I was struck recently by the description of the leper in Matt 8:2-4:
Mat 8:2 And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him,
The leper is not alone. Others who “worship” Jesus of Nazareth, in Matthew’s account alone, include the wise men (2:11), the ruler whose daughter had died (9:18), his disciples in the ship (14:33), the Canaanite woman (15:25), the mother of the sons of Zebedee (20:20), the women at the tomb (28:9), and the disciples in Galilee (28:17). Commentators often suggest that this action does not necessarily imply that Jesus is God, but can simply be a sign of respect. But there’s more to the story.
The Greek word involved is προσκυνεω, which the KJV universally translates “worship.” (This consistency is remarkable for a version that values diversity in renderings.) It appears frequently in the LXX, overwhelmingly as the translation of the hishtaphel of חוה. Both of these words mean “to prostrate oneself.” Unbelievers in both testaments regularly bow down to authorities, and in the OT even godly people sometimes offer prostration as a mark of respect without implying that the recipient is God. For example,
Gen 23:7 And Abraham stood up, and bowed himself to the people of the land, even to the children of Heth.
1Sa 24:8 David also arose afterward, and went out of the cave, and cried after Saul, saying, My lord the king. And when Saul looked behind him, David stooped with his face to the earth, and bowed himself.
There is a stark change with the captivity. God sent Israel into Assyria and Babylon because of their idolatry. He showed them idolatrous cultures in their fullest form, and ever after, the worship of idols has not been an issue in Judaism. Perhaps this increased sensitivity to the meaning of bowing down to something other than the Lord is why, after the captivity, godly people neither offer nor accept bowing as a gesture of respect.
Unlike Abraham and David, none of the exilic saints ever bows down to anyone but God. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego endure the fiery furnace for their refusal to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s image. The king does not ask for any mental commitment or belief in the image, but simply a physical gesture:
Dan 3:15 Now if ye be ready that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the image which I have made; well: but if ye worship not, ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace;
Dan 3:18 be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.
Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman:
Est 3:2 And all the king’s servants, that were in the king’s gate, bowed, and reverenced Haman: for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai bowed not, nor did him reverence.
In the LXX, he explains his unwillingness in a prayer to the Lord:
Est 4:17 (LXX) Thou knowest all things: thou knowest, Lord, that it is not in the insolence, nor haughtiness, nor love of glory, that I have done this, to refuse obeisance to the haughty Aman. For I would gladly have kissed the soles of his feet for the safety of Israel. But I have done this, that I might not set the glory of man above the glory of God: and I will not worship any one except thee, my Lord, and I will not do these things in haughtiness.
(I do not accept the LXX as canonical, but it was written after the captivity, and this addition is a reliable record of the attitudes of the Jewish community that produced it.)
This restricted use of the word continues in the NT. There are 60 instances of the verb, and one of the derived noun, in the NT. Edward Bickersteth, whose classic book on the deity of Christ deserves to be far better known than it is, analyzes them thus:
a) In fifteen cases, worship is offered to the Lord Jesus.
b) Twenty-seven times it is offered to God.
c) Twenty-one times, worship offered to idols or men is repudiated.
d) Once, in the parable of the ungrateful servant in Matt 18:26, it is used of the servant before his Lord, who is clearly a figure of God.
It is instructive to consider some instances of c). Cornelius, as a Gentile, does not hesitate to bow down to Peter, but Peter refuses this worship:
Act 10:25 And as Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him, and fell down at his feet, and worshipped him. 26 But Peter took him up, saying, Stand up; I myself also am a man.
For our Lord to accept worship, he must think of himself as more than a man. Again, in the Revelation, John’s angelic guide refuses worship:
Rev 22:8 And I John saw these things, and heard them. And when I had heard and seen, I fell down to worship before the feet of the angel which shewed me these things. 9 Then saith he unto me, See thou do it not: for I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets, and of them which keep the sayings of this book: worship God.
For our Lord to accept worship, he must think of himself as more than an angel.
Only once after the captivity, in Rev 3:9, does προσκυνεω refer to worship offered acceptably to the creature:
Rev 3:9 Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.
The exception is much less striking when we realize that the Lord is alluding to several verses in Isaiah, which predict that in the coming kingdom, the Gentile nations that oppressed Israel will now bow to her:
Is 45:14 Thus saith the LORD, The labour of Egypt, and merchandise of Ethiopia and of the Sabeans, men of stature, shall come over unto thee, and they shall be thine: they shall come after thee; in chains they shall come over, and they shall fall down unto thee, they shall make supplication unto thee, saying, Surely God is in thee; and there is none else, there is no God.
Is 49:23 And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet;
Is 60:14 The sons also of them that afflicted thee shall come bending unto thee; and all they that despised thee shall bow themselves down at the soles of thy feet; and they shall call thee, The city of the LORD, The Zion of the Holy One of Israel.
Isaiah writes before the exile, and (like Abraham and David) understands the word of a courteous gesture without recognition of deity. The Lord, in addressing the Gentile church at Philadelphia, alludes to these passages to create a sense of cutting irony. Once Israel is restored, Gentiles will bow to her, but while she remains unfaithful (“the synagogue of Satan”), she is the one who must bow down to the church in a Greek city.
Given this array of usage, our passage takes on deeper meaning, in two ways.
First, because the leper is a Jew, his gesture is more than a mark of politeness. He recognizes in Jesus something more than an itinerant rabbi. He may remember from the Synagogue the ancient promises of the promised Messiah whose name would be called God With Us (Immanuel) and the Mighty God, leading him to this expression of reverence toward Jesus.
Second, the Lord’s response to the leper’s worship is in contrast with Peter’s response to Cornelius, or the angel’s response to Peter. He willingly receives what belongs to God alone, and as a result we must either reject him as an imposter, or bow before him with the leper.