The 4 Gospels part 3 – What does God really want?

In Part 2 Jesus healed a man with a highly contagious skin disease. It was very soon after he began preaching too, so it must have tied in somehow with his message in Mark 1:15 that “The time has come at last – the Kingdom of God has arrived.” But how did it tie in, and what made the healing so significant?

It was certainly significant for a Jew in the 1st century brought up on the Law of Moses, because the Law clearly stated in Numbers 5:1-4 “Command the Israelites to send away from the camp anyone who has an infectious skin disease – send away male and female alike; send them outside the camp so they will not defile their camp where I dwell with them.”

It didn’t matter what your situation was. You could be a parent with five children, or a newlywed, or an elderly Grandma, but if the priest pronounced you ceremonially ‘unclean’ because of your skin disease – examples of which take up most of Leviticus 13 – you had to leave your family, and in line with verses 45-46 you must “wear torn clothes, leave your hair loose and unbrushed, cover the lower part of your face and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean’ for as long as the infection remains. And you must live alone outside the camp.”

And that part of the Law still existed in Jesus’ day. If you as a Jew had a contagious skin disease you couldn’t join in with anything your family was doing, nor could you take part in any meeting or feast day or celebration with the rest of Israel. You were an outcast to be avoided, marginalized and isolated on the fringes of society, just like a contagious Israelite in the wilderness.

The only contact allowed with any human being was a visit with the priest if your infection had ended. When Israel was camped in the wilderness back in Leviticus 14:2, the priest would meet you outside the camp (where you were living) to do a thorough examination (verse 3). If the good news was, yes, you were free of the disease you would now go through a “ceremonial cleansing” like the one mentioned by Jesus in Mark 1:44, when he tells the man healed of his skin disease to go and “show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing.”

Now that’s interesting, because here’s Jesus starting out in his ministry focusing people’s attention on the revolutionary ways of the Kingdom of God, and he includes on this occasion the need to honour the Old Testament cleansing rituals back in Leviticus 14. But the man had been totally healed already, so why would Jesus insist he still go to the priests to have his healing confirmed – and offer the required sacrifices? Curiosity alone, perhaps, would take us back to Leviticus 14 to find out why, but could there also be something in that chapter that beautifully illustrates the revolutionary ways of the Kingdom of God, and that’s why Jesus included it so soon in his ministry?

So before we dive into Mark chapter 2, is there something from Leviticus 14 that needs to be put in place first? The Holy Spirit put it in place at this point in Jesus’ ministry, and clearly for a reason, so what might that reason be?

The man who’d been healed, meanwhile, knew exactly what he was in for if he went to the priests. As a Jew he would have known the process of cleansing required by the Law of Moses. It began in Leviticus 14:4 with the priest ordering “two live, clean birds, some cedar wood, scarlet thread, and hyssop” be brought to him “for the one to be cleansed.”

The priest has one of the two birds killed above a clay pot filled with fresh water. He then dips the tail of the second (still living) bird, along with the cedar and hyssop bound with the scarlet thread, into the water now mixed with the dead bird’s blood, sprinkles the person with the blood/water mix seven times, pronounces the man clean, and releases the live bird, symbolically carrying the man’s sickness away.

But that’s still just the start of the cleansing process. You, the cleansed person, male or female, must now wash all your clothes, shave your head and bathe in water, which allows you to enter the Israelite camp again. For the next seven days, however, you must still live outside the family tent. On the seventh day you then shave off all your hair and eyebrows (and beard if you’re a man), wash all your clothes again, and wash yourself again too.

On the eighth day you then bring two perfect male lambs and a yearling ewe to the priest, along with several pounds of flour mixed with oil and a pint of oil in a separate container, and the priest then places you and your offering “in the presence of God at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting” (10-11). But that’s not the end of it either.

The priest then kills one of the male lambs and offers it as a guilt offering on your behalf along with the pint of oil. He dabs a blob of blood from the dead lamb and a blob of oil from the pint pot onto your right ear lobe, right thumb and right big toe. The remaining oil he places on your head to “make atonement” for you “before the Lord” (12-18).

And still one more step: The priest kills the other male lamb as a sin offering to “make atonement for the one to be cleansed from his uncleanness.” He then kills the third and last sheep, the yearling ewe, for a burnt offering along with the flour mixed with oil, again to “make atonement” for you “before the Lord” (19-20).

So that’s a dead bird and three dead sheep all required for the cleansing of a person who was already no longer contagious. And all you had was a skin disease too, but even after it’s healed it still requires a guilt offering, a sin offering and a burnt offering, along with several ritual washings, the shaving of one’s hair, and the dabbing of blood and oil on earlobe, thumb and big toe. To our ears it may sound a bit strange – and a bit extreme too, perhaps – but there’s no missing what’s really being said here, that a contagious disease is being treated like a sin that needs to be atoned for with ritual and sacrifice.

“Atoned for” in this case meant restoring the person into the safety and delight of God’s closeness again. Without the blood sacrifice and all the cleansing rituals, you would remain outside the camp and away from God’s presence, even if you were no longer contagious. And that would be the worst possible thing to happen to you as an Israelite, to be excluded from all that God was doing in Israel. You’d be no better off than a Gentile, looking in from the outside, unable to join in where the action was really happening.

A contagious disease, therefore, got the point across that sin put you outside the camp, outside God’s presence, and outside the action, and it was only going through the proper cleansing process that put you back in the camp, back into God’s presence, and back into the action where God was working.

To quote one source I read on this subject: ‘God’s presence in the midst of his people could not be taken for granted; it was to be carefully safeguarded. Human beings, living in a sin-tainted world, are not automatically qualified to come into God’s presence and must prepare themselves both ritually and morally before approaching a holy God.’

That’s quite a statement for anyone who’s been infected in some way by this ‘sin-tainted world’. We know Christ’s death has removed the death penalty for that sin, and the sinner – no matter how many or how large his or her sins are – is pronounced ‘clean’ by the death of Christ, just like the person in Leviticus 14 was pronounced clean after one of the two birds was killed.

But it didn’t stop there, did it? Yes, you’ve been told you’re clean, but there’s still a cleansing process to go through to get you back in the camp and back into God’s presence. Christ dying for us declares us clean, yes, but it doesn’t ‘automatically qualify us to come into God’s presence’, as the quote said. A cleansed sinner now has a process to go through, as the quote continues, of ‘preparing himself both ritually and morally before approaching a holy God’.

And the one person in Scripture who truly understood and confirmed that process was King David. When he realized how terribly he’d sinned in sleeping with Bathsheba and having her husband killed, he followed the process exactly of preparing himself ritually and morally to restore the relationship he had with God and the joy and security that closeness with God gave him.

David knew exactly where he stood with God because of his sin. He stood in the same position as the person with a highly contagious skin disease in Leviticus 14. In Psalm 51:7 David even uses the same language we just read in Leviticus 14, when he begs God to “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean.” Hyssop was one of the things in Leviticus 14:4 that you brought to the priest for him to publicly declare you clean of your infectious disease, and that, significantly, is where David’s mind went when he realized how badly he’d sinned: His mind went straight back to the cleansing process in Leviticus 14.

David saw his sin in that context. His sin was like a highly contagious skin disease, requiring a whole process of cleansing to atone for it.

David knew his sin had put him outside the camp and outside the closeness of God’s presence, and it petrified him. We see that in verse 11, when he begs God, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.” To David the loss of his relationship with God was the worst thing that could happen to him, just like it was the worst thing for an Israelite to be isolated from camp and from God’s presence. But David also knew from Leviticus 14 there was a process in place for restoring his relationship with God.

And the first step in that process was Psalm 51:1, when David cried out to God, ”Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love and your great compassion….”

David knew that despite every horrible thing he’d done God had remained merciful and compassionate toward him through all of it. God had never stopped loving him. And HOW did David know that? Well, in Psalms David said he thought a lot about God’s law, so he would have known about Leviticus 14 and how God dealt with a man with a contagious skin disease, that it was never God’s intent to leave the sick man in his misery. God always had this process in place for contagious people to get them back into camp, fully restored. That was God’s desire. The first thing David did, then, on recognition that he too had been infected horribly by evil, was focus on God’s compassion, mercy and love.

And I realize from this example that this is where I begin with my own sins. But it’s just as important to start here with OTHER people’s sins too. Whatever contagious disease of mind, heart and sprit that people have picked up from this sin-tainted world, God has always loved them. He has always felt compassion for them. He has never stopped being merciful toward them, no matter how infected by evil they have become. It has never been God’s desire to isolate or condemn anyone forever, no matter how sinful he or she is.

Can you see, then, how Jesus healing the man with the skin disease ties in with the good news of the Kingdom of God and the revolutionary ways it promotes? Both the healing and Jesus telling the man to go to the priests took people’s minds straight back to Leviticus 14, and the radical way God dealt with infected people. It was always with compassion and always with an eye to fully restoring them back into the Israelite fold and into God’s presence again.

It gives us in the Church a great starting point in dealing with people infected by the evil in our culture. We start with good news, that God is fully aware of the predicament we’re all in, how evil has infected our minds with all sorts of horrible misconceptions that we pick up without even knowing it, and God really feels for us, knowing what damage was being done to us that we weren’t even aware of. The good news, therefore, is that he’s not sending any of us to hell for what we’ve done; rather, he views us with deep compassion for what hell has already done to us. For a person who begins to see how badly he’s been infected by this evil world, this, then, is what he needs to hear first of all; it’s the good news of God’s understanding and compassion.

This is where David began too, when he saw how badly he’d been infected. What he saw first and foremost was God’s compassion. And that’s what people first saw in Jesus as well, when the man with the skin disease came to him. In Mark 1:41, Jesus, “filled with compassion, reached out his hand to the man and touched him.”

How radical, to publicly express compassion for someone so repulsive. The man was a mess of skin sores, he looked terrible, he smelt awful, and nobody wanted to be near him. But the man had sensed something different about Jesus that made him feel comfortable enough to not only approach Jesus, but make a radical request to him too.

It was the same radical request David made in Psalm 51:1. When David focused on God’s compassion he then felt free to ask God to “blot out my transgressions.” What I believe David meant by that was the same thing the man in Mark 1:40 meant when he asked Jesus to make him clean. He meant get rid of the infection that had caused his miserable sickness and isolation in the first place. Get it out of his body completely and forever.

And that’s what David was after too. He knew God felt deep compassion for him, but would God please now direct his compassion into scouring out David’s brain so that he never got caught out or became infected by that sin ever again.

To have his relationship with God fully restored, which is what David wanted, this wretched sin of his must never get between them again. So David begs God in Psalm 51:2, “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” – just like the man with the skin disease begged Jesus to make him clean, meaning totally eradicate his infection so he was free of it forever.

It’s the next step in the cleansing process. The first step is sensing God’s compassion as we wallow in our misery and helplessness. But the next step is grasping God’s willingness to get sin out of our lives forever, pictured in Leviticus 14 by the shaving of hair and eyebrows, and the washing of yourself and all your clothes. It doesn’t fully restore our relationship with God yet, because there’s still an offering of two male lambs and a yearling ewe, along with several pounds of flour mixed with oil and a pint of oil in a separate container to go yet, but it does bring us closer to “the presence of God at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting” (Leviticus 14:10-11). It’s another step in the process of fully restoring our relationship with God, because that’s what God is after too.

And think what that meant to David, who’d allowed his mind to become inflamed at the sight of Bathsheba in her bath. It spread through his brain like a raging hot fever and off he went to get Bathsheba pregnant without a thought in his head as to what God thought. He then tried to hide his sin and guilt by having Bathsheba’s husband killed. And all during Bathsheba’s pregnancy David carried on as if God felt nothing at what he’d done. In time, therefore, David would have drifted away from God entirely into further and further insanity.

But God in his mercy sent Nathan the prophet to stop that descent into madness by asking David why he’d “treated the word of God with such brazen contempt, doing this great evil” in 2 Samuel 12:9 (The Message). Note that God did not hold back one bit in saying how wrong David had been, but note also that God made it personal with David by using the word ‘contempt’. How could David have treated him that way, as if he didn’t even exist in David’s consciousness anymore? And that’s what opened David’s eyes, when he saw what his sin had DONE TO GOD, Psalm 51:4 – “Against you, God, and you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” And David could see why his sin was so evil in God’s sight too, because the way he’d acted it was as if God didn’t exist. Imagine being God, then, whose deepest desire was a close relationship with David, and David just dismissed that all together.

It gives us in the Church a useful question to ask people to help open their eyes today too, the question being: “How do you think GOD feels about what you’ve done?” Make it personal. And why not, when what we’re hoping for is restoring their relationship with God, a relationship that from God’s point of view is highly personal? It certainly woke David up. He suddenly saw his entire life passing before him, that in reality it had been an endless wrecking of his relationship with God ever since he was born. He’d been a “sinner from birth,” Psalm 51:5, because when had he ever really geared his behaviour to how GOD felt about it? And when had it ever crossed David’s mind how difficult it must have been FOR GOD when David treated God so shabbily?

But David also knew that, because God was such a personal God whose sole intent for us is restoring our relationship with him he’d also put this cleansing process in place to “let the bones you have crushed rejoice,” verse 8. Yes, God allows the consequences of evil-infected madness to take their toll on our lives, and on our relationship with him, just like he allowed the Israelites to be infected by skin diseases that had them cast out of the camp and out of his presence – BUT the good news is he’s also provided the means for total restoration.

And that’s where the guilt and sin offerings in Leviticus 14 come in. David didn’t bring literal offerings of sheep, but he brought the equivalent, just as we do, of admitting without excuse what we’ve done to mess up our relationship with God. This became David’s offering, just like it becomes ours, that allows us into “the presence of God at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting” (10-11), and “makes atonement” for us “before the Lord” (12-18). On the admission of our guilt and sin we can rest assured, therefore, that we are properly prepared ritually for approaching a holy God.

But what about the blobs of blood and oil on our right ear lobe, right thumb and right big toe? Well, David went through that process too, when he said in Psalm 51:6, “Surely you desire truth in the inner parts,” and “wisdom in the inmost place.” In Leviticus 14, it was blood on outward bodily parts like ear lobes, thumbs and big toes that made atonement, as if our body was to blame for messing up our relationship with God, but David knew better; it was what was going on inside him that counted, where all these wretched infections came from in the first place.

So this is where the cleansing process took him next, to his plea in verse 10, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” This is the part where David also prepared himself morally. Morally speaking, David knew his relationship with God depended hugely on being utterly sensitive to God’s wishes. But David had failed miserably on that score. Fortunately, though, he knew the next step in the cleansing process, that once he’d fully admitted his sin and guilt and God had “hidden his face” and “blotted” David’s sin out of his mind entirely (verse 9), God would now kick in full bore to “Restore to me the joy of your salvation,” verse 12.

And what greater joy can there be for a human being than the power of the Holy Spirit making us sensitive to God’s wishes, so that this sin-tainted world doesn’t infect us? That’s the ‘salvation’ David’s talking about here, the marvelous “joy and gladness” (8) that comes from having “a willing spirit” toward God (12). It’s such a relief not being negative and angry. But that can only come from God. That’s why David begged God to please not “take your Holy Spirit from me.” David remembered how wonderful it was when his mind was totally focused on God, because the world could chuck its worst at him and he’d always get through it. He’d experienced again and again “the joy of YOUR salvation,” meaning GOD’S constant saving power preventing his mind from getting all twisted up and infected by the stupidity and temptations of a nutty world.

And what great stories that gave David to tell, how he could “teach transgressors YOUR WAYS” (13), the revolutionary ways by which God willingly and lovingly cleans us up and sets us on our way again, that makes it so easy for “sinners to turn back” to God once they understand the process he’s put in place.

David was thrilled when he understood it: “My tongue will sing of your righteousness, my mouth will declare your praise” (14-15). And this is where the last part of the process in Leviticus 14 comes in, the sacrifice of the yearling ewe as a burnt offering.

The purpose of any burnt offering was to restore the relationship between a holy God and a sinful human, enabling a sinful human to come into God’s presence again in total freedom, with no guilt. The smoke from a burnt offering was described as a “soothing aroma” to God (Leviticus 1:9).

The soothing aroma in David’s case didn’t come from a literal burnt offering, because he knew God took no pleasure in sacrifices of any kind, including burnt offerings (verse 16). He knew what sacrifice did please God, though, Psalm 51:17: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart.”

What pleased God wasn’t, as The Message phrases that verse, “Going through the motions,” or putting in a “flawless performance” to make up for what we’ve done; it was simply accepting God’s amazing compassion, mercy and love as the only means by which he saves us and restores us from the infections we pick up from this sin-tainted world that wreck our relationship with him.

And that’s what Jesus demonstrated in Mark 1:44 when he sent the man healed of his skin disease to the priests to have his healing confirmed and go through the cleansing process of Leviticus 14, because in that chapter and the cleansing process it describes is the good news of the Kingdom of God.

It’s the good news of a God who described what he really wants in Leviticus 14, showed it again in the life of King David in Psalm 51, and again through the man healed of his skin disease – that he’s still in the cleansing business, because out the other end of it comes a human beautifully equipped to turn sinners back to God. It gives us in the Church the key to dealing with people infected by the sins of this culture. We don’t condemn them; we start instead with the good news of God’s compassion, because that’s what starts the process rolling of healing what sin has done to them and restoring their relationship with God, so that one day, they too, Leviticus 14:20, can be fully and completely “clean.”

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