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Matthew 8:1-4 “Authority to Cleanse”

Matthew presents these first three miracles in quick succession as three events occurring on the same day.[1] While some have argued that Matthew’s language does not demand this understanding, this is precisely the sense Matthew’s language suggests as Jesus descends the mountain (8:1), enters Capernaum (8:5), and retires for the evening (8:16). It is therefore safe to assume that Matthew connects these three miracles as occurring later that same day after Jesus concluded the SM. The first of which is the cleansing of the leper.

 

So, after He came down from the mountain, many crowds followed Him. And behold! A leper came worshiping Him saying, ‘Lord! If you are willing, You are able to cleanse me.’ And stretching out His hand, He grasped him saying, ‘I am willing. Be cleansed!’ And immediately he was cleansed from his leprosy. And Jesus said to him, ‘See to it that you tell no one. But go, show yourself to the priest, and present the offering which Moses commanded as a witness to them.’

 

As Matthew transitions from discourse back to narrative, the text unfolds in like manner. Matthew first introduces the context of the narrative (v. 1), recalls the conversion of the leper (vv. 2-3), and then concludes this account with a direct command from Jesus. While the term “authority” (ἐξουσία) is never used in these four verses, this miraculous restoration not only proves that Jesus possesses authority, but it also begins to define the purpose of His authority.

 

Context (v. 1)

So, after He came down from the mountain, many crowds followed Him.


Matthew connects the upcoming restoration with the leper as well as the events that follow after Jesus comes down from the mountain. There is no reason for us to suppose that Matthew means anything other than the mountain Jesus ascended and taught atop in 5:1. The timing of the scene is after Jesus had finished these words (7:28) and before entering His hometown of Capernaum (8:5). This coming down from the mountain (καταβάντος δὲ αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τοῦ ὄρους) is also reminiscent of Moses’ descent from Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:14; 32:15; 34:29).


In light of the context of the law giver descending a mountain, it is difficult not to see some kind of connection to Moses. After all, Matthew has already drawn several parallels between the first law giver and the last. This is the one who comes as a prophet like Moses to whom Israel will one day listen (Deut. 18:15). But is this that day?


Matthew writes that Jesus was followed by many/large crowds (ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ ὄχλοι πολλοί). “Following” (ἀκολουθέω) Jesus is a major theme in Matthew’s gospel (4:20, 22, 25; 8:1, 19, 22; 9:9, 27; 10:38; 12:15; 14:13; 16:24; 19:2, 21, 27, 28; 20:29, 34; 21:9; 26:58; 27:55) and so it appears as if Jesus has already succeeded as Moses foretold. There are those who follow for many reasons: curiosity, jealousy, desperation, devotion, etc. Time will tell where the crowds land.


Thus, Matthew presents a context that has the appearance of victory. Jesus, the prophet like Moses, has come down from the mountain with throng of potential followers in tow.

 

Conversion (vv. 2-3)

Regardless of one’s view regarding the leper’s spiritual state, there is nevertheless a conversion in this account. The leper is converted to an ex-leper. The unclean is converted to the clean. While the text of Matthew’s gospel most certainly implies (even demands) that we understand this leper as a converted follower of Jesus in the truest sense, there is no question that at least some kind of conversion has taken place.


The scene and indwelling conversation unfolds in a highly structured manner. Matthew presents the action of an individual (vv. 2a, 3a), followed by a statement from that individual (vv. 2b, 3b). In other words, the actions and statements of the leper are mirrored by the actions and statements of Jesus. This mirrored structure is illustrated below:



This mirrored structure is strikingly similar to Jesus’ arrangement of 7:21. This leper approaches Jesus calling Him “Lord” (κύριος). Yet not everyone who does so will enter the kingdom of heaven. There, the emphasis was upon the Father’s will (θέλημα) in addition to recognizing Jesus as “Lord”. Here, the leper inquires of Jesus’ will (θέλω) to cleanse him. What sort of man is this leper?

 

Confrontation (v. 2a)

And behold! A leper came worshiping Him.


Some modern translations (NASB, NIV), for reasons unknown and indefensible, omit Matthew’s interjection “behold!” (ἰδού). The term is designed to grab one’s attention due to something extraordinary, strange, wonderful, or even down right frightening that has occurred. The presence of a leper approaching Jesus is worthy of such an interjection.

 

At this point there should be some discussion regarding leprosy. That this disease was dangerous and well known is evident by the fact that 7.4% of Leviticus (two whole chapters out of 27) is dedicated to the subject. This fact is enlightening because it reveals that leprosy is more than a physical malady but is treated by scripture as a spiritual and theological malady as well.


Physically and medically speaking, it is doubtful that the leprosy we recognize today under the name of Hansen’s Disease is the same illness that plagued the ancients yet there is enough similarity for us to paint an accurate, if most unpleasant picture. Leprosy is a disease that degenerates tissue beginning topically on the skin, spreading in all directions, and penetrating to infect joints, ligaments, and internal organs. In short, the person infected rots from the outside in. The horror of this disease is magnified by its durations. One might suffer for years and even decades before succumbing to leprosy’s effects.[2] The ancients knew of no cure for leprosy and considered such a feat equivalent to raising the dead (2 Kings 5:7). In short, contracting leprosy was a slow and agonizing death sentence and curing leprosy is something that no man can do.


Spiritually and theologically speaking, lepers were considered unclean and were thus separated from society lest they contaminate the whole congregation. After a priest diagnosed a leper, his clothes were to be torn, his head uncovered, must announce his unclean presence with a covered mouth, and would be forced to live outside the community in isolation (Lev. 13:40-46). To be a leper is to be cut off from (a) one’s family, (b) one’s community, (c) corporate worship, (d) the blessings of the covenant, and in short (e) God. Nothing captures the horrific, destructive, and unholy nature of the curse and sin so much as leprosy.


Biblically speaking, leprosy is more of a theological issue than it is a physical issue. This by no means downplays the horrible circumstances of lepers but serves as an all too tangible reminder that the curse has yet to be lifted.

 

That this leper came or approached (προσέρχομαι) to Jesus would have been something to behold in and of itself. Lepers don’t approach anyone. They are to keep their distance and cry out “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn others to keep away. Yet, that’s not the part that Matthew draws our attention to. The aorist participle (προσέλθῶν) simply gets the leper on stage. The sight that is worthy of our attention and that is extraordinary enough to extract the interjection “behold!” from Matthew’s pen is the fact that this leper came worshiping Jesus.


Most translations render the imperfect indicative (προσεκύνει) in the wooden form “to bow down” (NASB, LSB) or even less significantly “to kneel” (ESV). These translations fail to capture the sense for two reasons. First, the verb προσκυνέω means “to prostrate”. The picture is of one placing himself face down on the ground in submission. This is not the picture of one bowing from the waist as a European courtier, nor does it even imply one kneeling on one knee like a warrior about to be knighted. If one demands a wooden and literal translation, “prostrated” is the only English term that fits the bill.


Second, Matthew has already used this term to good effect where the sense was only and exclusively that of worship (2:2, 8, 11; 4:9, 10). While it is true that προσκυνέω requires the context to determine the difference between submissive prostration and humble worship (thus, technically an air of ambiguity may exist), Matthew’s context and syntax demands the idea of worship. Matthew’s “behold! does not draw attention to the participle προσέλθῶν, that is the leper’s approach (which one would think this is exciting enough for such an interjection), but to the indicative προσεκύνει, what the leper was doing. The imperfect tense indicates that this was an ongoing action. He kept prostrating himself/worshiping while he spoke. Thus, the outcast and unclean leper is confronted with Jesus who is the Messiah, the son of David the son of Abraham.

 

Confession (v. 2b)

Saying, ‘Lord! If you are willing, You are able to cleanse me.’


In light of Matthew’s arrangement and the immediate context of what Jesus has taught regarding addressing Him as “Lord” (7:21-23) it is unthinkable that this leper is simply being polite or political. His use of the vocative Κύριε carries the full implication of what Jesus previously alluded to. The leper confesses that Jesus is Yhwh. Whether those around him picked up on this point is irrelevant. This leper knew who Jesus was. Far from begging the question, this fact is demanded by what the leper says.


Grammatically, the leper presents his case in the form of a third-class conditional statement[3] and not as a question. He does not ask Jesus to heal him but assumes that Jesus is more than capable of doing so if He so wills. This is significant for two reasons. First, the leper is convinced of Jesus’ ability to heal him. Because there was no cure for leprosy, his faith is not placed in Jesus as a physician but in His deity. Only God can heal a leper. This confession expresses the leper’s faith in Jesus as Yhwh incarnate.


Second, this confession is dependent not on Jesus’ ability but in His desire or will. The leper submits himself to Jesus’ inclination to heal him or not. He is willing to resign himself to remaining a leper if Jesus so wills.[4] While the request for healing is certainly implied, the leper presents his confession of humble faith in such a way that rests in Jesus’ will. It is impossible not to hear echoes of Jesus’ model prayer from 6:10 in these words.

 

At this point we must point out that the issue of physical healing is nowhere in sight. The leper states that Jesus is able to cleanse (καθαρίζω) him, not heal (θεραπεύω) him. This is an important observation for several reasons: First, to be cleansed would mean that the leper would be restored to society. He would no longer have to live away from others and could be reunited with his family and friends. He could walk down the street without clearing a path before him shouting out his warning. Socially he seeks restoration.


Second, to be cleansed would mean that the leper would be restored to worship. Because they were pronounced unclean, lepers would not have been allowed to offer their sacrifices at the temple. For as long as he had been infected, this man has been cut off from worshiping God. Religiously, he seeks restoration.


Third, seeking cleansing rather than healing indicates that he understands his ultimate problem: sin. The language of cleansing (καθαρίζω/καθαρός) is the language of the New Covenant (Jer. 33:8; Ezek. 36:25, 33; 37:23). This leper desires to be cleansed of his unrighteousness. Spiritually, he seeks restoration.


Finally, this way of speaking echoes Jesus’ introduction to the SM in the beatitudes. It is the pure (καθαρός) in heart who are blessed because they will see God (5:8). In expressing a desire to be cleansed (καθαρίζω) the leper seeks to be numbered among Jesus’ blessed kingdom citizens. Eschatologically, he seeks restoration. In his case, physical healing would be necessary in order to become socially and religiously clean. But it is a mistake to narrow the focus of this man’s words to only the physical. As a human being consisting of body, soul, and spirit, this leper seeks to be cleansed physically, spiritually, and eschatologically.

 

How could this leper connect so many dots with such precision? Some have ignorantly argued that the leper spoke better than he could possibly know.[5] To these, the leper is just lucky to stumble upon an accurate turn of phrase or perhaps Matthew literally placed the words in his mouth, altering or even fabricating the entire conversation. Yet, this level of precision cannot be attributed to mere chance and if this be a fictional account, any analysis of the text is an utter waste of time. The leper clearly knows to whom he speaks and understands the significance of what he says. If we trust Matthew’s account regarding the timing and authenticity, then all becomes clear.


This event occurred after Jesus came down from the mountain; i.e., after delivering the SM. If the leper was in such proximity to then approach Jesus, it is reasonable to assume that he heard every word that Jesus spoke on that mountain top. To put it simply: the leper heard these words of Jesus and is now acting upon them (7:24).

 

Confirmation (v. 3a)

And stretching out His hand, He grasped him saying, ‘I am willing. Be cleansed!’


Jesus’ response to the leper mirrors his actions and his words. The leper approached and worshiped Jesus. Jesus stretched out His hand and touched the leper. The construction is identical to the actions of the leper.[6] Jesus’ language mirrors the language of the leper.[7] In both word and deed, Jesus confirms the leper’s confession.


When the leper prostrates himself before Jesus, he confessed that Jesus is in fact Yhwh in human flesh. By reaching out and touching him, Jesus confirms it. This confirmation is not simply a physical reassurance that Jesus accepts him (though that is certainly true). If Jesus were a man like any other, touching an unclean leper would in turn make Jesus unclean. This touch (ἅπτω) is more than a mere brushing contact but indicates that Jesus handled or grasped him. The many crowds who witnessed this act would not have mistaken it for what it was: Jesus came into direct physical contact with a leper and yet did not become unclean. Who can do this? Only Jesus. By touching him, Jesus confirms the leper’s confession.


This confirmation continues with Jesus’ choice of words. The English is brief enough, but Jesus’ response in Greek consists of only two words: Θέλω. Καθαρίσθητι (I will. Be cleansed!). The leper’s confession was hinged on Jesus’ will or desire to cleanse him. Jesus confirms that He does in fact will to do so. The aorist imperative puts Jesus’ will into execution. The miracle is enacted by His word. The leper could not be more clear who he confessed Jesus to be. By mirroring his actions and language, Jesus confirms every fact.

 

Cleansing (v. 3b)

And immediately he was cleansed from his leprosy.


It is difficult to say which is more amazing: that this is all Matthew states on the matter or that we even require this brief explanation. On the one hand, one would be tempted to learn every detail that transpired. The leper who was wracked with sores, scales, and stubs was instantaneously made whole. On the other hand, what else would we expect to read other than immediate obedience to the Lord’s command? The leper confesses Jesus to be Lord and submits to His will. Jesus responds to him in kind. What is there left to be said?

While brief, this statement is completely necessary for Matthew’s audience, which includes us. The immediate cleansing of the leper proves Jesus’ ability to come into contact with the unclean while not only remaining clean Himself, but also cleansing that which was unclean. In other words, Jesus has proven His ability and authority to carry the sins of the many without becoming tainted by them (Is. 53). Paul will later remind the Corinthians that Jesus became sin while knowing no sin so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus’ cleansing of this leper demonstrates this profound theological point.

 

Command (v. 4)

Jesus’ command to the leper in v. 4 is somewhat curious. Not only in what He says but in the fact that He says anything at all. Normally, Matthew does not include any response or reaction from Jesus after the miracle has occurred. Of the nine miracles recorded in Matthew 8:1-9:35, only two include any parting words of Jesus, the leper (8:4) and the blind men (9:30). On both of these occasions, Jesus’ parting words contained a warning. Here, Jesus’ address is longer as He warns (v. 4a), instructs (v. 4b), and informs the leper (v. 4c).

 

The Command’s Content (v. 4ab)

And Jesus said to him, ‘See to it that you tell no one. But go, show yourself to the priest, and present the offering which Moses commanded...

 

The content of Jesus’ instructions consists of two parts. He first issues a warning (what not to do) and then proceeds to issue instructions (what to do). It is this first part that troubles most interpreters. Why did Jesus instruct the leper not to tell anyone? There are several possible and even likely answers:[8]

  • Jesus wanted to avoid being known primarily as a miracle worker

  • Jesus did not want to encourage the wrong-headed notion that Messiah was primarily a political deliverer and thus be swept up in the movement of emancipation and independence from Rome

  • It was not proper for Yhwh’s Suffering Servant to be associated with fame during the time of His humiliation


There is likely some truth in all these explanations, yet there is a better way of understanding the text than to align the possibilities and randomly choose our favorite. By analyzing the context of what Jesus continues to say, it should become apparent why He thus commanded the converted leper.


That this command was given in an effort to keep the miracle “hush, hush” is not very likely. This occurred in broad daylight with many crowds as witness. In fact, the purpose of this command is to be a witness to them. In other words, many people (a) already know what occurred and (b) more will soon find out so that the event might testify/bear witness to them.


The key is then to focus on what Jesus commands the leper to do. Jesus uses three imperatives to instruct this ex-leper: go! (ὕραγε), show! (δεῖξον), and present! (προσένεγκον). Jesus uses the present tense for the first two commands, indicating the immediate action to get down to Jerusalem in order to present himself before the priest. The third command is in the aorist tense, indicating the larger picture and thus the goal. The objective is to offer the sacrifice that Moses commanded.


Jesus is obviously alluding to the procedure recorded by Moses in Leviticus 14. This prescribed ritual was the means by which a leper would be reinstated into social and religious life once examined by the priests and found to be cured. Why does Jesus draw attention to this specific and necessary event? Because He did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (5:17). Jesus has not come to replace anything but to fulfill everything. By offering the sacrifice prescribed by Moses, the cleansed leper and the priest who cleared him would be affirming that Jesus is adhering to the Law rather than sidestepping, circumventing, undermining, or in any way abolishing it. In addition to this, the examination and ceremony prescribed in Leviticus once completed would affirm that Moses and the Law point directly to Jesus.

 

The Command’s Purpose (v. 4c)

…as a witness to them.’


This command of Jesus concludes with three words in the Greek: εἰς μαρτύριον αὐτοῖς. This is the purpose (εἰς) for which Jesus sends the converted leper to Jerusalem and the temple, that the Law thus fulfilled would stand as a testimony/witness (μαρτύριον) to them. Of the untold number of lepers in Israel’s history, only three occurrences of healing are recorded in the Old Testament: Miriam (Num. 12), Naaman (2 Kings 5) and the Samarians (2 Kings 7). Of these three, only Miriam was an Israelite under the Mosaic Law. All of this to say that there is only evidence that the ritualistic sacrifices for the cleansed leper (Lev. 14) were offered one time before this event. It is safe to assume that the priests in Jerusalem have never heard of these rites being performed, much less have performed them personally. These are utterly unprecedented circumstances. Thus, when the Law is fulfilled, it will stand as a witness to testify that Jesus is the Messiah who has come to take on the sin of His people. This leper is to Jesus what the head of Goliath was to David when that future king displayed his trophy outside the walls of Jerusalem (1 Sam. 17:54). The rightful king is at hand!


This helps to explain the warning to tell no one. Jesus is not concerned with people knowing what has occurred as such. The point is to let the inhabitance of Jerusalem, beginning with the priest who performs the examination, that Messiah has come and is coming. The point then is to insist that the leper betray nothing that has occurred until the Law is fulfilled. A hard-hearted priest might deny ever having pronounced this one “unclean” to begin with or pretend to identify some blemish that would indicate the leprosy yet lingers. The order to remain silent is to allow for an unbiased examination that would certainly pronounce the man “cleansed”. But, because the deed was witnessed by so many, the man must lose no time in getting to Jerusalem. He must drop everything and follow Jesus’ instructions to the letter.


The leper is cleansed and the Law regarding such is fulfilled. May the people now know that Messiah has come to take on the sins of the world.



[1] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 317.


[2] Richard Pousma, “Diseases of the Bible,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), §Leprosy, p. 138.


[3] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), p. 689.


[4] Lenski, p. 318-9.


[5] D. A. Carson, Walter Wessel, and Mark Strauss, Matthew & Mark, Revised, vol. 9, 13 vols., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 235.


[6] Aorist participle indicating either antecedent timing or attendant circumstance (προσελθών/ἐκτείνας) followed by an indicative verb (προσεκύνει/ἥψατο).


[7] ἐὰν θέλῃς vs. θέλω and δύνασαί με καθαρίσαι vs. καθαρίσθητι.


[8] William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 392.


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