November 29, 2020
Amid personal affliction or worldwide pandemic, it’s important to understand our circumstances in light of God’s salvation plan. When ten lepers cried out for mercy, Jesus healed them all, but only one turned back to offer praise. He wasn’t just physically healed; his eyes were also spiritually opened to recognize Jesus. Ultimately, it’s sin, not leprosy or COVID-19, that separates us from God, spoils our lives, and spreads to our destruction, teaches Alistair Begg. Although many diseases lead to death, only Christ’s mercy assures eternal life.
We’re going to read from the Gospel of Luke and from chapter 17—Luke chapter 17, and reading the short section which begins at the eleventh verse and goes through to verse 19. Luke chapter 17 and from verse 11:
“On the way to Jerusalem he”—that is, Jesus—“was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.’ When he saw them he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, ‘Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ And he said to him, ‘Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.’”
Gracious Father, thank you that we’re able, now, to turn to the Bible. Thank you that it is your Word, O God, that does your work by your Spirit in the lives of men and women. So accomplish your purposes, we pray, in each of our lives. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, I think there is little doubt that Thanksgiving 2020 will go down for most of us as the strangest Thanksgiving ever, inasmuch as we have experienced, during this year and therefore in this particular time of holiday, circumstances such as we’ve never known before. And so it seemed to me appropriate for more reason than one to take a pause from the murders and the beheadings of 2 Samuel—as I say, for more reasons than one—and see if there’s not a way that we couldn’t acknowledge, as it were, the context in which we find ourselves and see that in light of the horizon of the Bible to capture the moment.
Because there is no doubt that this period of time has introduced to our everyday conversation an entirely new vocabulary, words and phrases that have now become a constituent part of everyday life: shelter in place, flatten the curve, super-spreader (which has got nothing to do with a farmer in Kansas), cluster, droplets, social distancing, social bubbles, pandemic, Have you been tested?, Where’s your mask?, quarantine, curfew, PPE. One of my friends sent me a parody of Paul Simon’s song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” I don’t know if you’ve seen it. I won’t give it to you all, but it’s quite good. This is now called “50 Ways to Beat the Virus”:
Stay away from the pack, Jack,
Don’t visit your gran, Stan,
Wipe down every toy, Roy,
To keep virus free.
Stop touching your face, Grace,
Keep back to six feet, Pete.
And so on, it goes from there. And of course, that’s exactly what it is like.
And as I was thinking about it in the early part of the week, I said, “You know, I think it’s legitimate to turn to Luke chapter 17 and consider ten men who were in quarantine.” Ten men who were in quarantine. They wouldn’t have called it quarantine, but that is exactly the position in which they find themselves. And, of course, it is the well-worn story and well-known story of Jesus and the cleansing of the ten lepers.
Now, one of the things that has to be done whenever you come to a passage of Scripture, as it were, out of the blue… What I mean by that is, under normal circumstances we would be at the beginning of 2 Samuel chapter 5, which would have come after chapter 4 and so on. In other words, we’re dealing with it in the unfolding of the Bible in the way in which it’s written. But when you come to just a passage of Scripture, as we do now these some verses in the middle of the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, then it is very, very important that we have controls, if you like, to prevent the teacher of the Bible from trying to, if you like, squeeze the passage to his own agenda. You say, “Well, I know you wouldn’t do that.” Well, you just never know. But, for example, most of us, I think, in having listened as I read this passage, would say, “Oh, I see. This is going to be a talk about the importance of being thankful and how disappointing it is when, you know, nine people that were over at your house and ate the meal with the other three of you never even said thank you.” Well, of course, you could give a talk on that if you like, but it’s certainly not the point of what is recorded for us in the verses that we read. Well, how would we determine that?
Well, we determine that by understanding that this section in the middle of the chapter is part of the chapter, which is part of the surrounding chapters, which is part of the Gospel of Luke. And when we studied Luke—staggeringly, twenty years ago—when we studied it verse by verse, we recognized that one of the keys to our developing an understanding of the Gospel of Luke was found in Luke chapter 4. And in that chapter, we have the record of Jesus going back to the synagogue in Nazareth where he’d been brought up. We’re not gonna go back through the entire story; you can rehearse it for yourselves. But on that occasion, you will remember, he is given a copy of the scroll of Isaiah to read, and he stands up, and he reads it. And he reads from the section,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Now, the people who listened to that passage would understand exactly what was being said. What they were unprepared for and were unready for was what Jesus went on to say. When he sat down, taking the place of the teacher, he said to them, “Today this Scripture [is] fulfilled in your hearing.” “This Scripture [is] fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, he is making the point very, very clear that “I am the one who fulfills what the prophet has anticipated.” “And he began to say to them…”—in other words, he must have said more than this—“‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Later on in the very same chapter, he explains, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.”
So, why has Jesus come? Well, he has come to preach the good news of the kingdom. He is the King. And when we get, for example, to chapter 19 of Luke, you have it in a very straightforward statement, where this little man who has climbed up a tree in order that he might get a chance to see Jesus has been called down by Jesus, because Jesus, as the chapter tells us, is the one who has come “to seek and to save” those who are “lost.” And when the people push back at this little man, who was notorious as lining his own nest in the community, as somebody who was working for the Roman authorities, Jesus says, “Hang on a minute! Today salvation has come to this house, for this one too is a child of Abraham.” In other words, Jesus explains for himself to these people exactly what is going on.
Now, with all of that said… In other words, the purpose of Jesus’ ministry is in order that men and women might be saved. Saved from what? Saved from sin, from death, and from hell. He did not come to establish a movement, to develop a philosophy, to invite people to try and imitate him. He came in order that he might save. Now, when we have that in our mind—and I hope that’s sufficient—then we can come to the story of the lepers. Because we know that in everything that has taken place, the objective is salvation. Now, all that Jesus says and does has to then be understood within that framework. You’re sensible people. You can figure this out.
Now, in the passage that we read, you will notice that “on the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers,” and they cried to him for mercy.
In verses 12 and 13, the lepers cry for mercy. It is significant that as he was entering the village, he was met by them. It would have to be as he was entering, because as soon as he was inside, there would be no opportunity for them to be able to encounter him, no opportunity for them to make their appeal to him. Because their condition as lepers, although not life-threatening, was a condition that relegated them to the margins of society.
And this was not simply as a result of people recoiling from them. This was as a result of the law of God established way back at the beginning of the Old Testament. For example, in the thirteenth chapter of Leviticus, we read, “The leprous person”—which is a skin condition, or multiple skin conditions to describe different things that, as we can see in contemporary medicine, it’s almost entirely eradicated now, but it was that from which there would be a natural sense of recoil—“the leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’” So, if you discovered that you had this, you couldn’t go to school, you had to be isolated from everybody, and you had to identify yourself by calling out. “He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
Now, you will notice that there are ten of these individuals. The whole point about having leprosy is that it isolates from other people, and yet here we’re told there are ten of them. So either—again, in contemporary language—either this was a hot spot, or they had assembled themselves together—they had, if you like, found one another—in the context of hearing about Jesus and hearing that Jesus was approaching. Not only did they know that Jesus was approaching, but it would seem likely that they knew that Jesus was approachable—that they may well, within their community, have heard what had taken place on an earlier occasion, recorded in the fifth chapter of Luke: “While [Jesus] was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’” And on that occasion, “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” Nobody touched a leper! Nobody, not even his family. And if you remember from other parts of the Gospels, the Pharisees and the religious leaders certainly would not, because they would be rendered ceremonially unclean, and then they would have to go into quarantine for a period of time before they were declared free and able to come back into the community. But Jesus on that occasion reached out and touched him.
So, I think we could safely assume that these ten were, if you like, united in their misery. And in their shared misery, they stood at a distance from Jesus. You have the picture there, and there they stand, a cluster of them, at a distance from the one who has the answer to their loathsome condition.
But although they are distanced from him—he’s not going to touch them on this occasion—apparently he is within earshot of them, and so they cry out. They come, if you like, as close to him as they can, as close as social distancing will allow, and their cry to him is for mercy. They appeal to him solely on the basis of their need, nothing else at all. They don’t present any other reason as to why he would respond to their cry. Simply, they cry to him for mercy.
So, that’s point one: that they came to him and they cried for mercy. Point number two, in verse 14: Jesus then sends them to the priests. He sends them to the priests.
Now, this may seem like not much of a reply from our vantage point. But once again, if we know the Old Testament, we know exactly why Jesus does what he does. Again from the book of Leviticus:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “This shall be the law of the leprous person for the day of his cleansing. He shall be brought to the priest, and the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall look. Then, if the case of the leprous disease is healed in the leprous person, the priest shall command them to take for him who is to be cleansed two live clean birds and cedarwood [and so on, and offer up a sacrifice].”
Now, Jesus is in obedience to the law of God in this respect. And so he sends them to the priests. They are, if you like, the ones who are doing the testing. They are the ones who are the healthcare consultants. And the reason that they are sent to the healthcare consultants is not in order that the healthcare consultants may grant them health but in order that they might declare the fact that they have been cleansed. That’s very, very important. He’s not sending them, if you like, to the religious authorities in order that the religious authorities might do for them what they need, which is supply mercy for them and grant them cleansing. No, not at all.
It’s quite fascinating, if you think about it, that in their going to the priests—in their going to the priests—what they’re going to actually do is establish the fact that they are cleansed, and therefore establish the fact that the one who is the source of their cleansing is none other, this Jesus of Nazareth, whom the religious authorities have been consistently ridiculing and despising! And they would arrive and show themselves, and they would be asked, “And where have you come from, and how did this come about?” and they would say, “Well, we’ve come from Jesus.”
You’ll notice as well that they were cleansed “as they went.” As he entered, he met them—“Go … show yourselves to the priests” —and “as they went they were cleansed.” This is miraculous, isn’t it? And the reason they’re there is because they’re lepers. They say, “Will you have mercy upon us?” He says, “Go show yourselves to the priest!” “Well, why would we go show ourselves to the priest? We’ve got leprosy!” “Go show yourselves to the priest.” It’s a bit like the story of the man who had a withered hand, remember? And he couldn’t stick his hand out. And Jesus says, “Stretch forth your hand”—which, of course, he couldn’t do. But he did! His voice commands the ocean waves. “He speaks and, listening to his voice, new life the dead receive.” He speaks, and the leper is cleansed. “Go!” And as they went on their way, they were cleansed.
You see, the command to go carried with it the assumption that they were cleansed—which, of course, proved to be the case. It’s actually quite similar to another account, where, remember, the healing of the nobleman’s son. And you can read that, actually, in John chapter 4. And it says in that record that “the man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.” He “believed the word that Jesus spoke to him,” and he “went on his way.” “Jesus, have mercy on us!” “Go show yourselves to the priest.” And they went on their way.
But similar to the healing of the nobleman’s son, but actually distinct from the cleansing of the leper that we just considered in chapter 5. You can imagine these people meeting each other later on, saying, “You know, I used to be a leper.”
The fellow says, “Well, I was a leper as well. How did you get clean?”
“Oh, Jesus cleansed me.”
“Oh, he touched you, did he?”
“Oh, no, he didn’t touch me.”
“Oh, yeah, he has to touch you. He has to. I mean, that’s how it goes. I’m the guy in Luke chapter 5. Who are you?”
“Oh, we’re the group in Luke 17.”
“Oh, you mean the ones he didn’t touch? Are you sure you’re really cleansed?
I meet people like this all the time: “Well, I became a Christian like this. And unless you became a Christian like that, you’re probably not a Christian at all. I know the day, the hour, the minute,” the whatever it was. The other person says, “I don’t have a minute or an hour or whatever. All I know is I once was dead, and now I’m alive. You know, I’m not able to describe the exact details of my birth—but I couldn’t do that for the twenty-second of May, 1952, either. I was there, but I wasn’t aware of anything that was going on. But I do know I’m alive.” I pause here just to make the point that Jesus works as he chooses to work. If he wants to touch the fellow, he’ll touch him. If he doesn’t want to touch him, he doesn’t need to touch him.
“And as they went they were cleansed.” Amazing, isn’t it? There’s some here who could actually speak about that. You listened to the gospel being preached. Somebody told you, “Believe on the Lord Jesus,” and you got out of wherever you were—out of the coffee shop where you were reading a book or a Bible with a friend—or you came out of a church service, and as you got into your car, and as you went, you believed, and you were changed. That’s what Jesus does, you see.
And there’s a strong echo, incidentally, of the wonderful Old Testament story, which I will assign for homework, in 2 Kings chapter 5, where, you’ll remember, Naaman, in the same way: “Naaman, go dip yourself in the Jordan seven times.” Why? There was healing power in the Jordan? No! It was filthy. That’s what he said. There’s a lot better places you could go if you were going for a swim. “I’m not going in there.” And his friend said to him, “Would you not do what God says?” Perhaps there are some in earshot of me, and you still have never been actually changed by Jesus, not because you haven’t heard but because you won’t go. God works in different ways for each of us. How many different ways the Lord worked his miracles!
So, the ten came and cried out for mercy. Then, secondly, Jesus sent them to the priests. And then, thirdly—verse 15—one of them turned back. One of them turned back: “When he saw that he was healed,” he “turned back.”
Actually, he never completed the assignment. Apparently, he didn’t go and proceed to the priests for the certification. The other nine did, but he came back, and he gave up the opportunity of certification for the privilege of adoration. Because you will notice that he came now to fall at the feet of Jesus.
Now, it’s at this point that we have to be very, very careful. Because surely all of the ten saw that they were cleansed. I don’t think that’s the distinction—i.e., one of them saw that he was healed, and the other nine didn’t. No. Because Jesus actually says, “Were [there] not ten cleansed?” So it wasn’t that only one of them was, and he got it, and the other nine thought they were, but they didn’t get it. It’s not that. Nor is it, I suggest to you, that the distinguishing feature between the one and the nine is this matter of gratitude. Of course it is significant, but I don’t think it’s the central point—that nine did not come back and say, “Thank you,” and one did.
Now, why do I say that? Because there is obviously something going on here that is more than physical healing. All ten are cleansed of their leprosy. So the one individual sees in the giver, if you like, the gift that he has received. All of the ten were cleansed. One returns to praise God “with a loud voice.” “Was no one found to return and … praise … God except this foreigner?”
Now, praising God with a loud voice in response to miracles is, if you like, kind of standard practice. You remember as we come into Christmastime: “And there were shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night,” and so on, and the glory of the Lord is revealed to them. And the shepherds then, in obedience to that, come and find the scene as it’s been reported, and remember where it says, “And [they] returned, glorifying and praising God.” In the story of the man who was let down through the roof by his four friends because he was paralyzed, at the conclusion of the story, we’re told that he went away, then, “glorifying God.” If you remember the occasion when the widow of Nain is proceeding to the graveside with her son in a coffin and Jesus raises the boy from the dead, it says that the company that was around were then gripped with fear and “glorified God.”
What is quite remarkable in this, if you like… We glorify God for his intervention. But this man apparently is the only man who recognizes that what God has done, he has done through Jesus—that Jesus is worthy of a personal, heartfelt response, because he is, if you like, the Savior from whom the power has flowed.
And it is only here that we then learn that the man was a Samaritan: “He was a Samaritan.” Now, why does it just say, “Now he was a Samaritan”? Later on, that he was a “foreigner”? Well, remember what we said at the beginning. The Gospel of Luke, the story of Luke, the Gospels in general, contain the story of the ministry of Jesus. The ministry of Jesus goes out, and fascinatingly, the religious authorities are opposed to him. If you like, the majority reject him. But every so often as you go along the road, you find that there is somebody who gets it, that there is somebody who suddenly has their eyes opened. In many ways, this is a miracle of seeing, as in Luke chapter 4: “And the eyes of the blind will be opened.” This man’s eyes were opened in a way that wasn’t true for the other nine. And that is why he chooses adoration over certification, because he recognizes who Jesus is and what he’s done. They had been drawn together, if you like, by a common misery. But now, once again, they’re separated. The Samaritan, actually, is separated from the Jews.
Now, this, of course, is a recurring theme, isn’t it? In fact, in that passage in Luke 4, the point comes across clearly, doesn’t it? Where, after Jesus has said, “Today the Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” and he then goes on from there, he says to the people, “[I want to tell you straight-up that] there were [a lot of] widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up” and so on, and when “famine came over … the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel [at] the time of … Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but”—listen to this—“but only Naaman the Syrian.”
Now, what have you got here? You’ve got the issue of the insider/outsider. These people said, “We are the insiders. We have the inside track. We know how this works. And clearly, this Jesus is an outsider.” And when you read the story of the Gospels, what do you discover? That Jesus capitalizes on this. Why? Because he has come for the outsiders. He’s come for the least, the last, and the left out. He’s come for Levi and his outrageous parties. He’s come for Zacchaeus, who was a miserable little cheat. He’s come for the woman at the well, who’s had five husbands, and she’s living with a guy. And she’s a Samaritan!
And when he tells the story about the inbreaking of the love of God into the life, what does he do? Who’s the hero of the story? “And a certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves, and they stripped him of his raiment and departed, leaving him half dead. And along the road came a priest, and then came a Levite, and they both passed by and left him alone: ‘I’m not gonna touch that guy.’ But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was.” You see what Jesus is doing? He’s saying when God breaks into a life, then it won’t simply be that people say, “Oh, yes, I do believe that God is great, that God has power, that God is mighty.” No! It will be that the person then identifies who Jesus is. That’s, again, the woman, isn’t it? “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.” Who could tell you everything you ever did? Only God alone.
And so the contrast is there—and with this we will draw to a close. Notice that Jesus asks these rhetorical questions: “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? No one coming back to give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Oh, you remember, you see, when Jesus looks over Jerusalem, and he weeps, and he says, “How often would I have gathered you? How often? But you wouldn’t come to me.” And the fascinating little line is “because you did not know the day of your visitation.” What does that mean? It means that you didn’t understand when God showed up in person—in the person of his dearly beloved Son. “He came to his own, and his own did not receive him. But to those who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the sons of God,” to become the children of Abraham, to believe.
You see, this man was an outsider twice over. Because he was an outsider on the basis of his leprosy, but he was also an outsider on the basis of his heritage. Because foreigners (which he was: “but this foreigner”)—foreigners—there was a sign at the entry to the temple says, “There’s no way you can come in here. You can’t come in here.”
Well, you might not be able to come into that big building, but you can come to Jesus. And what does Jesus say of him? He said, “It is this man, and his faith has made him well”—or, in the King James Version, has made him “whole.” You see, when a person understands who Jesus is and why he’s come, it is not only that there is, if you like, a physical wholeness that is represented in it, but rather it is not only a sound body but a saved soul.
Now, I said the context out of which we come this morning is this whole COVID thing. And people are very worried about it, and understandably so, especially when nobody really knows from whence it comes, or whither it goes, or how it goes, or when it will go, and even if there is a cure. As of now, there is no all-sufficient cure. But our real predicament—like this man—our real predicament is surely not COVID-19. Our real predicament is not leprosy. Leprosy was horrible because it spoiled him, it separated him, and it spread through his body. That’s what sin does: it separates us from God, it spoils our lives, and it spreads.
There is no all-sufficient cure this morning for COVID. But don’t worry about that. Don’t worry about the person or the disease that could bring you down to death. Worry about what happens when you are brought down to death. For that is the great paralyzing fear that runs through the entire pandemic. And that is why the story of these men is a helpful story. Because this outsider is reconciled in that he reacts in the appropriate way: like a child of Abraham, not relying on his status, not relying on his externals, not relying on his background, but only on the mercy of Jesus.
Ten were cleansed, but only one came back and said, “You know, I get it.”
 Luke 4:18–19 (ESV).
 Luke 4:21 (ESV).
 Luke 4:43 (ESV).
 Luke 19:10 (ESV).
 Luke 19:9 (paraphrased).
 Leviticus 13:45 (ESV).
 Leviticus 13:46 (ESV).
 Luke 5:12–13 (ESV).
 Leviticus 14:1–4 (ESV).
 See Matthew 12:9–13; Mark 3:1–5; Luke 6:6–10.
 Charles Wesley, “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (1739).
 John 4:50 (ESV).
 2 Kings 5:10 (paraphrased).
 See 2 Kings 5:12.
 2 Kings 5:13 (paraphrased).
 Luke 2:8 (paraphrased).
 Luke 2:20 (ESV).
 Luke 5:25 (ESV).
 Luke 7:16 (ESV).
 Luke 4:25–27 (ESV).
 Luke 10:30–33 (paraphrased).
 John 4:29 (NIV).
 Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34 (paraphrased).
 Luke 19:44 (paraphrased).
 John 1:11–12 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.