The Sign Language of the Saviour

The Sign Language of the Saviour

Mark 7:31-37

Then Jesus returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.

Just prior to this passage from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus had brought healing to a Canaanite woman in Gentile territory, and then had returned to the area where he had cast out evil spirits from the Gadarene demoniac. When he gets into the vicinity, the crowds immediately recognize him, and Matthew tells us of the many that were sick or crippled or blind that thronged to him. But Mark is not so concerned about multitudes at this point. He is concerned about one of the individuals that came. He zooms in on one man.

A Man in Trouble

When we meet this unfortunate man, we are told that he was severely handicapped. Mark tells us first that he was deaf.  He could not hear. One of the most important avenues of communication was closed to him entirely.  Imagine no birds singing, no music sounding, and no human voices making sense,

Mark tells of a second trouble he had. He had a severe speech impediment. Not only could he not hear but he could not speak either. Verse 35 may indicate that he was tongue-tied so that whatever he said was garbled.  Medical science tells us that it is very often true that those that cannot hear do not speak very well normally, and with a tied tongue speaking was adding insult to injury.

So, the second avenue of communication was blocked so that he could not hear nor communicate with others very well. And I’m sure that when enough people had asked him to repeat what he said, he may well have drawn within himself, a very frustrated person.

Which meant that when Jesus came into the area, he was faced with another problem. How could he communicate with the great teacher?

But he was fortunate. He had friends who were willing to listen on his behalf and speak up for him. He may not have been aware that Jesus was in the area, but someone somehow told him. And not only told him but brought him to Jesus. And then those same friends because he could not speak for himself made petition for him to Jesus.

It would be nice to move off in a tangent here and speak to you about how nice it is to have friends in time of trouble. But we cannot linger there, for I want to look at the problem of his deafness and dumbness. I don’t think we can appreciate what it means to have these two primary senses not operating

The Master’s Touch

Marks account tells us of this poor man’s troubles, but quickly goes on to speak also of the Master’s touch. Jesus ministers to this troubled man with a rather unique approach. In fact, Jesus rarely ministers to two people the same way.

When the friends bring this man to Jesus, Jesus takes him to one side, away from the crowd that was gathered. It may have been that the crowd confused this poor man, who though he could not hear yet, could sense the din of many voices. Jesus, perhaps to get his attention, or to remind those that stood there that he did not deal with men as though they were on an assembly line, takes him aside privately and there ministers in a unique way.

First, he puts his fingers into the man’s affected ears. The Greek word actually connotes “Thrust’- he thrust his fingers into his ears. Then he spits, whether on the ground or on his fingers we cannot be sure, then he touches the man’s afflicted tongue. Then He lifts up his face to heaven and sighs.

Of course, the question arises, what is He doing? Well, remember that the man cannot hear what Jesus needs to say to him. And Jesus in compassion wants to communicate with this man so that he might understand. So Jesus uses sign language that cannot be mistaken.

He thrust his fingers into the two ears that will not function correctly. He is indicating that he desires to do something for his deafened ears. His thrusting might even indicate his intention to open that which was closed.

Then he spits drawing attention to his own mouth. (The Greek word is PTU!) and then he touches the tongue that is tied, showing again that he will do something for the tongue that is not functioning correctly. (Interesting side note.  Matthew leaves out of his account the two spitting stories (Mark 7 & Mark 8) because spitting is taboo to his Jewish audience.)

Then he looks up into heaven to show where the source of the help is.  He shows the man that God is able to help him in his troubles.

And then he sighs. We all can read a sigh, whether the ears work or not. The whole upper body communicates in a sigh. It speaks of heartfelt empathy & compassion. It told this poor man that here was one who cared about him.

And then to this deaf man Jesus speaks one word only.  And Mark has taken pains to give us the exact word that Jesus used. It is an Aramaic word that Mark inserts into his Greek writing. It is a word that is very easy to lip-read. It was the word “Ephphatha” which means, “Be opened!”

And that man, though deaf and dumb, has no problem understanding all that Jesus has done. The touch on the ears and the tongue, the look towards heaven, and the deep sigh and the pronounced word all speak to the understanding and healing of this man.  And from that moment he is healed. Hearing and speaking plainly. (Isn’t it interesting that as soon as the man can talk, Jesus says to him and his friends “tell no one.”)

Love Finds a Way

This account speaks to me so plainly about the love of God for each of us. God finds a way to speak in such a way that all can hear, if we will.

  • To the intellectually oriented he speaks to reason.
  • To the emotionally oriented he communicates to feeling.
  • The aesthetically oriented are addressed through their love of beauty.
  • To the sorrowing he speaks in gentle tones of comfort.
  • To some he will speak in thunder and earthquake, while others hear him in the still small voice.
  • Some hear him speak through a child and others through a sunset.
  • Some hear him from a bed of suffering, while others hear him in moments of blessing.

But God will speak, as we are able to hear.

The Man’s Trust

But let me raise a question; why did Jesus bother using sign language? He could have simply healed this man, and then have spoken with him? It would have been a lot easier. And there is no doubt that Jesus could have done it by simply doing the work without all this attempt at communication.

But as we read through the gospels, we begin to see that Jesus prefers our participation in what he does, and without it he might not do what we need.

Earlier in this Gospel Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth and Mark notes that, “He could do no mighty work there because of their unbelief.” Before Jesus would free this man from whatever bound him, there needed to be that expression of desire at least, and perhaps an acknowledgement that he is willing to trust.

We know that the friends, who brought him, must have had enough faith to bring him and make petition. But this man needed trust in Christ as well. Jesus wants him to believe along with his friends. And so step-by-step and very clearly he tells this man what He is about to do. And there gives the man a chance to draw back or submit in trust to Christ. The man exercised the option of trust and received healing.


And as we share in the service of communion this morning, we need to see that this too is part of the sign language of God.  Here he expresses to us who also do not hear very well, that he loves us profoundly.

  • He loves us enough to die for us.
  • Loves us enough to feed us at His table,
  • Loves us enough to include us in the fellowship of his people.
  • Loves us enough to invite us to become partakers of His life.

The communion elements are also part of that sign language.

  • The broken bread reminds us of the broken body of the saviour.
  • The wine reminds us of his spilt blood.
  • Our taking the bread and wine into our hands reminds us that we need to become participants in our own healing.
  • And our eating and our drinking willingly are declaring that we will trust him.