Despite the fact that it is mentioned only a few times in Scripture, the disease of leprosy occupies a prominent place in the minds of Christians. This may be because of its association with two of the towering figures of the OT—Moses and Elijah—and its presence in the ministry of the Lord Himself. Serious Bible students, however, will also want to know in what sense such incidents have been “written for our instruction” (Rom. 15: 4). The only way to do this effectively is to keep our minds focused solely on how the Bible describes leprosy and not allow our thoughts to be influenced by modern medicine. I say this because many Bible teachers directly equate what we now refer to as leprosy with the leprosy of Scripture, whereas it is quite clear that the latter, since it also infected both clothing and houses (see Lev. 13: 47–59; 14: 33–53), was not the same.
The First Mention
The first instance of leprosy in Scripture is in connection with Moses, and, as often with the first mention, it provides the key to the understanding of its meaning in the rest of the Bible. “And Jehovah said moreover to him, Put now thy hand into thy bosom. And he put his hand into his bosom, and took it out, and behold, his hand was leprous, as snow” (Ex. 4: 6). The lesson here conveyed is very simple: what was in the heart of Moses displayed itself in his hand. It is a picture of indwelling sin. Thus: “For out of the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witnessings, blasphemies; these are the things which defile man” (Matt. 15: 19, 20). The outward expression of evil is merely a reflection of what lies within. We commit sins because of the sin that dwells in us. The one is the fruit of the tree, the other the root. Yet there is more: if defilement begins at the heart, then so must the cleansing. Thus Moses is instructed “Put thy hand into thy bosom again. And he put his hand into his bosom again, and took it out of his bosom, and behold, it was turned again as his flesh” (Ex. 4: 7).
The First Symptoms of Leprosy
The identification of leprosy is of course the first thing, and for this the marks are given in detail in Leviticus 13. Significantly, that chapter deals with leprosy in Israel, the people of God, and this gives it a particular resonance with the people of God today—Christians. Now the Christian still has sin within him, for “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1: 8). What this chapter is teaching, however, does not concern the isolated failures to which we are all liable, but the active working of a defiling principle in our lives, which, though it may remain hidden for a time, is sure to eventually reveal itself on the surface. This is why any mark on the skin was to be examined to see whether it was merely superficial, or really the manifestation of something deeper.
Now the beginning of leprosy is like the beginning of sin. It is small and insidious, and not at first alarming: “When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising or a scab, or bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh a sore [as] of leprosy ... ” (Lev. 13: 2). The detail of these words is very significant. “A rising” reminds us of the pride that so easily puffs up every one of us, causes contention, and is the root and core of so many evils. Even those who believe themselves to be most humble are in reality pleased with their humility. Again, how striking it is to see that 1 Cor. 8: 1 (“knowledge puffs up”) is in relation to Christian things. It has been said that there is pride of race, pride of place, pride of face, but the worst pride of all is pride of grace. Next, we have “a scab” (Lev. 13: 2). This would speak of that which covers up some old wound. Perhaps somebody has treated us badly in the past and we have never really forgiven them. It is like the “root of bitterness”, hidden away, but liable to spring up at any time so that many more are “defiled by it” (Heb. 12: 15). Then there is “a bright spot” (Lev. 13: 2). We read in Heb. 11: 25 of the “pleasure of sin” and in Heb. 3: 13 of “the deceitfulness of sin”. Sin often looks bright and attractive, but its appearance is deceptive. Satan has been busy preparing these “bright” spots ever since Eve was deceived in Eden, but the end of them is a full–blown, ugly disease.
The Diagnosis by the Priest
The suspected leper “shall be brought unto Aaron the priest” (Lev. 13: 2). Only he—the one habitually in the presence of Jehovah—could judge whether a man had leprosy or not. It is the light of the sanctuary that decides the matter—the man or the persons that brought him were not asked. Where the case was obvious, and “the hair in the sore is turned white” (a sign of an internal disorder, the hair being rooted beneath the surface), “and the sore looketh deeper than the skin … the priest shall look on him and pronounce him unclean” (v3, my emphasis). In less certain cases, the man was to be quarantined for seven days, and if, after that, “the sore remaineth as it was” (v5), shut up another week. Only then, provided the lesion “is become pale” (that is, any active disease is on the wane) and “hath not spread in the skin” could the priest “pronounce him clean” (v6). This dealing with each case on its merits must not be overlooked. Thus, for example, the man “taken in some fault” (Gal. 6: 1) is to be regarded quite differently from the “wicked person” (1 Cor. 5: 13). There is nothing commendable about either leniency or harshness in discipline. A blind eye may be turned to what is really evil dressed up as good, while there can be unseemly haste in dismissing a weaker brother on some flimsy pretext. The fact that Leviticus 13 devotes 59 verses to the subject only goes to show that great care is needed in diagnosing leprosy.
Leprosy in the Head
Perhaps no greater care is required than in diagnosing leprosy of the head (see Lev. 13: 29–44). On the one hand, it might actually be an innocent baldness (see vs. 40, 41), a defect no doubt, but nothing more. The judgment in such a case must be “he is clean”. On the other hand, in a real case of leprosy “which hath broken out in his bald head” (v42), the man was to be pronounced “utterly unclean” (v44, my emphasis). This language surely shows the seriousness with which God regards sin actively working in a believer’s mind. How many there are today who have the plague of leprosy in their heads: they reason things out with their own minds and they trust to their own ideas, instead of to the Word of God. We may see a terrible example of this in king Uzziah who “went into the temple of Jehovah to burn incense upon the altar of incense … and behold, he was leprous in his forehead” (2 Chron. 26: 16, 20). Being “marvellously helped” (v15) will not preserve you from leprosy of the head—indeed, such blessing magnifies the danger. Significantly, the related condition of leprosy in the beard (see Lev. 13: 29) is a danger, not for the spiritual babe (see Eph. 4: 14), but the mature believer. There have been many such who have “gone astray” (2 Tim. 2: 18) as to the truth. Again, take the incident when Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses: “And the anger of Jehovah was kindled against them…..And behold, Miriam was leprous as snow” (Num. 12: 9, 10). Aaron was high priest, Miriam was a prophetess (see Ex. 15: 20), but privilege and position must not be allowed in any way to infringe the unique place occupied by Christ (Moses here is a type of Christ—see Num. 12: 7; Heb. 3: 2). Yet how many otherwise faithful saints have allowed themselves to be pope in all but name, or overlooked the fact that their words were being put on a par with Scripture? Is this not taking a position that belongs to Christ alone? However great the gift we may have, we only have it as the “gift of the Christ” (Eph. 4: 7).
The Reappearance of Leprosy
Lev. 13: 9–28 deals with the case of a man with a past history of leprosy on whom a new, suspicious lesion had appeared. If there was “a trace of raw flesh ... in the rising” (v10), this living tissue witnessed to the re–emergence of the disease, and the priest’s decision was to be immediate and unsparing: “the priest shall pronounce him unclean, and he shall not shut him up, for he is unclean” (v11, my emphasis). In NT language, the individual had only appeared to have purified himself from his course of sin (see 2 Cor. 7: 1): his repentance was merely skin–deep.
Conversely, a man in whom “the leprosy covereth all his flesh” and “is all turned white” (v13) was to be pronounced clean. Why? Because all the disease had been brought to the surface in a lifeless scale, ready to peel off. It is the case of a man in whom sin is no longer actively at work—everything is out, confessed and dealt with. However, “on the day when raw flesh appeareth in him, he shall be unclean” (v14) since raw flesh is evidence of active disease. (Incidentally, the fact that the “man full of leprosy” in Luke 5: 12 was regarded as unclean suggests that the expression there means full of active disease).
Then there is the case of leprosy developing in a healed boil or an inflammation which had apparently been resolved. “Boil” and “burning inflammation” (Lev. 13: 18, 24) immediately remind us of Eph. 4: 31: “Let all bitterness, and heat of passion, and wrath, and clamour, and injurious language, be removed from you, with all malice”. It is not without reason that Eph. 4: 26 tells us “Be angry, and do not sin; let not the sun set upon your wrath, neither give room for the devil”. Anyone can lose his temper on occasion, but prolonged ill–feeling is a sign of a more entrenched sickness, “deeper than the skin” (Lev. 13: 20).
The Judgment of the Leper
To receive a diagnosis of leprosy was a personal disaster: “his garments shall be rent, and his head shall be uncovered, and he shall put a covering on his beard” (all classic oriental signs of mourning) “and shall cry, Unclean, unclean!” (v45). As unclean, the leper was not to be given the right hand of fellowship, for “he shall dwell apart; outside the camp shall his dwelling be” (v46). Thus Uzziah, though a king, “dwelt in a separate house” (2 Kings 15: 5), and the ten lepers in Luke 17 “stood afar off” (v12). Sadly, spiritual leprosy is not always judged in the same way, and is often tolerated on the grounds that God’s love welcomes all, completely overlooking the fact that we are to be “holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1: 16). Corinth was condemned for not removing the sinner from their midst (see 1 Cor. 5: 2).
It was an outcast of this kind that met the Lord immediately after He had delivered the so–called Sermon on the Mount (see Matt. 8: 1–4). Dispensationally, the leper was representative of the defiled state of Israel, and the nation’s incapacity to embrace the kingdom’s moral principles set out in that discourse. On a personal level, however he did have an appreciation of the kingdom power invested in Christ: “Lord, if thou wilt, thou art able to cleanse me” (v1, my emphasis). In response, the Lord “stretched out his hand and touched him saying, I will; be cleansed” (v3). The English word touched here is inadequate. The original Greek carries the sense of handling freely, and in doing this, the Lord was demonstrating that He was able to cleanse absolutely. No priest had ever witnessed such a thing (Miriam being the only previous case of an Israelite cured of leprosy) and the cleansing ritual outlined in Leviticus 14 had never been used. This gives force to the Lord’s words “go, shew thyself to the priest, and offer the gift which Moses ordained, for a testimony to them” (Matt. 8: 4, my emphasis).
The Cleansing of the Leper
Now the “gift which Moses ordained” (Matt. 8: 4) referred back to Lev. 14: 10, 21 and the connected fact that just as the newly diagnosed leper had to be declared unclean by the priest so, on his healing, would the leper have to be pronounced clean before he could resume his normal place in the camp of Israel. It was not simply a case of the leper being personally satisfied that he was now free of disease, for he was to be brought (by others) to the priest who then examined him to see if “the sore of leprosy is healed” (v3). If healed, the leper was declared clean (see Lev. 13: 17), but that was not the end of the matter. There then followed a lengthy cleansing ritual, divided into three parts, and at various points of which the leper was said to be “clean” (see Lev. 14: 7, 8, 9, 20). The lesson conveyed to the Christian by the imagery used is that restoration from a course of evil demands both a deep appreciation of personal defilement and a fresh appreciation that it is the blood of Jesus Christ, that cleanses from all sin (see 1 John 1: 7).
In the first part of the cleansing ritual, the priest is to the fore, and was “to take for him that is to be cleansed two clean living birds” (Lev. 14: 4)—these represent for us that sinless Man whose native home was heaven. At the same time, the priest was to take “cedar–wood, and scarlet, and hyssop” (v4). The cedar–wood and hyssop typify the full range of all that we glory and boast in as natural men, whether great or small (see 1 Kings 4: 33). The scarlet reinforces this imagery, for scarlet is a type of the glory of this world (see Rev. 17: 3, 4). One of the living birds was then killed “in an earthen vessel over running water” (Lev. 14: 5)—a picture of the restrictive conditions of the body in which Christ died, while the “running water” shows that all was done in the power of the Spirit (see John 7: 38, 39). The remaining bird was then taken, together with the cedar–wood, scarlet and hyssop (see Lev. 14: 6), and dipped in the blood of the slaughtered bird. This blood was then sprinkled seven times on the leper (a perfect cleansing, seven being the number of perfection), after which the remaining living bird was set free (see v7). Together the two birds answer to Christ as “put to death in flesh, but made alive in [the] Spirit” (1 Pet. 3: 18)—restored to heaven, having dealt with all that I am as a natural man. On this basis, the leper can thus be pronounced “clean” (Lev. 14: 7) for “the blood of Jesus Christ … cleanses … from all sin” (1 John 1: 7).
The second part of the cleansing ritual (see Lev. 14: 8, 9) refers to the leper’s response to what has been done on his behalf. Another has cleansed him by blood, now he will cleanse himself by water. The one follows as a consequence of the other. As repentant, the leper was to wash his garments (see v8)—that is, rid himself of any defilement in his immediate associations—bathe himself, and to shave all his hair—that is, divest himself of all that would naturally give him pride and dignity. This was a lengthy process for after seven days, the procedure was repeated again, but this time with more intensity, shaving even his eyebrows. The lesson of this seems to be that the truly restored believer will be marked by a deepening sense of what God demands from one who has made a profession of holiness.
The third part of the cleansing ritual (see Lev. 14: 10–20) took place on the eighth day and here we have moved beyond what man requires, and into a deeper contemplation of what is due to God. This is properly the “gift which Moses ordained” (Matt. 8: 4, my emphasis). The healed leper is presented “before Jehovah, at the entrance of the tent of meeting” (Lev. 14: 11)—remarkably the first time that God is introduced in the instruction of Leviticus 13 and 14. The man is not to come with his hands empty, for “he shall take two he–lambs without blemish, and one yearling ewe–lamb without blemish, and three tenth parts of fine flour mingled with oil, for an oblation, and one log of oil” (Lev. 14: 10). Three offerings (all speaking of Christ) are to be made: a sin–offering, a burnt offering and a trespass offering (see vs. 12–20), but it is the latter that is prominent, for the rights of God have been infringed when one of his people lapse into defilement. Note also the application of not only the blood but also the oil to the leper’s ear, thumb and toe (see vs. 14, 17). This suggests that not only does God reiterate His claim upon the restored believer in his entirety (His ears open to hear the Word of God, his hands ready for His service and his feet walking in His ways), but that the man is given power to do so (oil, as an annointing medium, is a type of the Holy Spirit).
Finally, “the remainder of the oil that is in the priest’s hand he shall put upon the head of him that is to be cleansed” (Lev. 14: 18). We might doubt whether anyone in whom evil had been actively working could ever be quite what he was before, even if restored. This is not how God sees things. In the grace of God, the healed leper gets something that he never had before as an ordinary Israelite! This anointing speaks of an advancement in spiritual intelligence and dignity that the man never knew previously. Let us all then, whatever has been the pattern of our lives up to now, take encouragement from these Scriptures.