Of Prayer, Preaching, Leprosy, & the Messianic Secret | Mark 1:35-45

And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.

And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.

Mark 1:35-45 ESV

Despite the threats of the officials, the early church grew explosively. The apostles continued to proclaim the risen and glorified Christ, and crowds of people believed and began to follow their Savior. However, a threat from within soon endangered this new community. The Greek-speaking widows complained that were being treated secondary to the Hebrew-speaking widows in in the distribution of food. This was no minor squabble; rather, behind the physical concern was a crucial question: did the kingdom of God have second-class citizens? Would some receive preferred treatment over others in the church?

Despite the church’s unity hanging in the balance of this issue, the apostles notably did not drop everything in order to settle the dispute; instead, they assembled the church together and had seven godly men chosen to oversee the distribution ministry. Such a massive special gathering of the church clearly displayed the importance of the matter, as well as how seriously the apostles took it; however, the apostles still passed the issue onto other people. Why? They explained themselves:

It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.

Acts 6:2–4

While overseeing the food distribution to the widows was both noble and necessary, the apostles knew what responsibilities needed to their full concern, namely prayer and preaching. How were they able to be so focused in the face of such an uncertain moment? They were simply following the example that Jesus had set for them.

THE PRAYER PATTERN OF CHRIST // VERSE 35

Even after the very full day that Jesus had, we are told that rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. This presents us with a very brief glimpse into the devotional habits of our Lord, as well as the priority that He placed upon prayer. Even after He expended Himself teaching and healing over the course of the previous day, He still rose early to have communion with His Father. Luke’s Gospel, in particular, repeatedly reveals that this was a continual habit of Jesus, not a one-time event.

We can learn at least three lessons from Jesus’ prayer activity. First, if Jesus needed time alone with the Father in prayer, how much more do we? After all, a servant is not greater than his master. If Christ relied upon the power of prayer, the same is certainly true of us. Indeed, Ryle makes the following warning:

A praying Master, like Jesus, can have no prayerless servants. The Spirit of adoption will always make a man call upon God. To be prayerless is to be Christless, Godless, and in the high road to destruction.[1]

Just as prayer marked the life of the Son of God, prayer also marks us as God’s sons.

Second, we should consider that Jesus rose early to pray, even before the sun had risen. The morning, before the busyness of the day ahead, is an ideal time for focused prayer. Psalm 5:3 finds David declaring, “O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.” Psalm 119:147 also says, “I rise before dawn and cry for help; I hope in your words.” Two caveats are necessary. First, this is a matter of wisdom rather than command, and second, we are called to pray at all times and without ceasing. Even still, rising early to pray as Jesus did is certainly worth our imitation.

Third, notice that Jesus prayed in a desolate place. He purposely withdrew Himself away from the crowds in order to pray alone. In the Sermon on the Mount, He gave us a very similar command:

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:5–6

Our passage in Mark reveals that Jesus did indeed practice what He taught, and we too should follow His example. Having a place for such secret prayer is very wise because it removes the lure of hypocrisy as well as limiting the temptation toward distractions. Whether walking down a secluded trail, sitting in a particular chair while everyone else is asleep or busy, or wherever else, find a place where, like our Lord, you can be alone in prayer with God, and give the best of yourself to such daily times of prayer.

THE PRIORITY OF PREACHING // VERSES 36-39

Moving on, we are told that Simon and others were searching for Jesus, and when they finally found Him, they impressed upon Him that the whole town was looking for Him. Jesus, however, gave an unexpected answer: Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out (v. 38). Verse 39 then tells us that He did just that.

The people were no doubt looking for Jesus because of the great wonders that He performed among them. Indeed, nothing draws a crowd like miraculously healing the sick and casting out demons. Jesus, however, never played toward the crowds. In John 6, after Jesus fed more than five thousand people, He then quickly challenged the motives of the multitude, calling upon them to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to quench their true hunger and thirst. Such strong words caused many of His disciples to follow Him no longer (John 6:66). Jesus did not become a man in order to win public approval; He came to accomplish a mission, a task. During His earthly ministry, that mission was the proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom of God.

Today’s wrestling over the place of social justice in the church ought to be submitted to the pattern of Jesus’ own life. He obviously did not view meeting people’s physical needs as unimportant nor as being beneath Him, as we will see quickly with the leper. As we noted last week, we repeated see Jesus purposely and intentionally reaching out the broken. Yet as we see here, such physical work was always secondary to His spiritual work. In the same manner, the church, the body of Christ, ought to happily serve and meet the meet physical needs[2] particularly within the church but also beyond it. Nevertheless, Jesus’ church is not called to fix the brokenness of the world by eradicating poverty and injustice. Ultimately, we know that only the return of Christ and His remaking of heaven and earth will heal the groanings of creation. Yet until that day, we also follow the example of our King who did not set about changing the world by implementing a philosophical, social, or economic system; instead, He ministered to individuals, grafting them into the people of God.

This is the hope that the gospel brings. The kingdom is not a flashy revolution that upends the world order with a violent coup; instead, it is a pebble that slowly grows into a mountain that covers the earth. The past two thousand years of Christianity have created the most equitable society in human history (at least since Noah), and as broken and bumpy as that ride through church history has been, the answer to society’s ills is not a return to paganism but a renewed hunger to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God is both here and near.[3] It is the heart-by-heart resurrection that leads to God’s will being done a little more on earth as it is in heaven. Let us, therefore, like our Lord make the proclamation of the gospel our highest duty, while doing whatever good we can along the way. Let us not take the burden of bringing about a utopia upon ourselves; instead, let us focus on who and what are in front of us, just as Jesus did.

I WILL; BE CLEAN // VERSES 40-42

Mark wastes no time giving us another example of Jesus doing such acts of grace while preaching from town to town. And a leper came to him,[4] imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” In order to understand the nature of this man’s plight that moved Christ to pity, we need to know about what the Old Testament commanded in regard to those with leprosy. Leprosy, in the Old Testament, could often refer generically to skin diseases, and many believe that Leviticus 13-14 described a disease different than Hansen’s disease, which is the modern disease called leprosy. Nevertheless, Leviticus 13 describes leprosy as a serious and infectious disease, and in order to curb its spread, the following prescription was given:

The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.

Leviticus 13:45–46

To be a leper was to experience a living death in isolation, outside the community, despised and rejected by everyone. Notice, however, that this leper was not warning Jesus of his uncleanness but rather begging Jesus to be cleansed. At the sight of Christ, the leper saw the cleanness of Christ more than he saw his own uncleanness.

Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. This particular touch of Jesus is highly significant. Not only were lepers unclean, but anyone who came into contact with them were made unclean as well, which was why lepers shouted, “Unclean, unclean” as they walked about.

Throughout the Old Testament, we see a multitude of ways for people to become unclean, even through ordinary and unavoidable tasks. This served as a reminder that, because of our sin, being unclean is our default state before God. Indeed, leprosy is a perfect example of uncleanness because like an infectious disease, defilement spreads more quickly than holiness.

Jesus, of course, is different. He is no ordinary man. He purposely touches the leper, which is likely the first human contact that he had since diagnosed, and at His touch and word, the leprosy left him. Jesus does not become defiled by touching the leper; rather, His touch purifies immediately.

While being ritually unclean or defiled was not the same as being in sin, uncleanness served as a picture of the corrupting and contagious nature of sin. Although sin always promises pleasure, in the end it always produces death and very often the kind of living death that leprosy brought. Sin afflicts us and drives us outside the presence of God and of His people.

Thankfully, our Lord did not leave us our miserable condition. Just as lepers were driven outside the camp, Hebrews 13:12 tells us that “Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.” Through the crucifixion, Jesus was afflicted with the shame that our sin rightly brings upon us, and He took it willingly in our place. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:3).

Jesus’ pity upon the leper, therefore, was in the looming shadow of the cross, where He would be rejected and scorned by men and be counted as one unclean by His own Father. Yet He endured the shame in order to purify us for Himself, to be a people for His own possession (Titus 2:14). And like the leper’s quick-fading leprosy, our cleansing in Christ is immediate and complete, so that we immediately counted as sons and daughters of God.

THE MESSIANIC SECRET // VERSES 43-45

Our passage concludes with some rather interesting verses. First, Jesus sternly charged him to tell no one about how Jesus had healed him but only to go before the priest in order to fulfill law of Moses. Yet we are then told that he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.

This charge of Jesus for the leper not to tell anyone fits together with how Jesus previously kept the demons from speaking “because they knew him” (v. 34). This trend will continue throughout Mark’s Gospel such that many refer to it as the messianic secret. This, of course, raises a question. Why does Jesus seem intent on hiding His identity if He purposely came to proclaim the arrival of His kingdom?

The most natural answer is that:

although Jesus was aware of his messianic status, he was wary of accepting the title from the Jewish people because of the prevailing Christological expectations, which tended to focus more on a political messiah and left little room for a suffering one (see 10:45).[5]

Furthermore, because Jesus’ face is set toward the cross, His true mission as the Christ was not fully visible until after His resurrection. Thus, Jesus knew that not all publicity was good publicity. He knew that He was not the Christ that everyone wanted. He was not the King that they expected to come. And just as His death would happen outside the city gates, He was content to operate on the outskirts of society. Even with His anonymity gone, the people still flocked to the desolate places to be with Him. Without knowing it, they were enacting the reality that our communion with the Father comes through Jesus as our mediator. As He went out to the Father, so He calls us to go to Him.

This is a fitting note for us to conclude the first chapter on. Like the Jews of Jesus’ day, we each read the Gospels with our own expectations of what the Christ should look and act like. We have a pre-made mold that Jesus is supposed to fit into. If we want a kind and compassionate Messiah, we emphasize His healings like this leper and His commands to love and not judge. If we want a counter-cultural Jesus, we emphasize His cleansing of the temple with whips and how He spoke to the Pharisees. Jesus, however, did it all. He commanded demons to muzzle themselves and then lifted up fevered women by the hand. He left behind many unhealed in order to preach to more people and then touched an untouchable. Let us continue to let the Spirit-penned portraits of Jesus be our understanding of our Lord, and may the Spirit also empower us to be ever like Him, communing with our Father, proclaiming His gospel, and “let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured” (Hebrews 13:13). Let us come to know our King evermore and let us be evermore like Him.


[1] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Mark, 14.

[2] Indeed, as Jesus will show us next week, our deepest need is eternal life in Him, not the mending of our temporary bodies and situations.

[3] My favorite example of this is slavery. Rome and every other pagan society happily practiced slavery with full admission that slaves were people. Christianity slowly yet pervasively changed this. Indeed, slavery in the U.S. was particularly ugly because it was slavery in its death throes, where men attempted to reconcile Scripture and slavery by arguing against the humanity of their slaves. Of course, let us not forget to mention that slavery is still alive and well in many parts of the world that have not had the influence of the gospel of Christ.

[4] Piggybacking on the previous point, it is worth noting that Jesus resolved to preach, yet those were healed came to Him. As followers of Christ, we should have our eyes alert for opportunities to serve others as they present themselves, yet we should actively look for times to declare the gospel.

[5] Andreas J. Kostenberger, J. Scott Kellum, & Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown, 298-299.

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