Jesus Heals a Deaf Mute
The thing that strikes me about this evening’s text is that there isn’t much in it that’s new. In the earlier chapters of Mark, Jesus had already healed many different kinds of diseases and afflictions — leprosy, paralysis, physical deformities, hemorrhages and so on. Therefore, the fact that he can heal a man who was both deaf and mute should be no surprise. Mark had also shown that Jesus could heal in many different ways — sometimes he simply spoke the word and the illness departed, and other times he touched the sick. So, the manner in which he healed the man in our text comes as no surprise either. Mark had even recorded instances in which Jesus instructed the person whom he healed not to publicize the matter. Sometimes they obeyed, and sometimes not. So, as far as the basic story goes, it seems that there is very little to grab our attention. We might even wonder why Mark recorded this incident at all.
But let’s not jump to any conclusions. Although the individual details of this miracle resemble many of Jesus’ other miracles, the combination of circumstances that surround it are noteworthy and unique.
One thing that stands out about this incident, for example, is that Mark is the only gospel writer who included it in his record of Christ’s life. Since each of the gospel writers wrote to present Christ in a particular light, we have to assume that this story somehow supports Mark’s purpose. And since Jesus did many more miracles than those that have been preserved for us in the New Testament, we must conclude that Mark chose this one and not the others because it made his point in a way that the others did not.
But the question remains, What is the point of this story? What does the Lord want us to learn from it?
The Nature of Jesus’ Ministry
Our text begins with Jesus returning to Galilee from the suburbs of Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile territory where he had gone to conceal himself. Verse 24 says that he entered into an house, and would have no man know it. He wanted privacy for two reasons. On the one hand, the crowds were thronging him, hoping that he would be their “bread and fish” king. And on the other hand, the Pharisees had come up to Jerusalem in search of a reason to accuse Jesus, which they quickly found when they observed some of his disciples eating with unwashed hands. His work had become very taxing. Jesus needed a break.
We all need to get away once in a while. There are times when it seems like we’re just spinning our tires in the mud. When this happens, a few days in the mountains reading John Grisham novels helps us relax so that we can refocus on our work.
But while our Lord’s example may justify the concept of “vacation,” that’s not the main point here. Rather, Mark included this detail to highlight the extent of the suffering and loneliness that Jesus endured for us. Isaiah had prophesied many years earlier that the Messiah would be despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3). Mark wrote his gospel to assure us that Jesus Christ is the mighty, miracle-working servant of God, whose ministry was filled with strenuous activity. Altogether, Mark recorded no less than seventeen distinct miracles of Jesus.
Although Jesus had gone to Tyre and Sidon to take a break, Mark reported in the incident preceding our text that it didn’t actually work out that way. A Syro-phoenecian woman had come to him, begging him to cast a demon out of her daughter. Jesus did so, then used the occasion to demonstrate that God’s gracious covenant now reaches beyond the geographical boundaries of the Jews. Thus, even in his so-called respite, our Lord faithfully carried out the work that his Father had given him to do.
Jesus then traveled through an area known as Decapolis (or the region of ten cities) on his way to the Sea of Galilee. If you were to look at a map, you would find that Tyre and Sidon were situated about 20 miles northwest of the Sea of Galilee, while Decapolis lay to the southeast. The Sea of Galilee was between these two places. This means that Jesus purposely went out of his way to go through Decapolis. This gets even more puzzling when we realize that Decapolis was predominately a Gentile territory in the first century. So, why did Jesus take this out-of-the-way route?
There were at least two reasons for this.
The obvious reason was simply to avoid the Galilean crowds that had thronged him there earlier. By returning to the Sea of Galilee by the back way, he was able to avoid them temporarily.
It’s also possible that Jesus wanted to minister to the people of Decapolis. You might recall that some of his earliest followers had come from this region. Matthew 4:25 says, And there followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judaea, and from beyond Jordan. Jesus had also been in this area in the recent past. According to Mark 5, after he healed the Gadarene demoniac, there was a renewed interest in his ministry among the people from Decapolis. In this case, Jesus instructed the demoniac after he had been healed to tell all his friends what he had done for him. This man went out and began to publish in Decapolis (Gadara being one of the cities of the Decapolis) how great things Jesus had done for him: and all men did marvel (Mark 5:20).
The healing of the demoniac was another illustration of the lesson that Jesus taught the Syro-phoenecian woman, viz., that the blessings of the gospel were meant for the Gentiles as well as the Jews, since God had promised Abraham that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through his seed.
Deaf and Mute
When Jesus finally arrived back at Galilee, it didn’t take too long before the people found him again. This time they brought one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech.
We really don’t know much about this deaf man. Mark didn’t even tell us where he came from. Verse 32 says that they brought him to Jesus, but who are they? The last geographical region mentioned in the previous verse was Decapolis. It’s possible that they might have come from there. Perhaps this man’s friends had heard Jesus preach while he was passing through their land and decided to bring him to him. Although there are some grammatical points in the text that support this, it’s hard to imagine why these men wouldn’t have taken their friend to see Jesus while he was still in their area. In any case, since the miracle took place in near the sea, it seems far more likely that the man and his friends were from Galilee.
Nor did Mark tell us the exact nature of the deaf man’s affliction. Our text says that he was deaf and had a speech impediment. He couldn’t hear at all and he had difficulty speaking plainly. The fact that he could speak even less difficulty probably indicates that he had not been born deaf, in which case he would not have been able to say anything. Perhaps he had lost his hearing when he was relatively young, i.e., before he learned to speak well. But that’s all that Mark says. The only thing we know for certain is that this man was deaf and more or less mute when he met the Lord.
Some commentators account for this man’s condition by claiming that he was demon-possessed. Mark 9:17 tells about a man whose son had a deaf and dumb spirit. The assumption is that the man in our text was afflicted with the same kind of demon. But the only reason for asserting this is the statement in verse 35 that Jesus loosed the man’s tongue when he healed him. If his tongue was bound, they say, it must have been bound by a demon. However, our text doesn’t say this. In fact, there is no mention of demons in this passage at all. This, plus the fact that not all hearing and speech difficulties can be attributed to demonic activity, makes it almost certain that this man’s problem was nothing more than a physical defect of some sort.
Jesus Healed the Man
When this man’s friends brought him to Jesus, they begged him to put his hand on him.
In the Bible, the laying on of hands can be either a good thing or a bad thing. It was bad when Haman wanted to lay hands on Mordecai for refusing to honor him (Esth. 3:6), but it was good when Jesus laid his hands on the little children to bless them (Matt. 19:15). The men who brought their deaf friend to Jesus wanted his blessing. They believed that he could heal their friend simply by touching him. The truth, of course, is that Jesus didn’t have to do even that much to help the man. Had he merely willed his healing, his hearing and speech would have returned immediately. Or Jesus could have just spoken the command, as he had done with the centurion’s servant, and his affliction would have fled away at once.
But they asked Jesus to touch their friend. Perhaps they asked for this because they had seen Jesus heal many others by touching them. He had restored Jairus’ daughter to life simply by touching her hands and commanding her to arise (Mark 5:35–43). On another occasion, he healed a woman who had had a certain infirmity for eighteen years merely by touching her (Luke 13:13). In fact, Luke 4:40 seems to indicate that this was his general practice. It says, Now when the sun was setting, all they that had any sick with divers diseases brought them unto him; and he laid his hands on every one of them, and healed them.
This shows that the men who brought their friend to Jesus paid attention to what was going on. At the very least, they paid attention to the Biblical practice of laying hands on someone and what it meant. But their request might also indicate that they had been particularly careful to observe what Jesus in particular was doing. We might say that they were tuned in to God’s ways.
As much as we can, we should all strive to be tuned in to God’s ways as he has declared them in Scripture. Having the Bible is, in one way, much better than seeing Jesus was our eyeballs: the Bible not only tells us what he did, it also interprets his actions for us. The entire Old Testament lays the foundation for the correct interpretation of Jesus’ work, and the New Testament explains and applies it. Therefore, the most practical thing that any preacher can say is, Read your Bible! Know its history. Interpret everything in your life in the light of its doctrines. Live by its commands and precepts. When you do this, and only when you do this, can you say that you know God!
When the men asked Jesus to touch their friend, he responded by doing two things out of the ordinary. First, he separated the deaf man (and presumably his friends) from the rest of the multitude. In verse 33, this is stated only as a matter of historical fact with no reason being given for it. However, verse 36 suggests a reason, viz., that Jesus wanted to keep the miracle quiet.
As the second person of the Trinity, even in his incarnation Jesus possessed all the power and glory that he had had in common with the Father and Holy Spirit. But in his incarnation he often veiled his divine attributes. It seems at times that he did this in reverse proportion to the expectations of the crowds: the more the people wanted what we might call a theatrical performance, the more Jesus withdrew from their attention. His miracles were not meant to be a sideshow. Therefore, Jesus took the deaf man aside, healed him privately and then commanded him and his friends not to report the matter to others.
Another extraordinary feature of this healing is the manner in which Jesus touched the man: verse 33 says that he put his fingers in the man’s ears, spat (probably on his fingers), and then touched the man’s tongue.
The idea that saliva possessed a medicinal value was common in the ancient world. The first-century author Pliny the Elder believed that saliva was an effective treatment for certain eye diseases, and Tacitus reported that Emperor Vespasian once healed a blind man with his saliva. No doubt, the story about Vespasian was manufactured only to bolster his claim to deity. On the other hand, Jesus, who is the eternal Son of God, used saliva in several of his healing miracles. Mark 8:23 and John 9:6 tell of instances in which he healed blind men using his own saliva. There was nothing magical or medicinal about the saliva; it was just what he chose to use on those particular occasions.
In our text, Jesus put his fingers in the man’s ears and touched his tongue to show symbolically that he was about to heal him of his infirmities. He then looked up to heaven, acknowledging that all healing comes from God. Just before he multiplied the bread and fish for the five thousand, he also looked up to heaven and gave thanks (Mark 6:41). Next, he sighed. Then, speaking in Aramaic, he commanded the man’s ears and mouth to be opened. And immediately the man who had been deaf and mute heard and spoke plainly.
Why do you suppose Jesus sighed? The only other time that the gospels report that he sighed is in Mark 8:12, where his sighing expressed extreme frustration with the Pharisees, who were constantly looking for signs. If Jesus withdrew from the crowd in our text to avoid giving the impression that he was performing, then perhaps his sighing here indicated a release from the same kind of frustration.
He Does All Things Well
The purpose of this miracle is stated in verse 37. The man who had been healed and his friends were beyond measure astonished, saying, He hath done all things well: he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak. Contrary to what I said earlier, this verse almost makes it sound as if Jesus had healed this man only to demonstrate his power. But in the context that makes little sense. If it were so, why would he have taken such pains to hide it from the multitude?
The response of the deaf man’s friends is actually a reference to the thirty-fifth chapter of Isaiah, which foretold the glory of the Messiah and his kingdom. The prophet wrote, Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert (Isa. 35:5–6). The promised Messiah would be one who could give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf and speech to the dumb.
Jesus intended for this miracle to teach the people that he was, in fact, the promised Messiah. The question, though, is, Did the people understand this? Were they able to make the connection? More importantly, Mark made the connection for us. In verse 32, he used a very interesting word to describe the deaf man’s speech impediment. This long phrase in English is a single word in Greek (μογγιλάλον) — a word which, by the way, was extremely rare. Yet, the very same word was used in the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 35:6. Mark purposely chose this word in order to draw our attention to Isaiah’s prophecy.
There is little wonder, then, that the witnesses to this miracle were astonished beyond measure and acknowledged that Jesus did all things well. However, the translations of verse 37 fail to bring out the full implication of what the people actually said. In English, the words deaf and dumb can be either singular or plural. Since Jesus had healed only one man who was both deaf and mute, the singular makes more sense. But in the Greek the words are actually plural. In other words, the witnesses were not only amazed that Jesus had healed this one man, but they marveled in the fact that he, being the Messiah, had the power to heal anyone who was deaf or mute.
Jesus, the Messiah, was there among the people of God, doing the very things that Isaiah had predicted many centuries earlier. The fact that he fulfilled God’s Word testified to the fact that he was the long-awaited Deliverer of God’s people.
Jesus does all things well. We can say this when we read about him performing wonderful miracles. And we can also say it when we like his providential appointments for our lives. But when illness, financial ruin or other problems come our way, can we say with Job, The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD (Job 1:21)?
Jesus healed a deaf man. Why was he deaf? We do not know whether it was from injury or illness, but that doesn’t matter anyway. Injury and illness are only means that God uses to make people deaf. However, they are incompetent to explain why any particular individual is deaf. We tend to assume that these problems came along accidentally, that they somehow escaped God’s notice. But the fact is that God uses deafness and other conditions for his own purposes, and the one purpose identified in our text is to reveal the glory of the Messiah, who gives sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf and makes the lame leap for joy.
While it’s good to know that Jesus can heal our bodies, we rejoice even more that he took away our spiritual death by dying in our place upon the cross. The healing-miracles of Jesus demonstrate that he came to heal our illnesses, and his death on the cross shows that took our greatest infirmity upon himself and bore the wrath of God so that we might be spared everlasting punishment both of body and soul.
Jesus does all things well. May his praise be continually on our lips. Amen.