Deaf Ears, Blind Eyes, and Thick Heads
A sermon on Mark 7:31-8:26 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA, 12/5/99
What do you want for Christmas?
Many of us have made lists, which weíve distributed, in the hope that we wonít get too many ugly ties that we canít wear (or, worse, that we must wear).
Some of us include on our lists items that we probably should not get, something that wonít be good for us if we got it. But most of the items on our lists are probably innocuous or positive Ė we would indeed benefit to some extent from having them.
Now, letís say I could guarantee that you could get one item on your Christmas list. Prioritize your list. What do you want more than anything else? What is your greatest desire?
In Philippians, Paul tells us what is on top of his Christmas list:
10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10,11 NIV)
Is that on the top of your list? Can you say with Paul that you want to know Christ more than you want anything else?
Recall in our last look at Mark, we saw that chapter 7 returns to the theme of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees ask why Jesusí disciples do not engage in ceremonial handwashing prior to eating a meal. This handwashing was a tradition, not something found in the Law, so Jesus could have replied simply that there is no need to obey manís traditions. But Jesus goes far beyond that statement. Indeed, he declares that all regulations regarding kosher foods and ceremonial cleanness no longer hold -- that their entire purpose from the beginning was to provide a picture of having a heart prepared to enter Godís presence. We become defiled not by external filth, but by internal filth: envy, pride, evil thoughts. Jesus therefore lashes out at the Pharisees for being hypocrites who are careful to obey even the minutiae of outward cleanliness, but are full of hate and pride on the inside.
Following this encounter, Jesus takes his disciples to a Gentile region, where they presumably ate food that was not kosher, with Gentiles, as Jesus lived out the teaching.
For our purposes today, it is especially important that we note three points from this previous section:
This is the background for todayís Scripture, Mark 7:31-8:26. This sermon is entitled "Deaf Ears, Blind Eyes, and Thick Heads," for in this passage Jesus heals a deaf man and a blind man: we will first examine those two healings. But we also find Jesus frustrated by the obstinate blindness of the Pharisees, and the thick heads of his disciples. He is offering the gospel, the good news of the Kingdom, but the Pharisees reject him and the disciples again and again misunderstand him. The question for us today is this: Does He have equally good reason to be frustrated by our own obstinacy and thick-headedness? Are we practically rejecting him by putting other wants and desires ahead of our desire to know Him? Are we even more thick-headed than the disciples?
The Deaf Can Hear and the Blind Can See!
Please turn in your Bibles with me to Mark 7:31. We will read through the end of the chapter, then skip ahead and read the healing of the blind man, 8:22-26: The section begins with Jesus taking a circuitous route from the Mediterranean coast to the east side of the Sea of Galilee, apparently remaining in Gentile territory throughout.
31 ∂ And again He went out from the region of Tyre, and came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, within the region of Decapolis. 32 And they *brought to Him one who was deaf and spoke with difficulty, and they *entreated Him to lay His hand upon him. 33 And He took him aside from the multitude by himself, and put His fingers into his ears, and after spitting, He touched his tongue with the saliva; 34 and looking up to heaven with a deep sigh, He *said to him, "Ephphatha!" that is, "Be opened!" 35 And his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was removed, and he began speaking plainly. 36 And He gave them orders not to tell anyone; but the more He ordered them, the more widely they continued to proclaim it. 37 And they were utterly astonished, saying, "He has done all things well; He makes even the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak."
8:22 ∂ And they *came to Bethsaida. And they *brought a blind man to Him, and *entreated Him to touch him. 23 And taking the blind man by the hand, He brought him out of the village; and after spitting on his eyes, and laying His hands upon him, He asked him, "Do you see anything?" 24 And he looked up and said, "I see men, for I am seeing them like trees, walking about." 25 Then again He laid His hands upon his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and began to see everything clearly. 26 And He sent him to his home, saying, "Do not even enter the village." (Mark 7:31-37, 8:22-26 NASB)
There are several common elements in these two healings. First, note that we find in both stories the same word "entreat" that we noted at the end of chapter 6. They are begging Jesus to heal these sick persons. They acknowledge the problem their friends have, and they believe that Jesus is able to heal -- so they bring the sick to him, and beg him to heal.
Second, note that Jesus takes both the deaf man and the blind man off alone, away from the crowds. Jesus clearly is not using these healings as a method to draw a crowd -- quite the opposite. Crowds have caused Jesus problems, hindering what He sees as His central ministry. So Jesus shows compassion to these two men, and heals their deafness and blindness, but does so alone.
Third, you surely noticed the use of spit in each case. I wonít pretend to understand why Jesus chooses to spit, but consider this: Unable to talk to the deaf man, He gives him this picture of linking his tongue to Jesusí tongue. He makes a similar intimate connection to the blind manís eyes. It is as if Jesus were saying, "From now on you will speak by my power, and for my purposes; from now on you will see by my power, and for my purposes."
With the deaf man, who cannot hear Jesusí say anything about God, He looks up to heaven, indicating the source of the healing power. And then He gives a "deep sigh." This sigh is not just a breath, which might symbolize the power of the Holy Spirit. The same word is used several times in the New Testament and in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. It always indicates some form of dissatisfaction. For example, it is used in Exodus of the Israelites, "groaning" under the oppression of Egyptian slavery. Paul uses the word in 2 Corinthians 5, "For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven." You see how in each case, the word connotes a desire that circumstances would be different.
Why does Jesus sigh in this way, right before he heals this man? What does Jesus long to be different?
We have indications of Jesusí dissatisfaction throughout this section. We noted above that He declares the Pharisees to be hypocrites and reprimands his own disciples for lacking understanding. I believe Jesus is comparing the eagerness with which the crowds seek physical healing to their lack of interest in more important spiritual matters. Jesus may be thinking, "If only they would seek healing of the spirit with the same eagerness that they seek healing of the body! This deaf man knows he is deaf, and longs for healing; if only all the spiritually deaf would acknowledge their deafness, and long for healing!" So many are entreating Jesus, begging him to heal physically -- but we see no crowds coming to him begging for spiritual healing.
Now, physical suffering is real, and God promises to deal with it (Rev 21:4). The question really is one of priority. Itís as if youíre piloting an airplane, and youíve lost control. Youíre headed straight into the side of a mountain; destruction is imminent. Jesus, the master pilot, comes into the cockpit and says, "Let me take over. Iíll get you over the mountain." You reply, "Well, what Iíd really like you to do is to fix my CD player; I lost my music five minutes ago!"
One of my earliest memories is of riding in the car with my mother when I was about four. I leaned against the door -- and fell onto the pavement, with the car travelling about 40 miles per hour. I had numerous abrasions and a rapidly increasing lump on the side of my head -- but all I noticed was blood on the little finger of my left hand. When my mother came back, greatly distressed, she found me sitting in the road, crying, "My pinky! My pinky!"
All these people are coming to Jesus, saying, in effect, "Heal my pinky!" All the while they are bleeding to death from a wound they donít see. Does Jesus care about your pinky? Yes! But he cares much more about that mortal wound!
Do we do the same? Are you so focused on your monetary and health problems that you neglect your spiritual problem?
Letís continue reading at 8:1.
1 ∂ In those days again, when there was a great multitude and they had nothing to eat, He called His disciples and *said to them, 2 "I feel compassion for the multitude because they have remained with Me now three days, and have nothing to eat; 3 and if I send them away hungry to their home, they will faint on the way; and some of them have come from a distance." 4 And His disciples answered Him, "Where will anyone be able to find enough to satisfy these men with bread here in a desolate place?" 5 And He was asking them, "How many loaves do you have?" And they said, "Seven." 6 And He *directed the multitude to sit down on the ground; and taking the seven loaves, He gave thanks and broke them, and started giving them to His disciples to serve to them, and they served them to the multitude. 7 They also had a few small fish; and after He had blessed them, He ordered these to be served as well. 8 And they ate and were satisfied; and they picked up seven large baskets full of what was left over of the broken pieces. 9 And about four thousand were there; and He sent them away. (Mark 8:1-9 NASB)
For a second time Jesus feeds a multitude (see the sermon on the first feeding). Why does he repeat more or less the same miracle?
The first phrase -- "in those days" -- is somewhat ambiguous. Does Mark mean "in the next few months," in which case this event could have happened anywhere, or "while they were in the region of the Decapolis" (see 7:31). If the latter, then this is a predominantly Gentile audience, providing the disciples with yet more evidence that Jesus' ministry is not only for the Jews, and that the cleanliness regulations really are changed.
But I believe the primary reason Jesus repeats this miracle is that the disciples have not taken to heart the lessons of the first miracle. First, they have not learned that if Jesus is with them, they always have all that they need. Their question in 8:4 displays the same lack of faith in Jesus' ability to provide as their question in 6:37.
Second, the disciples had not learned that Jesus himself is the bread of life. John's gospel records that Jesus gave very explicit teaching in this regard after the first feeding of the multitude:
John 6:35 Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst
John 6:51 "I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh."
John 6:58 "This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate, and died, he who eats this bread shall live forever." (NASB)
If the disciples had used their ears to hear, they would have responded in 8:4 by saying, "Lord, we know you are the bread of life, the only source of true spiritual nourishment; we also know that you can provide us with bread to eat if you so choose. Apart from you, we cannot feed these multitudes."
How often we respond to challenges in our life exactly in the same way as these disciples. We face an obstacle, and fret, and worry; sometimes we even accuse God of not caring for us. In such cases, we also need to say, "Lord, you are the source of all power and strength. I cannot solve this problem, or resist this temptation, or deal with these challenges on my own. I lean on you for the strength and wisdom to deal with this issue."
10 ∂ And immediately He entered the boat with His disciples, and came to the district of Dalmanutha. 11 And the Pharisees came out and began to argue with Him, seeking from Him a sign from heaven, to test Him. 12 And sighing deeply in His spirit, He *said, "Why does this generation seek for a sign? Truly I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation." (NASB)
The Pharisees are not wondering whether or not Jesus is the Messiah, and desiring evidence; instead, their testing is aimed at discrediting Jesus. Here Jesus once again displays great frustration, "sighing deeply." The Greek word is the same as the one used in 7:34, but in an intensive form. Note particularly that he refers to "this generation," not to the Pharisees alone. Jesus is frustrated with the response to His ministry in general -- the crowds seeking only healing, the Pharisees trying to discredit him, the disciples failing to take his teaching to heart.
The Yeast of the Pharisees and the Yeast of Herod
Jesus refuses to play their game, and leaves the area:
13 And leaving them, He again embarked and went away to the other side. 14 And they had forgotten to take bread; and did not have more than one loaf in the boat with them. 15 And He was giving orders to them, saying, "Watch out! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod."
Presumably, the disciples had carried to Dalmanutha some of the bread left over from feeding the multitudes, but after their encounter with the Pharisees someone forgot to put the bread in the boat. They were probably discussing this on the journey, trying to assign blame: "Matthew, you were the last one I saw with the basket of bread. What did you do with it?" "I set it down on the shore next to the boat, and told Andrew to be sure to pick it up." "You did not! I never heard you say anything like that!" Jesus is not interested in their bickering; and takes this opportunity of their being together in the boat, away from the crowds, to offer a serious warning. He uses the image of a little yeast flavoring and changing an entire batch of dough to warn them against the insidious evil of the Pharisees and Herod. (Paul uses this same image in Galatians 5:9 and 1 Corinthians 5:6). What is this yeast, this leaven?
The Yeast of the Phrarisees
The yeast of the Pharisees is self-righteousness. The Pharisees turned God's word completely backwards, focusing on external minutiae at best, and violating God's explicit commands at worst. Their hearts were far from God, even while they supposed that their external obedience to the Law merited God's favor. How did they turn God's word backwards?
Yet the Pharisees turned the law, the cleanliness regulations, fasting, and Sabbath-keeping into opportunities of showing their superiority to others. Instead of humbling themselves before God when confronted with His holiness and mercy, they used these institutions to exalt themselves.
The Yeast of Herod
Herod, on the other hand, rejects all of the external regulations of the Pharisees. Instead Herod looks to fulfill himself through indulging in a lust for pleasure and a lust for power, making these his gods. So in short, the leaven of the Pharisees is self-righteousness, while the leaven of Herod is self-indulgence and idolatry.
Why does Jesus tell the disciples to beware of these types of leaven? Because they both are lies.
We will examine this theme in more detail next week, when we consider Jesus' statement that whoever wishes to save his life must lose it.
A Cure for Thick Heads
Well, the disciples donít get this at all.
16 And they began to discuss with one another the fact that they had no bread. 17 And Jesus, aware of this, *said to them, "Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet see or understand? Do you have a hardened heart? 18 "HAVING EYES, DO YOU NOT SEE? AND HAVING EARS, DO YOU NOT HEAR? And do you not remember, 19 when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces you picked up?" They *said to Him, "Twelve." 20 "And when I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of broken pieces did you pick up?" And they *said to Him, "Seven." 21 And He was saying to them, "Do you not yet understand?" (Mark 8:16-21 NASB)
As Matthew states in his account, the disciples, feeling guilty, hear Jesus say "leaven" and immediately think heís upbraiding them for leaving the bread behind.
Jesus' frustration overflows into this series of questions, as He confronts the disciples with their thick heads. But as always, Jesus' actions are redemptive. The same one who opened the ears of the deaf-mute and who will open the eyes of the blind in the next verses here provides the disciples with a prescription to heal thick heads, a prescription intended to produce spiritual sensitivity. Let us consider these questions, and turn them into commands:
(1) Do you not see or understand? Think about what I am saying. Donít just jump to conclusions. I gave you a brain; use it. Consider the context of my statements and actions. (Throughout the New Testament we are instructed to think.)
(2) Do you have a hardened heart? Examine your heart! What do you want? What is your treasure? Sometimes our hearts have gone astray because we havenít thought; but we can also think and allow ourselves to be distracted by following our wrong desires. Jesus wants our heads and our hearts.
(3) Do you have eyes, but do not see, and ears, but do not hear? Use your eyes and ears! Pay attention! Look at the destruction that results from any other way of life. Donít let these words go in one ear and out the other. Meditate on them, let them grow in you and change you.
(4) Donít you remember? Remember! Jesus had worked in the disciples' lives, and he works in ours. Remember those works, and consider the faithfulness of the Lord, when we have been unfaithful and forgetful.
(5) Finally, once again: Do you not yet understand? Jesus begins and ends with the same question -- in effect, he gives us the opportunity to confess that initially we don't understand, but after following His prescription, we do.
So what do you want for Christmas? What do you want more than anything else?
Amid all the Christmas lights and parties and Santa Clauses and tinsel; amid all the getting and spending, the wrapping and unwrapping, the hustle and haste; in the midst of the fake department store smiles and mall pseudo-happiness, I pray that you would listen to Jesusí words: "Do you not yet see? Do you have a hardened heart? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod!"
This is what I pray for all of us this season:
(1) I pray that we would know the desperate nature of our sinfulness. That we would know that the sin problem is not simply our doing a few wrong deeds now and then; our sin problem is not something we can control Ė but that every inclination of our hearts is evil all the time, and that left to our own devices, we will destroy all that is good, we will destroy, indeed, all that we love. I pray that each one of us by Godís power would root out whatever vestiges of self-righteousness, the yeast of the Pharisees, remains.
(2) I pray that we would discern the idolatry that so often pervades this time of year, and indeed our entire lives. That we would identify and reject the yeast of Herod Ė the lust for power, the love of money, the desire to get gifts, the focus on career, the desire to be cool or well-liked.
(3) I pray that our heartís desire would be to know Jesus Christ as Lord, and to become like Him. That we would know and act on this, really believing that nothing compares to knowing Him. That each one of us would come to Him with a broken and contrite heart, acknowledging our complete sinfulness, our inability to do anything at all on our power to please him; that each one of us would beg him for mercy. I pray that we all would arrange each moment of each day of our lives so that we might come to know Him better and serve him faithfully in this world.
Thatís what I want for Christmas for Community Bible Church Ė and for myself.
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 12/5/99. I found Ray Stedman's discussion of Jesus' questions to his disciples very helpful; see the PBC web site.
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