“‘Ephphatha,’ That Is, ‘Be Opened’” (Mark 7:31-37)
“And they brought to [Jesus] a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” This is our text. And thus our theme today: “‘Ephphatha,’ That Is, ‘Be Opened.’”
The first thing we should say about this miracle, this healing, is that it really happened. Jesus really did open the deaf man’s ears and loose his tongue. This was a real physical healing. Sometimes we are so eager to “spiritualize” this miracle and make applications about opened ears and loosened tongues–and we can do that, and we will do that–but first we do not want to forget or neglect the primary point, which is that Jesus really did a physical healing here, enabling the man to hear and to speak clearly.
God cares about our bodies as well as our souls. The fact that our bodies are messed up and don’t work right is a sign and a symptom of our deeper spiritual problem, that is, that we have become estranged from God and come under the curse of futility and death, and our bodies are breaking down as a result. But God cares about us in our misery. He has mercy upon us. That is why Jesus came, isn’t it? To heal our souls and our bodies, to redeem us from sin and all its terrible consequences.
And so Jesus healing this deaf and dumb man’s infirmities is in itself a sign. It is a signal as to who this man Jesus is and what he has come to do. It is telling us–and it was telling anyone who knew their Bibles back then–that Jesus has come to fulfill the great prophecies of the Messiah and the messianic age of blessing he would be bringing in. We heard one of those messianic prophecies this morning. It’s the reading from Isaiah 35, the promise of the signs that would accompany the arrival of the Messiah: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”
“The ears of the deaf unstopped, the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” That’s exactly what Jesus was doing in our text. The message is clear: This man is the Messiah. He’s come to do the work of healing our bodies and restoring creation and ushering in the age of blessing.
And so it is. Jesus fulfilling the Isaiah 35 signs demonstrates that that is who he is and what he is doing. These miracles of restoration and healing are an advance down-payment, a sneak preview, a guarantee of the restoration in full that Messiah Jesus will do when he comes again at the last day. For now we have these examples recorded in Scripture to tell us what is coming for all of us and to give us hope and encouragement to carry on until that day.
God has mercy on us, in our misery. Jesus is the proof. Sometimes we may think that God has forgotten about us, that he does not care about our hurts and sorrows. But then we look at what Jesus is doing in the gospels in restoring creation and forgiving sins and healing broken bodies, and we are reminded that God really does care. If we wonder, “Well, why not us? Why just those people back then? Are we chopped liver?” No. Even back then, not everybody in the world got healed, and those that did would end up dying from something else later. But the fact that we have these examples of Jesus healing the sick tells us that this is what is in store for us, too, and on an even grander scale.
And that is because Jesus deals with the problem beneath the problem. It wasn’t just a matter of fixing a deaf man’s ears and loosening his tongue. There is a deeper spiritual problem that underlies all our physical ailments and why we all end up dying. Not necessarily in a direct one-to-one correspondence: This man did this particular sin and therefore he was struck with this particular ailment. No. But more broadly, more basically, we all are born sinners and therefore things won’t work right. The particulars can vary from person to person, but the underlying problem is the same. We all have sinned. We have not listened to God’s Word, our heart has not trusted him, and we have rebelled against his will. It’s that sinful nature we all have, which produced all kinds of actual sins. And for that to get fixed, God has to do the job. We can’t fix it on our own.
That’s why Jesus came, and fix it is what he has done. Christ cared for us so much that he went to the cross to get the job done. The Son of God dying for sinners–that’s the only solution. “He has done all things well,” the people said when Jesus healed the deaf and dumb man. Well, yes, and even more so! Jesus has done all things well, very well, exceedingly well. And the supreme thing he has done well is to rescue, save, a whole world of dying sinners. He did this for you! Jesus is your Savior! He died for you! He rose for you! He forgives all your sins. He will heal you of all your diseases. He will raise up your dead, lifeless body, even as he himself rose from the dead. You have this hope even now, and that is what the healing of the deaf and dumb man is telling you today.
And so now–now we can move to the so-called “spiritual” application of our story. “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” Jesus says this to us, so that our ears would be opened, opened to hear God’s Word aright. “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” Jesus says this so that our tongues would be loosed to glorify God and sing his praise.
According to our sinful nature, we don’t do those things. Our ears were closed to hearing God’s voice. We would tune God out. By nature our tongues do not give God the glory he deserves. But Jesus has come and he speaks his mighty “Ephphatha” to us. His gospel word opens our ears to hear and our tongues to sing.
In the ancient church, when a person was baptized, the pastor first would take his fingers and touch the person’s ears. The pastor would say that very word “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” The application was clear: We need God’s work in Holy Baptism, we need the Holy Spirit to open our ears spiritually, in order to be able to hear God’s Word in the way we ought. We need a new nature. This is what God has given you in your baptism. Your ears have been opened. When the Spirit calls you to repentance, you can hear what he’s saying. When the Spirit assures you of God’s forgiveness for Christ’s sake, you hear that good news and sing for joy. Your ears have been opened and your tongue has been loosed.
Opened ears, loosened tongue. Martin Luther makes this same point in a sermon he preached on this text in 1533. Let me read a portion of it to you:
“Christ shows us that he opens ears and unbinds tongues. He seeks to perform this work daily in his church. . . . It is a physical fact that God gives sound ears and tongues also to the heathen; but only for Christians is this spiritual fact true, that he opens ears and looses tongues. For we Christians must hear his Word with our ears and confess with our lips.
“This is sure, that we have our salvation alone through the Word of God. What would we otherwise know about God, about our Lord Christ, his sacrifice, and the Holy Spirit? To this day the greatest miracle and mightiest work is giving a person ears that gladly hear God’s Word and a tongue that honors God and does not blaspheme.
“Many people are a thousand times worse off than this poor deaf and dumb man. They have ears that are really stopped up. They hear God’s Word and yet really do not hear it, nor do they want to. But those who hear God’s Word gladly and to whom Christ says, as to the deaf man, ‘Ephphatha (Be opened),’ are helped. . . God has shown us no other way by which we can come into heaven than through his precious Word, the Holy Gospel. Whoever gladly and diligently hears and receives it and who loves and delights in it will be helped.
“God also stirs our tongues and causes us to speak. . . . Through faith in Christ we come to have the forgiveness of sins; confession should also follow. We must not be mute, but speak what we believe in our hearts.”
And then Luther goes on to say:
“Our tongues will not be loosed, our ears opened, faith in our hearts begun, without the outward, oral preaching of the Word and external Sacraments. For parish pastors and preachers are the fingers of our Lord God, the servants and spittle through which he looses our tongues and opens our ears. When you hear them, God says to your heart, as to this deaf man, ‘Ephphatha!’ so that your ears are opened, your tongue unsticks, and you become a hearing, speaking person, no longer deaf and mute.”
“Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” Today our ears have been opened to hear the good news that Jesus has been preaching to us by means of the healing of the deaf and mute man. That message is that healing, total healing of both body and soul, is the gift that Christ has for us. He forgives us all our sins by his blood on the cross. He will raise up our bodies whole and fully restored, everything working right, in the resurrection at the last day. This is our faith, this is our hope, this is what causes our tongues to sing for joy.
“Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” If anyone has ears to hear–and that would be you, baptized Christian–if anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.