There is more than one way to “hear” the gospel. It was this belief that led Grace, which is Tenth’s ministry to the disabled, to propose a new ministry to the deaf. Some months ago Grace approached our Session “to determine how we may best reach out to the deaf community with the good news of Jesus Christ.”
The need is great: there are more than 100,000 hearing-impaired persons in the Philadelphia region. With only three deaf churches in the city, it is not hard to understand why the deaf are sometimes considered an unreached people group. Grace suggested that one way to reach them would be to interpret our evening worship services in American Sign Language. But Grace also recognized that in order to welcome the deaf we would need to learn how to speak to them. So they arranged for Handi-Vangelism to offer the church a class in American Sign Language.
As you can see, Grace’s proposal received the blessing of our elders. Our services will be interpreted for the deaf at least until June, and provided there is a positive response, the ministry will continue indefinitely. There are several things you can do to help. The first is to pray, asking the Lord to establish this ministry. It is our hope that over the next six months we will begin to welcome deaf visitors to our congregation. Another thing you can do is to learn American Sign Language. A basic vocabulary class meets here at the church every week. At least a dozen people have signed up for the class, and newcomers are welcome. (Incidentally, it is also possible to designate financial gifts to support this ministry.)
Ulrich Bach has written, “Tell me how you talk about God and I will tell you… what handicapped people can expect from you, or whether you expect anything from them” [quoted in Joop van Klinken, Diakonia: Mutual Helping with Justice and Compassion, Eerdmans, 1989, p. 16]. Bach is right: The way we treat the disabled says something about our relationship to God. This principle was written into God’s law, which commanded, “Do not curse the deaf… but fear your God. I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:14). Mistreating the deaf is an assault on God’s character. Since God cares for the deaf, those who fear God must also care for them. Our ministry grows out of our theology.
What else does our theology teach us about deafness? Start with creation. There was no sign language in Eden. In the beginning God made human beings with the ability to hear. We know this because the Scripture describes Adam and Eve hearing the voice of God in the garden (Gen. 3:8-10). Therefore, deafness–like every other physical disability–must be a result of the fall, of God’s general curse against humanity’s sin.
In and of itself, being deaf is not a good thing. It is part of life in a fallen world. But for that very reason, it is also an opportunity for God to show his grace. One of the first things Jesus did when he started his public ministry was to enable the deaf to hear. On one occasion “some people brought to him a man who was deaf… and they begged him to place his hand on the man. After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears… . He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, ‘Be opened!’ At this the man’s ears were opened” (Mark 7:32-35). The people who witnessed this were amazed by it. They said, “He even makes the deaf hear” (Mark 7:37b).
Jesus performed such miracles to fulfill the Old Testament promise that when the Messiah came he would save his people body and soul. But he also healed the deaf to give us a glimpse of heaven’s glory. Just as there will be no blindness in heaven, and no crutches or wheel chairs, so also there will be no sign language. In heaven everyone will be able to hear the angels sing.
This blessing is promised to everyone who trusts in Jesus Christ. But you must trust in him. Sadly, not everyone believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world. The Bible describes this lack of faith as a kind of spiritual deafness. As Jesus said, “Though hearing, they do not hear or understand… . For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears” (Matt. 13:13, 15a; cf. Isa. 6:10). As difficult as it is to go through life without being able to hear, the real tragedy is to be spiritually deaf, unable and unwilling to hear God’s voice.
Jesus came to break the silence, to open our hearts to hear God’s voice. When he preached, Jesus sometimes ended his sermons with the words “he who has ears, let him hear” (e.g. Matt. 13:43b). He was speaking spiritually, of course. He meant that if we are to be saved we must listen to him, not simply with our ears, but especially with our hearts.
That is why we preach the good news of Jesus Christ Sunday after Sunday. It is so people can hear his voice and receive him by faith. It is also why we want to preach the gospel to the deaf. The prophet Isaiah promised that one “the deaf will hear the words of the scroll” (Isa. 29:18a). In other words, one day the deaf will hear the words of the Bible. They will receive biblical teaching, as they are receiving it tonight. Whether we receive biblical teaching audibly or through visible signs, the proper way to receive it is to believe from the heart. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear. Those who have hearts to hear, let them also hear.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2023 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org