One of the big themes in the Gospels is that Jesus comes to make us “clean.” The idea of cleanness arises out of the Old Testament Law. The Law distinguishes between
- Blessing and curse
- Life and death
- Sin and righteousness
- Law keepers and law breakers
- Holy and profane
- Clean and Unclean
There is a relationship between these and potentially some overlaps but these are not all direct equivalents. Holiness versus profaneness is about distinguishing those people, places and things which are separated and special to God -the extraordinary if you like, from the ordinary, the things of everyday life. It was possible under the Law to be clean whilst not falling within the category of holy. Meanwhile, you could fall into the category of unclean without necessarily sinning.
However, believers find that we are alive, not dead and therefore in the place of life. We are declared righteous and classed as law-keepers in Christ. We are clean. More than that though, all of God’s people are considered holy now. We are all set apart as saints. We are a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.
The categories of cleanness and uncleanness were intended to represent the importance of order and boundaries. The possibility of becoming unclean was a reminder that we live in a messy world because of the fall and therefore people are affected by that mess.
So, the law categorised certain things as unclean including particular animals and therefore foods, specific illnesses such as leprosy as well as bodily emissions – semen and menstrual blood and contact with dead bodies. Some of the laws seem to fit well with modern concerns for good hygiene and medical practice, however not all have that function and so we should not see this as their primary purpose.
Uncleanness, either temporary because you came into contact with something unclean such as a body or bodily fluids, or permanent due to things like leprosy separated you from contact with God’s people. You were required to self-isolate, to socially distance from others. This also meant that you could not go to the Temple or the Synagogue. Uncleanness was serious. In this passage, we see what happens when Jesus encounters the unclean. It includes a man who is possessed by an unclean or evil spirit. It also includes someone who has leprosy.
One of the things we see in the Gospels is a significant concentration of demonic activity. Today, Christians can make one of two mistakes. I think that some see demons everywhere. However, when you look at the Bible, outside of the Gospels, this kind of activity is rare. It seems that there was a specific display of Satanic force in response to the coming of King Jesus. We are witnessing a clash of kingdoms. Additionally, as believers, we have the Holy Spirit filling us. Christ dwells in us and so no demon can come near and possess you.
However, some people go to the opposite extreme and completely disregard the existence of demons. Whilst mentioned, less often outside of the Gospels, we do find references in Acts and in the Old Testament to demons, unclean and lying spirits. We should treat the spiritual world seriously. Ephesians 6 reminds us that our battle is not with flesh and blood.
The demon possessing the man in Mark 1 v21-28 recognises Jesus for who he is, the Holy One who has come to destroy evil. He cries out as Jesus is teaching and the people are marvelling at his authority (v22). Jesus now demonstrates his authority in a different way by commanding the spirit to be silent and to come out from the man (v25-26). This causes further astonishment (v27-28).
Jesus’ reputation grows as a result of this and so many others come looking for healing (v29-34). It is fascinating that in the middle of the big picture, Mark also draws our attention to a specific intimate detail. Jesus takes time to heal Peter’s mother-in-law. This detail reminds us that Peter was an eye witness source, possibly the main source for the Gospel.
In Mark 1 v35-39 we find Jesus taking time despite all the pressure and business to be alone with his Father in prayer. There is pressure on Jesus to perform and respond to his fame but he reminds the disciples that his priority is to proclaim the good news of the kingdom.
V40-45 brings Jesus into contact with a leper. Jesus has compassion for him and reaches out to touch him. Given the horrific, disfiguring nature of the illness and the man’s status as unclean, this is hugely significant. Jesus is not afraid of contact with the man. Instead of this contact making Jesus unclean, the power flows the other way. Contact with Jesus makes the unclean clean! Notice that this is the emphasis here on cleanness with the word mentioned several times. Jesus sends the man to see the priest. The law required such an examination. This would confirm that he could re-enter society and also have access to the rites and rituals of religious faith too.
Jesus also tells the man not to go around speaking about him yet. It is not that the good news shouldn’t be shared but there is a timing and order to things. The man ignores this and we see that in fact, Jesus’ ability to move freely is hindered.
I find the early emphasis on being clean in the Gospel powerful. You see, that desire to be washed clean speaks to our deepest desires. So often we feel dirty and shamed. Sometimes we experience this sense of dirtiness because of what we’ve done. We think “If others knew what I’d done and what I’m thinking they would reject me.” Sometimes we experience it because of what others have said and done to us. This is particularly true for victims of abuse whether emotional, physical, sexual or spiritual. And so, that sense of shame and dirtiness leaves us believing that we cannot belong. We learn to believe that God could not love us and we become isolated from God’s people. We find ourselves alone.
This is why the Gospel is good news. Jesus says that you are clean. You are clean from everything you have ever thought, said or done and you are clean from anything that others have said or done to you. This is a past, present and future truth. This means that we belong. We belong to him. We are loved by God. It means that we belong and are welcome in God’s family, the church.