Touching a leper did not make Jesus unclean; was that because he was God?

Q. Jesus healed a leper by touching him. According to the law of Moses, that contact with a leper should have rendered Jesus ceremonially unclean. But he was not defiled. Instead, this contact purified the diseased man. Is that because Jesus is God?

Here is the episode you are asking about, from the gospel of Matthew: “A man with leprosy came and knelt before Jesus, saying, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Stretching out his hand, Jesus touched him, saying, ‘I am willing, be clean!’ Immediately the man was cleansed of his leprosy.”

As I have discussed in other posts on this blog (such as this one and this one), Jesus was able to do the remarkable things he did on earth not because he was God (though he was indeed God), but because he was fully yielded to God and empowered by the Holy Spirit. In that way Jesus sets an example for us and offers a challenge to us, to be equally yielded and empowered and to do great things in his name.

So if it was not because Jesus was God that he did not become unclean by touching the leper, why, then, did Jesus not become unclean? I think the answer lies in the nature of God’s acts. When God does something, at what point is it accurate to say that he has done it? When we see the actual results on earth? Or when God declares that it is his purpose for something to be?

When Jesus healed the leper, this was a “performative action,” that is, an action that was “performed” by speaking. It was along the same lines as when Ephron the Hittite said to Abraham, “I hereby give you the field,” meaning that by virtue of saying that, he was transferring the field to Abraham.

The Greek text of the episode we are discussing makes clear (by using a present participle) that Jesus said “I am willing, be clean!” as he was stretching out his hand to touch the leper. So Jesus touched the leper not in order to heal and cleanse him but in order to affirm that the leper had been healed and cleansed and could now be restored to human community. (Jesus sets a further example for us here by being concerned not just for the man’s physical health but also for his restoration to warm human relationships.)

Matthew relates that the leper was cleansed “immediately” when Jesus made this declaration and touched him. That is, all traces of the disease disappeared from his body. But this was the manifestation of what was already true as soon as Jesus declared it.

I think there is a devotional application here for all of us: What things has God declared about us that are in the process of being manifested? How can we cooperate with that manifestation process?

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “Touching a leper did not make Jesus unclean; was that because he was God?”

  1. Jesus genetically modified the sick man, not the reverse. Jesus is God, right? He peforms miricles by taking hold, spitting, laying hands, all the senses of tough, breathed on them. Jesus is God, right?

    1. Jesus is certainly God. But when he came to earth as a human, he “emptied himself” (in the apostle Paul’s phrase) of his divine attributes (omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, etc.) and, as I say in this post, did what he did through complete yieldedness to God and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

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