Ephphatha!

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“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” (Mark 7:32-34).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Jesus is in the Decapolis, a region heavily influenced by Greek culture laying east of the Jordan River and southeast of the Sea of Galilee. He’s just come from Tyre and Sidon, where He healed the daughter of a faithful Syrophoenician woman. Jesus is healing and preaching to the Gentiles, emphasizing that He is not just the Savior of the Jews, but of all people.
Jesus had been here once before (Mark 5:20). That time the people had begged Him to leave when they suffered the loss of a large herd of pigs. But the demon-possessed man who Jesus healed had gone throughout the area proclaiming Jesus’ power and mercy. This one-man witness brought a remarkable change. St. Matthew tells us that when Jesus returns, the crowds gather and bring their lame, blind, crippled, mute and many others to Jesus to be healed (15:30-32).
Mark relates just one of the healings Jesus performs. The case is pathetic, beyond the ability of any physician to heal or even to improve—a man who is deaf and mute. The loss of any sense is terrible, but this is a dreadful combination. The man is isolated, unable to hear the sounds of the environment around him, much less those who try to talk to him. He can’t speak intelligibly, even if he is in dire need of assistance. Believing the Word they’ve heard about Jesus, his friends (or family) bring the man to the Savior.
Jesus takes the man aside privately. With some improvised sign language, Jesus makes the man understand what He is about to do for him. Jesus places His fingers in the man’s ears to show He will give him hearing. Jesus spits and touches the man’s tongue, indicating He will give him the ability to speak clearly. By looking up to heaven, Jesus shows that the cure He brings comes from God.
I would suggest that this is also related to why Jesus sighed or groaned. The verb used here has the same root as the noun St. Paul uses to describe the Holy Spirit’s work in bringing our prayers before God (Romans 8:26). Just as the man’s friends begged Jesus to heal the man, Jesus begs His heavenly Father for healing, though it is without an uttered word. It is a simple prayer, unintelligible to human ears, but perfectly understood, even as the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words when we do not know what to pray.
Then Jesus speaks one distinct word, “Ephphatha!” It’s the Aramaic word that means “Be opened!” And just like that, the man’s ears are opened; his tongue is released. He begins to speak plainly, whereas before he had only been able to utter unintelligible sounds. The man is immediately and completely cured!
It’s got to be one of the strangest acts of healing in the Bible. No, I’m not talking about poking your fingers in someone’s ears, spitting, and touching someone’s tongue. Certainly, those actions are all more than a bit weird and too homeopathic for us and our modern medical methods. No, I’m talking about the impossibility, of calling out to a deaf man, and then having those words give him hearing and speech. If nothing else, it shows that this healing comes completely from outside of man, but is solely sourced in Christ and the power of His Word. Even the grammar highlights this fact. Though the verb is an imperative, a command, it is also in a passive form showing that the activity is something accomplished in the man by someone else. Jesus’ command, “Ephphatha!” does for the deaf man exactly what Jesus says: It opens his ears and mouth.
Just as the eternal Word had called forth creation from nothing with His “Let there be…” so now Jesus calls forth hearing and speech where there was none. Just as the dead man, Lazarus, was raised to back to life, when Jesus called him to come out of the grave, so the deaf-mute man is given hearing and speech when He hears the Savior speak. Jesus is not just another sinful human being. He is the Incarnate Word. He is the righteous Son of God. He comes to reverse the curse brought by the first Adam and the fall into sin. Sin brings deafness, so Jesus opens ears. Sin brings darkness, so Jesus opens eyes to see. Jesus opens our lips and causes us to confess our sin and praise His name.
All of this is a fulfillment of the prophecy you heard in our Old Testament lesson. When the long-awaited Messiah comes, He will confirm His calling by performing miraculous signs: “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 shout for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6). So as Jesus performs these miracles, He’s establishing His credentials, proving Himself to be the long-awaited Savior.
But those aren’t the only prophecies He fulfills. There are others, including Isaiah 53:4-5: “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken by God, and afflicted; But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed.” Being Messiah is not just about healing; it is mostly about the cross.
Jesus isn’t staying in the Decapolis, but is gradually making His way to a hill outside Jerusalem called Golgotha. On His way to the cross, He bears the sins of the world. He bears the world’s infirmities, too. He takes the man’s deafness and muteness away, and takes it on Himself. It is part of the heavy load that He carries as the Redeemer. On the cross, He fulfills the prophecy: He is wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and we are healed by His stripes.
This is probably why Jesus tells them to be quiet about this healing; they don’t have the full story yet. They know about the miracles, but not about the cross. Telling the half-story is likely to lead people astray. It’s going to give them the wrong impression. If they think that the Savior is all about—and only about—working miracles and healings, they’re going to look at Him on the cross and say, “That doesn’t fit—I guess He isn’t the Savior after all.” But the cross is Jesus’ victory over sin, sickness, and death. His resurrection is not only proof of all He claims, but is His greatest miracle.
One who is able to raise Himself to life can and will certainly heal you as well. In fact, this is your hope because the same Jesus who healed the deaf-man and rose from the dead is your Savior, too. Don’t forget the reasons we’ve already talked about for Jesus’ miracles (a) to establish His credentials, (b) to fulfill prophecy, and (c) to prove He is the Savior. But there is one more important reason: to give you a foretaste of what lies ahead. The Lord will heal you of all your diseases and infirmities—on the Last Day, if not before.
The trouble is, you and I want our miracles on demand, when and where we want them to happen. But the Lord works according to His holy will and wisdom. His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are His ways our ways. The Lord heals in His time, according to His plan. This is important to understand, because some have looked at the New Testament miracles and said, “As soon as people came to Jesus for healing, He healed them. Therefore, if you pray to Jesus for healing, He will heal you right away; and if He doesn’t, you must not have enough faith.”
This is a lie. It slanders God and it endangers faith. The Lord doesn’t promise to heal you when you want, but when He wills for your good. That may be sooner or later in this life. It may be on the Last Day, when you are raised from the dead. But it will happen, for Jesus has died to make it so. He has borne all your sicknesses and infirmities to the cross to make it so.
Healing and forgiveness are both miracles brought about by the cross; and this is another reason to rejoice in our Gospel. Even if you were born with fully functional ears and tongue you were still born deaf and mute before God. You were born in sin. You were born unable to hear God’s Word and keep it. You were born unable to sing and speak His praise. This is what David is getting at in Psalm 51 when he cries out: “O Lord, open my lips; and my mouth shall declare your praise.” David wasn’t mourning the loss of hearing and speech; he was grieving his sin. He had committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed. He had done great damage to his faith; and if he was to recover, it would have to be the Lord’s doing. It would have to be a miracle. The Lord would have to grant forgiveness—which He did. God used the mouth of Nathan the prophet to say, “The Lord has taken away your sin.” In other words, “Be forgiven.” In other words, “Ephphatha! Be opened!”
The Lord has done the same to you. In the waters of Holy Baptism, He cleansed out your ears with His Word. He gave you faith—ears to hear His Word. By opening your ears, He also opened your mouth; for by giving you faith, He gave you the joy of declaring His praise.
   Now, here’s the part that most people don’t think about: This forgiveness—this healing from sin—is a far greater miracle than the one in our text. If you are forgiven, you have the promise of eternal healing. But if you are healthy in body, but have no faith, only death and destruction await.
No wonder this text was taken up by the Church in the ancient baptismal liturgies, as early as the 4th century in Rome and Milan. Before entering the church, the pastor would take the candidate for baptism, baby or adult, touch his finger to his tongue and then put his finger to the candidate’s ear and quote Jesus’ words: “Ephphatha, that is, Be opened.” Martin Luther thought it very fitting and therefore also included this practice in his Order of Baptism from 1523.
Both Jesus’ healing of the deaf-mute and the ancient rite of baptism sound strange, don’t they? But they remind us of an important point: Throughout history, the Lord uses means, physical elements, to do His work.
In the Old Testament, God uses the blood of the lamb, spread over the doorposts, to save the children of Israel from the angel of death. He uses Moses’ rod, lifted over the water, to part the Red Sea and make a path of dry ground for His Church to walk through. He uses the pillar of cloud and fire to lead His people through the wilderness. He uses the bronze serpent, lifted up on a pole by Moses, to heal the people. He uses a coal, taken from the incense, to purge Isaiah’s sin. He uses the humble Jordan River to wash away Naaman’s leprosy. In the New Testament, Jesus uses spit or mud or well or the hem of His garment or His touch or His spoke Word to do the work of healing. This is how the Lord chooses to deliver His gifts, His healing, His salvation—through means.
And it is no different today. The same Lord, who speaks to the deaf-mute and heals him, also speaks His healing, life-giving Word to you. In Baptism, the same Lord, who spits and puts His fingers into that man’s ears, uses water and His Word to cleanse you and make you His child. In simple bread and wine, Christ touches your tongue, giving you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Salvation is yours because Jesus consented to have His blood shed and His body nailed to the cross for you; and because He still works to deliver His Word, body, and blood to you now.
Through each of these means of grace, the Savior is with you. He speaks to open your ears to hear His Word of Law and Gospel. He speaks to you so that you might open your mouth to sing His praises. He speaks to you that you might open your lips to confess your sins, so that you might hear and believe His “Ephphatha” that opens the gates of heaven: “You are forgiven for all of your sins.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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