In Ephesians 3:1-6, Paul declares that God had graciously revealed to him something that men in all the generations prior to him had not seen – or had at least not seen as clearly. He calls this revelation or insight that he received “a mystery.” In fact, in those six verses alone, Paul uses the word “mystery” three times. But when Paul uses the word “mystery,” he doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing by that word. Paul uses the word to speak of a reality that existed for a while but remained veiled until it was revealed by the Holy Spirit through the lens of Jesus Christ.
So, what was this mystery that no one really fully understood until the Spirit revealed this truth to Paul and the other apostles? Well, perhaps we should simply listen to Paul’s words. Here’s what he writes in Ephesians 3:1-5, no doubt creating as much build up as is possible. I mean, just listen to how he builds this up: “For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”
So, what is this mystery? Paul answers, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6).
Now, perhaps this feels a bit underwhelming to us. We may be thinking, “Of course people who are not Jews can be children of God.” However, if that’s our thought, there are three things we must consider: 1) Throughout most of the Bible a Gentile would have had to become a Jew in order to be part of God’s people because God’s people were a geo-political state – Israel. So, things like dietary laws or circumcision that marked one as a Jew would be necessary in order to identify oneself with the people of God. In fact, it took Christ “abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (Eph. 2:15) in order for the hostility between Jew and Gentile to be killed.
(2) The acceptance of Gentiles into God’s people without the requirement of them first becoming Jews was something the early believers struggled to grasp. You remember that early in the book of Acts, Peter is still working in the categories of clean and unclean foods (and persons) when the Lord commands him to go to a Gentile (Cornelius) and share the gospel with him. Also, leaders of the church had to gather in Jerusalem in Acts 15 at a council to discuss whether or not Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to receive the promises of God. This was no light hurdle to overcome. 3) Any time we’re tempted to assume that everyone knows the truth about something in the church, red flags should rise up. I’ve mentioned it too many times to count, but one of my favorite D. A. Carson quotes that I can’t even cite because I don’t remember where I heard it is: “That which is assumed in one generation will be lost in the next.”
What Carson is saying here is easy to grasp if you consider a people across three generations. I’ll use an example that Carson’s Mennonite friend referenced one time. He noted that one generation of Mennonites stressed the importance of the gospel and also taught that the gospel had entailments. The next generations taught their children about the entailments of the gospel but just assumed that they understood the gospel and its importance. The third generation had lost the gospel entirely. You see, what was simply assumed in one generation was lost in the next. So, we must be careful not simply to assume that we all know and understand the glorious truth that Paul proclaims in Ephesians 3:6 – namely, that both Jews and Gentiles can be among the people of God, partakers of the same body, and heirs of the same promises. And one of the earliest places we see this truth coming to the fore in the New Testament is in Mark 7:24-8:10.
What we find in Mark 7:24-8:10 is Jesus’ mission expanding to the Gentiles. All three episodes in 7:24-8:10 are of Jesus’ interaction with Gentiles (both Gentile individuals and Gentile crowds). And it would make sense. After all, life has not been without challenges among the Jews. In fact, the last thing we saw in Mark’s gospel was that the Pharisees and Jewish scribes had once again tried to catch Jesus and his disciples violating a rule somewhere. So, Jesus takes this next bit to go among the Gentiles and minister there.
And it’s this first story that really sets the tone for all three sections today. It really introduces us to the topic that each episode will hit upon. Here, with the Syrophoenician woman, we see that . . .
The gospel is necessary and sufficient for the salvation of Jews and Gentiles
Mark tells us that after the conflict with the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon, hoping no one would know. However, he could not be hidden, and it wasn’t long before a woman showed up, fell at his feet, and began begging her to cast the demon out of her daughter.
Now, first of all, with this scene, we need to recognize that a Jewish rabbi at this time probably would have tried to get away from this woman as fast as possible. First, she was a woman, and rabbis would have thought they should converse only with men. Second, she was a Gentile, and why should one waste his time conversing with a Gentile? And, third, she was probably ritually unclean, having had contact with her daughter who had a demon. Again, in most situations, the teacher would turn and run.
But Jesus doesn’t. Instead, he engages her in conversation, even if the conversation seems a bit harsh. Jesus says to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (7:27).
Now, this can be confusing to us at first. Why is Jesus answering her request by talking about bread, children, and dogs? Well, he’s utilizing a parable of sorts, which is how Jesus spoke. He’s speaking of certain realities that lie veiled behind the story of the parable.
What realities, then, is Jesus speaking of with mention of children, bread, and dogs? Well, he’s speaking of Jew-Gentile relations. You see, God had chosen Abraham way back in Genesis 12 and given to him the promise to bless the world through his offspring. So, it was to the offspring of Abraham, Jews, that the promise had been made and to whom the inheritance would come. The Messiah was coming to and for them.
So, the reference to bread is a reference to the Messiah and all the blessing his coming brings. The children are, of course, Jews – the people of Israel. And “dogs” refers to Gentiles, which was a common way a Jew might speak of a Gentile.
Now, it’s also important to remember why Jesus spoke in such parables instead of speaking in clear terms. I mean, why not just say, “Jews,” “Gentiles,” and “the blessings of the Messiah” instead of children, dogs, and bread? The reason Jesus spoke in parables was told to us in Mark 4:11-12. Remember, there Jesus said to his disciples, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, to that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”
Parables were utilized by Jesus so that the one who did not have faith would only be blinded by them. They would come across to the blinded one as simply stories, having no real and life-changing meaning. But the one who had been given ears to hear what Jesus is saying with the parable would see the meaning of what he was saying, would see themselves in the parable, and would respond in faith.
And that’s exactly what the woman does here. She understands exactly what Jesus is saying here. She gets that he’s saying that the Messiah should first come to the people to whom the promises had been made – the people of Israel. She understands that Israel should not be robbed of opportunity to respond to the Messiah and the blessings that come with him. She’s heard what Jesus says and agrees. But she also acknowledges that the Messiah is sufficient to benefit not only the children (i.e., Jews) with his savings blessings (i.e., bread) but also Gentiles (i.e., the dogs). So, she responds, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (7:28).
She gets it, and she’s saying, “But the blessings that come through the Messiah are sufficient both for the children and the dogs.” And Jesus responds to her accurate faith, saying, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter” (7:29). And Mark tells us, “And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone” (7:30).
What this episode teaches us is that the gospel is necessary and sufficient for the salvation of Jews and Gentiles. And every word of that statement is important. Let’s consider it.
First, what did the Messiah come to do? How did Jesus bring his blessings? He blessed through his miraculous healings, no doubt. But the ultimate blessing he brings is through the work of living a perfect life, dying on the cross to pay for the sins of all who believe, and rising from the dead on the third day. This is the good news for all who will believe in him. This is the gospel.
And it’s necessary and sufficient. By necessary I mean that there is no hope of salvation for anyone outside of the gospel. One can do good works, or avoid certain sins, or do anything in the world, but apart from the gospel, there is no hope. The only hope one has of being saved is by hearing the gospel and believing. And, finally, it is sufficient for Jew and Gentile. All people everywhere, if they believe in the gospel for their salvation, then there is nothing else necessary. Faith in the finished work of Christ is sufficient. They need not believe in the gospel and take on Jewish identity. They need not believe in the gospel and do enough good. It is faith in Christ alone that is necessary and sufficient for Jews and Gentiles.
This is the truth that the woman perceived. She believed he was Israel’s promised Messiah, she knew faith in him was necessary, and she knew he was sufficient for both Jews and Gentiles. This is a truth that we must hold to – the gospel is necessary and sufficient for the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles.
Then, in the next episode, we see that . . .
Salvation comes through faith that exalts Jesus as Lord
After the conversation with the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus returns from Tyre and goes through region of Sidon. Again, this does not mean he has a chance to get away and do nothing, for as soon as the crowd knows he’s there, they bring him a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment.
This probably means that the man is deaf and though he can vocalize sounds, they can’t be understood. So, for all intents and purposes, he is unable to speak. And again, they beg Jesus to lay his hands on him and heal him (7:32).
So Jesus takes the man aside from the crowd and seems to take actions that the deaf man could understand. That is, in most cases Jesus might simply speak or have conversation. But the deaf man would not understand. So, instead, Jesus communicates with him in a manner that he would understand. Mark tells us that Jesus puts his fingers in the man’s ears. This would suggest to the man that Jesus is about to open his ears to hear. Jesus then spits and touches his tongue. We can only speculate on why he spit, but the touching of the tongue would obviously suggest that he is about to loosen his tongue to speak. And Jesus looks up to heaven and sighs – probably communicating this is a work of God, while the sign may simply communicate Jesus’ recognition of the fallen and broken condition of the world. Then he says, “Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened” (8:34), and Mark tells us, “And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly” (8:35).
And, as usual, Jesus tells them to tell no one, perhaps knowing that the crowd would misunderstand him as one who has come to heal diseases instead of the savior, coming to deliver people from their sins. But Mark also tells us that the zealously proclaimed what he had done, and he specifically notes in 7:37, “And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’”
Now, it may be easy to overlook this as just another healing. Perhaps we may see this as even more special because Jesus heals a man who is both deaf and mute. However, when Jesus comes healing the deaf and the mute, we are to remember something more. We are to remember that Isaiah had prophesied that one day the Lord would come to his people to save them. He would show his glory and majesty. He would do things like unstop the ears of the deaf and loosen the tongues of the mute. Even more interesting, perhaps is that the region of Sidon would have been the same region as Lebanon.
So, now, listen again to Isaiah 35:1-6, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’ 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 sing for joy.”
And here you have Jesus doing it. He’s showing that God’s bringing salvation to his people. The ears of the deaf are being unstopped, and the tongue of the mute is being loosened so that he may sing for joy.
But note what Isaiah adds. As the Lord comes to do this, “They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God” (Is. 35:2). And that’s what’s going on in Mark 7:31-37. These Gentiles are seeing the glory of the Lord and the majesty of our God. And they respond appropriately, being astonished beyond measure and declaring, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak” (7:37).
You see, stories like this where the deaf and mute man is healed obviously involve the people who are healed. But they are like extras in a movie scene or individuals whose roles fade into the background. Jesus is always in the foreground. He is always the main actor. This is about him. And specifically, in light of Isaiah 35, when Jesus heals the deaf and mute, he’s revealing his glory and majesty. He’s declaring that he is the glorious and majestic Lord.
And this is a good reminder to us that the blessings of salvation come to us through a faith that exalts Jesus Christ as Lord. It’s not that we are blessed with salvation and as a consequence our faith exalts Christ as Lord. Rather, our faith exalts Christ as Lord and as a consequence we experience the blessings of salvation.
God’s work throughout history is to the end that every knee will bow and declare that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. So, when we speak of the blessings of salvation being made available to Jews and Gentiles, remember that we’re not talking about faith in anything but specifically faith in the crucified and risen Lord – a faith that exalts Jesus Christ as Lord.
Finally, we see in 8:1-10 that . . .
All those who trust in Christ for salvation – Jew and Gentile – receive the same inheritance
What’s interesting about Mark 8:1-10 is how similar it is to an earlier incident in Jesus’ ministry. You remember the feeding of the 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish where they have twelve basketsful leftover? Well, this is the feeding of the 4,000 with seven loaves of bread and two fish, where they have seven basketsful left over. In fact, the stories are so similar that many have had trouble believing that these were actually two separate incidents. Some suggest that Mark is just making a point about Jews and Gentiles getting the same blessings that he shapes his own parable, repeating a story to show that these two groups are alike.
The problems are two, however. First, Mark gives us no indication in this story that he’s just making up a story. He writes just as he does in other sections, clearly suggesting that this incident took place. That is, on one occasion Jesus fed 5,000, and on another occasion Jesus fed 4,000. Second, Jesus will actually refer in conversation with his disciples to both incidents. In Mark 8:19-21, Jesus talks to the disciples about the feeding of the 5,000 and the feeding of the 4,000, treating them as separate incidents.
So, this feeding of the 4,000 is a separate incident. There is no room to doubt. But notice the similarities in the stories. Mark tells us that Jesus had compassion on the crowd because they were without food (8:2), his disciples expressed surprise at how such a group could be fed (8:4 – which shouldn’t surprise us. After all, how many times have we witnessed miracles in our own lives only to go on and doubt shortly thereafter?), Jesus takes loaves and fish, gives thanks, and has the disciples distribute them (8:6-7), and not only did the people eat and find themselves satisfied, but there were basketsful left over (8:8-9). The story even ends in the same way with the disciples getting in a boat to cross the lake (8:10).
Therefore, the question seems to be, if these are separate incidents, why did Jesus perform almost the exact same miracle the same way twice? And I think the answer is the same answer we give to why the Lord allowed the Gentiles in Acts 10 the same way that he allows the Jews to receive the Spirit in Acts 2. The repetition of circumstances and details shows that these two groups are getting the same blessing. In fact, when Peter reports of this Gentile Pentecost, he says in Acts 10:15, “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning” and concludes, “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 10:17).
The same circumstances convinced Peter that they’d been given the same gift – the gift of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, I think this repetition of the miracle among a Gentile group is saying the same thing – the blessings of the inheritance to be received by God’s children are the exact same for Jews and Gentiles. The Gentiles are getting bread from the Savior the same way the Jews did.
And this is important. After all, there could have been a thought that said that Gentiles can be part of God’s people, but they’ll never get the same blessings as believing Jews. But Jesus shatters that misconception. In fact, Paul will later write to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:28-29).
Do you see? It doesn’t matter if you’re a Jew or a Gentile (or a slave or free, or a male or female, for that matter), if you have faith in Christ, then you are heirs according to God’s promise. There is no second-tier Christian in God’s kingdom. That’s the message that Jesus is showing in the feeding of the 4,000 Gentiles, I believe – all his people get the same blessings (Jew or Gentile). They are heirs of the inheritance promised from God, and ultimately that inheritance is all that is Christ’s – which is everything.
Therefore, in these three episodes in Jesus’ life we see that the gospel is necessary and sufficient for the salvation of all men, that men are saved through faith that exalts Jesus as Lord, and that the saving blessings that come to God’s children come to all his children.
What should we, then, do? We should give thanks for the blessings that are ours through faith in the crucified and risen Lord. And, we should make sure to proclaim the good news to every tongue, tribe, people, and nation. So, let us begin by giving thanks now as we come to the table. Amen.