(Unless otherwise stated, all quotations of Scripture are from the New King James Version )
Although there are over forty references to our Lord’s hands in the Gospels, we read there of only three occasions on which He ‘stretched out’ His hand. But, in one way or another, each of these occasions speaks volumes about His boundless love and grace.
(i) First, we read in Luke chapter 5 that, ‘While’ the Lord Jesus ‘was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged Him, Lord, if you will, you can make me clean. And Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean”. And immediately the leprosy left him’.1
In the touch of our Lord’s outstretched hand in the city, we see unique cleansing power.
The man who came to Jesus was in a most sad and distressing condition. According to the Law of Moses, a leper was cut off from all social contact, forbidden to come near the dwellings of his fellow-men. ‘He is unclean, and he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp’ were the words of Leviticus chapter 13.2 As usual, the Rabbis went far beyond the teaching of the Law. ‘If a leper was seen on a public street it was considered permissible to pelt him with eggs or even stones’.3 The leper was required to keep at least two yards from a healthy person, or fifty yards if the wind was blowing from the leper’s direction.4 And, in this case, the man not only had leprosy, but, according to Doctor Luke, he was ‘full of leprosy’. That is, the leprosy had spread over his whole body, covering him from head to foot. It did not, therefore, affect merely his hand, as had been the case with Moses temporarily,5 nor affect merely his forehead, as had been the case with King Uzziah from the time of his intrusion into the priests’ office until the day of his death.6
Luke draws particular attention to our Lord’s physical contact with the poor man.
For our Lord did not send him, as Elisha had once sent Naaman, the leprous commander of the Syrian army, to wash seven times in the Jordan.7 Nor did our Lord do as Naaman had expected Elisha to do – to wave His hand over the leprosy and heal it.8 No, our Lord didn’t wave His hand; He ‘stretched out’ His hand. He actually touched the leper, no doubt ‘stretching out’ His hand because the leper hadn’t dared come near enough to Him for Him to touch him. What a moment that must have been! I wonder when the poor man had last felt a human touch?
I said above that here ‘we see unique cleansing power’. And it was ‘unique’ because scripture makes it clear that only God can cure leprosy.9 When Benhadad II, the King of Syria, had sent Naaman to Jehoram King of Israel to be cured, Jehoram suspected that Benhadad was looking for a quarrel. ‘Am I God, to kill and make alive’, was his indignant response, ‘that this man sends a man to me to heal him of his leprosy?’10
Among the Jews, leprosy was regarded as a ‘stroke’ from God, and was referred to as ‘the finger of God’.11 And so this man who, in popular belief, had been touched by ‘the finger of God’ was now, in actuality, touched by the outstretched hand of Jesus. ‘And immediately’, Doctor Luke says, ‘the leprosy left him’.
(ii) We read in Matthew chapter 12 of the second case when our Lord ‘stretched out’ His hand. ‘While He was still speaking to the people’, Matthew reports, ‘behold, His mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to Him. But He replied to the man who told Him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother”’12
In the sweep of our Lord’s outstretched hand in the house we see an intimate spiritual relationship.
We are not told what it was that His mother and brothers wished to speak to Him about that day. We know only that, according to Luke’s account of the incident, when they arrived, ‘His mother and brothers … could not approach him because of the crowd’ inside the house.13
The Lord had recently crossed swords sharply with the scribes and the Pharisees, and it is by no means impossible therefore that Mary and His brothers14 were mainly concerned for His safety and had come to discourage Him from being so confrontational. But we have no way of knowing whether this was so or not. What we do know is that, to the man who informed Him they were outside, the Lord made it clear that even the closest of earthly relationships must yield and give way to spiritual relationships – that the spiritual ties between Him and His disciples were far closer than even the ties of family.
It is important to recognize that, in doing this, He was showing no disrespect either for His mother or His brothers. He was simply pointing to a higher and more intimate relationship.
How great is the privilege enjoyed by every Christian that he or she is so closely united to the Lord Jesus that He is ‘not ashamed to call them brethren’!15
(iii) We read in Matthew 14 of the third and last case when our Lord ‘stretched out’ His hand. Some time, we are told, between three and six o’clock in the morning, Jesus approached His apostles ‘walking on the sea’. When the disciples, who had by then rowed a little over half-way across the Sea of Galilee, saw Him, ‘they were terrified … But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid”. And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”.16 … He said, “Come”. And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him (’took firm hold of him’)’.17
In the grip of our Lord’s outstretched hand in the storm we see timely preserving care.
I say ‘timely’, because we are told explicitly that, when Peter took His eyes off the Lord Jesus (focusing them on the violent effects of the wind rather than on Him) and began to sink, ‘immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him’.18
And I suggest that, in these three incidents, we see mirrored what the Lord Jesus has done, or does, for each one of us. For (i) we too have received cleansing from our sin and defilement from Him; (ii) we too have come into the good of the most wonderful spiritual relationship with Him; and (iii) many times, when we have felt unable to cope and about to sink, we too have been upheld and brought through our trials by Him.
I claimed at the outset that there are only three incidents recorded in the Gospels in which our Lord is said to have stretched out His hand. And so there are.
But, towards the close of his Gospel, the apostle John informs us that our Lord Jesus once used a very similar expression when addressing the apostle Peter, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go’.19 ‘This’, John explains, ‘He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God’.20
For my part, I understand our Lord’s words ‘you will stretch out your hands’, not only as a reference to Peter’s martyrdom, but to the actual manner of Peter’s death; namely, death by crucifixion.21 And I suggest therefore that our Lord’s own death by crucifixion could also be described, in part at least, in terms of ‘the stretching out of His hands’.
And so, if (i) in the touch of our Lord’s outstretched hand in the city we see evidence of unique cleansing power, (ii) in the sweep of our Lord’s outstretched hand in the house we see evidence of an intimate spiritual relationship, and (iii) in the grip of our Lord’s outstretched hand in the storm we see evidence of timely preserving care, it is as we envisage our Lord’s outstretched arms and hands on the cross that we see the demonstration of His fathomless love for us all.
Luke 5. 12-13 ESV.
Lev. 13. 46. According to the teaching of the Rabbis, lepers could not enter a walled town. In un-walled towns there was a place set apart for lepers in the synagogue, into which they had to enter before others and from which they could leave only after others. Any violation of these rules was punished by forty stripes save one. See ALFRED EDERSHEIM, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book III, Chapter 15.
JOHN ORTBERG, Love Beyond Reason, page 50.
‘No less a distance than four cubits (six feet) must be kept from a leper; or, if the wind came from that direction, a hundred were scarcely sufficient. Rabbi Meir would not eat an egg purchased in a street where there was a leper. Another Rabbi boasted, that he always threw stones at them to keep them far off, while others hid themselves or ran away’, ALFRED EDERSHEIM, ibid.
Exod. 4. 6-7.
2 Chr. 26. 15-21.
2 Kgs. 5. 10. And what a story that was! ‘The military commander who was cleansed’, you might say, ‘by seven ducks in a dirty river’! (See 2 Kgs. 5. 14.)
2 Kgs. 5. 11.
Compare Num. 12.
2 Kgs 5. 7. This accounts in part for the reply which our Lord gave to the messengers who had been sent by John the Baptist to enquire, ‘Are you the coming one, or are we to look for another?’ ‘Go and tell John the things which you hear and see’, Jesus said, directing both them and John then, not only to the blind receiving their sight and the dead being raised up, but to the fact that ‘the lepers are cleansed’, Matt. 11. 4-5. Among the Jews, to heal someone of leprosy was considered as difficult as raising the dead; see JAMES R. EDWARDS, The Gospel according to Mark, page 69. ‘For the lepers, he (Moses) suffered them not to come into the city at all, nor to live with any others, as if they were in effect dead persons’, FLAVIUS JOSEPHUS, Antiquities of the Jews, Book III, Chapter XI, paragraph 3.
R. C. TRENCH, Notes on the Miracles, page 231. In Leviticus chapters 13 and 14 the word ‘plague’ (‘stroke’) is used in connection with leprosy twenty-one times.
Matt. 12. 46-50 ESV.
Luke 8. 19.
We are told elsewhere that His brothers did not believe in Him, John 7. 5.
Heb. 2. 11-12.
‘The Egyptians, in their hieroglyphics, were wont to represent an impossibility by painting the figure of a man … walking on the sea’, R. TUCK, The Pulpit Commentary on Matthew, Homily on Matthew 14. 29-30.
Matt. 14. 24-31.
We should note the double ‘immediate’ of verses 27 and 31 of Matthew chapter 14. The Saviour did not delay one moment either before speaking to arrest the disciples’ fears or before reaching out to grasp and save Peter.
John 21. 18 literal translation.
John 21. 19.
I note in particular the similar expressions used by John to describe our Lord’s own death by crucifixion; see John 12. 33; 18. 32. Some critics have claimed that the order in John 21 verse 18 (of the stretching out of the hands before being girded and led out for execution) is contrary to the sequence of events in the case of crucifixion. But ‘the general procedure for crucifixion by the Romans’ was for the cross-beam to be bound to the outstretched arms of the man to be crucified, ‘who had then to carry it to the place of crucifixion’; G. R. BEASLEY-MURRAY, John (in the Word Biblical Commentary series), pages 408-409. Compare ‘He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull’, John 19. 17.