The Curious Case of Jesus and the Leper

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The account of Jesus healing the leper appears in all three synoptic Gospels. It is a famous story. At first glance, it seems to have some bearing on Jesus’ divinity and, by extension, on the doctrine of the Trinity. It is particularly fascinating to see Mark’s account in parallel with Matthew and Luke.1 Here is the first portion of the story:

Did the Leper Worship Jesus as God?

First, we must review what Jesus has been up to:

  • Jesus has been preaching in Galilee (Mt 4:23; Mk 1:39; Lk 4:44).2
  • He has been preaching to Israelites in their own synagogues throughout the region (Mt 4:23; Mk 1:39).
  • He has been announcing the Messianic Kingdom, and claiming to be the Lord’s anointed One who will bring the Messianic blessings (Mt 4:17, 23; Mk 1:14-15; Lk 4:16-21, cf. Isa 60:1—61:2).
  • He has been performing miracles to prove His credentials as the Messiah (see Jesus’ comments in Lk 7:18-23).

Now, the leper comes on the scene. The man is an Israelite. He has undoubtedly heard Jesus’ preaching. He has obviously heard about His miracles, too. But, did he think Jesus was divine? Did he worship Him? In Matthew 8:2, Tyndale, the KJV and NKJV say he did. This is an important matter. What is the answer?

Well, it depends. A clear-cut answer is not easy. Here is the relevant word used in each synoptic Gospel account:

In Matthew, this word could mean “worship,” or it could just indicate reverent respect (“bow, kneel”).3 Context is the determining factor; sometimes the decision is easy, and sometimes it isn’t! For example:

  • Did Lot worship (προσεκύνησεν, LXX) the angels who came to visit him, or did he simply bow down to them (Gen 19:1)?
  • A ruler came and asked Jesus to resurrect his daughter (Mt 9:18). Did the man “kneel before” Jesus (RSV), or “worship” Him (KJV)? The word is the same (προσεκύνει).
  • Jesus healed the demon-possessed man (“my name is Legion”) from the Gerasene country (Mk 5:1-20). Did this man run to Jesus and worship Him (RSV) or simply bow down to Him (ESV)?
  • On the other hand, it seems clear Satan invited Jesus to worship him (προσκυνήσῃς μοι, Mt 4:9).

In Mark, the focus is not on the implications of the action, but the physical act itself. The leper is “falling down on his knees.” The focus is on “the humble gesture and earnestness associated with a request, prayer or homage.”4 The word itself tells you nothing; you’ll have to deduce why the leper is falling down based on the context:

  • After Jesus is transfigured and goes down the mountain, a man runs up to him and begs for an exorcism for his son. Why did the man kneel (γονυπετῶν, Mt 17:14)? Was it in reverence or worship? You tell me!
  • We read that, after torturing Jesus, the Roman soldiers “bowed the knee (γονυπετήσαντες) before him, and mocked him” (Mt 27:29). Here, it seems obvious they are kneeling in mock “worship.”

Finally, in Luke we have the same thing—a physical action which, in and of itself, is ambiguous:

  • Paul wrote that prophesy is better than tongues. If an “outsider” enters and hears prophesy, “the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so, falling on his face (πεσὼν ἐπὶ πρόσωπον), he will worship God …” (1 Cor. 14:25). Here, you have (1) the physical act of falling on one’s face, and then (2) the act which can only be construed as worship (προσκυνήσει).
  • Jesus “fell on his face” and prayed to the Father, in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:39).
  • The Samaritan leper who was healed turned back and “fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks” (Lk 17:16).

I say all that to say this—the leper might have been worshipping Jesus. He was a Jew. He heard Jesus preach repentance and the Good News of the Messianic Kingdom. He saw the miracles. And yet, the synoptic accounts are not clear. The words are ambiguous. The context could push the reader towards either conclusion. One commentator declared the leper’s intent is “uncertain.”5 Another mused that “the leper spoke and acted better than he knew.”6 One scholar announced it was “impossible to tell” what on earth the leper thought.7

The salutation does not help us, either:

Matthew and Luke have the man calling Jesus “Lord.” Mark has nothing. The story here is the same thing all over again. The Greek (κύριε) could be an explicit acknowledgement of deity, or it could simply be a very respectful title (“Sir”). It is the way the Divine Name is rendered in the Greek Septuagint, and that means when a Jewish person addresses Jesus as κύριος, Christians should start paying attention. But, again, context is the key:

  • After Sarah was told she would bear a child in her old age, she laughed. I doubt she meant to refer to her husband as her God (κύριός), but that is what the LXX reads (Gen 18:12). The word clearly does not have divine overtones in this context!
  • Yet, the disciple Thomas confessed Jesus as “my Lord and my God” (Ο κύριός μου καὶ ὁ θεός μου).

So, the title “Lord” also does not help us out. We can conclude the leper might have been calling Jesus divine. Then again, he might not have. One scholar believes, “the leper probably sees Jesus as a prophet,”8 while yet another scoffs that the title “doubtless”9 means rather less than the way Peter intended it, earlier (Lk 5:8).

If You Are Willing …

The leper says, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” Some see something like “the beginnings of faith”10 in the man’s statement to Christ. It is an extraordinary remark. The man recognizes Jesus has the power to miraculously cleanse him of leprosy, and thus make him ceremonially “clean.” Jesus told John the Baptist’s disciples these miracles were proof He was, indeed, the Messiah:

“Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” (Mt 11:3-5)

This is a partial quotation from the prophet Isaiah (Isa 35:5-6; 61:1-2), which Jesus has already quoted in synagogues as He preaches the Messianic Kingdom (Lk 4:16-21). So, is the leper implicitly acknowledging Jesus as divine by his own statement? Some commentators believe so.11

  • The leper is an Israelite.
  • The man has heard the Gospel of the Messianic Kingdom, which surely included some elaboration on fulfilled prophesy, including divine healing for God’s children (e.g. Lk 4:16-21).
  • The man has seen the miracles which prove Jesus is the Messiah.
  • The leper comes to Jesus and prostrates himself, falling on his knees (Mk 1:40), his face (Lk 5:12), and kneeling in reverence (Mt 8:2), confessing very plainly that, if Jesus wishes, He has the power to ceremonially cleanse him immediately.

It is perhaps reaching too far to speculate that the man meant “cleansing” in the sense of New Covenant cleansing, where all ceremonial defilement is abolished. Overall, though, it is tempting to see something there. Perhaps the poor leper did speak and act better than he knew. But, perhaps he did know, after all.

Say Nothing to Anyone!

However, just when the scales appear to weigh in favor of the leper’s acknowledgement of Jesus’ deity, the text takes a new turn. Jesus is willing. The leper is immediately (εὐθὺς) cleansed; Matthew, Mark and Luke are insistent on this point. This is clearly a miracle. Jesus commands the man to go to the temple, be inspected by a priest and offer a sacrifice—all as a testimony (Mk 1:44).12

He ignored Jesus.

It is difficult to fathom how a man could kneel in worship to Christ, confess Him as κύριος, acknowledge His divine ability to ceremonially cleanse him of leprosy … and then spurn His command to go to the temple. The simplest explanation is that the leper did not believe any of these things and acted out of self-interest, not faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Jesus preached the Good News, performed astounding miracles, and cleansed this poor man—knowing all the while the leper would disobey His command to show himself to the priests.

This leper may or may not have actually believed. But, Jesus’ work was done as a testimony for all people. He offers perfect forgiveness and perfect moral and ceremonial cleansing to all who come to Him in repentance and faith.

Notes

1 For a good Gospel harmony in English, I recommend a text by Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry, A Harmony of the Gospels (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1978; reprint; New York, NY: HarperOne, 1991), 53. 

2 There is a textual issue here in Luke’s Gospel. Most manuscripts read “Galilee,” and this harmonizes with Mt 4:23 and Mk 1:39. However, the UBS-5 and NA-28 (and, therefore, most modern English translations) opt for the earlier and harder to explain reading “Judea” in Lk 4:44. Yet another reading has “synagogues of the Jews,” which seems like a cute attempt to gloss over the inconsistency. Textual critics are loath to abandon “Judea” in Luke 4:44, even though it does not fit with Matthew or Luke. They conjecture “Judea” here must be a synonym for “Palestine” in general (see Philip Comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary [Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2008], 180).

I am quite content to stick with Galilee; it harmonizes with the readings from Matthew and Mark, which are not in dispute. It also harmonizes with Luke’s own account, which clearly places Jesus in Galilee (Lk 4:14, 16, 31, 38). Note especially that Jesus is placed at the Sea of Galilee in Luke 5:1!

3 See BDAG, s.v. “6318 προσκυνέω,” and the discussion by Moises Silva, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis, 2nd ed., 5 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 4:150-154 (s.v. “προσκυνέω”).

4 NIDNTTE, 1:593 (s.v. “γονυπετέω”).

5 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 189.  

6 D.A. Carson, Matthew, in EBC, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 198. 

7 William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 86. 

8 Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1—9:50, in BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994), 473.

9 Walter W. Wessell, Luke, in EBC, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 878. 

10 James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 69. 

11 See, for example, William Hendrickson, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1978), 289.

12 Most English translations render this “as a testimony to them,” referring to either the Israelite people or the priests. However, it could be translated “against them;” that is, against the priests. The preposition here (εἰς) could go either way. If it were rendered as “against them,” the sense would be that the priests would be confronted with two simple choices after examining the man and hearing his story; (1) accept this man Jesus is the Messiah in the face of irrefutable evidence, or (2) bury the incident and cover it up. See Lane (Gospel of Mark, 88).  

Considerations

Three things to consider:

1) I wouldn't try to interpret what Mark meant to say by referencing the parallel accounts of Matthew and Luke. Each writer has his own reasons for framing the incident the way he does. If we assume Markan priority (which is debated), what Mark wrote wasn't dependent on how Matthew or Luke understood the encounter.

2) Based on Mark's use of the word gonypeteō, it seems pretty clear that Mark wasn't describing an act of worship, but rather an urgent appeal for healing. See Mark 10:17, for Mark's only other use of the verb gonypeteō. Again, the phraseology doesn't indicate worship but urgency.

3) Interestingly, the leper doesn't refer to Jesus at all by name or title. Consequently, I'm not sure Mark meant for this passage to have any Trinitarian implications.

T Howard

I agree with you. I don't believe the passage has any Trinitarian implications. Regarding the use of parallels, I wasn't really sticking to Mark here. I chose to look at each synoptic account . . . just because I wanted to. 

TylerR is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs here.

A Word or Two About Theological Method

I wanted to take a moment or two to express my thanks to THoward. Here's why:

  • Some long-suffering people may recall THoward's criticisms of my interpretive method for this series. In the early installments, particularly, he questioned whether Mark was actually intending to teach the Trinity in the relevant passages I covered. 
  • I was defensive, at first. I disagreed with him, some other folks chimed in, and there was some inconclusive discussion about biblical vs. systematic theology, etc. Should we interpret Mark as he stands on his own, or should we apply generally acknowledged theological categories to his words and retroactively, as it were, build support for systematic doctrine? THoward tended more toward biblical theology in his exegesis, and I tend to apply systematic categories. You can see some of that in his remark, above. 
  • I have pondered this for the past few months. Not in a festering, bitter sort of way - but in an honest, introspective way. Sometimes, we can fall victim to an easy to commit fallacy - we take a systematic doctrine and try to cram it into texts that really won't bear them. We try to do with them what Cinderella's stepsister did with the glass slipper, and (surprise, surprise!) it really doesn't fit. I see this with, for example, some aspects of dispensationalism.
  • I am convinced I framed my goals badly at the outset of the series. In this case, iron has sharpened iron, and I thank THoward for challenging me to think about my goals a bit more carefully. In this series, I am simply attempting to (1) take a given hypothesis (e.g. "the doctrine of the Trinity is the best explanation of the Biblical data about Jesus Christ, the Father and the Son"), then (2) test that hypothesis against a set of data (e.g. the Gospel of Mark), and (3) see if the hypothesis is confirmed or denied. This is essentially the "verificational method" of theology advocated by Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest in their work Integrative Theology (11-12). I recently picked up this book, and the introduction crystallized a whole lot of things rattling around in the vacant lot I call my brain.
  • If I had framed the goal of the series this way from the beginning, things might have been clearer. 

Having said all that, one of the reasons I chose to even bother with this account is because I do not think it provides any support for the doctrine of the Trinity, per se. It is ambiguous. I think it is a good example of how not to over-reach in your quest to "find" doctrine. I still think the titles "the Christ" and "Son of God" in Mark 1:1 mean something quite profound, but I wanted to thank THoward for reminding me (and hopefully others) that we need to make sure we're being fair to the text as it stands, and not grasping at straws for doctrine that, while true, just isn't in the text we're looking at. 

TylerR is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs here.

Sum of evidence....

It strikes me that there are a lot of passages which do not in themselves confirm (or refute) a doctrine, but we can say "here, here, here, and in 118 other places, this makes more sense assuming a Triune Godhead than without, and this is why."  I think this passage would be one of them, though I'd guess if I tried, I'd get much, much higher than 118 examples!

Another thing about this case is one of those "hmmm" moments?  If Christ had not been divine, would He have allowed such submissive posture from the man who desired healing?  Certainly Peter did not--so within the reality that there are degrees of prostration and submission, that also ought to make us go "hmmmm".  

Bert

I think there is a lot of "hmmmmm"-ing going on with this passage! 

TylerR is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs here.


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