Last time we found Jesus outside of Galilee among the Gentiles. He is still there. From the vicinity of Tyre, where he met the Syrophoenecian woman, he traveled with his disciples northward toward Sidon and then southeast, down the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee into the Decapolis, another Gentile area. The horseshoe shaped itinerary would have required their walking some 120 miles. [Edwards, 222] Why that particular route we are not told, but he was obviously staying outside of Jewish territory for a time. The account that follows is one of only three in the Gospel of Mark that have no parallel in the other Gospels.
The Lord’s reputation as a healer had been established on a previous visit to the Decapolis, reported in the first half of chapter 5. The man he had delivered from a demon, we read in 5:20, had told his story far and wide. We read that this man was mute or could hardly speak. We know how difficult it is for people to learn to speak who cannot hear.
He removed the man from the crowd apparently for the same reason he would later order those present at the healing not to talk about it.
It is striking that Jesus employed physical techniques in this miraculous healing. It is hard to know precisely why. We will encounter similar actions on his part in the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida, narrated in 8:22-26. It may be that the Lord used techniques that were conventional among healers of the day to demonstrate his superiority over them. Or perhaps it is intended only as a further identification of the healing with Jesus himself. Jesus’ touch and his saliva rendered it the more obvious that the healing occurred because of the deaf-mute’s contact with Jesus. Or perhaps the touch and the saliva were more important in the case of a man who couldn’t hear what Jesus was saying. In any case, it was the Lord’s spoken word that actually affected the healing.
The recollection of the very word in Aramaic that Jesus spoke with a sigh is certainly an eyewitness touch.
The NIV’s “he began to speak plainly” is literally “the chain of his tongue was broken.”
Once again the Lord attempted to keep the popular excitement under control – he had as much to worry about from Philip the tetrarch who controlled the Decapolis as from the scribes and Pharisees in Galilee – and, once again, his efforts proved largely futile. Jesus did not want people to make too much of his miracles; it was the understanding of his person and work that was the key.
Now there are several points of interpretation needing to be made before we can appreciate the meaning of the miracle that is described in this short paragraph. Surely the miracle added to his accreditation as the Messiah and the Son of God. Surely the fact that it was done on behalf of a Gentile presaged the gospel’s advance into the nations of the world. But, very clearly, there is more here than even those wonderful and spectacularly important things.
The word the NIV renders “could hardly talk” in v. 32 (μογιλάλον) appears only one other time in the entire Bible, and that, significantly, in the LXX or Greek translation of Isaiah 35:5-6. Those famous verses read this way:
“Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.”
What makes that text from Isaiah even more relevant to the interpretation of our text this morning is that, in the context of that promise of the eventual triumph of God’s salvation in the world and just before the verses I read, we read this:
“The glory of Lebanon will be given to [the desert]…”
Well the regions of Tyre and Sidon through which the Lord just passed are Lebanon. In other words, this miracle of giving hearing and the power of speech to a deaf/mute Mark understands to be a great picture of the salvation that the Lord would bring in the age of the Messiah. It is a fulfillment of a biblical prophecy of the coming of salvation to the world.
That this miracle has that symbolic significance – as a picture of salvation from sin and death and as a picture of the dawning of a new day, a new creation, and a new world – is further confirmed by the way Mark speaks of hearing as a spiritual capacity. We have noted already how often the word “hear” or “hearing” occurs in Mark with spiritual overtones; that is, referring to grasping or understanding the significance of Jesus and the good news about him. The word occurred many times in Mark’s account of the Lord’s parables of the kingdom of God in chapter 4, including the citation from Isaiah 6 about Israel in the hardness of her heart and in her unbelief:
“…they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever
hearing but never understanding…”
Hearing is a metaphor for understanding and so deafness is a metaphor or illustration of mental and spiritual stubbornness, both an incapacity and an unwillingness to understand what Jesus is saying and to respond to him in faith. The problem wasn’t that Jesus wasn’t clear or that his teaching was too complicated so that it confused those who heard it. The problem wasn’t in what Jesus said or how he said it. The problem was that the people who heard him were spiritually deaf. They weren’t capable of hearing the simple and wonderful news of salvation and eternal life that Jesus had brought. So, later, in chapter 8, verse 18, when the Lord challenges his disciples by saying, “Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?” he is obviously using physical sight and physical hearing as an image of a spiritual capacity. Multitudes of people saw Jesus and heard Jesus but were blind as bats and deaf as posts when it came to seeing who and what he really was and hearing what he really said.
That is why Jesus would so often say, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” He means that there is a kind of supernatural hearing or understanding that many people are incapable of. The truth does not register with them. They are spiritually deaf.
It is a very apt image. My father-in-law lost his hearing later in his life because the doctors fought an infection that was threatening his life with drugs so powerful that they destroyed his already weakened hearing. This happened when Florence and I were in Scotland and her parents came to visit that next summer. Over and over again we were reminded that he lived, in some very important respects, in a different world than we inhabited. It wasn’t entirely silent; he heard noise, distracting, irritating noise, called tinnitus, created somehow within himself, but all the sounds of the world around him had disappeared. He couldn’t hear the traffic in the street, or music on the radio, or our voices. He often spoke too loudly in restaurants or in church because he couldn’t hear his own voice to measure its volume. Sometimes it took a long time to communicate even the simplest thoughts and telling a joke was an entirely hit or miss affair. We noticed also that he frequently acted as if he understood when, in fact, he had no idea of what had been said. He was simply tired of the effort to understand or was embarrassed that we had to work so hard to help him understand. Sound was so natural to us that we had to remind ourselves again and again that it was no longer part of his life. His deafness cut him off from so much.
And Mark, and the Lord before him, is telling us that that is what it is like to be an unbeliever: that deafness, that inability to hear. The unbeliever certainly hears the words physically spoken, but he doesn’t understand them. They are perfectly ordinary words: You have done wrong; a great deal of wrong. You need forgiveness. God will forgive you but only if you believe in his Son who was sent into the world to die on the cross precisely to secure forgiveness for those who trust in him. Those who are in Christ will go to heaven when they die and only those. Nothing in those English sentences is difficult to understand, but the unbeliever does not understand them, not in a meaningful way. He knows what is being said on a certain level, but he doesn’t really get their meaning. He can read a definition of sin but it doesn’t hit him that he is the sinner God is talking about. He can read an account of Jesus on the cross but it doesn’t occur to him that this is the key to all human existence and the only path to human happiness and fulfillment. He nods his head or he shakes his head: it is all the same. The words don’t tell; they don’t sink in. It is as if he didn’t her them at all; as if he were deaf.
Remember the account I’ve told you before of how William Wilberforce, the Christian, once took his friend William Pitt, the prime minister, to hear Richard Cecil, one of the finest preachers of the age. Wilberforce wanted his good friend to become a serious, committed follower of Christ as he was. Cecil preached a great gospel sermon, setting forth Jesus Christ as the savior of sinners and calling on all to believe in him. And what did Pitt say to his friend as they were walking out of the building? “Wilberforce, I have no idea what that man was talking about.” Pitt was an intelligent man. He lived in a world shaped by Christian thought. He certainly understood the words that the preacher used to explain who Jesus is and why men must believe in him. But he didn’t grasp what was being said. He didn’t understand its implications for himself. The truth did not penetrate his mind and heart. He might as well not have been able to hear Richard Cecil at all, for all the good Cecil’s sermon did him. That is the deafness that Mark is talking about; that is the deafness that only Jesus can overcome; that is the deafness that must be overcome if a man or woman, boy or girl is to be saved.
People can hear all the commotion in the world around them, the shrill voices and the soft, the cheering crowds and the single speaker, and they can hear all the music, the laughter, and the tears. They can hear the ponderous voices of the politicians and social reformers, the doomsayers and their critics and they listen enraptured, as if their very lives somehow depended on the answers that will be given to the political, social, and environmental questions of our time. But amid all that noise, all that sound and fury signifying next to nothing, they cannot hear the march of time, the on-coming tread of death itself, or the voice of God speaking in their conscience.
At my mother’s house, after dinner last Monday night, I watched about five minutes of the Monday Night Football broadcast. It was a window on our deaf/mute world. In the midst of their calling the action on the field, the commentators began speaking of Tom Brady, the quarterback who had led his New England Patriots to victory the previous Sunday over the Dallas Cowboys, perhaps the most celebrated professional football player in the game today.
One of the commentators opined that the thing that amazed him about Tom Brady was not that he was such a great quarterback but that he had impregnated two super-models in such a short period of time. Brady had dated the actress Bridget Moynahan who is having or who has had a child by him, but recently moved on to the Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen, who is also pregnant by the New England quarterback. Chuckles all around. While they were speaking about Brady’s sexual exploits to the entertainment of their listening audience of millions, including millions upon millions of adolescent boys and young adult men, there was an interception and a return of some considerable distance and, as is now the custom, the defensive back was publicly exulting in his achievement. “He’s loving himself,” one of the commentators artlessly and probably guilelessly noted.
These men can hear the crowd just fine. Put their hearing to a test and I’m sure it will prove normal in every way. But in the ways that matter most for time and eternity they are deaf as posts. Chuckling over promiscuity and out of wedlock pregnancies and over peacock-strutting and vainglory, beguiled by the sound of their own laughter, they do not notice the ominous silence of heaven as they amuse themselves with accounts of various sins against God and man. The noise of the world covers it up. Nor can they hear the voice of the conscience; it has been silenced.
But when Jesus opens the ears suddenly there are sounds everywhere that one never heard before. Suddenly the strains of heavenly music fill the soul and the voice of God himself is heard in the mind. Imagine this so fortunate man, his ears suddenly full of the sounds he had so long wondered about. He could hear the voices of his friends who had brought him to Jesus. He could hear Jesus himself speak. He could hear the laughter and the choking voices of those whose hearts were breaking for happiness that their friend could now hear and speak. And imagine the rest of that day and night as that man told others what had happened to him, as he broke out into smiles and laughter over and over again at the beautiful sounds that were filling his ears. Imagine his first effort at song.
John Stott says that after he became a Christian – and like this deaf/mute man in the Decapolis, Stott would say, “People ask me why and when I decided to convert. I did not decide at all; it was decided for me.” [Dudley-Smith, i, 88]; it was Christ’s work opening his ears to hear and his mouth to speak – but I say, after John Stott became a Christian, he wrote,
“Before I was converted I used to read the Bible…but I did not begin to understand it. After I received Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord, one of the first ways in which I knew that something had happened to me was that the Bible became a new book. As I read it God began to speak to me; verses became luminous, phosphorescent. It was as if I heard the very Word of God through the Scriptures.” [Ibid, 99]
There it is again: he began to hear. And a vast number of people would say precisely the same thing. I had been deaf; I couldn’t hear God speaking to me. And then my ears were opened and suddenly I was hearing sounds I had never heard before. Simple words – God, creator, sin, guilt, Christ, cross, atonement, forgiveness, salvation, hell, and heaven – suddenly I actually heard those words; they really meant something to me. They had become, in an instant, real things, magnificently real, and supremely important. I was hearing for the first time and what I heard changed my life, broke and mended my heart, and cleared my mind.
The late Carl F.H. Henry, one of the most influential of 20th century Christian theologians and journalists became a Christian in his twenties, as the youngest newspaper editor on Long Island. He too was a man who was familiar in the common way of that time with the words of the Bible and Christian worship. He had been raised in a nominal Christian home and even been confirmed in the Episcopal Church. But he was a stranger to Christ. But when pressed by a Christian friend, he made a commitment to Christ. He put it this way:
“I was a newspaperman preoccupied with man’s minutiae when God tracked me down; the Word was pursuing a lost purveyor of words.”
And then he says, as I cried out to God for the forgiveness of my sins and for new life in Christ, “Somewhere in the echoes of eternity I heard the pounding of hammers that marked the Saviour’s crucifixion in my stead.” [Cited in B.E. Patterson, Carl F.H. Henry, 20] There it is again: the language of hearing something one had not heard before.
The ordinary person has no sense of this. If there is such a thing as salvation, well, explain it to me and I’ll do whatever is required. Simple enough. So they think. But it is not so. The spiritual situation of human beings is far more radically disordered than they ever begin to imagine. People without Christ are, in the nature of the case, blind, they are deaf, and they are mute. What they must hear they cannot and do not hear; what they must say to God they will not and cannot say. They neither know to say it nor wish to say it. This is everywhere the Bible’s verdict on the human condition and everywhere what we observe of human beings. It is also everywhere and always what new Christians admit to have been the truth about themselves before the Lord opened their ears to hear his Word and their eyes to see his glory.
I fear that this is not now being very often communicated to people when they talk to Christians or listen to a sermon in church. It is obviously not a popular message; people don’t like to be told that there is something very wrong with them – but it lies face up on the pages of Holy Scripture. Salvation is a virtual miracle. It takes the same supernatural power to unstop the spiritual ears of a human heart and soul that it took to grant hearing to this deaf man. One does not begin to understand his true situation until he realizes this. He is himself deaf and mute. It was precisely the self-confidence of Jesus’ contemporaries that doomed them never really to see Jesus or hear him. They had the Savior of the world standing before them, they witnessed the demonstration of his divine power and goodness time after time, but so deaf and blind were they that they not only failed to see him as the Messiah, they came to think of him as a bad man who should be executed for what he said and did. Imagine that! But that is the fact and it is still the fact today. Spiritual deafness is the reality, the fundamental reality of this world.
Only Jesus Christ, only his power, his grace, and his love can open the ears of human beings and allow them to hear the music of the universe. Every human being who has ever lived or ever shall was, is, or shall be, in himself or herself, in precisely the same situation as this benighted man: deaf, unable to hear; mute, unable to speak. But Christ has opened the ears and the voices of vast multitudes of those who looked to him. There are, of course, other ways in which the Bible describes this reality. Man is dead and Christ alone can make him alive. Man is paralyzed and cannot walk and only Christ can set him on his feet so that he can come to God. Man is blind and only Christ can make him see the way to God. We see all of these conditions illustrated in the Lord’s ministry: he brings the dead back to life; he restores strength to the limbs of the paralyzed; and he gives sight to the blind. But this is a particularly arresting and helpful description of man’s plight: he is deaf; he cannot hear the message by which alone he might be saved. And Christ alone can open his ears.
I sometimes wonder how it is that so many people manage to become Christians. After all, not only is there a prejudice against the gospel message in the human heart, it is not the simplest thing to explain. Human sin and guilt, the holiness and justice of God, the atonement of Jesus Christ – his death on the cross – and, especially perhaps, what it means to believe in or on Jesus: Christians themselves argue today and have argued through the ages about how to explain these things, What is the novice who is coming to these things for the first time to think? How is he or she to figure out what it means to believe in Jesus, a person who lived so long ago and who is not visibly present in the world?
But it never makes any difference in fact. Because when one’s ears are opened he hears and he knows. He hears the Lord speaking to him. He knows with a certainty what it is to believe in Jesus Christ and why he must and why he has never wanted to do anything as much as he wants to believe in Jesus.
Our text is a reminder to every believer in this sanctuary this morning what a great, mighty, supernatural thing was done to bring you to living faith in Jesus Christ. It ought to remind us how much we owe to the Lord Jesus and it ought to fill our hearts with joy. And to every unbeliever it is a summons to forsake your own efforts – no deaf person ever got his hearing back by trying harder! – and instead to plead with Jesus Christ to do for you what you cannot do for yourself, to open your ears that you might hear the wonderful message he has sent abroad into the world, so that you might respond to that message and live forever!