Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 08/13/95
Luke 17:11 And it came about while he was on the way to Jerusalem that he was passing between Samaria and Galilee. 12 And as he entered a certain village, ten leprous men who stood at a distance met him. 13 And they raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 And when he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And it came about that as they were going, they were cleansed. 15 Now one of them, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, 16 and he fell on his face at his feet, giving thanks to him. Now he was a Samaritan. 17 And Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine—where are they? 18 Was no one found who turned back to give glory to God but this foreigner?” 19 And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
The story of the ten lepers who were healed and the one who returned to give thanks is as familiar as any of the stories we remember from Sunday School, and the obvious lesson about gratitude is just as familiar. But as usual, this incident turns out to be more than just a simple Sunday-School story. It illustrates at least three principles that are essential to a healthy Christian life.
Help is found in the perception of infirmity. These lepers knew that they were sick. They were reminded of it every day. Why were they standing afar off? Because they were not allowed to approach healthy people. If a healthy individual passed by, they had to cover their mouths and cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” It would be rather difficult in such circumstances to pretend that I am OK and you are OK. We know that we are not OK. There is no room for doubt. And so they cried out in desperation, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And he did. The first step to healing was the recognition that we are unclean.
Help is found in the perception of infirmity. Somehow this all too obvious truth seems to be one of the hardest lessons for us to learn. Everyone who does counseling will tell you the same tale: People will not come for help until they have allowed their problems to become so ingrained and so compounded that their situation is desperate, often past curing. How many times have you asked someone if they know the Lord only to receive the response, “Well, I’m trying.” They are trying to live a good life, they are trying to keep the Golden Rule, they are going to turn over a new leaf and start coming to church as soon as life is a little less hectic—as if any of this was the least bit relevant as an answer to the question! We just won’t give up the notion that we can do something about our spiritual lostness; we won’t give up the notion that salvation is by works. But it is absolutely essential that we give these comfortable notions up if there is to be any help for us at all.
We are familiar with the fact that the Pauline epistles emphasize the truth that salvation is by grace, God’s unmerited favor, alone, accepted by faith, our believing and trusting response, alone, apart from works, lest any man should boast. What I want you to see today is how this little incident brings into focus the fact that the same emphasis is strung all throughout the Gospels, and especially the Gospel of Luke. It is not the well that need a physician, but the sick. Christ did not come to call the righteous, but sinners. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine so-called “righteous” who need no repentance. Who came to the Wedding Feast? Not the upstanding citizens first invited, but the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame. Don’t you see? Until you reckon with the fact that you are a miserable, inexcusable sinner who is helpless to do anything about it, the greatest Good News ever proclaimed has nothing to say to you. The first prerequisite to finding salvation, and therefore the infallible common denominator of all true Christians, is that they are needy. They all without exception say, “Nothing in my hands I bring; / Simply to thy Cross I cling.” If they do not say that, they have no understanding of the Gospel. But when they do understand and accept that truth, then they are ready to understand the opening line of Jesus’ greatest sermon: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Are you weary and heavy laden? Are you frustrated? Are you suffering? Are you sad and lonely? Are you burdened with problems you can’t handle, much less solve? Are you oppressed by guilt which no good works can assuage? Good news! The Gospel is for you! Jesus came for you! The Bible is for you! Take heart! Are you satisfied with your self? Do you have it all together? Are you successful? Are you enjoying the good life? Can you handle anything life throws at you? Then I pity you—for God himself can do nothing for you except to strip away the comfortable veneer of your smugness so you can see yourself as you really are: a spiritual leper. Help is found in the perception of infirmity. Cry out to Jesus like the lepers before you are brought that low!
Verse 14 may be the most intriguing verse in this whole passage. “And when he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And it came about that as they were going, they were cleansed.’ To understand what is happening here, we need to know something about the Old Testament background. The explanation is found in Leviticus 14:1-8.
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘This shall be the law of the leper in the day of his cleansing. Now he shall be brought to the priest, and the priest shall go out to the outside of the camp. Thus shall the priest look, and if the infection of leprosy is healed in the leper, then the priest shall give orders to take two live clean birds and cedar wood and a scarlet string and hyssop for the one who is to be cleansed. The priest shall also give orders to slay one bird in an earthenware vessel over running water. As for the live bird, he shall take it, together with the cedar wood and the scarlet string and the hyssop, and shall dip them and the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slain over the running water. He shall then sprinkle seven times the one who is to be cleansed from the leprosy, and shall pronounce him clean, and he shall let the live bird go free over the open field. The one to be cleansed shall then wash his clothes and shave off all his hair, and bathe in water and be clean. Now afterward, he may enter the camp.”
So seriously was leprosy taken that there was a definite ceremonial as well as hygienic process for restoring the leper who was healed. Before he could re-enter society and stop crying “Unclean!” he had to be certified as healed by the priest, who would then restore him to ceremonial as well as hygienic purity. If these ten men were healed they would have to go through the same procedure before they could return to their families. But the curious thing about this incident is the order. Jesus does not heal them and then remind them to go see the priest. No, he tells them to go to the priest, and heals them only after they were already on the way. He requires of them a pretty impressive act of faith expressed in obedience. Imagine setting out on that journey with your skin still white and necrotic! They must have wondered what Jesus was thinking. And then imagine the joy of discovering that healing is found in the path of obedience.
Salvation is by grace through faith alone apart from works. But obedience is the natural expression of faith. Faith is not an optimistic outlook, though living by faith might give you one. It is not correct doctrinal opinions, though it is important to believe in the truth God has actually revealed to us rather than some garbled version mixed with lies. Faith is the radical trust in Christ as the Son of God that commits you to him. It believes that what God says is so, and believes it so sufficiently that it is willing to act on it. “But thanks be to God that, though you were slaves to sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed” (Romans 6:17). Faith is the empty hand that receives Christ and his blessings. And therefore faith is the victory that overcomes the world (I John 5:4). The lepers believed Jesus and showed it by acting on his instructions, and therefore the supernatural power of God to heal them was unleashed. Healing is found in the path of obedience.
It follows that believing and then obeying God is the most practical step you can take to solving your problems. For the Word of God is inspired, and this makes it adequate for training us in righteousness until we are fully equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:15-17). You cannot become a Christian by your efforts to obey the Word of God, but once you have become a Christian by faith, that faith will make you want to obey it and put you in touch with the Power that can enable you to obey it. And to the extent that you are not a hearer of the Word only but also a doer, your life will be blessed. What? Is the God who made us male and female and performed the first wedding not able to teach you how to have a good marriage? Does the God who is our heavenly Father not know how to raise children? Is the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills not able to help you manage your money? Is the God who designed the whole universe not able to help you set your priorities? Is the God who transformed Peter from a big-mouthed coward to a saint and martyr, the God who transformed Paul from a persecutor of the church to the greatest missionary and theologian who ever lived—is he not able to help you break a habit? The answers to these problems and many more are all found in the Bible, and as we go through it over time they are being expounded every week. If through laziness and inattention we are ignorant of these instructions, if through rebellion or unbelief we are disobedient, then we condemn ourselves to being defeated by the effects of sin even after we have been forgiven for the guilt of sin. We have forgotten that healing is found in the path of obedience.
Yes, the obvious Sunday-School lesson is here in the story too: Happiness is found in the practice of appreciation. On one level this is just common sense. It is very difficult to be truly grateful and seriously depressed at the same time. But there is a spiritual dynamic at work as well as a psychological one when the one to whom we are grateful is Christ. Being thankful to anyone is psychologically healthy, and expressing that thanks doubles the benefit. But when we are overflowing with gratefulness to God, then a spiritual dynamic is added which multiplies those benefits exponentially.
Only one of then ten lepers turned back to thank Jesus for what he had done, and not only is he commended for having done so, but he is also the only one who is recorded as loudly (significant word!) glorifying God. I don’t know that we need to be too hard on the others. No doubt they were very excited and were anxious to have that interview with the priest, which is after all what Jesus had told them to do. In that excitement as they rushed toward the temple they were not necessarily ungrateful. But if they felt gratitude, they did not stop to express it. What is unique about the one leper is the fact that he did; he went out of his way to personalize his thanksgiving. And for this he was rewarded with a more intimate relationship with the Lord. You could call it a reward, or you could say that this enhanced relationship was inherent in the very act of returning to give thanks itself. Either way, it is impossible to believe that the one leper did not emerge from the experience as the one most blessed of all. He had not only learned that help is found in the perception of infirmity and that healing is found in the path of obedience; he also learned that happiness is found in the practice of appreciation.
Well, there it is. Do you want to experience the fullness of the Christian life? Do you want to know joy inexpressible and full of glory? Do you want to experience victory over sin and its effects in your life? Do you want to know the peace the passes understanding? Then remember to practice daily these three principle illustrated by the story of the ten lepers. Help is found in the perception of infirmity; healing is found in the path of obedience; and happiness is found in the practice of appreciation. Let us therefore loudly give glory to God even as the one leper did, as we sing our final hymn!
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams