March 1, 2018 Chapel Service — Dr. Sean M. Lucas
Posted On March 19, 2018
Dr. Sean M. Lucas is the elected Chancellor’s Professor of Church History at RTS-Jackson, senior minister of Independent Presbyterian Church (PCA), Memphis, Tenn., and author of several books.
Mark 1, our text this morning, verses 40-45. As we are turning, I just want to say once again how great a privilege it is to be with you this morning. It’s great fun to come down and hang out with y’all here, and I’m trusting that God will meet us. As we come to this text, we come to it knowing that Mark has a key question throughout his gospel. It’s right at the center of his gospel as Jesus asks His disciples, “who do you say that I am?” And, Mark leaves us in no doubt. He tells us in the very first verse who Jesus is. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, God Himself who has come to dwell in the midst of His people and to rescue them from their sins. But, this scene continues to unfold Mark’s answer to that question as this summary of Jesus’ ministry points us to who He is, but even more to what He’s come to do, not just in the first century but for you and me today.
So, Mark 1 beginning in v. 40:
And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.
This is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God.
You know that the kingdom of God is nothing like we expect. I mean, we expect God’s rule and reign to be top down, to be orderly, to be predictable. But, the fact of the matter is that when God comes to us in His saving rule, it actually sets everything akimbo; turns everything upside down and inside out. Of course, that’s because our God, who comes to us in Jesus Christ, He’s not safe. He’s a bit wild, He’s not what we expect. We know that of course from the repeated refrain throughout the Chronicles of Narnia. Toward the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as Aslan leaves, someone says to Lucy: “He’ll be coming and going. One day you’ll see him, another you won’t. He doesn’t like to be tied down, only, you mustn’t press him, he’s wild you know, not like a tame lion.”
I mean, we know that, but do we really? We’d expect a king to go after the rich and the fashionable, the powerful, the famous, but, this king, He doesn’t do any of that. He goes after the poor, and the outsider, and the unknown. We’d expect a king to go after the smart, the intelligencia, the influencers, but this king doesn’t do that. He goes after average people. He goes after work-a-day folk. He goes after the silent majority. We’d expect a king to work top down, to be organizationally savvy, to know how to build his platform and expand his brand. But, this king, he doesn’t want all the buzz. This king’s kingdom doesn’t operate anything like we would expect a king to operate.
And, all of that means that if we’re going to follow this king, this king named Jesus who comes preaching the kingdom of God, then we need to expect two things. First, we need to expect that He is going to come and turn our lives completely upside down, completely inside out. But second, we need to expect that because this is the way the king operates, because He calls us in discipleship to follow Him, that where He goes, we go. And, if this king works inside out and outside in, so must we. That is of course how the kingdom works. That’s what we have in this scene. We have a scene in which Jesus is working outside in. This is a summary, verses 40-45, of the kinds of interactions that Jesus has throughout Galilee. The end of the previous section, verse 39 tells you that He goes throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons. And the question comes, what does that itinerant ministry, what does it look like? What does it feel like? What does it taste like? Give us some sense of that ministry as Jesus goes preaching and healing throughout Galilee. Well, here it is. Mark chooses this vignette to give us a sense of Jesus’ ministry before He returns back to His base of operations, Capernaum, at the beginning of chapter 2. And, the scene that Mark chooses to typify the ministry of Jesus is He goes throughout Galilee preaching and healing, is this scene involving a leper.
In our western medical world where, when we develop a skin problem, we can go to a dermatologist and receive some measure of relief, we may not recognize how devastating leprosy actually was. There were a number of skin diseases that went under the heading of leprosy: boils and burns, itches and ringworms, scalp irritations and other things besides. In fact, the Scribes listed 72 different classes of skin diseases under the heading of leprosy. But, when you were diagnosed with leprosy, you were diagnosed with a difficult physical malady. You knew great physical distress. You longed for relief. It was hard to find some way of gaining some comfort, some relief from the malady. Healing, that was probably not to be looked for, but relief, that was what was longed for. It was profoundly difficult physically, but it also, leprosy, carried a significant social stigma. Because of the fear of contagion. Leviticus 13 and 14 gave a number of instructions to the priests for diagnosing leprosy and how to deal with it and how to insure that the contagion did not spread. But, central to those instructions were verses 45 and 46 in Leviticus 13. There you would read, “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 and cry out, ‘unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:45-46) And so, this man who has leprosy, he’s the ultimate outsider. He is dirty, filthy, unclean, and he is to remain outside; outside of physical health, outside of social respectability, outside the town, outside. Every time anyone saw him, all they saw was someone who was dirty, filthy, unclean, someone who should not be around. It was though he was carrying a sign and on that sign were the lyrics from the Avett Brothers: “Shame, boatloads of shame, day after day, more of the same.”
So, I don’t think we should be surprised with this physical malady and this social stigma, this social shame, that the leper felt. I don’t think it’s any surprise that when he hears about Jesus, he’s willing to risk more shame in order to meet Him, in order to seek Him out, in order to be healed by Him. And so he comes, the text tells us, he kneels and he implores Jesus: “If you will, you can make me clean.” This man knows that Jesus has the ability, you can make me clean. Perhaps that’s why he came. Perhaps he had heard about the healing of the demoniac in the synagogue, the man who had sat in worship services for months and months, or maybe years and years, and Jesus cast out the demons from him and maybe he heard about that. Maybe he heard about all of Capernaum gathering at Jesus’ door after that Synagogue Sunday and Jesus healed and cast out demons from all those who came to Him. Perhaps he heard about Jesus’ itinerant ministry that he had gone from town to town, preaching the kingdom of God, healing and casting out demons, and perhaps that’s why he was here because perhaps he reasoned, if Jesus could do that for others, certainly He has the ability to heal me, to cleanse me, to rectify my social status, to take away my shame. He can do it, that’s really not the question. The question is, does He want to? Does Ge care about me in my particularity. Does He know me, and love me, and want to heal, cleanse me?
Those are the leper’s questions, but notice what the Lord does. First, He’s moved with pity. That’s what the text tells you, right? “If you will you can make me clean,” moved with pity. That word that the ESV translated, “pity,” it’s actually a pretty interesting word. Sometimes it shows up in your New Testament translated as compassion or pity. Sometimes it’s translated in terms of indignation. In fact, that’s how the NIV renders it, it has: “Jesus was indignant.” Not angry, no this is more, I think, a kind of wounded love, a kind of indignant compassion. It’s as though Jesus was thinking and feeling: you believe in me to such a degree that you’re willing to risk everything in term of your social shame and stigma to come to me because you believe that I can heal you, but you don’t believe in me to such an extent to know that I want to. That I love you, that I care about you in your particularity, in your individuality, in your struggle in sin and shame— I care about you! He’s moved with compassion, moved with pity; a kind of wounded love and then Jesus reaches out and touches Him.
Now, on the surface, this is a mark of compassion, because think about it. It’s likely that this leper has gone through much of his life, if not his whole life, having never been touched, never hugged, never held, never stroked, never caressed. Perhaps this is the case that Jesus was the first person in his living memory who actually reached out and touched him. What compassion, and yet in another sense, this wasn’t only a mark of compassion that Jesus was touching him, this was also a mark of craziness. Because, any Jew reading or hearing this account would be undoubtedly thinking, “Jesus, what are you doing? You’re going to become, at the best, ceremonially unclean and at the worst, you’re going to get his contagion upon you. His physical malady, his social stigma, it is going to become yours.” But notice, that’s not what happens. Rather than the status and condition of the leper corrupting Jesus, the status and condition of Jesus actually transforms the leper. Jesus says, “I am willing, be clean.” And, immediately, the leprosy left him and he was made clean. The power of God’s kingdom, the holiness of the king, the purity of His person, the righteousness of His status, all of that was transferred and transformed the man. And so, it is that this outsider, at the very touch of Jesus, by the very command of Jesus, by the very call of Jesus; this outsider is now brought inside. He’s brought under God’s saving rule by the work of Jesus the king, he has moved outside, in.
Of course, that’s exactly what has happened to each one of us. That’s what has happened to you, that’s what has happened to me. We were dirty and filthy, unclean, condemned by the law, condemned by our own consciences. And yet, Jesus moved with compassion, moved with pity. He reached out and touched us, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, enlightened our minds and renewed our wills so that we were persuaded to embrace Him as He was offered to us in the gospel. How did Jesus do that? How did He make us clean? Well, He made us clean through His death on the cross. I mean, what is it that Isaiah says? He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. Upon Him was the chastisement that brought peace, and with His wounds we are healed. The Apostle John picking up on that in 1 John 1, where it says: “The blood of Jesus His son cleanses us from all sin.” Not some sin, not the small sins, not the respectable sins. No, the blood of Jesus, His son, cleanses us from all sin.
You might be here today saying, “Sean, you don’t understand. You don’t understand what I’ve thought this week, what I’ve done this week. You don’t understand what I have in this closet where I don’t want anyone to go to; I don’t want my boyfriend, my girlfriend, my husband, my wife, my parents, my teachers, I don’t want anyone to go to that closet. Because, in that closet are things that I am so ashamed of. They are leprous and dirty and filthy and unclean. Well, the text says that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from those sins too. The sins in that closet, locked away. That’s what Jesus does. That’s the extent and power, the present power of the blood of Jesus Christ.
Now, you’re here at Reformation Bible College, you know that right up here intellectually. If we gave you a quiz or if this was on your midterm, you would undoubtedly get those answers right. The problem isn’t up here, in our heads, we know Jesus can do that. The problem is here in our hearts. Because we have this nagging suspicion, don’t we, we have this nagging suspicion that Jesus doesn’t really want to. But, what does the text say? Jesus comes to you and me and He says, of course I want to. I love you with a love that will not let you go. Of course I want to. Be clean. Come into the the circle of my family. Come into the circle of my love. Come in from the outside. Come outside in and find here the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ to cleanse your conscience and to take that closet and do away with it so that it plagues you no more.
But, Jesus doesn’t only work outside in. His kingdom also moves the opposite way, it moves inside out. In fact, it’s kind of stunning how that happens. Jesus tells this leper, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priests.” In fact, Jesus’ language here is more insistent than we know. It says, Jesus sternly charged him. This is a strong warning. But, instead of obeying Jesus, what does the healed man, the cleansed man do? Well, he went and began talking freely about it and to spread the news. He does this so much that he ends up becoming an obstacle to Jesus’ continuing ministry. I mean, that’s striking, isn’t it. On one level we can understand how this happened. He’s on his way to the priests and as he’s walking someone sees him and says, “Johnny, what are you doing in here? You are a leper, you’re not supposed to be in town. You’re supposed to be outside of the town.” “Well, you don’t understand, I met this man named Jesus and He’s made me clean.” “Oh really, how did that happen?” “Well, let me tell you!” And, he begins to unpack this story. And then someone else comes up, and they want to hear the story again. And soon, there’s a crowd around and after a while he’s forgotten to go to the priests because he has a book deal and he has a platform to build, and he has a website and he has a Twitter handle, and all this platform building, so that he’s completely forgotten to obey Jesus because, of course, he has this amazing powerful witness. But, that’s not what Jesus the king told him to do. He told him not to tell anyone and go to the priests and show them. And, by not obeying, this man actually became an obstacle to Jesus’ ministry. Sinclair Ferguson observed, “How sad it is to record that this man whom Jesus had so wonderfully helped and restored, to whom He had given nothing less than new life instead of the living death he knew before, had actually become an obstacle to Jesus. In fact, he became an obstacle because of the way He witnessed to him. His life underlines a basic lesson of discipleship. The Lord’s work, should be done only in the Lord’s way, according to the Lord’s word.”
I think that’s an important lesson to learn here. Even the insiders, those who are rescued and healed, and cleansed, we can prove to do harm to Christ’s cause, we can be obstacles to the very ministry and mission of the kingdom. I mean, not every cleansed sinner should be given a platform. Not every individual who has a sense of call is actually called. Not every polished speaker should be put forward to speak. No, we actually have to do the Lord’s work His way according to His word. Which means that those who God calls as elders are to be blameless and above reproach, husband of one wife, not drunkards, not strikers, and all the rest. Jesus’ word and way, regulates Jesus’ work. And, when we don’t follow what Jesus says, we become obstacles, but even worse, we put Jesus outside. Mark has all these little details, these little striking notes, and this is one of them. He went out, began to talk freely about it, verse 45 to spread the news, “so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town but was out in desolate places.” You see it? Jesus and the leper have actually traded places. Leviticus 13 mandated that the leper be outside the town in the desolate places. Jesus, of course, was inside the town. But now, they’ve switched places. The leper is now on the inside and Jesus is now outside the town. Of course, that’s part of the exchange. That’s right at the heart of the gospel.
The leper was dirty, unclean, filthy; Jesus holy, pure, clean. But, Jesus takes upon Himself the wrath and curse of God, what this leper deserved; his status and in turn makes him whole. It’s what Paul tells us, “He became sin who knew no sin that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” We who should have been outside of Jerusalem, nailed on a Roman cross; Jesus took our place. He was literally, outside of the town on that rock called Golgotha, for us. But, because Jesus is outside, that actually shapes our pathway of discipleship now. Because, remember, this is an example of the way Jesus has advanced the kingdom. He goes about preaching and healing, and he calls for us as His disciples to follow in His path so that when Jesus goes outside, we go outside. As the writer to the Hebrews tells us, “So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.” So yes, outside we bear reproach and shame and scoffing. But, outside we will also find other outsiders. Not just other saints, but those who are dirty and filthy and shamed and unclean. Outside we will find those who desperately need to hear the good news of Jesus. Desperately need to hear that His blood can make sinners clean, can wash away, cleanse away, all our sins—able to undo the worst that we do and give us His best. Outside, we will find those who doubt whether Jesus wants to make them clean. Who may understand that yes, He can, but wonders if He will. Outside we can cast our nets and drag men and women and boys and girls into the gospel ship; under the saving rule of the King so that lives and families might be changed and transformed by the very power of the gospel, which is the very sign of the kingdom because that’s how Jesus’ kingdom works my friends. It works outside in and inside out.
Transcripts are lightly edited.