The 4 Gospels part 4 – If you were a priest in Jesus’ day…

     In Part 3, Jesus healed a man with a contagious skin disease, but then told the man in Mark 1:44 to “go, show yourself TO THE PRIEST and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing.”

And legally the man was required to do just that. According to the Law of Moses in Leviticus 14 the first thing a man or woman had to do, if he or she believed they weren’t contagious anymore, was to meet with a priest. The priest would then do a thorough examination of the person from head to foot, using Leviticus chapter 13 as a reference, where all the signs and symptoms of skin diseases are listed in great detail.

If the priest could see from Leviticus 13 that the skin disease had ended and the person was no longer contagious, he would then begin the process of cleansing in Leviticus 14 that would restore the man (or woman) back into full fellowship with his or her family and fellow Israelites, and assure them that atonement with God had been made, enabling them to meet with God again at the “Tent of Meeting” where God dwelt (Leviticus 14:11).

But it does seem a bit odd that Jesus would also require all that for a man he’d just completely healed. The man was no longer contagious, so why tell him to show himself to the priests as well? Because, as Jesus himself explained in Mark 1:44, the healed man would be “a testimony TO THEM” – the priests. In other words, it wasn’t for the sake of the man who’d been healed that Jesus sent him to the priests; it was for the sake of the priests themselves.

So, imagine yourself as the priest on duty that day, and in runs this man, still with the disheveled hair and torn clothes required of a person with a contagious skin disease, yelling he’s been healed. So you give the man a thorough check-up, and to your growing amazement, and possibly consternation as well, you find none of the swellings, rashes, boils, spots, sores, ulcers or discolouration of the skin or hair on the sores mentioned in Leviticus 13, meaning the man really has been suddenly and completely healed.

Something extraordinary has happened. The infected man was probably well known too, as would be anybody with a highly contagious skin disease yelling “Unclean, unclean” wherever he went. But here he was, totally free of his infection and, what’s more, it was all due to this new chap, Jesus, who’d been announcing wherever HE went that “the Kingdom of God has arrived; time to repent, therefore, and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).

But it’s how you react to that as a priest that’s so important, because the whole nation looks to you priests for guidance. You’re the shepherds of the sheep, with your ears to the rails picking up all hints and vibrations from God as to what he wants the nation to hear and do, and out of the blue you’re faced with this incredible healing by Jesus, the likes of which you’ve never seen before.

So what DO you do? Well, we never get to find out what you, the priest, might have done, because the man healed of his skin disease did not go to the priests like Jesus told him to, and “Instead,” verse 45, “he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news” of his miraculous healing by Jesus, the “result” of which, unfortunately, was Jesus having to stay away from heavily populated areas for fear of being mobbed.

But what if the man had come to you because, he said, Jesus had sent him? It would certainly get the point across that Jesus wasn’t some sort of maverick doing his own thing and ignoring the system. He wasn’t trying to elevate himself above the priesthood either, or get people to follow him instead. Quite the opposite, in fact: Jesus was honouring the system set up in Leviticus 14, and, what’s more, he was also honouring you as a priest too, because the reason he’d sent the man to you to have you officially confirm the healing was the effect it would have on you.

Jesus wanted to give you priests the chance to grasp what he was up to, and very early on in his ministry too. And what was he hoping you priests would do? He was hoping you’d do what he said everyone should do in Mark 1:15 on realizing the Kingdom of God had arrived: The very next word he mentioned in verse 15 was “Repent.” That’s what he wanted you priests to do.

But what did Jesus mean by repent? Well, judging by the next thing he said in verse 15 about believing the good news, it had to mean repent of being so negative. And that to a priest would certainly carry weight, because the priesthood had a lot to be negative about.

Look at the state of the nation for a start. It was just like the man with the contagious skin disease. Instead of being the great, glorious nation that God had called to rescue the whole world from the ravages of sin, Israel had become a pathetic, backwater nation of Jews being treated like rejects and outcasts by brutal pagan overseers. Which meant, sadly, that nothing had changed since the captivity of you Jews in Babylon five hundred years earlier. It was all bad news.

And who was to blame for that? Well, you priests, of course. It always came down to you priests. Whenever the nation started drifting away from God, and disasters always followed, God sent prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel to place the blame fairly and squarely on the priests and pastors (Jeremiah 10:21, 12:10, 22:22, 23:1, 50:6, and Ezekiel 34:2-10). And here you were again, a nation still in captivity, and this time in your own country.

It was very sad, because the whole nation felt lost and abandoned. You all longed to be close to God and God close to you – like the good old days of David and Solomon – but instead it was like having an infectious disease and being banished from the camp and away from God’s presence, just like the man with the skin disease.

The man with the skin disease, then, perfectly represented the whole nation, because it felt like God was treating you all like outcasts and lepers. The whole nation might as well have ripped its clothes, left its hair disheveled, and cried out “Unclean, unclean,” because it seemed like God was miles away and he wasn’t listening. Every day, year in year out, you Jews had been calling out to God for deliverance and rescue, but he’d never answered.

And as priests you feel so helpless. You’re the ones God holds responsible for the health of the nation – and the nation is sick. But then, all of a sudden, Jesus arrives on the scene crying out, “Repent,” meaning, “Come on, cheer up, God isn’t miles away at all,” and he immediately starts dispensing real cures for people’s sicknesses to prove it. And he does it with compassion too.

And then, to top that off, Jesus tells the man with the skin disease to go to the priests – to help the priests. So instead of condemning you priests for the mess the nation’s in, which Jesus was clearly in his rights to do, he offers you priests the chance to see that something wonderful is happening because of him, in the hope that you’ll believe it, repent of the malaise that’s infected all Israel, and get on board the good news that God has come to the rescue at last.

But what was it about the man healed of his skin disease that would shake you priests out of your slump? Well, let’s lift all this to us now, and what’s happening to us as we read through this incident. Is there a radical picture forming in our heads about God in what Jesus is doing, that shakes us up a bit too? It’s meant to, because that’s what God sent Jesus for. In everything Jesus said and did we see God, and all of it is such radical good news that we repent of all negative thoughts and ideas about God, and WE jump on board the good news too.

And since we’re just as much priests as they were back in Jesus’ day, I think it’s a great idea imagining ourselves in the Temple if the man healed of his skin disease had done what he was told and come to us. And as we stared at the man in amazement, how could we not think, “Wow, God is so compassionate”? That poor man had lived for years as an outcast with his disease, but he goes to Jesus and look what happens. First of all, Jesus reaches out and touches him, then heals him, then sends him to you priests for final cleansing, to show you priests that Leviticus 14 still applies, which is all about God never leaving his people out in the cold and out of his presence forever.

It was just the news the nation needed to hear, because for years now it looked like God HAD left you out in the cold and out of his presence forever. But here was Jesus saying the Kingdom of God was near, God was not far away at all, and to prove it Jesus sent an outcast to you priests to have him cleansed, which would put the man back into full fellowship with God and his family and his fellow Jews. It was the first really strong hint that even though you as a nation had totally messed up, God was bringing you out of the cold at last and bringing you close to him again.

And here was Jesus giving you priests the chance to catch on to that, since you were the ones who had the most influence on people. The big question now was: Would you repent? Faced with all these obvious hints from Jesus that God was fully aware of your demise and he cared, would you priests be the first to repent of doubting God and being all mournful and negative about him? Would you be the first to stand up and start spreading the good news pouring out of Jesus, that God’s back – he’s back in the business of rescuing you and restoring you, just like he did in the first Exodus from Egypt?

Well, what we see happening next in Mark’s gospel is people who DID catch on to that, when a “few days later” in Mark 2:1 Jesus returned to his home in Capernaum and word got out that he’d arrived.

People crammed into every nook and cranny inside the house, and crowded so thickly outside the house that no one could push his way in. That didn’t stop four very determined men carrying their quadriplegic friend on a mat from finding a way in, however. They shinned up the outside staircase to the roof, ripped off the top layer of clay, tore out several tiles and maybe a beam or two as well, and lowered their friend down through the hole to Jesus.

As the mat settled down in front of Jesus in a cloud of dust, the first thing Mark records Jesus saying is: “Son, your sins are forgiven.” It was said, take note, to a man who was completely helpless, again a perfect picture of the state of the entire nation that had been paralyzed into immobility as far as God’s purpose for them was concerned. They were supposed to be the bringers of salvation to the whole world (Isaiah 49:3, 6), but here they were in desperate need of being saved themselves, due especially to the selfishness and greed of their priests and pastors.

And here was a badly crippled man who pictured the helplessness and desperation of the nation perfectly. But he and his four friends had already seen something in Jesus that made them put aside their feelings of helplessness and desperation, put aside their doubts, and put aside all thoughts that maybe God wasn’t interested, or that he didn’t care.

All they could see in Jesus was good news, that in Jesus something amazing was happening and they wanted in on it. And look at Jesus’ reaction: He called the man, “Son,” or “My dear child” in our terms. Either way it was a term loaded with affection, which then stirred Jesus to make the most remarkable announcement that “your sins are forgiven.”

I imagine Jesus said that with great joy: The chance at last to tell the nation that the time of forgiveness had come. It was the perfect setting too – a man totally paralyzed picturing the nation’s helpless state, five men all putting aside their doubts and jumping on board the good news they saw in Jesus, which was exactly what the Father had sent him for. It was a great moment for Jesus, being able through these five men to show people that, despite the horrible mess the whole nation had made of God’s calling, God had forgiven them.

It was a crucial moment, perhaps THE most crucial moment in the history of the world up to this point, because if Israel was forgiven then God’s plan to save the whole world through Israel was back on track.

It was exactly what you Jews had waiting for to, the time predicted back in Isaiah 40:1-2 when God said, “Comfort my people, speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for.” And here was Jesus doing exactly that, speaking tenderly to the paralyzed man as a “son” and telling him his sins were forgiven. And all the sick man and his four friends had done was get a glimpse of what Jesus was all about and believed it. But look at Jesus’ reaction: Immediate affection and forgiveness.

Watching Jesus’ reaction must have been an eye-opener. You mean forgiveness of sins came through simple belief in him? But how many people in that room saw that as the clue to their own forgiveness, and the forgiveness of their entire nation? How many of them attached “the hard service” of this man living in his paralyzed body coming to an end with the hard service they’d ALL suffered as a nation coming to an end as well?

But that’s what Jesus had come for. It wasn’t just to heal people of their individual illnesses and diseases. God had sent him to the lost house of Israel, because Israel was the key to the salvation of the whole world. There’d be no salvation for anyone without Israel, meaning none of us would be here in a Christian church believing our salvation is assured if the sins of Israel had not been forgiven first.

The rescue of Israel from its own sins, therefore, was the crucial first step in God extending his salvation to the whole world – which makes this incident with the quadriplegic so vital. Jesus was offering the whole nation THE clue to salvation. Salvation was all about God’s total forgiveness of sin for nothing more than believing that’s what he’d sent Jesus for.

I doubt those five men knew at the time, though, that their simple belief in Jesus would be the catalyst for Jesus announcing forgiveness for the first time, nor that their story would help people all through the following centuries to understand and grasp the key to salvation, nor that what Jesus was doing was a clear sign that God was getting his plan back on track in Israel, which spelled nothing but good news for them and the whole world.

But that is what Jesus had come for, to show the world in God’s dealings with you Jews first of all, that he lets us go through a period of “hard service” for our sins, but it never means he’s abandoned us. The time comes when he lets us know we are forgiven, so the process of healing can begin.

And how encouraging this can be for all of us, because Israel was the one group of people on the planet who LEAST deserved God’s compassion and forgiveness. He let them suffer, yes, but he never rejected them. Instead he showed them through Jesus how much he loved them despite what they’d done. But that’s why God had sent Jesus in the first place, to reveal what he’s like through everything Jesus said and did. Every thought, reaction and feeling Jesus had reflected the Father perfectly, so that we could all see in Jesus what God is like, which hopefully stirs US to turn to him with the same “rip the tiles off the roof” attitude those four men and their quadriplegic friend had in turning to Jesus for help, realizing in Jesus’ reaction to those men that God deeply loves us for it.

We’ve got these stories in the book of Mark, therefore, to help us see God, that God is all compassion for us as we go through our period of hard service, and he’s all forgiveness and affection when we see in Jesus what he’s all about and we believe it, and believe it enough to rip the tiles off and totally trust ourselves to his care and healing like those five men did.

Unfortunately, for some people in Mark 2 all this meant nothing. Rather than rejoice at the quadriplegic’s sins being forgiven, they accused Jesus of blasphemy, because only God could forgive sins (verses 6-7).

“But what’s easier?” Jesus replies. “Is it telling this man his sins are forgiven or telling him to get up, roll up his mat and go home?” To Jesus either one was just as easy, because God had sent him to the Jews with both healing and forgiveness for them. But it was far more important for this squashed crowd of Jews to hear about forgiveness, because that’s what they needed to hear more than anything, that at last (Isaiah 40) the hard times they’d suffered for their sins were over. God had forgiven them, meaning he was getting them back on track to what he’d called them for, to be his instruments of salvation for the whole world. He was giving them a fresh start.

For a Jew there was no better news than that, that God was cranking up the gears – at that very moment too – to get the salvation ball rolling again through Israel. And to get that point through to the thick, resisting heads in the crowd, Jesus cranked up the gears another notch too, in verse 10, when he told the quadriplegic to get up and go home, because it would show everybody – including the snobby teachers of the law in verse 6 – that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”

What a shocking statement that was, because the teachers of the law would easily recognize who Jesus was referring to by that title, “Son of Man.” It was back there in Daniel 7:13-14 when the “Ancient of Days” gave “one like a son of man authority, glory and sovereign power,” and his “kingdom would never be destroyed.”

By telling that crowd of Jews, therefore, that he was that “son of man” Jesus was saying the never-ending Kingdom Daniel had predicted had begun. The salvation of the world through Israel, therefore, was on the road again. And to convince them that what he’d just said, and implied, was true, Jesus then healed the quadriplegic and sent him off home.

You’d think that would be enough to convince them that God had forgiven them, despite the mess they’d made of his calling. But what Jesus did next was explosive proof of it. Followed by a large crowd Jesus left the beach where he’d been preaching and went straight up to the customs office on the main road to Capernaum, where Levi son of Alphaeus was the officer on duty. Jesus went up to Levi (or Matthew as he’s also known) and spoke just two words to him: “Follow me,” Mark 2:14.

But Matthew was one of the most despised Jews in the nation. He was a tax collector, a flunkey for the Romans, and infamously well known among the Jews for siphoning off a sizable portion of the fees they paid into his own pocket as they went through customs. He was exploiting his office under the Romans to make himself rich at the expense of his fellow Jews.

Jesus, therefore, had just chosen the ultimate “sinner” in Jewish eyes to join him. It was not well received, as we see in verse 15 when Jesus sits down for dinner in Levi’s house with a whole crew of tax collectors and other “sinners,” and the teachers of the law are aghast (verse 16) that Jesus would mix with such people. But how would you feel if you turned up at my house for dinner and the place was full of members of City Council who’d just raised your property taxes by 5% to pay for a raise in their salary?

Why on earth, then, would the Son of Man, the ever-living King of God’s indestructible Kingdom want a louse like Matthew tagging along? Because, Jesus replied in verse 17, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” And if he could heal the mother of all sinners like Matthew then what would they make of that?

What they should have made of it was the mother of all celebrations, because it meant that even the worst of sinners wasn’t a stumbling block to Jesus. He even wanted the likes of Matthew in his company every day. But Matthew would act as a clear example wherever he went that God could forgive the worst of sinners – and love their company, and even invite them onto his team.

It was also noticeable that Jesus didn’t require anything to be on his team other than believing what God had sent him for. You could be the worst sinner in the world, like Matthew, but still be acceptable to God. It was an eye opener, that the priests should have grabbed onto and yelled about, that God had forgiven Israel, despite them being the worst sinners on the planet, and he was fully capable and willing to get them back on side and put them to rights.

This was great news because the Jews had tried so hard to put themselves to rights and it hadn’t worked – witness the Pharisees who tried to get people to obey in every tiny detail, because to them THAT was the key to the nation’s health. But God had allowed several hundred years to pass since the Jews’ return from Babylon, and despite them building a brand new Temple and restoring all the rituals and sacrifices, and despite the priests’ heavy emphasis on keeping the Sabbath, their hard service under pagan rulers had dragged on without relief.

And what that revealed was the Jews’ helplessness. Nothing they did made God answer. And God allowed that to happen for over four hundred years, during which time the nation actually got worse, not better. Many in the priesthood became power hungry and corrupt. Men calling themselves ‘messiahs’ rose up in violent revolution to topple their oppressors. Demon possession and horrible diseases plagued the nation. And people were totally blind to it too, until John the Baptist got people to realize just how bad things had become.

But that was all perfect preparation for Jesus announcing the great news that God was giving them a fresh start and the chance to get back to what he’d called them for, because instead of condemning them for the mess they’d made he showed them compassion. And instead of holding them accountable for their disobedience and weakness, he forgave them. And instead of leaving them in their misery and frustration he came to rescue, heal and restore them.

If you were a priest, then, watching all this unfold, what would you make of it? Well, we ARE priests, so what have we been making of it? Is it helping us repent and believe that everything about God is good news, and nothing but? It’s meant to, because that’s what God sent Jesus for.


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