An image has hung with me since then: the image of Jesus reaching out to the leper, touching him and healing him.
"When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”
(Matthew 8:1-4 ESV)
Just a few pages back, Jesus said,
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
(Matthew 5:17-20 ESV)
And here, in Matthew 8:3, Jesus reaches out his hand to touch a leper, an act that would have appeared radically daring and perhaps even "illegal." Leviticus 13 describes the laws about leprosy which include:
1. The process by which a priest declared a person to be "unclean" because he had leprosy. This involved a careful visual inspection, and (depending on what the visual inspection turned up) sometimes included a time when the sick person was "shut up" for seven days, after which the priest examined whether the disease had progressed.
2. The life of a leper. A person with leprosy had to wear torn clothes and let his hair grow wild (presumably, this was so that he would be easily identified so people would know to stay away from him). He had to cover his upper lip (to avoid spreading his breath or saliva, and thus his germs?). And he was required to call out, "Unclean! Unclean!" wherever he went, so people would stay away from him. He was to live alone, and he was to live "outside the camp." People knew not to touch a leper, because a leper was unclean, and anyone who touched a leper would also become unclean. Those who were unclean had to live separated from society.
People in the Jewish nation grew up with a morbid dread of leprosy and the shame, uncleanness and isolation that it brought.
Of course, God did not give the laws about leprosy to oppress lepers. God gave these laws to keep His chosen nation healthy, to prevent the spread of a contagious illnesses among His people. One of God's promises to Israel was that if they obeyed His laws, He would protect them from diseases (Deuteronomy 7:15). He gave them laws that would protect them from diseases if they obeyed. God revealed many of His laws specifically for the protection of His people, for their own good (Deuteronomy 10:13).
But Jesus did not need the physical protection afforded by God's law. Jesus was God Himself, the perfectly holy one. Jesus could not catch leprosy. So when the leper approached him--desperate, humble, and full of faith--Jesus did the unthinkable, the unimaginable. Jesus said, "I am willing. Be clean." And He reached out His hand and healed the man with a touch (Matthew 8:3). The leper was cured immediately, and Jesus was unaffected by the disease. Jesus was fine, as He had known He would be.
This has been brewing, marinating, swirling around in my head: the wonder of who Jesus is, what He was able to do when He took on flesh and walked the earth.
Today it occurred to me that this story was a foretaste of Jesus' ultimate mission to save sinners from eternal damnation. In microcosm, Jesus took up the infirmity of a leper. Because of His perfect holiness, Jesus was able to make the man clean without bringing uncleanness on Himself. But the real spiritual fulfillment of this foretaste came to pass at the cross.
On the cross, Jesus bore all the collective sins of mankind. They soaked into His soul and permeated his spirit. He experienced all of the guilt, shame, remorse and despair that all of us have ever felt and will ever feel. He bore these sins to the depths of hell, and then He emerged victorious, untouched, unblemished and perfectly clean.
Only Jesus could do this. Only Jesus. Only Jesus could touch our sins--be covered with them, weighed down with the weight and the ugliness of all our wretched uncleanness so that God the Father Himself had to turn His face away--and still remain pure and perfect. Only Jesus could undertake this massive challenge and fulfill it with a complete, decisive, devil-thumping win.
Only Jesus can take the unclean and make it clean. He did it for the leper, and He did it for my sinful heart. He can do it for everyone who comes to Him, and He promises, "...whoever comes to me, I will never drive away." (from John 6:37, NIV)
He can do it for you.