By J.C. Ryle
This passage contains a humbling picture of what human nature is capable of doing in religion. It is one of those Scriptures which ought to be frequently and diligently studied by all who desire the prosperity of the Church of Christ.
The first thing which demands our attention in these verses, is the low and degraded condition of Jewish religion, when our Lord was upon earth. What can be more deplorable than the statement now before us? We find the principal teachers of the Jewish nation finding fault, "because our Lord's disciples ate bread with unwashed hands!" We are told that they attached great importance to the washing of cups, and pots, and bronze vessels, and tables!" In short, the man who paid most rigid attention to mere external observances of human invention was reckoned the holiest man!
The nation, be it remembered, in which this state of things existed, was the most highly favored in the world. To it, was given the law on Mount Sinai, the service of God, the priesthood, the covenants, and the promises. Moses, and Samuel, and David, and the prophets, lived and died among its people. No nation upon earth ever had so many spiritual privileges. No nation ever misused its privileges so fearfully, and so thoroughly forsook its own mercies. Never did fine gold become so dim! From the religion of the books of Deuteronomy and Psalms, to the religion of washing hands, and pots, and cups--how great was the fall! No wonder that in the time of our Lord's earthly ministry, He found the people like sheep without a shepherd. External observances alone feed no consciences and sanctify no hearts!
Let the history of the Jewish church be a warning to us never to trifle with false doctrine. If we once tolerate it we never know how far it may go, or into what degraded state of religion we may at last fall. Once leave the King's highway of truth, and we may end with washing pots and cups, like Pharisees and Scribes. There is nothing too base, trifling, or irrational for a man, if he once turns his back on God's word. There are branches of the Church of Christ at this day in which the Scriptures are never read, and the Gospel never preached--branches in which the only religion now remaining consists in using a few unmeaning forms and keeping certain man-made fasts and feasts--branches which began well, like the Jewish church, and, like the Jewish church, have now fallen into utter barrenness and decay. We can never be too jealous about false doctrine. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. Let us earnestly contend for the whole faith once delivered to the saints.
The second thing, that demands our attention, is the uselessness of mere lip-service in the worship of God. Our Lord enforces this lesson by a quotation from the Old Testament--"Well has Elijah prophesied of you hypocrites, This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me."
The heart is the part of man which God chiefly notices in religion. The bowed head, and the bended knee--the grave face and the rigid posture--the ritual response, and the formal amen--all these together do not make up a spiritual worshiper. The eyes of God look further and deeper. He requires the worship of the heart. "My son," he says to every one of us, "Give me your heart."
Let us remember this in the public congregation. It must not content us to take our bodies to church, if we leave our hearts at home. The eye of man may detect no flaw in our service. Our minister may look at us with approbation. Our neighbors may think us patterns of what a Christian ought to be. Our voice may be heard foremost in the praise and prayer. But it is all worse than nothing in God's sight, if our hearts are far away. It is only wood, hay, and stubble before Him who discerns thoughts, and reads the secrets of the inward man.
Let us remember this in our private devotions. It must not satisfy us to say good words, if our heart and our lips do not go together. What does it profit us to be fluent and lengthy, if our imaginations are roving far away, while we are upon our knees? It profits us nothing at all. God sees what we are really doing, and rejects our offering. Heart-prayers are the prayers He loves to hear. Heart-prayers are the only prayers that He will answer. Our petitions may be weak, and stammering, and poor in our eyes. They may be presented with no fine words, or well-chosen language, and might seem almost unintelligible, if they were written down. But if they come from a right heart, God understands them. Such prayers are His delight.
The last thing that demands our attention in these verses, is the tendency of man's inventions in religion to supplant God's word. Three times we find this charge brought forward by our Lord against the Pharisees. "Laying aside the commandments of God, you hold the traditions of men." "Full well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your own traditions." "Making the Word of God of none effect through your traditions." The first step of the Pharisees, was to add their traditions to the Scriptures, as useful supplements. The second was to place them on a level with the Word of God, and give them equal authority. The last was to honor them above the Scripture, and to degrade Scripture from its lawful position. This was the state of things which our Lord found when he was upon earth. Practically, the traditions of man were everything, and the Word of God was nothing at all. Obedience to the traditions constituted true religion. Obedience to the Scriptures was lost sight of altogether.
It is a mournful fact, that Christians have far too often walked in the steps of Pharisees in this matter. The very same process has taken place over and over again. The very same consequences have resulted. Religious observances of man's invention, have been pressed on the acceptance of Christians--observances to all appearance useful, and at all events well-meant, but observances nowhere commanded in the word of God. These very observances have by and by been required with more vigor than God's own commandments, and defended with more zeal than the authority of God's own Word. We need not look far for examples. The history of our own church will supply them.
Let us beware of attempting to add anything to the word of God, as necessary to salvation. It provokes God to give us over to judicial blindness. It is as good as saying that His Bible is not perfect, and that we know better than He does what is necessary for man's salvation. It is just as easy to destroy the authority of God's word by addition as by subtraction, by burying it under man's inventions as by denying its truth. The whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible, must be our rule of faith nothing added and nothing taken away.
Finally, let us draw a broad line of distinction between those things in religion which have been devised by man, and those which are plainly commanded in God's word. What God commands is necessary to salvation. What man commands is not. What man devises may be useful and expedient for the times; but salvation does not hinge on obedience to it. What God requires is essential to life eternal. He that wilfully disobeys it ruins his own soul.
We see in the beginning of this passage, how slow of understanding men are in spiritual things. "Hearken," says our Lord to the people, "hearken unto me every one of you, and understand." "Are you so without understanding?" He says to His disciples--"Do you not perceive?"
The corruption of human nature is a universal disease. It affects not only a man's heart, will, and conscience, but his mind, memory, and understanding. The very same person who is quick and clever in worldly things, will often utterly fail to comprehend the simplest truths of Christianity. He will often be unable to grasp the plainest reasonings of the Gospel. He will see no meaning in the clearest statements of evangelical doctrine. They will sound to him either foolish or mysterious. He will listen to them like one listening to a foreign language, catching a word here and there, but not seeing the drift of the whole. "The world by wisdom knows not God." (1 Cor. 1:21.) It hears, but does not understand.
We must pray daily for the teaching of the Holy Spirit, if we would make progress in the knowledge of divine things. Without Him, the mightiest intellect and the strongest reasoning powers will carry us but a little way. In reading the Bible and hearing sermons, everything depends on the spirit in which we read and hear. A humble, teachable, child-like frame of mind is the grand secret of success. Happy is he who often says with David, "Teach me Your statutes." (Psalm 119:64.) Such an one will understand as well as hear.
We see, in the second place, from this passage, that the heart is the chief source of defilement and impurity in God's sight. Moral purity does not depend on washing or not washing--touching things or not touching them--eating things or not eating them, as the Scribes and Pharisees taught. "There is nothing from outside a man, that entering into him can defile him--but the things which come out of him, these are those who defile the man."
There is a deep truth in these words which is frequently overlooked. Our original sinfulness and natural inclination to evil are seldom sufficiently considered. The wickedness of men is often attributed to bad examples, bad company, peculiar temptations, or the snares of the devil. It seems forgotten that every man carried within him a fountain of wickedness. We need no bad company to teach us, and no devil to tempt us, in order to run into sin. We have within us the beginning of every sin under heaven.
We ought to remember this in the training and education of children. In all our management we must never forget, that the seeds of all mischief and wickedness are in their hearts. It is not enough to keep boys and girls at home, and shut out every outward temptation. They carry within them a heart ready for any sin, and until that heart is changed they are not safe, whatever we do. When children do wrong, it is a common practice to lay all the blame on bad companions. But it is mere ignorance, blindness, and foolishness to do so. Bad companions are a great evil no doubt, and an evil to be avoided as much as possible. But no bad companion teaches a boy or girl half as much sin as their own hearts will suggest to them, unless they are renewed by the Spirit. The beginning of all wickedness is within. If parents were half as diligent in praying for their children's conversion as they are in keeping them from bad company, their children would turn out far better than they do.
We see, in the last place, from this passage, what a black catalogue of evils the human heart contains. "For from within, out of a person's heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, eagerness for lustful pleasure, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you and make you unacceptable to God."
Let us distinctly understand, when we read these words, that our Lord is speaking of the human heart generally. He is not speaking only of the notorious profligate, or the prisoner in the jail. He is speaking of all mankind. All of us, whether high or low, rich or poor, masters or servants, old or young, learned or unlearned--all of us have by nature such a heart as Jesus here describes. The seeds of all the evils here mentioned lie hidden within us all. They may lie dormant all our lives. They may be kept down by the fear of consequences--the restraint of public opinion--the dread of discovery--the desire to be thought respectable--and, above all, by the almighty grace of God. But every man has within him the root of every sin.
How humble we ought to be, when we read these verses! "We are all as an unclean thing" in God's sight. (Isaiah. 64:6.) He sees in each one of us countless evils, which the world never sees at all, for He reads our hearts. Surely of all sins to which we are liable, self-righteousness is the most unreasonable and unfitting.
How thankful we ought to be for the Gospel, when we read these verses! That Gospel contains a complete provision for all the needs of our poor defiled natures. The blood of Christ can "cleanse us from all sin." The Holy Spirit can change even our sinful hearts, and keep them clean, when changed. The man that does not glory in the Gospel, can surely know little of the plague that is within him.
How watchful we ought to be, when we remember these verses! What a careful guard we ought to keep over our imaginations, our tongues, and our daily behavior! At the head of the black list of our heart's contents, stand "evil thoughts." Let us never forget that. Thoughts are the parents of words and deeds. Let us pray daily for grace to keep our thoughts in order, and let us cry earnestly and fervently, "lead us not into temptation."
We know nothing of the woman who is here mentioned, beyond the facts that we here read. Her name, her former history, the way in which she was led to seek our Lord, though a Gentile, and dwelling in the borders of Tyre and Sidon--all these things are hidden from us. But the few facts that are related about this woman are full of precious instruction. Let us observe them, and learn wisdom.
In the first place, this passage is meant to encourage us to pray for others. The woman who came to our Lord, in the history now before us, must doubtless have been in deep affliction. She saw a beloved child possessed by an unclean spirit. She saw her in a condition in which no teaching could reach the mind, and no medicine could heal the body--a condition only one degree better than death itself. She hears of Jesus, and beseeches Him to "cast the demon out of her daughter." She prays for one who could not pray for herself, and never rests until her prayer is granted. By prayer she obtains the cure which no human means could obtain. Through the prayer of the mother, the daughter is healed. On her own behalf that daughter did not speak a word; but her mother spoke for her to the Lord, and did not speak in vain. Hopeless and desperate as her case appeared, she had a praying mother, and where there is a praying mother there is always hope.
The truth here taught is one of deep importance. The case here recorded is one that does not stand alone. Few duties are so strongly recommended by Scriptural example, as the duty of intercessory prayer. There is a long catalogue of instances in Scripture, which show the benefits that may be conferred on others by praying for them. The nobleman's son at Capernaum--the centurion's servant--the daughter of Jairus, are all striking examples. Incredible as it may seem, God is pleased to do great things for souls, when friends and relations are moved to pray for them. "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much." (James 5:16.)
Fathers and mothers are especially bound to remember the case of this woman. They cannot give their children new hearts. They can give them Christian education, and show them the way of life; but they cannot give them a will to choose Christ's service, and a heart to love God. Yet there is one thing they can always do--they can pray for them. They can pray for the conversion of profligate sons, who will have their own way, and run greedily into sin. They can pray for the conversion of worldly daughters, who set their affections on things below, and love pleasure more than God. Such prayers are heard on high. Such prayers will often bring down blessings. Never, never let us forget that the children for whom many prayers have been offered, seldom finally perish. Let us pray more for our sons and daughters. Even when they will not let us speak to them about religion, they cannot prevent us speaking for them to God.
In the second place, this passage is meant to teach us to persevere in praying for others. The woman whose history we are now reading, appeared at first to obtain nothing by her application to our Lord. On the contrary, our Lord's reply was discouraging. Yet she did not give up in despair. She prayed on, and did not faint. She pressed her suit with ingenious arguments. She would take no refusal. She pleaded for a few "crumbs" of mercy, rather than none at all. And through this holy importunity she succeeded. She heard at last these joyful words--"For this saying go your way; the demon is gone out of your daughter!"
Perseverance in prayer is a point of great moment. Our hearts are apt to become cool and indifferent, and to think that it is no use to draw near to God. Our hands soon hang down, and our knees wax faint. Satan is ever laboring to draw us off from our prayers, and filling our minds with reasons why we may give them up. These things are true with respect to all prayers, but they are especially true with respect to intercessory prayer. It is always far more meager than it ought to be. It is often attempted for a little season, and then left off. We see no immediate answer to our prayers. We see the people for whose souls we pray, going on still in sin. We draw the conclusion that it is useless to pray for them, and allow our intercession to come to an end.
In order to arm our minds with arguments for perseverance in intercessory prayer, let us often study the case of this woman. Let us remember how she prayed on and did not faint, in the face of great discouragement. Let us mark how at last she went home rejoicing, and let us resolve, by God's grace, to follow her example.
Do we know what it is to pray for ourselves? This, after all, is the first question for self-inquiry. The man who never speaks to God about his own soul, can know nothing of praying for others. He is as yet Godless, Christless, and hopeless, and has to learn the very rudiments of religion. Let him awake, and call upon God.
But do we pray for ourselves? Then let us take heed that we pray for others also. Let us beware of selfish prayers--prayers which are wholly taken up with our own affairs, and in which there is no place for other souls beside our own. Let us name all whom we love before God continually. Let us pray for all--the worst, the hardest, and the most unbelieving. Let us continue praying for them year after year, in spite of their continued unbelief. God's time of mercy may be a distant one. Our eyes may not see an answer to our intercession. The answer may not come for ten, fifteen, or twenty years. It may not come until we have exchanged prayer for praise, and are far away from this world. But while we live, let us pray for others. It is the greatest kindness we can do to any one, to speak for him to our Lord Jesus Christ. The day of judgment will show that one of the greatest links in drawing some souls to God, has been the intercessory prayer of friends.
The first thing that demands our notice in these verses, is the mighty miracle that is here recorded. We read that they brought unto our Lord "one that was deaf and had an impediment in his speech," and besought Him that He would "put His hand upon him." At once the petition is granted, and the cure is wrought. Speech and hearing are instantaneously given to the man by a word and a touch. "Immediately his ears were opened, and his tongue was loosed, and he spoke plain."
We see but half the instruction of this passage, if we only regard it as an example of our Lord's divine power. It is such an example, beyond doubt, but it is something more than that. We must look further, deeper, and lower than the surface, and we shall find in the passage precious spiritual truths.
Here we are meant to see our Lord's power to heal the spiritually deaf. He can give the chief of sinners a hearing ear. He can make him delight in listening to the very Gospel which he once ridiculed and despised. Here also we are meant to see our Lord's power to heal the spiritually dumb. He can teach the hardest of transgressors to call upon God. He can put a new song in the mouth of him whose talk was once only of this world. He can make the vilest of men speak of spiritual things, and testify the Gospel of the grace of God.
When Jesus pours forth His Spirit, nothing is impossible. We must never despair of others. We must never regard our own hearts as too bad to be changed. He that healed the deaf and dumb still lives. The cases which society pronounces hopeless, are not incurable if they are brought to Christ.
The second thing which demands our notice in these verses, is the peculiar manner in which our Lord thought good to work the miracle here recorded. We are told that when the deaf and dumb person was brought to Jesus, "He took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed" and then, and not until then, came the words of commanding power, "Ephphatha, that is, be opened."
There is undoubtedly much that is mysterious in these actions. We know not why they were used. It would have been as easy to our Lord to speak the word, and command health to return at once, as to do what He here did. His reasons for the course He adopted are not recorded. We only know that the result was the same as on other occasions--the man was cured.
But there is one simple lesson to be learned from our Lord's conduct on this occasion. That lesson is, that Christ was not tied to the use of any one means in doing His works among men. Sometimes He thought fit to work in one way, sometimes in another. His enemies were never able to say, that unless He employed certain invariable agency He could not work at all.
We see the same thing going on still in the Church of Christ. We see continual proof that the Lord is not tied to the use of any one means exclusively in conveying grace to the soul. Sometimes He is pleased to work by the word preached publicly, sometimes by the word read privately. Sometimes He awakens people by sickness and affliction, sometimes by the rebukes or counsel of friends. Sometimes He employs means of grace to turn people out of the way of sin. Sometimes He arrests their attention by some providence, without any means of grace at all. He will not have any means of grace made an idol and exalted, to the disparagement of other means. He will not have any means despised as useless, and neglected as of no value. All are good and valuable. All are in their turn employed for the same great end, the conversion of souls. All are in the hands of Him who "gives not account of His matters," and knows best which to use, in each separate case that He heals.
The last thing which demands our notice in these verses, is the remarkable testimony which was borne by those who saw the miracle here recorded. They said of our Lord, "He has done all things well!"
It is more than probable that those who said these words were little sensible of their full meaning, when applied to Christ. Like Caiaphas, they "spoke not of themselves." (John 11:51.) But the truth to which they gave utterance is full of deep and unspeakable comfort, and ought to be daily remembered by all true Christians. Let us remember it as we look back over the days past of our lives, from the hour of our conversion. "Our Lord has done all things well." In the first bringing us out of darkness into marvelous light--in humbling us and teaching us our weakness, guilt, and folly--in stripping us of our idols, and choosing all our portions in placing us where we are, and giving us what we have--how well everything has been done! How great the mercy that we have not had our own way!
Let us remember it as we look forward to the days yet to come. We know not what they may be, bright or dark, many or few. But we know that we are in the hands of Him who "does all things well." He will not err in any of His dealings with us. He will take away and give--He will afflict and bereave--He will move and He will settle, with perfect wisdom, at the right time, in the right way. The great Shepherd of the sheep makes no mistakes. He leads every lamb of His flock by the right way to the city of habitation.
We shall never see the full beauty of these words until the resurrection morning. We shall then look back over our lives, and know the meaning of everything that happened from first to last. We shall remember all the way by which we were led, and confess that all was "well done." The why and the wherefore, the causes and the reasons of everything which now perplexes, will be clear and plain as the sun at noon-day. We shall wonder at our own past blindness, and marvel that we could ever have doubted our Lord's love. "Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now we know in part, but then shall we know even as we are known." (1 Cor. 13:12.)