Drama in the Decapolis!
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Drama in the Decapolis!

Mark 7:31–37  (ID: 2731)

By the time of the first century, the Jewish people had been anticipating the arrival of God’s kingdom for a long time. Christ’s healing of the deaf and mute man, as Alistair Begg explains, was an illustration that the longed-for reign of God had come in Jesus, just as the prophets had foretold. As with this man, God miraculously intervenes in our lives still today, saving us from our sinful condition and unstopping our ears so we can hear His voice.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Mark, Volume 3

Prophet, Shepherd, Healer, and Provider Mark 6:6–8:21 Series ID: 14103

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to turn with me to the Gospel of Mark, chapter 7, where we’re going to read the final section that begins at verse 31:

“Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged him to place his hand[s] on the man.

“[And] he took him aside, away from the crowd[.] Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he [spat] and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’ (which means, ‘Be opened!’). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.

“Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. ‘He has done everything well,’ they said. ‘He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’”

Thanks be to God for his Word.

Gracious God, help us in our study, that we may see Christ, and that in meeting him, that we might bow before him, and that if our ears are blocked and our eyes are blind, we pray that today might be the day when you perform this miracle in our lives, just as you did in the life of this man. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

During the week, I received lots of text messages; I’m sure you did too. One came from my son; I think it was on Wednesday. I think it had to be on Wednesday. It had no identification on it. It just came up as one word on my phone. It just said, “Unbelievable!” And I knew exactly what he was mentioning. He was referring to the fact that although he and I were separated by probably 2300 miles, we had both been doing the exact same thing, and that is we had been watching Manchester United defeated AC Milan by four goals to nothing in Manchester in the evening. And his greeting was apropos: “Unbelievable!” I texted back very similarly.

And while that was going on, my mind, of course, is always, during the week, at my text for the coming Sunday, and I thought to myself, I imagined, just what the text messages would have been like going between people as a result of this dramatic event that is described for us here at the end of Mark chapter 7. Certainly, they couldn’t communicate with one another in that way, but the things that they were saying fitted the kind of “Unbelievable!” dimension. You see there at verse 37 that the “people were overwhelmed with amazement.” And in the ESV, I think they translate it, “They were astonished beyond measure.”

Now, this little record here, this account, is recorded only in Mark’s Gospel. If you look for it in Matthew or Luke or John, you will look in vain. Mark is the only one who gives to us this particular incident. And in turning to it, I found it helpful to go back to chapter 1 and remind myself of the way in which the Gospel of Mark begins and to remind myself of what Mark was telling us as he launched into the record of Jesus’ life. Remember, he’s not writing a biography, but he’s writing a Gospel. He’s not simply rehearsing events, but he is providing the events in order that people might be compelled by the person of Jesus and by what he’s come to do.

And in Mark chapter 1—and I heard a few of you turning to it, which is always encouraging—we read in verse 14 that “after John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’”

Now, that was a dramatic statement, particularly for the Jewish people, who had for a long time been anticipating the arrival of God’s kingdom. And so Jesus stands up, and he says, “The good news is here. I want you to repent, I want you to believe it, and the kingdom has come.”

Now, it’s important that we understand what we tried to discover then—namely, that Jesus is there not referring to a location. He’s not referring to an area nearby. When he says, “The kingdom of God is near,” he doesn’t mean, “If you come down the street, a little ways over on the left-hand side, you may find it.” No, what he’s referring to there is an activity and not a location—a rule, if you like, or a reign. And what he’s saying to the people is that the reign of God over his people in the world is now established in the person of Jesus himself.

Now, this may not make a lot of sense to some of us who are only at the beginning of reading our Bibles. You have to trust me on this for a while, but the more you read your Bible and investigate, I think you will find pretty quickly, if you’re alert, that this is actually running all the way through the Bible. I don’t want to be tedious, but let me give you one illustration of it to get you started.

The reign of God over his people in the world is now established in the person of Jesus himself.

If you turn to Isaiah, the prophet Isaiah—which, if you’ve got your Bible, you flip it almost to the middle, and you’ll be around there. Isaiah chapter 35. And the prophets… And we’ve sung about this this morning, haven’t we, in one of our hymns? That the prophets were anticipating this day, anticipating a day when God would come and reign personally. And so, for example, here’s one of the illustrations of that. Isaiah 35:5: “Then”—that is, in that day—“will the eyes…”

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.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
 and streams in the desert.

Now, that just gets you a little insight into the kind of recurring theme that we find in the Prophets. Isaiah looked forward to a day when “the eyes of the blind” would “be opened” and “the ears of the deaf” would be “unstopped.” So the people of God who read their Bibles recognized that there was going to come a day when God would come and establish his rule in the lives of people, and one of the indications of that would be when eyes were opened and when deaf ears were unstopped and when dumb mouths were made to speak.

One of my favorite Old Testament scholars is Alec Motyer, and in reading him this week, he made just this wonderful little statement. He said, “The contrast between [the] two faculties of reception (eyes and ears) and [those] of action (leaping and singing) expresses totality.”[1] It’s a good sentence. And it is a right observation, isn’t it? Ears will be unblocked, eyes will be opened, silent tongues will sing, and those who are immobilized will be set free.

So, when you recognize that Mark is providing for us here the record of what Jesus is doing—he’s providing this to be read initially by those who are members of the church in the first century, and as they look at this record, they understand that that which they’ve been reading in their Old Testaments has now come to fruition in the person of Jesus. In brief, what we have in these final verses of Mark chapter 7 is another illustration of the reign of God now present in Jesus himself.

Now, verse 31 tells us where they were. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on that. They were back around the Sea of Galilee in “the region of the Decapolis.” Those of you who are good students will immediately say, “Well, he’s been to the Decapolis before,” and, of course, he has. Because it was there in the Decapolis, as Mark tells us in chapter 5, that the man—the crazy man who had been chained in the tombs and who was cutting himself with stones and who was running around naked—it was there in the region of the Decapolis that that man had been found “[clothed] and in his right mind.”[2] And on that occasion, the people in the surrounding community had said again, “Surely this is marvelous. This is quite wonderful.”[3]

A Straightforward Request

So, given that we know where we are—given that we have established that little bit of background—I want to observe four things with you. And the first of these is this: that what we have in verse 32 is a straightforward request. A straightforward request. “There”—that is, in the region of the Decapolis—“some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged him to place his hand on the man.” There’s nothing difficult about that. You’re reading your Bible; you say, “What do I have here?” If you were doing a Bible study with somebody, you could say, “Well, what it seems to me to be is a fairly straightforward request on the part of these people.”

That’s the first thing I thought you should notice: the source of the request. The source of the request comes from “some people,” in verse 32. “Some people brought to him a man.” You shouldn’t jump over little things like that. I’m sure they’re telling us something. If, like me, you immediately think of another occasion when “some people” brought someone to Jesus and you go back and look for it, you’ll find what you’re looking for in 2:3, and it’s the record of Jesus being in the house with no more room in the house, and we’re told in 2:3, “Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic.” So, in 2:3 we have “some men,” and in 7:32 we have “some people.”

You say, “Well, is this really worth pointing out?” I think so, and the observation is simple, but useful. It’s a reminder to us that the work of the gospel is undertaken not by names and significant individuals, but the work of the gospel is largely undertaken by a vast, anonymous throng, by a vast company of people whose names are never known. Their names are unknown to us, but their names are known to God. It’s a poor thing when all we want is our names to be known by men and by women. It’d be better that our names were written down in heaven and nobody knew our names, wouldn’t it? It’d be better that Jesus knew what we were doing, to whom we were speaking, the cards we were writing, the encouragements we were giving, the teaching we were providing for our grandchildren and our children, without ever everybody saying, “Oh, I know him. I know her.” If we were writing this down, we would have said, “Oh, we’ve got to make sure we put their names in. I mean, they’re going to be really disappointed if they read Mark’s Gospel and they find out that all of their names are not in—Levi and Thomas and John and everybody else. I mean, that’s just the way it goes.” No, it’s not the way it goes. The record of Holy Scripture is “some people.” “Some people,” unknown by men, known by God.

That’s the source of the request, and the strength of the request is there in the verb that is translated “begged him.” “Begged him,” or “beseech[ed] him”[4]—beseeched him “to place his hand on the man.” The word was out that Jesus had been placing his hands on people and healing them, and so they said—perhaps knowing that this had already taken place in the Decapolis, perhaps with an awareness of what had happened to the man who had been so horribly messed up—that “if we can only get this person, this individual, to Jesus and have him place his hands on them, then that would be fantastic.”

The word, the verb, for “to speak” in Greek is kaleō, and the word that is used here is a sort of big word for “speak”; it’s parakalousin. They didn’t just say, “Hey.” They beseeched him. They implored him. It mattered to them. These anonymous people were consumed with the longing that their poor, needy friend would meet Jesus.

That is the work of the gospel. That is the work of the church: that an anonymous throng of people would beseech Christ on behalf of their needy friends. And when you have a congregation that does that, when you have a congregation that thinks that way, prays that way, and when you have preaching that coincides with that kind of praying, then I can tell you, there will be many people that will be brought to faith in Jesus Christ. But you must have a praying congregation, and you must have a praying pastor. “They beseech[ed] him.”

His condition was undeniable. He “was deaf,” we’re told, and he “could hardly talk.” The word which is used here for “hardly talk” is translated variously in the English translations. It means that he had some form of speech impediment. It would seem that this man had not been deaf from his infancy, from birth, for then he probably could not have had any attempt at speaking at all. But perhaps he’s been struck deaf.

Anyway, his speech is impaired, and the word which is used here is an interesting word. Laleō is “to speak,” but it is the word mogilalos. And the reason it’s interesting is because this is the only time it appears in the whole of the New Testament. It’s the only time the word is ever used. And so, any time you find a word that’s only used once, you say, “Well, that’s interesting. I wonder where it’s used anywhere else?” So you go to the Old Testament, and you go to the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and you say to yourself, “I wonder if it’s used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament anywhere?”

And imagine your delight and your surprise when you discover that it is only used one place in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and guess where? Come on, you know! Guess where? Isaiah 35. That’s exactly right. Isn’t that fantastic? When that happens to you when you’re studying, you jump up and run around your desk. It’s absolutely super! “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,” mogilalos, will “shout for joy.”

You think it’s just chance that Mark uses this unique word in this place, at this exact moment? No. He’s already told these people, “The kingdom of God is near.” The rule of God is there. The prophets are anticipating the rule of God. When the reign of God begins to be established, dramatic things will happen like this—things that ultimately, when God wraps the whole of creation up, will be seen in all of their fullness, but little indications of it given now.

Well, all of that is there in verse 32, in a straightforward request.

A Gracious Response

Secondly, in verses 33 and 34, a gracious response. A gracious response: “After he took him aside…” “After he took him aside, away from the crowd…”

We’ve already noticed that Jesus is tender, that he’s wise, that he’s compassionate, and that he’s kind. He’s not going to make a spectacle of this man in this context; he takes him away privately. And since he has taken him away privately, presumably, what we know of this incident we know as a result of the man reporting it; or perhaps Peter, who is largely responsible for the eyewitness record that is used in Mark’s Gospel—perhaps Peter was present, and perhaps Peter had it locked in his mind. He never, ever forgot it, because for him, it was to prove a picture of a necessity that he faced—namely, that he needed to have God perform a miracle in his life (a miracle we’re going to see before we get to the end of chapter 8), enabling him to understand who Jesus is as Messiah and to proclaim him with his lips.[5]

For dwellers in the twenty-first century, these couple of verses are perhaps a little difficult for us. And the way that I have worked through them is to acknowledge that in this occasion, without question, actions do speak louder than words. Actions really do speak louder than words. And they need to, because the man’s deaf, right? I don’t think this would be as surprising to the people living in the ancient Mediterranean world. I don’t think the first-century readers would have disrupted their home Bible study worrying about spitting and saliva and all the kind of things that we are tempted to immediately get off on. If you enjoy that, then I suggest you do it at home, but I’m not going to do it here.

What is Jesus doing? By means of his action, he is entering into this man’s silent world. He is getting into where this man is. He couldn’t sit the man down and say, “Now, listen, here’s the plan.” So he uses language, but the language that he uses is sign language. He uses language that is applicable, that is apropos the individual’s need. And he touches the areas of his need. The man knows himself to be in need. He has presumably acquiesced to the way in which he has been brought into the context of Jesus. And now Jesus, in the way in which he touches both his ears and his tongue, is giving to this deaf man an indication of the fact that he is going to open up the blockage of his ears and set loose everything that is tying his tongue.

We’re told that not only did he touch him at his place of need, but he sighed: “And with a deep sigh [he] said to him…” “A deep sigh.” It had to be a deep sigh, because he couldn’t hear the sigh. Isn’t it in Casablanca—you must remember this—“A kiss is [still] a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh”?[6] Well, in this case, a sigh wasn’t just a sigh. It was “a deep sigh.” Have you ever seen someone sigh like this? It actually does something to their physical frame. And he sighed. What a strange, incidental little piece of information to be included in the Gospel record! “And he sighed.”

Well, think about it. There aren’t many occasions where we’re given any indication of the emotional response of Jesus. Very seldom are we given any insight into what was really going on in Jesus’ heart. You have it before the tomb of Lazarus, don’t you, where he weeps.[7] You have it in the garden of Gethsemane, where he is overwhelmed to the point of sorrow.[8] And you have it here. And in every case, what is Jesus confronted by? The ravaging impact of sin in the lives of men and women; the dramatic impact of the fall of man as it is identified in the predicament of this poor character. He looks at this man, brought here by his friends, and as he sees him in his deafness and in his muteness, he sighs—presumably in anger and in sadness, and in such a way that the man realized that something deep was going on inside of his benefactor.

And we’re told that “he looked,” and “he looked up to heaven.” Where we look says something. You’re talking to somebody, and they’re not looking at you. They’re looking over here, or they’re looking… You say, “What are you looking at? Where are you looking? Why are you looking there?” We tell people things with our eyes. Jesus was telling him something with his eyes. And “he looked up [in]to heaven,” and the man must have said, “He must be looking up to heaven for help from God!” That’s exactly what he was doing. “Father, look at this man!”

I to the hills will lift mine eyes,
From whence doth come mine aid.
My safety cometh from the Lord,
Who heav’n and earth hath made.

That’s the metric psalm of Psalm 121. The Jewish people understood, and they turned and lifted their gaze.

So, he touched, he sighed, he looked, and he spoke. What’s the point of speaking? Well, look at the word that he speaks. It’s interesting. It’s in Aramaic, which was common tongue, but although our Testament is written in Greek, the Aramaic word appears every so often throughout the Greek, presumably because it was so memorable. And if it weren’t memorable for any other reason, it’d be memorable because it’s such a jolly hard word to pronounce, isn’t it? I was practicing, and even when I did it, I wasn’t sure I got it right. “Ephphatha!” “Ephphatha!”

Now, some people are here who work at the Cleveland Clinic, and they do all that stuff, that speech pathology. And they may agree with me that the observation of Geoffrey Grogan, a now-dead Scottish theologian, is pretty good. He says the very unpronounceable nature of the word “requires a very distinct articulation with the lips,” which “would make for unambiguous lip-reading.”[9] And suddenly, instantaneously, both by sight and then by sound, he hears Jesus saying, “Open up! Be opened!”

The metaphors of deafness and blindness are an apt description of life without Christ.

The Immediate Result, an Overwhelming Reaction

And that brings us, thirdly, to the immediate result. The immediate result. He doesn’t tell them, “Go away home and come back, take some aspirin, and see me in a couple of weeks.” No, immediately… “At this” is the NIV. “Straightway,” the King James Version. And Mark records the results of this memorable command: “At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.”

It’s marvelous, it’s wonderful, it’s amazing, and it becomes the occasion—and this is our fourth and final point—of an overwhelming reaction. Of an overwhelming reaction. And they “were overwhelmed with amazement,” verse 37. “They were astonished,” as we saw at the beginning, “beyond measure.” This accounts for their disobedience to the command of Jesus, who had asked them not to go about and spread the news. But they just couldn’t keep it quiet. I’m not sure you would have been able to keep it quiet either, nor me. Anybody finds out anything worth talking about, we’re talking about it all the time, aren’t we? And certainly an incident like this would be such that “You’re not going to believe it,” we would have said to people again and again. Because the crowd had recognized the intervention of God in the work of Jesus.

For that’s really what it is, isn’t it? God comes and intervenes in his creation. It’s a similar response to what happened when Jesus stilled the storm. And remember, the disciples said, “What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the [waves] obey him!”[10] He’s apparently Lord over creation. And now the people are “overwhelmed.” They’re “astonished beyond measure.” They look at this circumstance, and they say, “Isn’t it amazing? He has done everything well. He has done everything well.” Well, surely he has. It might make you think of Genesis 1, Genesis 2: “And God looked, and God said, ‘It’s all really good.’”[11] And now the people look, and they agree: “It’s all really good. He’s done everything well.”

Let me close in this way. I wonder: Are you as helped by these simple observations as I have been?

Number one: the metaphors of blindness and deafness are an apt description of our lives without Christ. The metaphors of deafness and blindness are an apt description of life without Christ. The Bible describes us as those who are deaf and blind and lame and silent. And it is he who “speaks,” as Wesley says, “and, listening to his voice, new life the dead receive.”[12]

Just as the change in this man was a miracle, so all true faith and all true confession of Jesus is a miracle. Every conversion is a miracle. Because up until that point, we have been blind, mute, deaf. Deaf to his voice: “Scriptures are interesting but irrelevant. Don’t really like to sing hymns. Don’t really care about Jesus. Apparently, he was a good man, a nice person,” whatever it might be, “just one amongst a number.” That’s just exactly where we were. And then suddenly, our tongues are loosed, and we proclaim a different story. We start to sing about Jesus as being a Savior and a friend, and we surprise the people around us, and they say, “What in the world has happened to you? You were a nice person before you were a religious person. You seemed to be fine before. I liked you the way you were before. But I don’t like you the way you are now.” I’ll tell you why they don’t like you: they don’t like you because now a miracle has been performed in your life, and a miracle which they recognize they need, for their dead religion will not change them. Every time the deaf hear and the dumb speak in conversion, it’s a miracle.

And I think there’s a direct correlation between ears and mouth. I wonder if Mark has this in mind. I’m going to ask him, if I remember, when I see him. I’m going to ask him, “Were you thinking at the time, as the early church read your Gospel—were you wondering if they would put the two and two together and get it?”—that first we need our ears to be opened to the Word of God so that we then have something worthwhile to say. First we need to hear, and then we need to speak.

Be content to be anonymous now. Let God take care of where he wants to put your name.

As Jesus spoke to this man in a language he could get, so we must learn to speak to our friends and neighbors in a language they can get. There is an incarnational principle here which I think would be worth unpacking, but our time has gone.

And finally, don’t be concerned about whether your name appears in the credits. Don’t get focused on the credits. In God’s sight, you’re never an extra. When the credits roll in the great movie theater of heaven, there won’t be, you know, like, four hundred people described as extras. You’re not an extra. But be content to be anonymous now. Let God take care of where he wants to put your name or put your face or establish your record.

Just before I came down here, I went online, and I reminded myself, I said, “I wonder if anybody knows the name of the fellow who was preaching on the snowy night in January of 1850 when Charles Haddon Spurgeon was converted.” Does anybody know his name? I don’t think so. I don’t know his name. It’s a wonderful story. Fifteen-year-old boy. His mother has been encouraging him to go to church. He tells his mum he will go to church; he’s going to Colchester to go to church. He makes his way out in the snow to attend the church that has been recommended by his mother. It is so freezing and snowing so badly that he ducks into a church before he gets to the church that his mother told him to go to, and the church into which he ducks is a primitive Methodist chapel.

The minister, the preacher for the day, he didn’t show up, presumably because of the snow. And so they hauled out a substitute preacher who stood up and gave out his text: “Look to me, and be saved, all ye ends of the earth, for I am God, and there is nobody else.”[13] But apparently, he hadn’t done any preparation, and he didn’t have a sermon. And so he just kept saying the text over and over again. And then he reduced it just to a phrase: “Look to me, and be saved.” And then he started to direct it to the small congregation. There were only less than a dozen people in the congregation, and he fastened on Spurgeon. And he kept saying to Spurgeon, “Young man, have you looked to Christ? Look to Christ, young man. Look to him, young man.” And then he’d read the text again, and he’d come back and say, “Look to him, young man. Look to him, young man.” And the young man looked to him and was converted.

Who was this funny substitute preacher? Don’t know. Doesn’t matter. And “some people” with a passion for their needy friend brought him to Jesus. And the rest, as they say, is history.

[1] J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 274.

[2] Mark 5:15 (NIV 1984).

[3] See Mark 5:20.

[4] Mark 7:32 (KJV).

[5] See Mark 8:29.

[6] Herman Hupfeld, “As Time Goes By” (1931).

[7] See John 11:35.

[8] See Mark 14:34; Matthew 26:38.

[9] Geoffrey Grogan, Mark (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 1995), 112.

[10] Matthew 8:27 (KJV). See also Mark 4:41; Luke 8:25.

[11] Genesis 1:31 (paraphrased).

[12] Charles Wesley, “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (1731).

[13] Isaiah 45:22 (paraphrased).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.