The New Testament is soaked in the glorious experiences and expectations of the Old Covenant scriptures. This is clear in Mark 7:31-37, where the entire passage hinges on understanding the miracle account in the context of the Old Covenant promises.
The prophets often warned Israelites to turn from their sins and return to serve Him with their whole hearts. Yet, Yahweh knew many wouldn’t listen; “they are a rebellious people, lying sons, sons who will not hear the instruction of the LORD,” (Isa 30:9). God often juxtaposed these warnings of certain judgment for rebellion with promises of His future blessing, despite their wickedness. Here, I’ll briefly journey from Isaiah 32:1 – 35:10, to provide Messianic context for the miracle account from the Gospel of Mark (7:31 – 37). This context will help us appreciate the trinitarian implications of Jesus’ actions.
A vision of the kingdom
Isaiah promised, “a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule in justice,” (Isa 32:1). These leaders, particularly the king, would be a true shelter in the time of storm for the Israelites (Isa 32:2). Eyes and ears will be opened (Isa 32:3-4), and the upside down moral value judgments of corrupt men will finally be set right; “the fool will no more be called noble, nor the knave said to be honorable,” (Isa 32:5).
But, that’s all far in the future. For the moment, the women of Israel should cry and plan for the worst, because Jerusalem will be made a wasteland in the meantime (Isa 32:9-14). What will be the trigger for this glorious renewal? When will it happen? When will God’s curse be lifted from His people? Isaiah answers; “until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high,” (Isa 32:15). Then the national blessings will flow (Isa 32:15). Then justice and righteousness will flow from the very wilderness and the fruitful fields, “and the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust for ever. My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places,” (Isa 32:17-18).
This king will be the promised Messiah, and the Spirit will be poured out in the blessings of the New Covenant (cf. Mk 1:8) during the king’s reign, when Yahweh Himself will return to Zion (cf. Zech 8). Isaiah explains that it’s Yahweh (“the LORD”) who will be exalted in that day, who “will fill Zion with justice and righteousness,” (Isa 33:5). The king and Yahweh are both distinct from one another and united together (cp. Isa 32:1, 33:5). And, the treasure they’ll both bring to the world is “abundance of salvation, wisdom, knowledge [and] the fear of the Lord,” (Isa 33:6).
Again, the evil order will be overthrown, and things will be set right (Isa 33:13-16)! Yahweh tells the people, “your eyes will see the king in his beauty,” (Isa 33:17; another distinction between Divine Persons), and they’ll never see their oppressors again (Isa 33:18-19). Why? “For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our ruler, the LORD is our king; he will save us,” (Isa 33:22; note that now Yahweh is King)!
The nations will be destroyed, “for the LORD is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host,” (Isa 34:2). They’ll be annihilated, and God will gather His people by His Spirit back to their home (Isa 34:16). National blessings will follow, and God encourages the Israelites, “Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you,” (Isa 35:4).
And, when all this happens, what will it look like? What will the Messiah’s reign over the whole world be characterized by? Isaiah tells us, in this all-important passage (Isa 35:5-10):
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a hart,
and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
And a highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not pass over it,
and fools shall not err therein.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
These promises are like glittering diamonds, shining bright with glory. The curse of the fall will be removed (or severely curtailed) for God’s people, God’s world and God’s city. There will be a highway of holiness leading to the celestial city, and Yahweh’s people will come to Him singing salvation’s song and praising Him all the day long! These are Messianic markers, signs that the promised Kingdom of God has come. These are the very signs Jesus showed a preview of during His ministry in general, and this miracle story in particular (Mk 7:31 – 37).
The man from gentile country
This miracle account is one specific incident from the general situation Matthew summarized in his own story (see Mt 15:29-31).1 Jesus has left the region of Tyre and Sidon (cf. Mk 7:24) and taken a meandering route back to the region of Decapolis near the Sea of Galilee (Mk 7:31). He’s been here before, when He healed the demoniac and sent him back to tell his Gentile friends about the Gospel (cf. Mk 5:1-20). That missionary assignment clearly had some impact, because “they brought to him a man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech; and they besought him to lay his hand upon him,” (Mk 7:32).2 Perhaps the former demoniac was there, that day!
Notice this poor man was deaf and couldn’t speak. These problems are representative of the curse of the fall which Isaiah promised the Messiah would reverse, once for all. They wanted Jesus to “lay his hand upon them,” but He chose a different way.3 Jesus took the man aside privately and mimed what He was about to do. Commentators have speculated endlessly about Jesus’ actions. Was He appropriating cultural expectations, and implying His saliva had magical properties?4 Did He do the same for His ears? The truth is that the man couldn’t speak and couldn’t hear. Jesus simply mimed His actions so the man would understand what followed, as if to say, “I’m going to fix this, then I’ll fix this.”5 And, in addition to this simple communication technique, Jesus also made it clear to the man by the results that He alone had the power to perform this miracle.6
Jesus continued to mime His actions, looking up to heaven as if to say, “Now, I’ll ask my Father if this is His will.” He sighed, to physically communicate His depth of compassion for the poor man through silent prayer.7 He then spoke, and issued one simple command, “Be opened,” (Mk 7:34). Immediately,8 the man’s “ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly,” (Mk 7:35). There’s no reason to assume, from the word “released,” that the man’s speech was held captive by a demon. This is a straightforward miracle account, not an exorcism.9
The Isaiah connection
Isaiah identified the coming King as both distinct from Yahweh, and as Yahweh Himself (cf. Isa 32:1; 33:5, 17, 22; 35:4). Elsewhere, Isaiah wrote that Yahweh would come, marching along the highway through the wilderness that His own people would prepare (Isa 40:3-5). “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosum, and gently lead those that are with young,” (Isa 40:11). And yet, Mark tells us Jesus came, the Father’s eternal Son, to do just that (Mk 1:1-3).
Jesus’ healing of this man showed, in microcosm, that the kingdom of God had broken into human history in Himself, the promised King. That king is both human and divine, distinct from Yahweh and yet one with Him, too. When John the Baptist’s disciples wondered if Jesus really was the Messiah, He pointed them to Isaiah:
And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me,” (Lk 7:22-23).
If Satan has been bound, and Jesus is the stronger man who’s cheerfully plundering His house, then what should a reasonable person conclude? “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you,” (Lk 11:20).
The context of the Messianic promises from Isaiah (and many other prophets) shows us who Jesus really is. He’s the king who’s been sent from God, yet He’s also God in the flesh at the same time. He can heal and restore the sick on command, and He looks to the heavens above for confirmation of His Father’s divine will as He does it all. Even Isaiah speaks of the Spirit as a separate entity from the King and the LORD, one who’ll be “poured upon us from on high,” (Isa 32:15). We see the doctrine of the trinity in the ordinary, unassuming way the Old Testament at different points distinguishes and conflates Yahweh and His eternal Son, and by the way the New Testament clarifies their roles.10
This miracle account is a trailer of coming attractions, a preview of the kingdom breaking into this wicked world in a small way. And, irony of ironies, Jesus performs this work in Gentile territory, among the people to whom His message should have sounded stranger than ever. The story makes us long for that kingdom and for that King and Savior, as we worship our triune God and await the Son’s return.
1 Read the passage for yourself, and see especially Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry, A Harmony of the Gospels (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1978), 112.
2 Robert Guelich wrote, “Those bringing him to Jesus obviously have an expectation which implies knowledge of at least Jesus’ reputation to heal. Read in the larger context of Mark’s narrative, their coming may have resulted from the ‘preaching’ of the Gerasene demoniac in the Decapolis (cf. 5:1–20) about all that Jesus had done for him,” (Mark 1-8:26, in WBC, vol. 34a [Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1989], 394).
3 “In dealing with people the Lord chooses his own methods,” (William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Mark [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975], 303).
4 Mark Strauss remarked, “Spittle was commonly viewed in the ancient world as having medicinal and/ or magical powers, and the saliva of an important person was considered to be particularly powerful. Both Tacitus and Suetonius relate an account of a blind man who approached the emperor Vespasian in Alexandria, Egypt, and begged to be healed by his saliva. While the use of spittle was rejected by some rabbis as magical, others accepted its medicinal value …Did Jesus consider these actions efficacious, either medicinally or magically? Was he merely condescending to the expectations of his contemporaries? We simply do not know. Yet we should be cautious in attributing magical technique to Jesus in light of the paucity of such material elsewhere in the gospel tradition (only 8:23; John 9: 6). Whatever the significance of these actions, the healing itself does not come through any technique but through the authoritative command of Jesus: ‘Be opened!’ It is Jesus’ messianic authority rather than magic that accomplishes the healing,” (Mark, in ZECNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 322).
William L. Lane also suggests, “Through touch and the use of spittle Jesus entered into the mental world of the man and gained his confidence,” (The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974], 266 – 267).
5 See especially R.C.H. Lenski, Interpretation of St. Mark’s Gospel (Columbus, OH: Wartburg, 1945), 309 – 311. See also Hendriksen (Mark, 303) and R. Alan Cole (Mark, in TNTC, vol. 2, [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989], 194).
6 “Thus, by touching the tongue with spittle, he intended to point out that the faculty of speech was communicated by himself alone; and by putting his finger into the ears, he showed that it belonged to his office to pierce the ears of the deaf,” (John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 2 [Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010], 271–272).
7 Strauss (Mark, 322).
8 Some printed Greek texts do not include εὐθέως here. The UBS-5 grades it as a “C” for probability and encloses it in brackets. Mark likes this word in his narrative, and it appears in a 3rd century papyrus fragment, a 5th century manuscript, and then in the 8th century and beyond (see the CNTTS apparatus). I take it to be original and have no qualms about using it.
9 Guelich wrote, “Whereas the phrase may have its origin in the popular concept of the demonic cause of one to be “tongue tied,” reading it more than figuratively here seems to read too much into an account which offers no other hint of the demonic or even the hostility that accompanies such encounters,” (Mark 1 – 8:26, 396).
10 “The New Testament clarifies in crucial ways all of this which God has foretold through the patriarchs and prophets. It does so in terms of Jesus Christ. Christology always occupies the center of our trinitarian thinking because it is only through Christ by the Spirit that a right understanding of YHWH’s triune identity is known, confessed, and worshipped,” (Carl L. Beckwith, The Holy Trinity, in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, vol. 3 [Fort Wayne, IN: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.], KL 4631-4634).