Miracles in Gentile territory
Jesus moves from one Gentile area to another and performs a healing miracle and then a feeding miracle. He has compassion on the individual and the crowd.
Jesus moves from one Gentile area to another and performs a healing miracle and then a feeding miracle. He has compassion on the individual and the crowd.
Welcome to Series 6 and Episode 11 and it's entitled ‘Miracles in Gentile Territory’. We're going to be studying a passage in Mark 7: 31 to Mark 8: 10 and there's also a parallel passage in Matthew's Gospel.
Introduction and Recap
We're getting towards the end of Series 6 which describes Jesus' third tour of Galilee. His first tour marks the beginning of his mission when he came back from the River Jordan having been baptised; he'd come out of the wilderness and he entered into Galilee and did amazing miracles and travelled around - that was the first phase. Then there was a moment when he gathered together his disciples and he appointed twelve of them as Apostles to be with him, have his authority and, subsequently, to go out and preach on his behalf. We saw all that in Series 3 and in Series 4, we saw the Sermon on the Mount which provided the foundational, ethical teaching for the new discipleship community. In Series 5, we looked at the second tour of Galilee: many more miracles, many more remarkable events as Jesus travelled around but this time he's training his Apostles, preparing them for what happens at the beginning of Series 6 - the series we're now nearly completing.
At the beginning of Series 6, we start with the sending out of the Twelve, throughout Galilee. In this third tour, we've got Jesus travelling around; we've also got the Apostles travelling around in pairs and reaching many different parts of the area. The message of the Kingdom has really gone all the way through this northern Jewish province of Galilee by the time that the events we describe today are happening. As we went through Series 6, there were a number of other major events that are significant for where we've got to now - because we're just reaching a point where things are going to change quite dramatically. On the negative side, we saw that the local ruler, King Herod Antipas, executed John the Baptist, who was his prisoner - quite suddenly - and that created a sense of threat for Jesus because Herod Antipas could easily turn against Jesus and imprison him, or execute him, or exile him. There's all sorts of things that could happen, so that threat is in the background. At the same time, on the more positive side, one of the key events of Series 6, has been the Feeding of the Five Thousand - and you'll remember 5000 was just the men present so it's probably, with women and children, 10,000 plus people on a mountainside on the north-east side of the Sea of Galilee. This was the largest recorded crowd in Jesus' ministry. It was a time of intense popularity and, as John records in his account - which we've mentioned several times already in earlier episodes but needs to be mentioned again now, (John 6: 15). John explains that at the end of that event the crowd was so excited that they wanted to take Jesus and make him king by force. That's the expression that John uses. In other words, they wanted him to become a ruling, conquering Messiah: to overthrow the local king, King Herod Antipas; to overthrow the Romans; to overthrow the corrupt religious establishment; to bring in the Messianic Age; to bring relief to the Jewish people of all the oppression - high taxation and difficulties - that they were facing under the Romans and their puppet rulers. There was a moment of intense excitement. Just at that point, Jesus slipped away from the crowd really quickly to avoid anything like that taking place and it represented an enormous contrast. The local ruler, King Herod Antipas, could turn, potentially, against Jesus very suddenly; he'd turned against John and executed him. The crowd has got incredibly excited and yet some are getting a little bit frustrated that he's not turning into the political ruler that they want. These are the kind of background events to what is happening in the episode that we see today. I think Jesus is feeling, at this time, that his current method of ministry in Galilee can't continue for all that much longer. Not only is there the threat from King Herod Antipas, but the religious establishment have already ruled against him as a false messiah (as we saw in an earlier episode, as recorded in Matthew 12: 22 - 24, and the subsequent passage). They've called him a false messiah who is operating by evil, demonic power, deluding people and misleading them. That's already happened but we still see that the Pharisees, representing that religious establishment, are on Jesus' back - they're criticising him, they're challenging him. We've looked earlier at an incident when they challenged him over some of their rituals, like ritual hand washing. “Why don't your disciples wash their hands ritually like all religious Jews do?” and there was a big argument that took place, as recorded in an earlier episode. By summarising all that's happened in Series 6 so far, I am saying that a very tense situation is arising in Galilee: there are very high expectations of many people that Jesus is going to create some kind of political coup; some people really frustrated because he's not doing it; his political and spiritual opponents flexing their muscles and looking for ways to trip him up or cause him even more damage than that.
What Jesus did, in the previous episode, which is the immediate thing we need to keep in mind before we come to what we're talking about today, was he took time out - he went out of Galilee. The geography is very important in the Gospels, as you will have become aware by now, and it's very important to think about the different districts and areas that are involved and the reasons why people travel backwards and forwards and what's going on in each different area. The most northern part of the Jewish territory is Galilee, where Jesus operated. Immediately south of there is Samaria and immediately south of Samaria is Judea, the Jewish heartland in which Jerusalem is situated - the capital city, and really the heart of the nation. Jesus is right in the north of the country and, in the previous episode, he decided to go with his disciples out of Jewish territory altogether to a district called Phoenicia, and the cities of Tyre and Sidon are mentioned. These are two of the principal cities in this country called Phoenicia which used to be an imperial power, quite an important country, and roughly equivalent to the modern day nation of Lebanon, geographically. There he performed a miracle, which we described last time: the woman who came on behalf of her daughter. He went out and was trying to be operating quietly, in secret. He went into a house and didn't want people to know he was staying there, according to one of the accounts. Jesus is moving out of the territory of Galilee for a period of time.
We don't know how long he spent in Phoenicia but what we see now is that, when he leaves Phoenicia, he goes to another Gentile territory, further to the south and to the east (which we've mentioned before and we'll come back to in a moment) called the Decapolis. He's going from one Gentile area to another and, as he travels from one to another, he's avoiding going through his home district of Galilee. This is really quite an intriguing situation - especially as, after these events - as Series 6 comes to an end - we'll see that Jesus begins to prepare for a decisive change and moves out of Galilee altogether. Let's attend to the story. Let's look at the text and we're going to read it in two parts because these miracles are two different stories of events that happen in the same area. I'm going to read them one at a time and reflect on them. We're going to look in Mark 7: 31 - to 37:
Ministry in the Decapolis
‘Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. 32There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him. 33After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man's ears. Then he spit and touched the man's tongue. 34He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!”(which means “Be opened!”). 35At this, the man's ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. 36Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. 37People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”’Mark 7:31-37, NIV
Jesus has moved from one Gentile territory to another. He's avoided going back into Galilee just at this rather sensitive moment, he's gone round the north shore of the Sea of Galilee and gone to the east, to the area known as the Decapolis. We've encountered the Decapolis once before: in Mark 5, and in parallel passages. We see Jesus travelling across the Sea of Galilee from the West (which was the Jewish Galilee, his homeland, where he ministered primarily) over to the east and he landed in the east in the Decapolis territory and he encountered two men who were heavily demonised and oppressed by evil spirits who'd been separated from society, living among the tombs, cutting themselves, not able to dress properly, not able to feed properly - in a terrible state. They pleaded with him to help them and he cast out the evil spirits and they entered into normal life again; they were in their right minds. Then the evil spirits that had been cast out (if you remember the story, in Series 5 Episode 15) Jesus allowed them to go into a herd of pigs which rushed off the side of a small cliff and fell into the sea of Galilee to their death.
This is a very unusual episode and we're not going to go back in detail over that now, but just to remind you that this is the other time that Jesus is recorded coming into this district. What's particularly significant about it is that the two men were so excited about what had happened to them that, although Jesus told them not to go spreading the news far and wide, they did exactly the opposite. Mark describes one of these men (because he only mentions one, Matthew mentions two) but in Mark 5: 20 Mark says specifically:
‘So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.’Mark 5:20, NIV
If you lived in the Decapolis area (not so far from Galilee, the other side of the Sea of Galilee), then it's quite likely you would have heard this story. It really was an extraordinary story and these two men had quite a remarkable testimony to give. Then there was the story about pigs going into the sea and drowning - it was a very remarkable story of all the things that had happened on that occasion. We also know that from the Decapolis area people travelled over to the other side of Galilee just to experience Jesus' ministry and, some of them, to receive healing. The people in the area had some knowledge of what was going on. They weren't Jews; they didn't have a Jewish background. This area, the Decapolis, was an association of ten independent city states that gathered together into one national unity. They were overseen by the Romans but it was a Gentile territory with very few Jewish people living there - very little Jewish influence, very little knowledge of the Jewish religion or the Old Testament.
Healing of the Deaf and Dumb Man
When Jesus comes, people recognise him and some people, at least, know that he is a healer and know about the release from oppression of those two men (Mark 5). Some have been over to the other side, to the Jewish area, and seen Jesus in action. It's not surprising then, that after a period of time, people brought this deaf man, who could hardly talk, and begged Jesus to place his hands on him and to heal him. The man was obviously heavily disabled in these areas and Jesus healed him but, interestingly enough, he used a different technique. He didn't lay his hands on him like he often did but he did something rather different: he took him aside, put his fingers into the man's ears, then he spit and touched the man's tongue and then he spoke this word ‘Ephphatha,’ which is an Aramaic word translated here by Mark for us from the original language that Jesus was speaking. Jesus' healings come in many different ways. Most frequently, he lays his hands on people; sometimes he merely speaks the word and says that a healing will take place for someone at some distance and, on this occasion, he uses a different method of healing. There's no one way that Jesus heals; there's no one technique, he could do it in any way. Here he showed real compassion for the man, engaging with him, spending time with him, using physical touch as part of the healing process to the affected parts of his body: his tongue and his ears.
It's a very wonderful healing. In verse 37 the people were, in the words of Mark,‘overwhelmed with amazement.’ This happens again and again in the Gospels doesn't it? People are stunned by Jesus' miracles. Wherever he goes, he creates a sensation because his miracles are so wonderful, so life-transforming and, in almost all cases, so instantaneous - people are immediately better; they're immediately recovered; they're immediately restored. Whether they have some demonic oppression; whether they've got a skin disease, like leprosy; whether they're crippled; whether they've got an internal condition, like the bleeding of the woman; whether they've got some disability, like deafness or blindness or dumbness; the results are absolutely remarkable! The crowd is excited and so some momentum is beginning to build in the area of the Decapolis. This is Jesus' first real moment spending time there because his earlier visit, as recorded in Mark 5, was very brief. He just landed on the shore and encountered the two men almost immediately. They were right close by the shore; the healing was conducted right in that area and then he left very quickly and went back across to the other side of the lake. This is the first time that Jesus is recorded as spending any significant amount of time in this particular territory - and his reputation has gone before him so this is why we have the crowd gathering.
Another Feeding Miracle
That is the subject of the miracle that takes place at the beginning of chapter 8. We're going to read Mark 8: 1 - 10.
‘During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, 2“I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. 3If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.” 4His disciples answered, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?” 5“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked. “Seven,” they replied. 6He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. When he had taken the seven loaves and given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people, and they did so. 7They had a few small fish as well; he gave thanks for them also and told the disciples to distribute them. 8The people ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven (baskets) of broken pieces that were left over. 9About four thousand were present. After he had sent them away, 10he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the region of Dalmanutha.’Mark 8:1-10, NIV
We all know about the Feeding of the Five Thousand. This has been in Series 6 already as an event in an earlier episode but here we have another very similar miracle, the Feeding of the Four Thousand. Why is there such a vast crowd? Jesus is gaining popularity here in Gentile territory as well - and the earlier events that I've described are pointing to that direction. It is very similar to the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which we recounted in Episode 5 of this series. Some people have thought that this is actually another version of the same event but that's very definitely not the case. The writers (Mark and Matthew) in recounting the story, are very clear that this is a separate event and it's not surprising. Why shouldn't there be similar events? Jesus often performed similar miracles and here he's doing another feeding miracle. Notice he says here that, “they've been with me three days with nothing to eat,” such was the hunger for people to find out more spiritually; they're so intrigued by Jesus that they're willing to travel around with him for long periods of time. He has compassion on them. Often in the Gospels, Jesus' miracles are stated to have arisen out of compassion - this is a clue for us. If we want to see the supernatural power of God working in our lives, the compassion within us for people and human situations is often one of the crucial channels through which God works and it was wonderfully demonstrated in the life of Jesus.
There is an interesting ethnic contrast here. The Feeding of the Five Thousand was, to a large extent, a Jewish miracle - a Jewish audience, a Jewish group of people on the side of the mountain by Bethsaida, and a Jewish area, further north than we are in this incident. Here we have a Gentile miracle because it's a largely non-Jewish group of people who make up this 4000, if they are assumed to be residents of the Decapolis (and that's a very fair assumption because that's where Jesus is). This is quite interesting because one of the themes of Judaism is that, when the Messiah comes in all his glory and power, at the end of the age, he will bring about what's called the Messianic banquet or feast. This is referred to by Jesus in Matthew 8: 10 - 12, which we've looked at a number of times. Let me read Matthew 8:11
‘“I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”’Matthew 8:11, NIV
This concept of the feast, is the messianic feast or banquet, and people coming from the east and the west is a reference to Gentiles coming in alongside Abraham and Isaac and Jacob - the founders and patriarchs of the nation of Israel, the representatives of the Jewish ingredient in the messianic Kingdom. The fact that there's a Jewish Feeding of the Five Thousand and a Gentile Feeding of the Four Thousand, seems to me to have a great symbolic significance: in God's Kingdom, these two ethnic groups are going to be joined together in a wonderful way. God worked through the Jewish people, in the Old Testament period, in order that they may become as a nation, and Christ as the Messiah and Christ's people as the Church, that they may become ‘a light to the Gentiles’ (Isaiah 49: 6) The Gentiles then come into salvation. There's something prophetic about this particular event.
The disciples still struggle to have faith. They're still debating with Jesus, “Well, how on earth are you going to feed these people? You know there's so many of them. We're so far away from the shops and access to food and have we got enough money?” All the questions that arose in the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which only happened a very short period of time beforehand, all those issues arise again here - which shows the disciples were still struggling to have faith. As they watched what Jesus did, he did a very similar miracle as he had done with the Feeding of the Five Thousand.
Thinking about these two miracles, miracles in Gentile territory, I want to give you one or two concluding reflections so we can make some application of this. First of all, let's reflect on Jesus' compassion. In these two stories we see Jesus' compassion for an individual in need (the man he healed at the end of Mark 7), and a huge crowd of 4000. Jesus has compassion for the individual; he also has compassion for the vast multitudes of humanity that exist in different ethnic groups, different geographical locations and different periods of history. His compassion extends to the individual but it extends to the multitude. This is who Jesus is. You - as an individual, as you are following this - can know for certain that Jesus has compassion on you. He can see you as an individual - your needs and your situations. You can also know for certain that he has compassion on your community, your society, your nation, your town, your city and the people around you and their spiritual needs, in the same way that he had compassion on these huge crowds (the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the Feeding of the Four Thousand). He's motivated by love to provide for them.
Another reflection would be concerning the unbelief of the disciples or the hesitancy of their response to Jesus when he suggests that he's going to feed the 4000. This seems surprising, on the face of it because fresh in their memory is what Jesus did so recently on the mountainside outside Bethsaida. That tells us something about the human heart; it tells us something about ourselves in our walk of faith: we can easily forget, or marginalise, in our thinking, the miraculous and wonderful things that God has done. One of the ways that we can strengthen our faith is to remember what God has done in similar situations in the past. I, like you, struggle with the daily demands of life and the challenges of faith to believe for miracles and impossible things in many different situations. What I can learn from this - and I hope this is helpful for you as well - is that if I remember what happened before, I'll strengthen my faith for what might happen now. If the disciples could clearly focus on what Jesus did with the 5000, they'd have had a more confident response when Jesus proposed to do something similar for the 4000. Let's remember the things that God has done. Thank him for past miracles because it strengthens our faith for the present and for the future.
This miracle, the Feeding of the Four Thousand, is another example of God's power to multiply and provide for his people. It is a principle of the Kingdom of God that multiplication will take place as we use the resources we have and as we put them at God's disposal - and again this is what happened with the available loaves and fish (We have seven loaves here and a few small fish.) As they're made available, so they multiply. God will always multiply the resources that we put at his disposal if we're walking by faith, living by the Spirit and obeying things that he calls us to do. There are many things we can learn from these two remarkable stories. We see the bigger picture of what's happening in Series 6 and in the life of Jesus but we can also learn things about the journey of faith and God's inclusiveness and his desire to involve many different groups and different nations in the Kingdom of God. Thanks for reading.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- What can you give to God to use?
- Jesus’ healings come in many different ways. Can you remember some of the different ways?
- Jesus has compassion for the individual and for the crowd. Pray for those who need his compassion today
- Look back on your own life to where you have seen Jesus' provision or healing? How can you use these times to build up your faith in the present and even for future times?
- Spot the differences between this feeding of the crowd and the one that happened in Series 06 Episode 05