Why did Mark, the gospel writer, use the Aramaic word “Ephphatha” in Mark 7:34? Just sounding out the word is an exercise in oral calisthenics. He did it to “speak the language” of his hearers so they would observe and know the love of Christ and most effectively hear his word.
The funny thing is, “Ephphatha,” is an Aramaic word; Aramaic wasn’t the language of Mark’s readers. That’s why he immediately translated the word meaning “be opened” into Greek as he recounted Jesus’ Aramaic declaration to the deaf mute. So how was the Aramaic word going to help Mark’s Greek-speaking audience? How do we know he wasn’t simply acting like a young preacher seeking to convince his audience that he really knew the original language of the event?
Like Jesus in the original story itself, Mark knew what would communicate most effectively to his intended audience. That included his original audience and even us today.
To understand more clearly, let’s revisit this gem of a story recorded in Mark 7:31-37 that features the healing power of Jesus so compassionately exercised:
Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. And they brought to him 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. And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” (ESV)
Jesus had healed the Gerasene demoniac in this region earlier; the friends of this afflicted man likely knew of Jesus’ power from that miracle. Jesus stopped to meet their friend, and he took six actions that all demonstrated his empathy for the man. Observing each of these will help frame the context of the exclamation “Ephphatha!” Jesus didn’t just heal the man, he walked him through a process that communicated love, concern, and a desire for the man to know who Jesus is.
First, observe that Jesus took him aside from the crowd, so that he could have one-on-one interaction. The man would be free from the trouble of many people pressing around him.
Second, note that Jesus put his fingers into his friend’s ears. This was a kind of sign language, as if to say, “Buddy, I’m going to be working on your ears.”
Third, Jesus spit, and put the spit on his tongue. Too many mere-mortal preachers have seen some poor soul on the front row dodge projectiles of spittle during a sermon. The modern-day hearers know that there is no healing power in the spit. But, there was power in Jesus’ spittle. He was visibly showing the man that the power would come out of Jesus’ own person to bring this healing.
Fourth, Jesus looked up to heaven. With his eyes, he pointed the man to heaven to show the deaf man the true origin of the healing about to be performed.
Fifth, Jesus sighed. Isaiah 35:10 promises that when God comes to save his people, sorrow and sighing will flee away. Jesus, witnessing the impact of sin, sighed deeply. It seems that the man probably had not been born with his disability. The kind of muteness or babbling attributed to the man seems to indicate that he could attempt to form some sounds. Those who lose their hearing gradually develop garbled speech as well. Had the man gone deaf because of disease? Because of his own sin or foolishness? Or because of abuse or neglect? We do not know. But, in all likelihood, he had suffered for years. He suffered knowing of the sounds he was missing and the privilege of oral communication that would normally have been his. Jesus groaned over the impact of sin in the world in his visibly sigh. He empathized with the man who had no doubt sighed many times over his own condition.
Sixth, Jesus spoke the word “Ephphatha,” which is translated “be opened.” Say the word Ephphatha out loud. Notice how many labial and dental sounds there are in the word, sounds that must be formed slowly with the lips and teeth. Geoffrey Grogan in his Focus on the Bible commentary on this verse observes that words with labial and dental sounds are the easiest to lipread. Transliterated into any language, it looks similar on the lips as it is sounded out. Jesus could have spoken many words to heal this man. In other cases, Jesus said “be healed,” and Jesus could have done so here. But it seems clear that he chose “be opened” because the way the word is formed on the lips of an Aramaic speaker would most clearly and graciously communicate with a deaf man who relied on lip reading. When the man’s ears were opened and his tongue was released, there would be no doubt in his mind who had done this great work. Jesus’ ability and intentionality to adapt the communication of grace to this one particular man is astounding, and Mark punctuates the miracle by showing us this reality.
Our primary response ought to be like that of the original audience: we ought to be astonished at the power and grace of Jesus and exclaim that he has done all things well! He is the Messiah who fulfills the promises of Isaiah 35. He still does all things well, and he will yet bring all of his promises to fulfillment.
Secondarily, we should learn to minister to others around us with Jesus’ kind of intentional and purposeful compassion. We need to “speak the language” of our hearers so they will know the love of Christ and most effectively hear his word. Even preachers can learn from the account a little something more of how to minister to congregations by seeing when to make note of the original language in a sermon, and by implication, when to stick to the language of the immediate audience.