This miracle is probably best known for the fact that out of the 10 lepers who were healed, only 1 went back to thank Jesus. If I wanted to preach a moralistic sermon which wouldn’t offend anyone, then I could focus on the importance of being thankful, whether thanking others or thanking God. But is that really the main point of this miracle? It is part of the teaching, but to leave it there would be to miss out on the gospel core.
As many of us know, whenever Jesus heals, the healing is an illustration of what he is able to do for us spiritually. The healing of the 10 lepers is no different. It’s an acted parable of what it means to become a Christian, and live as a Christian, and that makes the miracle all the more precious. The event underlines for us the true identity of Jesus as the Son of God, as who else has such power over sickness? But it’s also underlines the mission of Jesus; he left Heaven and came to earth in order to set us free from sin and to reconcile us to God and to one another. Jesus can do for you spiritually what he does for the lepers physically.
Jesus is on the border between Samaria and Galilee. We are told that he is ‘on the way to Jerusalem’. (verse 11) This is actually the 3rd time Luke reminds us that Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. (See also chapter 9:51 and chapter 13: 22) Again and again, Luke reminds us of Jesus’ determination to willingly go to the place where he would die for our sins. The cross is the central event of the whole gospel.
Jesus meets 10 lepers, who cry out to him for mercy. These men must stand at a distance on account of their skin disease. This was an early form of ‘social distancing’. Our social distancing only lasts for a time, and then we are restored once again to our loved ones. For these 10 men, being lepers was a living nightmare, because it meant they could no longer live with their families, or worship in their synagogues. They are condemned to a life of isolation and loneliness, cut off from their community.
What spiritual lessons can we glean from this passage?
1. True spiritual change comes as we become aware of our own need
You didn’t have to explain to this group of lepers what their need was. They knew all right. They had a disease which they could do nothing about themselves. Each one of them would have gone to the priest and their terrible condition had been verified. The priest couldn’t do anything for them; all he could do was pronounce their condition and send them away from the community. Their life of abject alienation from family and friends had begun. However, their obvious need and sense of helplessness turned out to be a blessing, as it is this which brought them to cast themselves on Jesus for mercy.
We might find this offensive, but God is reminding us here that all human beings are like the 10 lepers, because we’re all afflicted with the terrible disease of sin. We do and say and think wrong things each and every day, and are capable of all kinds of evil behaviour. This much is obvious, even if we’re too proud to admit it. We’re like the lepers. We cannot cure ourselves of this disease. Sin is a disease which isolates us from other people and from our Creator God, and so it brings deep alienation into our lives. We can go to the 10 commandments, a bit like going to the priest, and God’s law will verify to us that yes, we have this disease, but the law of God will be unable to cure us. It will just say to us, you have indeed failed to love God and failed to love your neighbour as yourself. Our only hope is to cast ourselves on the mercy of Jesus, just as the lepers do.
Coming to see your own spiritual need of God’s forgiveness is one of the best things which can ever happen to you. It’s a bit like the prodigal son, who comes to his senses, and realises his need of forgiveness from his father. It’s also like Ruth, who understands her desperate need and this drives her to lie down at Boaz’s feet and ask him for help.
I hope each one of us here understands our need for God’s mercy. Sadly, many people think they are pretty good people, all things considered. They are getting on with working and raising their families and sure, they make some mistakes, but God must be pleased with them overall. The truth is, we are all sin-sick and have completely failed to live up to our own standards, far less God’s standards. May the Spirit impress this truth upon us, to have an awareness of our need which then takes us to the Saviour.
2. The cry of true spiritual change
What do the lepers cry out? ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us…’ It’s wonderful to note that no one ever comes to Jesus asking for mercy without receiving it. They do not deserve to be healed. They cannot earn healing from Jesus. But their cry is exactly the right kind of cry to make to Jesus, and a cry which we ought to copy time and time again: ‘Have mercy on me’.
If we want to become Christians today, this is the cry we need to make to Jesus in prayer. Why not make that prayer now? ‘He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit…’ (Titus 3:5)
These lepers must have had many days full of hopelessness and despair. Perhaps they wondered if they’d ever be able to live with their families again. But healing is possible if we know where to get help, and there is only one place, and that’s at the feet of Jesus. No religion can bring you spiritual healing and reconciliation with God. You won’t get spiritual healing by numbing your problems with drugs or alcohol. You cannot find peace and forgiveness by trying your best. It only comes as we acknowledge our problems and cry to Jesus in prayer for help.
3. A command requiring faith
At first, Jesus’ response to their cries for mercy might seem strange to us. He says: ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ It was the role of the priest to verify if someone had caught a skin disease and to verify if they had been healed. They acted like village medical officers in that regard. And so, the lepers should only have gone back to see the priests if they thought they had now been cured. In this way, Jesus’ command to go to the priest was a command requiring their faith.
It’s fascinating to note that it was only as they rested in the Word of Christ and do what he told them to do that they are healed. If they had refused to go to the priest then they would not have been healed! They had to take Christ at his Word and act accordingly. This was the only way of healing: Christ’s way. This reminds me of Naaman the Syrian, who was also a leper. God told him through the prophet Elisha to dip 7 times in the Jordan to be saved; had he refused to this then he would not have been healed.
The same is true for us today. There is only one way for humans to be cured from our inner leprosy called sin, and that is Jesus’ way. He says we must believe that he died on the cross for our sins, in order that we might be cleansed inwardly. We must pray to Jesus in faith, asking for his mercy and thanking him for dying for us. Throwing ourselves on the mercy of Jesus is the only way to be saved. 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Wouldn’t you have loved to have been with these men as they began to realise that they had been healed? Cuts and sores and ulcers and red blotched skin was replaced with soft, supple, whole skin. Muscles which had been weak now pulsed with energy once more. Bandages would have been torn off revealing a restored healthy body. How they must have already been anticipating being reunited with loved ones. Perhaps some wept with joy and relief.
And yet, only one of these men returned to thank Jesus for what he had done for them.
4. The crucial difference between the 9 and the 1
On the surface, it seems as if all 10 of the lepers receive the same thing- healing from their leprosy. But is that actually the case? In v19, Jesus says to the Samaritan: “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” In the ESV footnotes, this is translated ‘your faith has saved you’, and I think that this is the right translation. As Jesus addresses the Samaritan, he seems to suggest that he has received something which the other 9 had not. Darrell Bock puts it this way: ‘Jesus is probably saying that although ten have experienced the blessing of healing, only one has faith and has turned to establish ties with Jesus that indicate the presence of salvation. The deliverance Jesus affirms here is greater than the healing the man has experienced.’
Jesus is clearly disappointed with the response of the nine. He says: ‘Where are the nine?’ The nine were so absorbed in their physical healing that they have no thought of Jesus, the giver of the gift. In contrast, the Samaritan is more focused on the Healer than he is on the healing. D R Davis: ‘People can love Jesus’ benefits but care little for Jesus himself.’
Let’s rub this passage right into our own hearts this morning. Which of the lepers are you like? Are you like the 9, wanting to take things from Jesus, but not wanting to thank him? Or are you like the Samaritan, who receives both physical and spiritual healing, and is overflowing with thankfulness?
I think that the reactions of the Samaritan bear the hallmarks of genuine faith in Christ. How do we know his faith is genuine? Because of his adoration of Jesus, falling at his feet, and because of his thankfulness to God. These are both hallmarks of genuine faith.
If we’re honest, this passage might well make us uncomfortable. We can be more ready to complain about things than to thank God. We can spend time in prayer focused on what we don’t have, rather than praising God for what he’s already given us. We like to compare ourselves with people who are better off than we are and we start to covet, rather than thanking God for the incalculable blessings and riches which are ours in Christ Jesus. This should not be the case. 100 years ago, JC Ryle wrote: ‘The widespread thanklessness of Christians is the disgrace of our day’. You could argue that it remains the disgrace of our day in 2022.
How can we be more like the healed Samaritan? There’s no point in us feeling guilty about failing to be thankful enough if it just leads to a dead end! God is bringing us this challenge to stretch us and bring change into our lives.
Surely, we must spend more time in prayer thanking God for both the material and the spiritual blessing he gives us on a daily basis. Pray that God would help us to understand that these gifts are actually undeserved. Pray that we’d understand they have been paid for by the precious blood of Christ. Perhaps if we realised how undeserving we are of God’s gifts, and just how much it cost the Father and the Son and the Spirit to give them to us, then we would be thankful people.
What are you thanking God for at the moment?