The Healing of the Deaf Mute
Sermon Text: Mark 7:31-37
We’re looking at Mark 7:31–37, and I would ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God.
Again, departing from the region of Tyre and Sidon, He came through the midst of the region of Decapolis to the Sea of Galilee. Then they brought to Him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech, and they begged Him to put His hand on him. And He took him aside from the multitude, and put His fingers in his ears, and He spat and touched his tongue. Then, looking up to heaven, He sighed, and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”
Immediately his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke plainly. Then He commanded them that they should tell no one; but the more He commanded them, the more widely they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
If He has given you ears to hear His Word, so then hear it this day. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Again, O God, we thank You with all of our heart that You provide such a record of the amazing work of your dear Son. O Lord, we want to learn everything we can about Him, who He is and what He has accomplished for us. And we pray this morning as we consider this brief episode recorded for us by Mark, that we would see more of the sweetness and the excellence of Christ. For we ask it in His name. Amen.
Jesus’ Wandering Journey
Last week, we talked about Jesus leaving the traditional borders of Israel and traveling to the city of Tyre, which is in modern day Lebanon, in ancient Phoenicia. Mark tells again of Jesus continuing to be on the move. His description of the itinerary here in the seventh chapter is one that has, frankly, baffled biblical scholars for centuries, because we read that Jesus left Tyre, went north to Sidon, made His way east, came back south, then back up to the Sea of Galilee. This trip moved in the shape of a horseshoe and took 120 miles to go from Tyre back across, down, and around, up into the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The question is, Why in the world did He take the trip in this manner? It would be like somebody from Washington, D.C. wanting to go to Richmond and going by way of Philadelphia. If you know your American geography, you know this is not a well-planned itinerary. This seems more like the wilderness wandering of Israel in the Old Testament. The question is, Why? Well, I can answer that question: I don’t know. In any case, I, in fidelity to Mark’s gospel, report to you the detail that they made that journey.
A Man with a Malady
Then we read that He came through the midst of the region of Decapolis to the Sea of Galilee. They brought to Him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech, and they begged Jesus to put His hand upon him. Mark’s description of the malady afflicting this man who was brought to Jesus for His compassion and His ministry does not really come across as powerfully in English as it does in the original language. Mark tells us that the man was deaf and that he had a speech impediment. The word for speech impediment is only found twice in all of the Bible, and it means that the person had a severe difficulty in speaking clearly or in any way in which people could discern the words that he was saying.
This description of his malady has fueled much speculation about the cause of his problem. Some say that he must have been born deaf. Those who are born deaf, without great training by professional speech pathologists, are usually doomed to being mute as well; yet this man still was able to speak to some degree. Scholars say that he probably wasn’t born deaf, but deafness afflicted him early in his life, so whatever speech patterns he was able to develop were garbled at best. Now, that’s all speculative. All we know is that the man couldn’t hear, nor could he speak in any plain manner.
There is an element of further interest when we say, “Why does Mark include this episode?” Jesus healed so many people of so many different diseases and problems. In all the New Testament record of Jesus’ life, why does Mark alone include this brief narrative of this particular healing? We find a clue in that the word mogilalos is the Greek word for what is translated “speech impediment” here. This word is only used twice in the Bible, and the other place is in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament book of Isaiah. I’d like to take a few moments to digress from Mark’s study here and go back centuries earlier to the prophetic writing of Isaiah in the Old Testament.
Isaiah’s Pronouncement of Judgment
This prophecy takes us back to Isaiah 35, but before I read from chapter 35, let me set the context for you. In the preceding chapters, Isaiah has been delivering to the people of Israel an oracle of doom. God had commissioned Isaiah to pronounce upon the people of Israel and her neighbors that the judgment of God was going to lay the land waste, that the people were going to go through a period of severe desolation. Just to give a taste of the severity of that judgment, let’s go back even earlier to Isaiah 34.
Beginning in verse 8, Isaiah says:
For it is the day of the Lord’s vengeance,
The year of recompense for the cause of Zion.
Its streams [listen to the imagery here] shall be turned into pitch [tar, that is],
And its dust into brimstone; its land shall become burning pitch.
It shall not be quenched night or day;
Its smoke shall ascend forever.
From generation to generation it shall lie waste;
No one shall pass through it forever and ever. (Isa. 34:8–10)
Who will own this land? Listen to what Isaiah says:
But the pelican and the porcupine shall possess it,
Also the owl and the raven shall dwell in it.
And He shall stretch out over it
The line of confusion and the stones of emptiness.
They shall call its nobles to the kingdom,
But none shall be there, and all of its princes shall be nothing.
And thorns shall come up in its palaces,
Nettles and brambles in its fortresses;
It shall be a habitation of jackals,
A courtyard for ostriches.
The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the jackals,
And the wild goat shall bleat to its companion;
Also the night creature shall rest there,
And find for herself a place of rest.
There the arrow snake shall make her nest and lay eggs
And hatch, and gather them under her shadow;
There also shall the hawks be gathered,
Every one with her mate. (Isa. 34:11–15)
Do you get the picture? Could you ever get a more graphic description of divine judgment on a land than to have God take the land away from the prince, away from the ruler, and deliver it to the jackals, to the snakes, to the birds of the air? This is a rising crescendo that has gone on for several chapters about the destruction that God had planned for this part of the world.
With Judgment, Hope
When God gives His announcement of judgment, He almost always gives us an element of future hope as well, because God never abandons His remnant to desolation. Even in this text where Isaiah announces the day of the Lord, the day of the Lord’s visitation, the day of His destruction that would come upon the land, He then builds upon this. Hear what He says in chapter 35:
The wilderness and the wasteland shall be glad for them,
And the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose;
It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice,
Even with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
The excellence of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
The excellency of our God. (Isa. 35:1–2)
Do you see the contrast? It goes from desolation to glory; from destruction to the excellence of the manifestation of the Lord. The prophet says:
Strengthen the weak hands,
And make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are fearful-hearted,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Behold, your God will come with vengeance,
With the recompense of God;
He will come and save you.” (Isa. 35:3–4)
In this text, we have reiterated a principle that is repeated over and over and over again in the Old Testament: salvation is of the Jews and God works through His stiff-necked people, Israel, to bring His redemption to the whole world. Then comes the climax:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.
Then the lame shall leap like a deer,
And the tongue of the dumb sing [this is where that word mogilalos is used again, where the “tongue of the dumb” will sing].
For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness,
And streams in the desert.
The parched ground shall become a pool,
And the thirsty land springs of water;
In the habitation of jackals, where each lay,
There shall be grass with reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there, and a road,
And it shall be called the Highway of Holiness. (Isa. 35:6–8)
Do you hear it, dear friends? Centuries before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God gave this message to His people, looking past the destruction, past the desolation, to the Messianic age when the kingdom of God would break through, the Messiah would come, and He would give sight to the blind. He would give hearing to the deaf, He would loosen the tongue of the mute and of the dumb, and the lame would leap for joy. Surely Mark has this in mind as he pens the narrative that I’ve read to you this morning of Jesus’ encounter with the deaf mute. Let’s look again at that text, and I should ask you to do what I’m doing—look closely at it.
Jesus the Healer
“And He took him aside from the multitude, and put His fingers in his ears, and He spat and touched his tongue.” Notice that this man was also from the region of the Decapolis, from the realm of the Gentiles, from the land of those who had been deemed and pronounced unclean. The first thing we see is that Jesus took him aside and He touched him. He put His fingers in His ears, He spat on His hands, and He took the spittle, which, by the way, was considered an unclean emission according to Jewish purification laws. Jesus spit on His hands, took that spit, and put it on the man’s tongue.
There was a tradition in the ancient world that those endowed with healing powers would often use spittle as a medium to communicate that power to the people to whom they ministered. Maybe Jesus was simply trying to give this man some confidence that He knew how to heal people. We don’t know. Others see a far deeper symbolic significance to Jesus using His own spit to bring redemption to a suffering human being. They say that it foreshadows, to some degree, another liquid from His body: His blood, which saves us not only in our mouths, but altogether when He pours out His blood for His people. In any case, we get this vivid description of the transaction.
When Jesus touched the man on the tongue, He looked up to heaven, and the Scripture says, “He sighed,” or “groaned inwardly,” indicating a passionate appeal to the Father to intervene. He touched the man’s tongue, a tongue that was in chains, and then our Savior sighed and spoke a word (“Ephphatha”) that is left in the original by Mark that simply means, “Be opened.” At the command of Jesus those ears that had been clogged and had heard no sound, that tongue that had been in chains, making it impossible to speak clearly, were set free. The man’s ears were opened, and he could hear. And not only was he given the gift of hearing, but now he could speak. That tongue could now be used not for unintelligible mumbling, but to articulate the glory of God.
In a very real sense, beloved, this is what has happened, and does happen, to every Christian. Before the Holy Spirit opens us to the things of God, we are as deaf to the Word of God as this poor man was deaf to all verbal communication. Until the Holy Spirit cleanses our hearts and regenerates our soul, what we have in our mouths is mere filth, the poison of asps is under our lips, and our tongue utters blasphemy and poison until it is made free from the chains of sin.
Immediately, Mark tells us, his ears were opened. The impediment of his tongue was loosed. Notice what the Bible says. It doesn’t simply say, “and He spoke.” That would be remarkable enough if the Bible said, “Immediately his ears were opened, and he could hear, and now he could speak.” But Mark says more than that. Immediately after Jesus touched his tongue and made the commandment, not only could he speak, but he could speak clearly. Any pathology that was there was removed, and he was articulate in what he said.
Then Jesus commanded them, as He normally did, that they should tell no one. The more He commanded them, however, the more widely they proclaimed it. They were astonished beyond measure. Notice, in their shock, in their astonishment, what they say in this response about Jesus: “He has done all things well. He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
He Does All Things Well
He has done all things well. What a description of Christ. Jesus never did anything poorly in His life. When He set His face toward Jerusalem and determined to make His meat and His drink be obedience to the will of the Father, He did it well. There was no failure. There was no blemish to His work. I’m sure that as a child when He was working in the carpenter shop, when Joseph looked over his shoulder and watched Him working, that Joseph was beaming with pleasure at how well his son did what He was doing. The Father in heaven makes the same evaluation when He says from the sky, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
I remember when my friend, Jim Boice, received the diagnosis of terminal cancer. The time from the diagnosis to the time of his death was six weeks. Everybody in the church was wringing their hands, weeping, complaining, and offering him all kinds of patented remedies that would cure him. He said: “Be at peace about this. God does all things well.” That’s the heart of a Christian, because it’s the same God who is manifest here in Jesus ministering to this afflicted man by the Sea of Galilee in the Decapolis. It’s the same God who created the heavens and the earth. When God created the heavens, He looked at what He made through the power of His voice, He saw the lights shining into the darkness, and He said, “Well, that’s not too bad.” No, no. He looked at the work of His hands and pronounced His divine benediction upon it, “That’s good,” because what God does in creation, He does well.
It is the same God who calls light into darkness through the power of His voice that was at work by the Sea of Galilee restoring this man’s hearing and His ability to speak. It is the same God who redeems you. In the work of redemption that was accomplished for your souls, Christ did it well. That’s why we can sing in the midst of tribulation, “It is well with our souls”—not because we make our souls well in the midst of the storm, but because when the Spirit of God comes into the soul of a person and brings His peace and His joy, He does it well.
That’s what these pagan Greeks noticed about Jesus. Look at Him. Everything He does, He does well, because He’s God incarnate. The One who creates, the One who redeems, the One who loosens tongues and opens deaf ears does all things well. When we survey our lives in the midst of pain, in the midst of sorrow, we’re not always sure of that.
God Does Not Have to Explain Himself
I talked to somebody this week who told me they were watching television and saw an interview with Robert De Niro, and at the end of the interview, the host asked Robert De Niro, “At the end of your days, if you come before God, what will you say to Him when you meet Him?” And De Niro in a kind of cocky manner said, “What I’m going to say to God is, ‘You have some explaining to do.’” No, no, Mr. De Niro, you are going to be the one doing the explaining. God doesn’t have to explain anything that He pleases to bring to pass in this world. He didn’t have to explain to Israel why jackals were inhabiting the land. He didn’t have to explain to Israel why their streams had become like rivers of tar, worthless for navigation, worthless for fishing. The reason for that was clear. They were a sinful nation. But beyond the tar and beyond the jackals is the Redeemer, who unlike us, does all things well. Let’s pray.
O Lord, such grace and excellence is indeed amazing, and even if we had ten thousand tongues to sing your praise, we would still seem to ourselves to be inarticulate about it. Take the chains from our mouths that we may show forth Your praise in a manner fitting for Your glory. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.