. I’m so sorry to hear this. What a horrible tragedy.”

Jesus knew the people were thinking the Galileans who were murdered were worse sinners than everyone else. So, He says, “Instead of worrying about the Galileans’ sins, they should be worried about their own sins and repent.”

Apparently, there was a tower that fell and tragically killed eighteen people. Again, Jesus knew the thinking of the day would be that the people who were crushed by the tower must’ve been worse sinners than everyone else, so again He called everyone to repent.

Think about the man born blind:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him (John 9:1-3).

For this man to be born blind, someone must have sinned, whether him or his parents. Jesus said his blindness was not the result of anyone’s sin.

The point is, if the thinking of the day is people’s suffering is caused by their sin, people would think lepers must have been terrible sinners. So, no, people did not have pity on lepers.

Who Might Lepers Approach?

If lepers ever approached anyone, it was viewed as a selfish act, because they were risking infecting others. But interestingly, lepers did seem comfortable approaching one Person:

Luke 17:11 On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. 12 And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance 13 and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 14 When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed.

They wanted to be healed, but Jesus had entered a village. They knew they couldn’t follow, so they stood at a distance. If nobody else had mercy on them, they thought Jesus would. And He did.

Notice Jesus didn’t cleanse the lepers immediately, which I’m sure they wanted. They obeyed Jesus, headed to the priests, and were cleansed as they went. When the lepers showed themselves to the priests, they would be pronounced clean and then they could be restored to the religious and social life of the nation.

Cleansed Leprosy in the Old Testament

There were only two instances in the Old Testament of leprosy being cleansed.

Miriam’s Cleansing

The first instance is when Moses’s brother, Aaron, and sister, Miriam, attacked Moses’s leadership. God gave Miriam leprosy, but Moses interceded for her. Numbers 12:15 says, “So Miriam was shut outside the camp seven days, and the people did not set out on the march till Miriam was brought in again.” It never says Miriam was cleansed, but the fact that she was brought back into the camp means she must’ve been cleansed. But there’s no record of the ritual being performed.

Naaman’s Cleansing

The other instance is with Naaman in 2 Kings 5. It looks like he headed back to Syria after he was cleansed. It’s highly unlikely that the commander of the Syrian Army, Israel’s enemies, would’ve walked into the temple in Jerusalem and expected the Jewish priests to perform the ritual for him. Plus, he wouldn’t have even known about the ritual unless Elisha told him to have it done, and there’s no record of that.

The Ritual for Cleansed Lepers in Leviticus 14

Leviticus 14 describes a ritual the priests were supposed to perform after lepers had been cleansed. But this wasn’t a ritual TO cleanse lepers. This was a ritual performed AFTER lepers were cleansed. But because leprosy was incurable, Miriam and Naaman are the only recorded instances of leprosy being cleansed, and there’s no record of the ritual ever being performed, Leviticus 14 must have been one of the most untouched chapters in the Old Testament.

But eight times in Leviticus 14:4-19 it says, “him who is to be cleansed.” God clearly expected people to be cleansed of leprosy, otherwise why have a ritual to be performed when lepers were cleansed? But because leprosy was incurable why have a ritual for something that can’t happen?

Cleansing Physical Leprosy Identified the Messiah’s Coming

When John the Baptist was in prison, it would have been discouraging, but he could be greatly encouraged by the prophecies about the Messiah setting captives free:

  • Isaiah 42:7 says, “[The Messiah will] bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
  • Psalm 146:7 says, “The Lord sets the prisoners free.”
  • Not long ago, Jesus stood up in the synagogue and read from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to PROCLAIM LIBERTY TO THE CAPTIVES and…SET AT LIBERTY THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED” (Luke 4:18).

John is a captive who can’t wait to be liberated. He is a perfect candidate for deliverance under the Messiah’s ministry. As the Messiah’s forerunner, if there is anyone the Messiah should release so he could be out there ministering, it’s John! But John wasn’t being released. The days kept stretching on. Finally, it reached the point that John started wondering if Jesus was the Messiah at all, because it seemed like the prophecies weren’t true.

Jesus was going to deliver people, but it wasn’t a physical deliverance from imprisonment. Instead it was a spiritual deliverance from sin and death. John lost sight of this:

Luke 7:18 The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John, 19 calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 20 And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” 21 In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. 22 And he answered them, “Go and tell John WHAT YOU HAVE SEEN AND HEARD: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, LEPERS ARE CLEANSED, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. 23 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Notice the interesting way Jesus answered John’s question. He didn’t tell John’s messengers to tell John that He’s the Messiah, because anyone can claim to be the Messiah. Instead, He told John’s messengers to tell John what they were seeing. Lepers’ cleansing served as evidence that the Messiah had come.

There are only two accounts of Jesus cleansing lepers and both times He sent them to the priests, because they were the experts in the law who would be able to declare they were cleansed. They had the credibility to do so. A layperson could say, “My brother had leprosy, but he’s been cleansed.” People wouldn’t believe it. But when priests declared that lepers were cleansed, people believed it.

Think of what this was like for the priests in Jesus’s day. There were two thousand years since the law was given to Moses with this ritual. ZERO lepers ever showed up to be cleansed. Now there are rumors that the Messiah has come. The priests would wonder if it is true. Then lepers start showing up having been cleansed of leprosy and the priests are able to perform the ritual that no priest ever performed before. It would have been an incredible testimony that the Messiah had come.

Greater than Moses and Elisha

The two instances of leprosy being cleansed in the Old Testament, Miriam and Naaman, were associated with Moses and Elisha, two of the greatest men in the Old Testament. In both instances it was clear God did the cleansing:

  • Moses prayed that God would cleanse his sister Miriam, because Moses was not able to do it himself.
  • Naaman understood God cleansed him, because when he returned to Elisha he said, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel” (2 Kings 5:15).

If Moses and Elisha couldn’t cleanse leprosy, but a leper tells the priests, “Jesus of Nazareth cleansed my leprosy,” it communicated someone greater than Moses and Elisha had come.

Jesus Noticed the Ten Lepers Thanklessness and Thankfulness

After the lepers showed themselves to the priests:

Luke 17:15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16 and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Leprosy destroyed people’s voices, but one cleansed leper came back “praising God with a loud voice.” The Jews hated the Samaritans, who were considered half-breeds and not full Israelites after intermarrying with Assyrians seven centuries earlier. Luke is the Gentile, or non-Jewish author of Scripture, and he made the Samaritans look better than anyone else. He recorded the parable of the good Samaritan.

Jesus noticed two things:

  1. He noticed the thanklessness of the nine who didn’t return, and it bothered Him.
  2. He noticed the thankfulness of the one who did return, and it pleased Him.

Romans 1 is one of the strongest declarations of men’s wickedness in Scripture. Interestingly, verse 21 says, “Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God OR GIVE THANKS TO HIM, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” If we think of God condemning men, we probably think in terms of commission versus omission:

  • We think of the sins men commit, such as lying, stealing, and murdering
  • Versus the sin of omission, which is when we fail to do what God wants us to do

In Romans 1 God points out one of our main sins of omission: not giving Him thanks. Ingratitude is especially prevalent today when people have an “I deserve this” mentality.

We might be quick to condemn the nine lepers who didn’t return, but I wonder if the ratio of people who give thanks to the LORD is any greater today? I will be the first to say that I definitely don’t give thanks to God for all the things I should. Way too often I’m more like the nine than the one.

Matthew Henry says we always have things to be thankful for. After he was once robbed he wrote in his diary:

Let me be thankful, first, because I was never robbed before. Second, because although they took my purse, they did not take my life. Third, because although they took my all, it was not much. Fourth, because it was I who was robbed, not I who robbed.

Encyclopedia of 7,700 Illustrations [Assurance Publishers], by Paul Lee Tan, # 6578

Look Past the Ten Lepers’ Physical Leprosy to Their Spiritual Leprosy

Most of what Jesus did physically is a picture of what He wants to do for us spiritually. If you don’t understand this, you end up like charismatic churches who believe Jesus wants to heal everything. For example:

  • When Jesus healed blindness that’s not supposed to make us think He wants to heal every blind person. But He wants to heal our spiritual blindness so we can spiritually see.
  • When Jesus healed deafness: that’s not supposed to make us think He heals every deaf person. But He wants to heal our spiritual deafness so we can understand spiritual truths.
  • When Jesus raised people from the dead that’s not supposed to make us think He’ll raise us the moment we die. But He has victory over sin and death, and He wants to give us eternal life.

When we see what Jesus did physically, we often want to look at it spiritually. In this account when Jesus cleansed physical leprosy, it is a picture of His desire to heal our spiritual leprosy.

Leprosy Is a Picture of Sin

Leprosy is the most dramatic picture or type of sin in the Bible. Leprosy did to people physically what sin does to us spiritually. Here are the parallels. Leprosy is deeper than the skin, like sin…

Leviticus 13:3 and the priest shall examine the diseased area on the skin of his body. And if the hair in the diseased area has turned white and the disease appears to be DEEPER THAN THE SKIN OF HIS BODY, it is a case of leprous disease. When the priest has examined him, he shall pronounce him unclean.

Leprosy spreads like sin…

Leviticus 13:7 But if the eruption SPREADS IN THE SKIN, after he has shown himself to the priest for his cleansing, he shall appear again before the priest.

Lepers mourned over their leprosy, like we should mourn over our sin…

Leviticus 13:45a “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip or mustache

They were to tear their clothes and ignore their hair, which were common signs of mourning.

Leprosy defiles, like sin…

Leviticus 13:45b and cry out, ‘UNCLEAN, UNCLEAN.’ 46 He shall remain UNCLEAN as long as he has the disease. He is UNCLEAN.

The word “unclean” occurs four times in two verses. Lepers were made unclean by their leprosy like we’re made unclean by our sin.

Lepers had to be removed from everyone except other lepers, just like unrepentant sinners must be removed from everyone except other unrepentant sinners…

Leviticus 13:46b he shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.

Leprosy isolates like sin isolates.

Just like unrepentant people affected by sin are fit for the fires of hell, objects affected by leprosy are fit for the fire…

Leviticus 13:52 And he shall BURN the garment, or the warp or the woof, the wool or the linen, or any article made of skin that is diseased, for it is a persistent leprous disease. It shall be BURNED IN THE FIRE…57 Then if it appears again in the garment, in the warp or the woof, or in any article made of skin, it is spreading. You shall BURN WITH FIRE whatever has the disease.

Leprosy started out small and unnoticeable, but then it grew until it couldn’t be hidden, just like sin. Leprosy could never be completely removed from a person’s life, just like sin can never be completely removed from our lives. As leprosy spreads, sensitivity and feeling in the area are lost, just like the numbness or loss of conviction Paul described sin causing when it spreads:

  • Ephesians 4:19 (NKJV) [Sinners], who, BEING PAST FEELING, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.
  • 1 Timothy 4:2 Through the insincerity of liars whose CONSCIENCES ARE SEARED,

When lepers lost feeling they were likely to hurt themselves worse, just like when we lose feeling or conviction, we’re likely to hurt ourselves worse.

People with leprosy were like living dead people. Unsaved people are physically alive, but spiritually dead, so they are living dead people like lepers:

  • Ephesians 2:1 You WERE DEAD in the trespasses and sins
  • Colossians 2:13 You, who WERE DEAD in your trespasses…God made alive

Leprosy never stopped until the person was dead, just like sin never stops until we’re dead.

A Beautiful Picture of Cleansing Spiritual Leprosy

Luke 17:19 says, “[Jesus] said to him, ‘Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.'” This looks confusing at first, because Jesus told this man that his faith had made him well AFTER Jesus had already made him well by cleansing his leprosy. Earlier Jesus cleansed his physical leprosy. Now Jesus cleansed his spiritual leprosy.

The cleansed leper came back in faith, and we’re saved by grace through faith. This is why translations point out that he was saved:

  • The NASB and ESV have footnotes that read, “Your faith has made you well,” means, “Your faith has saved you.”
  • The Amplified reads, “Jesus said to him, ‘Get up and go [on your way]. Your faith [your personal trust in Me and your confidence in God’s power] has restored you to health.’”

So, ten of the lepers were cleansed of their physical leprosy, but only one of them was cleansed of his spiritual leprosy.

Jesus Wants to Cleanse Our Spiritual Leprosy

Lepers were called unclean versus infected or something else we might expect for people with a disease. Jesus healed blindness, paralysis, deafness, sickness, and these miracles are called healings. But lepers were cleansed:

  • Luke 7:22 “Tell John what you have seen and heard…LEPERS ARE CLEANSED.
  • Luke 17:14 When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were CLEANSED.
  • Luke 17:17 Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten CLEANSED? Where are the nine?

This is another way leprosy is a picture of sin: Leprosy can’t be healed, just like sin can’t be healed. But Jesus could cleanse lepers of physical leprosy, just like He can cleanse us of spiritual leprosy:

  • Titus 2:14 (HCSB) He gave Himself…to CLEANSE FOR HIMSELF a people for His own possession.
  • Ephesians 5:26 that he might sanctify her, having CLEANSED HER by the washing of water with the word.
  • 1 John 1:7 The blood of Jesus…CLEANSES US FROM ALL SIN…9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to CLEANSE US from all unrighteousness.

Maybe you have sin in your life that started out as a few spots. It wasn’t noticeable at first, but now it has spread, affected your whole life, and become noticeable to those around you. People can see it in your life and hear it in your voice. Jesus is as willing to cleanse you of spiritual leprosy today as He was 2,000 years ago.

The Greatest Cleansing Any of the Ten Lepers Received

The greatest cleansing Jesus did in this account was for the one leper versus the ten lepers. And what Jesus has done for us in cleansing our spiritual leprosy is greater than the physical leprosy He cleansed for the nine lepers who didn’t return. Cleansing physical leprosy benefited them for the rest of their earthly lives, but cleansing us spiritually benefits us eternally.

We have something worse than physical leprosy, and that is our sin. We should be even more thankful for Jesus cleansing us of spiritual leprosy than the lepers were of Jesus cleansing them of physical leprosy, because physical leprosy doesn’t cast people into hell for all eternity.

How often are you thanking Christ for the cleansing His blood provided on the cross?

Footnotes

  1. Leviticus 13 discusses the steps for dealing with people who had leprosy:

    1. They were brought to the priests for examination.
    2. If they showed any signs, they were pronounced unclean and isolated for seven days.
    3. They were brought back and re-examined to see if they improved:
      • If they improved, it was clear they didn’t have leprosy, because leprosy never improved. They would be pronounced clean and restored to fellowship.
      • If they hadn’t improved, they would be isolated and re-examined another seven days later.

    When it was obvious people were lepers there was no future examination. At that point they were required to take steps to make it obvious they were lepers to help prevent the spread of the disease: “He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:46b).

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