Articles Archive -- Topical Index -- Textual Index

by Al Maxey

Issue #844 -- April 30, 2022
"If you knew that only a few would care that you came,
would you still come? If you knew that those you loved
would laugh in your face, would you still care? If you
knew that the tongues you made would mock you, the
mouths you made would spit at you, the hands you made
would crucify you, would you still make them? Christ did."

Max Lucado [b. 1955]

Spittle Smearing Savior
Why Did Jesus the Messiah Spit?

After Jesus was seized at the place called Gethsemane and "led away to Caiaphas, the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were gathered together" (Matthew 26:57), and after our Lord had made it clear to them that He was indeed the Messiah, "they spat in His face and beat Him with their fists; and others slapped Him" (vs. 67; cf. Mark 14:65). When the soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium, they subjected Him to cruel mockery, "dressing Him up in purple, weaving a crown of thorns and placing it upon His head, saying, 'Hail, King of the Jews!' And they kept beating His head with a reed, and spitting at Him, and kneeling and bowing before Him" (Mark 15:16-19; cf. Matthew 27:30). Spitting at or upon another is almost universally regarded as an act of extreme contempt for the one spat at or upon. In the OT writings it was portrayed as the ultimate personal insult. In the following passage, which has clear Messianic intent, we read, "I gave My back to those who strike Me, and My cheeks to those who pluck out the beard; I did not cover My face from humiliation and spitting" (Isaiah 50:6). Job lamented, "God has made me a byword to everyone, a man in whose face people spit" (Job 17:6). "They abhor me and stand aloof from me, and they do not refrain from spitting at my face" (Job 30:10). Jesus even foretold this would happen: "And He took the twelve aside and said to them, 'Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things which are written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon, and after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again'" (Luke 18:31-33; cf. Mark 10:32-34).

In light of the above, therefore, some disciples of Jesus throughout the ages have found it somewhat puzzling, and even troubling, when they read of Jesus spitting upon someone. As one who was spat upon, why would He in turn then spit upon another, or take some of His saliva and smear it upon another?! What point was He trying to make by performing such a "disgusting" (at least from our point of view) act?! To better understand this seemingly strange practice of Jesus, which He used three times in connection with a miracle of healing, we need to examine each of those three events in more depth, a task we will undertake in this present issue of my Reflections. We would also profit, prior to that textual examination, from a better understanding of how one's saliva (spit, spittle) was viewed by the peoples of that time and place.

The Greek word meaning "to spit" is "ptuo," which is an example of the figure of speech known as onomatopoeia ("the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named" - e.g. buzz, hiss, sizzle, etc.). This word is found in only three places in the NT writings, and in all three occurrences it is Jesus doing the spitting (John 9:6; Mark 7:33; 8:23). A form of this same Greek word is "emptuo," which means "to spit upon." It too is used exclusively of Jesus as the one being "spat upon" (Matthew 26:67; 27:30; Mark 10:34; 14:65; 15:19; Luke 18:32). It is also worthy of note that in that ancient time and place, human saliva was believed by many to have healing properties with respect to certain diseases, especially of the eyes. A number of ancient Roman writers, as well as several prominent Jewish rabbis, wrote about saliva as a valid medical treatment for blindness. This was even discussed within the Jewish Talmud. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) devoted an entire chapter in his work "Natural History" to the various afflictions that could receive benefit from what he termed "fasting saliva" (i.e., the saliva taken from the mouth early in the morning before breakfast). This contemporary of Christ wrote, "Leprous spots may be remedied by early morning application of fasting spittle, and eyes may be cured by early morning fasting spittle." Although this seems a bit strange to us today, the people during the time of Jesus would not have viewed it in the same way we do. Smearing spittle upon the eyes of a person with visual impairment would not have seemed strange to them (a fact worth keeping in mind as we examine the examples of our Lord's use of His own saliva).

JOHN 9:1-41

This entire chapter (John 9) is devoted to the circumstances surrounding and ensuing from our Lord's healing of "a man blind from birth" (vs. 1). The very fact that he was born blind led the disciples of Jesus to ask Him a rather fascinating question: "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?" (vs. 2). This reveals the influence of Hellenistic and Platonic thinking on the Jews of the first century. I dealt with this in my study titled "Philosophy of Metempsychosis: The Disciples' Puzzling Question to Jesus about Prior Existence and Prenatal Sin" (Reflections #761). The later interrogation of this healed blind man by the Pharisees, the man's response to them, and the response of his parents, is a fascinating story, and I would urge the reader to spend some time examining and reflecting upon the account given in this chapter of John's gospel record. The passage that concerns us in this present article, however, is found in verses 6-7 - "Jesus spat on the ground, made clay of the spittle, and applied the clay to his eyes, and He said to him, 'Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.' So he went away and washed, and came back seeing."

Several things are worthy of note here. First, there is no indication in this chapter that this blind man appealed to Jesus for healing. In fact, there is little evidence that he knew much about Jesus at all. Jesus was the one who initiated the contact. When later asked who it was that healed him, the man stated, "He is a prophet" (vs. 17). When the Pharisees pressed this healed man to identify the one who healed him, he could not do so, other than to say, "If this man were not from God, He could do nothing" (vs. 33). Because he refused to denounce the one who healed him as a sinner (vs. 25), he was "put out of the synagogue" as a punishment (vs. 34; cf. vs. 22). We are then told that once again it was Jesus who initiated contact with this individual: "Jesus heard that they had put him out; and finding him, He said, 'Do you believe in the Son of Man?' He answered and said, 'And who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him?' Jesus said to him, 'You have both seen Him, and He is the one who is talking with you.' And he said, 'Lord, I believe.' And he worshipped Him" (vs. 35-38). This man was healed prior to his acquiring faith in Jesus; indeed, he wasn't even sure who Jesus was until later when he encountered Him face to face.

Second, we discover from the text that the man was not immediately healed of his blindness when the clay (made from the spittle of Jesus mixed with the dirt on the ground) was applied to his eyes. This man was still blind when Jesus sent him away to wash in the pool of Siloam. It was only after he washed this clay from his eyes that he was healed of his blindness (vs. 7, 11). This "delayed healing" is not all that uncommon in the Bible. We think of Naaman, for example, whose leprosy was not removed until he had completed seven washings in the Jordan river (2 Kings 5:14). I would refer you to my study on this titled "The Naaman Narrative: Does this Syrian's Seven-Fold Dipping Suggest a Sacramental View of Baptism?" (Reflections #771). We also think of the healing of the ten lepers by Jesus (Luke 17:11-19), and the fact that only one of them returned to thank Jesus for his cleansing. In that account we see, once again, that they were not immediately healed by Jesus, but rather "it came about that as they were going (to show themselves to the priests) they were cleansed" (vs. 14). In these cases, it was a response of faith that was being emphasized: was there faith sufficient to follow through with the instruction given?

As for the use of His saliva mingled with dirt, "Jesus now moves decisively in a surprising, almost strange, way. An intimate part of Himself is given as He mingles His own saliva with some soil, that lowly, earthy stuff out of which we have all come. It is almost as if He reenacts that first trembling moment of creation when the Lord breathed His life into the man He had formed from the soil. When Jesus anoints the man's eyes with the clay, we are made aware again how the intimacy of a caring touch is at the heart of all healing - physical, spiritual, and psychological" [Dr. Roger L. Fredrikson, The Communicator's Commentary: John, p. 169]. "The emphasis of John seems to be on compassion. ... The touch of a friendly hand would be reassuring, and the weight of the clay would serve as an indicator to the blind man that something had been done to him" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 101]. Most modern scholars believe there was nothing "curative" in either the saliva or soil (or the combination thereof), but that these elements were employed by Jesus on this occasion to address the spiritual (faith) and psychological (hope) needs of this particular individual. I appreciate and agree with Dr. Charles Ellicott's observation: "Here it will be enough to observe that the loss of a channel of communication between the individual man and the outer world is compensated by some special means which may help to assure him of the presence of the true Healer, and may furnish a foundation for his faith and hope. The deaf man cannot hear the tones of a voice that tells of mercy and love, but the touch applied to the ear may in part convey the same gracious truths. The blind man cannot see the look of compassion which others can see, but the saliva or the clay applied to the eyes gives force to the word which is heard by the ear. In every case we should remember that the means is chiefly moral, preparing in the sufferer a mental condition which can receive the gift of healing, and that the physical gift is itself regarded as a stage in the spiritual education. The wisest physicians of the body, and the wisest physicians of the soul, have alike sought to follow in the steps of Him who is their common Master. Thus, there are conditions of physical disease for which the truest medicines would be faith, and love, and hope - a mind at peace with itself and with God" [Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 459-460].

Mark 7:31-37

As noted in the above comments by Dr. Ellicott, Jesus also used His "spit" (saliva) in the case of one who was deaf and had difficulty speaking. Jesus took this man "aside from the multitude by himself, and put His fingers into his ears, and after spitting, He touched his tongue with the saliva; and looking up to heaven with a deep sigh, He said to him, 'Ephphatha!', that is, 'Be opened!' And his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was removed, and he began speaking plainly" (vs. 33-35). Although this man's affliction was an inability to hear, with an attending difficulty in speaking plainly (which one often sees in those deaf from birth), nevertheless much of what was said above with regard to the man born blind is equally true and relevant in this case. Once again we find Jesus "spitting." Once again we find Him touching the afflicted man, and in so doing displaying His compassion for this individual. Jesus placed His own fingers in the ears of this man; He spit out some of His own saliva, and he then touched the man's tongue with that saliva (vs. 33). Again, this sounds disgusting to us. We would likely not take kindly to having someone spit, and then put some of that spit into our mouths!! Dr. Ellicott wrote, "Here we find the same tender considerateness for the infirmities of the sufferer as in our Lord's treatment of the blind" [ibid, p. 209]. "In order to deal more personally with this mute, Jesus took him apart from the crowd. Mark emphasizes Jesus' desire to have personal contact with the people He heals. Here His actions seem to be done to help the man exercise faith - the fingers placed in his ears apparently indicate they were to be unblocked and the saliva on the tongue indicates it was going to be restored to normal use" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 684].

Mark 8:22-26

The third passage (also in the gospel record of Mark) where we find Jesus spitting is one that poses a couple of unique challenges to the disciple seeking to understand the actions and motivations of the Messiah. Jesus and His followers "came to Bethsaida," and some of the locals "brought a blind man to Him, and entreated Him to touch" this afflicted individual (Mark 8:22). Jesus "took the blind man by the hand, and He brought him out of the village" (vs. 23a). This was an action that Jesus also took with regard to the deaf man in Mark 7 - the people "entreated Him to lay His hand upon" this deaf man, but "Jesus took him aside from the multitude by himself" (vs. 32-33). Thus, in two of the three cases where Jesus used His saliva in connection with a healing, He did what He did with no other witnesses than His own close disciples; the afflicted ones were removed from the sight of the multitudes. In Mark 8, after leading this blind man by the hand to a place outside the village, "and after spitting on his eyes, and laying His hands upon him, He asked him, 'Do you see anything?' And he looked up and said, 'I see men, for I am seeing them like trees, walking about.' Then again He laid His hands upon his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and began to see everything clearly" (vs. 23-25). The two "bothersome" aspects of this account are the fact that (1) Jesus "spit on the eyes" of this man, and (2) it took Jesus two attempts before the man was healed, which suggests to some readers that the Lord failed in His first attempt. Needless to say, both these items have troubled and puzzled people for centuries.

I think the difficulty in interpretation here is that our first thought tends to be that Jesus had a problem with this healing, thus He had to make a second attempt, whereas the reality may be that instead of a problem, Jesus may very well have had a very specific purpose for the manner in which He brought about this healing. Instead of trying to rationalize His "problem," we need to try and realize His "purpose." Isaiah 35:5-6 speaks of a time when "the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped; when the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb will shout for joy." We clearly perceive the days of the Messiah here, although there most certainly could be other temporal fulfillments as well. Jesus came to fulfill a number of ancient prophecies, and He did so in a manner that revealed His power over the many afflictions of mankind. Yet, why was the return of this man's sight gradual rather than immediate? "The second laying on of hands is unique in the healing ministry of Jesus. ... As for the reason why Jesus did this healing gradually, Mark gives us no hint" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 691].

Many have speculated as to what our Lord's intent may have been in this singular case. Since many of the ancient peoples believed human saliva (as well as the saliva of certain animals) had curative properties (especially in eye disorders), it could be that Jesus sought to make the point that human remedies would always fall short of divine remedies. Yes, the saliva worked up to a point, but it is only when the Lord steps into the equation that a perfect result is realized to those things that afflict us (whether physical, spiritual, or psychological). It is also possible "that Jesus may have moved only as quickly as the man's faith would allow" [ibid], although there are other instances when a healing occurred prior to a stronger measure of faith in the one who was healed. This view, it seems to me, would come close to suggesting that our Lord's power to heal was subject to the level of belief in the one to be healed. I really don't see much in Scripture to suggest that the power of deity is limited or diminished by any man's level of faith. "As to why Jesus abandoned His usual method of instantaneous healing, John Calvin said, 'He did so most probably for the purpose of proving, in the case of this man, that He had full liberty as to His method of proceeding, and was not restricted to a fixed rule'" [ibid]. In other words, Jesus could use any methodology He desired to use, employing a wide variety of means to effect a healing; He was not limited to any one method or time-frame.

Perhaps the message to us today is that our Lord is far more focused on the end result than on the process (regardless of what it may be or how long it may take). In "real life," as the reader in Georgia correctly noted, not all healing is immediate; some afflictions do not lend themselves to immediate solutions; some hurts take time to heal. In our crazy world, we want quick, simple solutions to our problems, and we want them NOW. We become frustrated, and our faith at times falters, when instant gratification is not forthcoming! Faith, however, often takes time to grow, develop, and mature; we should never doubt the power or love or compassion of our Lord simply because things don't happen as quickly or fully as we would like for them to. In the final analysis, however, we have to admit that we do not know for sure why Jesus performed this healing in the way He did. We can speculate, but that is all it is at best. "This is the only report of a gradual cure in the healings wrought by our Lord. The reason for this method here is not given" [Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, vol. 1, p. 165].


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Readers' Reflections
NOTE: Differing views and understandings are always welcome here,
yet they do not necessarily reflect my own views and understandings.
They're opportunities for readers to voice what is on their hearts, with
a view toward greater dialogue among disciples with a Berean spirit.

From a Reader in Arkansas:

I wish to purchase the CD of your recorded class titled "Law to Liberty: Reflecting on our Journey away from Legalism and into Freedom in Christ." Thank you, Al, for all you do!

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Al, I enjoy your Reflections and find them helpful, enlightening, and thought-provoking. Please send me a copy of the article titled "The Problem With Grace." Thank you!

From a New Reader in the UK:

Dear Friend, I have just read one of your commentaries based on Jesus' and Peter's conversation on the beach following Jesus' resurrection (Reflections #189 - "Breakfast on the Beach: Dramatic Dialogue at a Fish Fry - An Analysis of John 21:15-17"). It was very illuminating and inspiring. Thank you! Please, could I be added to your mailing list so I can read further issues of your Reflections? God bless you and the work you do. It is wonderful.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, I was wondering if you are still offering your book "Down, But Not Out: A Study of Divorce and Remarriage in Light of God's Healing Grace" in .pdf format. If you are, and if you are willing to accept payment through PayPal, would you please email me a copy? Thank you.

From a Reader in Colorado:

Al, I just finished reading your book "Down, But Not Out," and I can strongly say that your study and insight into the Scriptures on this particular topic has given my wife and me tremendous encouragement! We are members of the Church of Christ here in our town, and I am also a graduate of a very conservative school of preaching. Early in our marriage I was feeling so much guilt over marrying a divorced woman that we ended up separating. I did not want to end the marriage, and was depressed over the thought. Long story short, I was providentially led to some people who opened our eyes to what the Bible was actually teaching, and I asked my wife for forgiveness, and we were reconciled. And I have never regretted that decision since. We are active in our congregation here; however, I have never attended any homecoming events at my school of preaching because of the stigma they attach to anyone marrying a divorced person. There are so many in our churches who have been treated wrongly because of a false interpretation on this subject! I feel motivated to share your book with my brethren and with my church leaders. Thanks again, Al, for your book!! May God richly bless you and your family.

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Al, I wanted to let you know that your link to an article by Dr. Leroy Garrett ("The Principle of Available Light") in your study titled "God's Plan for the Unenlightened: Pondering the Parameters of Divine Acceptance of Human Response to Available Light" (Reflections #158) is no longer working. Thanks for all your good work. If I have a question on something I don't understand in the OT or NT, your writings are always the first place I look for commentary! Thanks again!

From a Retired Military Chaplain in Indiana:

Al, I love you, brother! Although I don't often reply to your Reflections, be it known that they are read, pondered, taken to heart, and continue to bless my life. May God bless you, your family, and your ministry. You are a courageous man, brother, to take on the topic you did in Reflections #843 ("Hands Off or Hand Off: High Cost of a Crotch Grab"). I also had to burst out laughing at your quote of Ecclesiastes 9:10 in connection with this study: "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might." You have lost none of your sense of humor!! I would also like to reinforce and applaud your closing comments, Al. Case Law was intended for the ancient Near-Eastern culture based on an Honor/Shame foundation. It honored life and highly valued offspring, which for the most part is unacknowledged by modern Western culture, which has a much different agenda. Our culture today, as you reminded us in your closing comments, actually tolerates and even celebrates the death by abortion of our progeny as a "legal right." God have mercy!!

From an Elder in Oklahoma:

I guess I'm one of the few people who are familiar with the Deuteronomy 25:11-12 passage (which you discussed in your recent article "Hands Off or Hand Off: High Cost of a Crotch Grab"). I read through the Bible each year, and in different translations each time. I have always pondered that particular passage when I get to it. I came to a different conclusion as to why such a severe punishment was set for the woman in the text. However, I had not thought about the possible inability of the man she grabbed to later produce offspring. I thought that while the two men were fighting, it would be an extremely unfair fight if one of their wives grabbed their opponent by his testicles. And, of course, the woman would know that. In your last paragraph, you mention Exodus 21:22-25. In the NASB, it says, "If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined." There is a footnote that says, "Or 'an untimely birth occurs': literally - 'her children come out'." There is a significant difference between "miscarriage" and "premature birth." This, then, leads to a significant difference to the meaning in the text of "no further injury." This passage can be interpreted as condemning or condoning abortion. Do you have any thoughts on this? Al, I always appreciate your insights and thoughtful research. Sometimes you really make me think in ways I had not before! Grace and Peace, brother.

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