By PAUL J. SCHARF, M.Div.
Editor in Chief
As we approach Thanksgiving Day, we turn our thoughts to one of the most beloved passages in all of the gospels—Luke 17:11-19.
This account of Jesus healing the 10 lepers has much to say to us this Thanksgiving. It both reminds us of our own tremendous need in light of our desperate condition, and also teaches us how we must be like that one who returned to Christ to show his gratitude.
The great Bible commentator G. Campbell Morgan stated of this well-known passage:
I am almost inclined to say that the narrative of the 10 lepers needs no interpretation. It is so explicit, and full of beauty.
We find that the Lord Jesus was moving somewhere between “Samaria and Galilee” (Luke 17:11). This event occurs very late in the ministry of our Lord, just months perhaps before He would be in Jerusalem for His final Passover, leading to His coming death, burial and resurrection (cf. Luke 9:51; 13:33). Chronologically, it fits shortly after the raising of Lazarus, and may even be described by a verse found at the end of that account:
Therefore Jesus no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there into the country near the wilderness, to a city called Ephraim, and there remained with His disciples (John 11:54).
There Jesus encountered a mixed group of Jews and Samaritans who—though they would not live together in daily life—now found themselves bound together by the living death sentence that they had received in common in the form of leprosy.
Leprosy was very comparable to our modern disease known as AIDS—both in terms of the stigma that was attached to it and also in view of the fact that, like AIDS, it was not the leprosy that killed a person. Rather, it was some other ailment to which one became susceptible by means of their leprous condition.
Lepers were confined to colonies, where each day brought one closer to an agonizing death.
There is some disagreement among Bible scholars regarding the exact nature of leprosy in the ancient world, as well as the (especially Old Testament) passages which discuss it. They may reference a number of associated diseases that fall under the general heading of leprosy. There is, however, a clear consensus regarding the basic elements, and the fact that leprosy would render a person both physically and ceremonially unclean—isolated, alone, social outcasts and considered cursed of God.
Leprosy basically attacked a person’s nerve endings, leading to bodily injury and decay. MacArthur writes:
Contrary to popular belief, leprosy does not eat away the flesh. Due to the loss of feeling (especially in the hands and feet), people with the disease wear away their extremities and faces unknowingly. The horrible disfigurement caused by leprosy made it greatly feared, and caused lepers to be outcasts, cut off from all healthy society, for protection.
The diagnosis of leprosy meant utter hopelessness, and offered a vivid visual aid illustrating the uncleanness of sin and of separation from God. Numbers 5:1-4 offers a concise summary of the treatment of lepers under the law of Moses.
Now the leper on whom the sore is, his clothes shall be torn and his head bare; and he shall cover his mustache, and cry, “Unclean! Unclean!” He shall be unclean. All the days he has the sore he shall be unclean. He is unclean, and he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
Now, one wonders what could be a worse fate in life than to be a Samaritan leper!
It would serve us well, just briefly, to remember the deep divisions between Jews and Samaritans. Following the division of the northern and southern kingdoms in the Old Testament, Omri (the sixth king of the northern kingdom of Israel) moved the capital of the kingdom to a city that he built on land that he bought in the area of Ephraim and Manasseh, calling it Samaria (1 Kings 16:24). Samaria then came to represent that region and ultimately the entire northern kingdom.
In 722 B.C., when the Assyrians carried the northern kingdom off into captivity, they left behind some of the poorest people of the land and brought in pagans that mixed with them to produce offspring and a culture that was looked down upon by both Jew and Gentile. This mixed group quickly adopted pagan religious practices and moved into spiritual apostasy (cf. 2 Kings 17:24-41).
These Samaritans were in tension with the land of Judah as early as post-exilic times (cf. Ezra 4:10, 17; Neh. 4:2), and were not regarded Biblically as an official part “of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:5-6).
Yet Jesus healed a Samaritan leper as well as his Jewish counterparts. Furthermore, He did so in the most astounding fashion. He did not even proclaim their healing at all, but rather gave them a simple command which both implied their healing and also compelled them to act upon their acceptance of it. He said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests” (Luke 17:14).
Jesus’ action here perhaps teaches us much about the nature of Biblical sign miracles, which were done by Him in the gospels to demonstrate His Messiahship and the truthfulness of His claims to be the Son of God and the king of Israel. In this case, there was really nothing spectacular that an onlooker might have especially noticed. Rather, the text states simply,
And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed (Luke 17:14).
The voice that spoke the universe into existence here spoke healing into the lives of these 10 leprous outcasts. His words were the sound of life to them, and His command sending them to the priests, as we have seen previously, relates to obedience to passages such as Leviticus 13 and 14. Jesus, of course, ministered during the age of the law, and was directing these men to act in accordance with that law. Only a priest could pronounce a person to be clean from leprosy, whether the cure was by a miracle (cf. 2 Kings 5:14) or any other means. In fact, the recognition of cleansing could only come about through an elaborate series of events that included tests, rituals, offerings and sacrifices that would last at least eight days (see Lev. 14:1-32).
How much like these 10 lepers are each of us this Thanksgiving season! Our problem may not be a physical disease, but each one of us is infected with a fatal, sinful condition. Only trust in the work of Christ on the cross—where He died for our sins, leading to His resurrection from the dead—can save us and give us the hope of forgiveness and eternal life.
I pray that you will trust in Him this Thanksgiving!
If you do, you will have so much to be thankful for.
Editor’s Note: For more on this topic, you can listen to a related message by Paul Scharf by clicking here.
(Read Part 2)
Copyright © 2017 Dispensational Publishing House, Inc.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®.
Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 John MacArthur, Luke 1-5, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, Moody Publishers, 2009), p. 313; as quoted in John MacArthur, Luke 11-17, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, Moody Publishers, 2003), p. 389.
 For more Old Testament background that led up to these later events in Samaria, see Genesis 12:6-7; 33:18-19; 48:21-22; Exodus 13:19; Deuteronomy 11:29; 27:1-14; and Joshua 24:32. Read a summary explaining the tensions between Jews and Samaritans in John F. Hart, “John,” in The Moody Bible Commentary, ed. by Michael Rydelnik and Michael Vanlaningham (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), p. 1,616-1,617.
This article was first featured on November 23, 2016.