On six occasions Scripture alludes to leopards—five times in the Old Testament, once in the New Testament. Five times the allusions to leopards, whether referenced literally or metaphorically, depict the leopard as a dangerous beast of prey. The first reference belongs to Isaiah, who marvels at the peace that will prevail, even over nature, during the reign of Christ in the Millennial Kingdom. His description of that peace includes the amazing fact that “the leopard will lie down with the young goat” (11:6). Speaking metaphorically, Jeremiah describes its ferocity: “a leopard is watching their cities. Everyone who goes out of them will be torn in pieces” (5:6); and Hosea its cunning: “like a leopard I will lie in wait by the wayside” (13:7). The prophet Daniel and the apostle John in The Revelation both describe one aspect of the Beast who will rule under the power of Satan during the Tribulation as having the deceptive and destructive capabilities of a leopard. The person who thinks he can deliver himself from the clutches of a leopard deceives himself. And the person who thinks he might survive the Tribulation period unscathed has no concept of the pernicious power of the Beast. But the sixth reference, our text, uses the leopard to teach a different lesson: namely, the abject inability of the sinner to reform himself. Addressing Judah, which was about to fall prey to the might of the Babylonian army under God’s judgment for their idolatry and sinful rebellion, Jeremiah proclaimed: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (13:23). So self-evident is the answer to that question that it has become a proverb: “Can a leopard change its spots?”
What the leopard teaches us. The lesson is simple and easily stated in one sentence: Man will not and cannot deliver himself from sin. He will not straighten up and fly right. Born in sin and “shapen in iniquity” (Psa. 51:5a, KJV), we live out the fallen nature we inherited at birth from Adam. Just as oxygen and hydrogen are the inherent parts of water and cannot be separated without causing the water to cease to exist, so the spots on a leopard are an inherent part of its DNA. And although it might be conceivable today that a leopard’s DNA might be altered so as to eliminate its spots, that possibility is irrelevant to the force of Jeremiah’s question, which is: “Can . . . the leopard change his spots?” The answer to that question is, of course, a resounding, “No!” No spotted leopard ever has, and no spotted leopard ever will, change its spots. The thought that it could do so is completely absurd. Addressing Judah, Jeremiah explained: you are coming under God’s judgment “because of the magnitude of your iniquity” (13:22b). God through His prophets had warned and pleaded with his people, but they loved their sin; they relished their iniquity. Nothing would induce them to turn from their rebellion to the Lord. All men are hopelessly enslaved in sin, absolutely unwilling but also entirely unable to remove so much as one “spot.”
Where the teaching leaves us. Where it left Judah Scripture reveals. Because they would not turn from their sin, the Lord declared: “Therefore I will scatter them like drifting straw to the desert wind” (13:24). The “wind” He used to scatter them was the tornadic force of the Babylonian military, which demolished the countryside of Judah, razed Jerusalem, killed countless young and old, drove many refugees elsewhere—especially to Egypt, and took another multitude captive. God had provided a means of deliverance. If they would leave their rebellion, reject their idolatry, and repent of their sin, God would not only deliver them, He would pour out blessing on them. But they would have none of His help. Similarly, we today have been offered the means of deliverance by God. His Son died for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38; 10:43). The blood of Christ is a holy spot remover, cleansing the believing sinner from every stain of sin. There is no other means of deliverance from the tornado of eternal destruction awaiting the one who rejects God’s means. The sinner accepts the remedy God provides, or he dies in his sins. Where does the analogy of the leopard leave us? At the mercy of God alone. Whether a lost sinner or a sinning saint, Christ alone saves, cleanses, and sanctifies. Believers are commanded to repent and forsake their sin, but they can and must do so only in the power of the indwelling Spirit. But God is able and willing to forgive and cleanse all who confess their sins. He can and will finally remove every spot.
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