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We have seen a man go through the stages of becoming a disciple of Jesus, but we have also seen Jesus' opponents' actions progress from debate and division (v. 16) to judgment (v. 24) and on to expulsion of one who would be a disciple of Jesus (v. 34; cf. Westcott 1908:2:36). Jesus' concluding comment puts both of these results in perspective: For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind (v. 39). Here, in a key definition, Jesus says his judgment both enlightens and blinds. He has not come for judgment in the sense of condemnation (3:17), but such condemnation does take place as he who is the light of the world is revealed. When the light shines, judgment takes place; however, salvation comes as well, for when the light of the world dawns hearts are revealed and the truth about individuals' relationships with God is brought into the open. The same sun that melts wax, hardens clay (Origen On First Principles 3.1.11). The opponents have hard hearts—they reject God's offer of mercy and his call to repentance that come through his chastisement (cf. Jer 5:3; 7:25-26; 19:15; Zech 7:11-12; Rev 9:20-21; 16:9-11). Such hardness of heart darkens their minds and alienates them from the life of God (Eph 4:18). The sight they think they have must be taken from them if they are to receive true sight, which sees the true light (Jn 8:12; see comments on 10:1, 8).
That Jesus is using this healing of physical blindness to speak of spiritual conditions is clear to some of the Pharisees who were near Jesus. They are not physically blind, but they ask, What? Are we blind too? (v. 40). Here is revealed their self-perception as those who are spiritually illumined with the knowledge of God. They are the ones who think they know (3:2; 8:52; 9:24, 29), but they have a knowledge that does not recognize Jesus for who he is. So Jesus responds with words of great grace—hard words, but words that can break through and lead them into the true light: If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains (v. 41). Clearly, it is their claim to have knowledge that is the dilemma. They do not recognize their need; there is no poverty of spirit (Mt 5:3).
We again see the great need for humility, openness and recognition of need. The man has emphasized his ignorance (vv. 25, 36), while they have emphasized their knowledge (vv. 16, 22, 29). Those who settle into blindness without a disposition of openness to God are "incurable since they have deliberately rejected the only cure that exists" (Barrett 1978:366). In a similar situation Jesus refers to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mk 3:29), since in that case Jesus' opponents were seeing his gracious acts and saying they were the work of the Beelzebub, the prince of demons. Such a sin is unforgivable precisely because the person is looking at the character and work of the one who is all good and calling it evil. This perception prevents one from turning to God. For, on the one hand, if one does turn to Christ while thinking Christ represents evil, then that person in his or her own mind is choosing evil and thus sinning (cf. Rom 14:23). If, on the other hand, one refuses to embrace evil but thinks that Jesus is evil, then obviously one cannot turn to him. Either way one has precluded repentance and thereby shut oneself off from forgiveness. God offers forgiveness for all sin. The only sin that cannot be forgiven is the unrepented sin. Thus, until one has a right view of Jesus and comes to him for forgiveness, one remains in one's sin, not because God will not forgive, but because such a one refuses to accept the forgiveness in accordance with God's reality in Christ.
So here at the end of the story we see that spiritual blindness is the real sin, not physical blindness, as the disciples and the Pharisees had thought (vv. 2, 34; cf. Chrysostom In John 56.1). Jesus has given sight to a man born blind, but this is a sign of the more significant spiritual light that he provides for those who are spiritually blind. In the very act of mercy, the giving of physical and spiritual sight to this blind man, Jesus continues to reveal the glory of God, that is, his love. Ironically, as earlier (5:1-18), the very brightness of the light that is shining brings a reaction from those who see such signs but do not get it. In their judgment and condemnation of Jesus they stand self-judged and self-condemned.
But even this judgment reveals God's glory. It does so, first, because it is indeed an offer of mercy that they are rejecting. Second, his mercy is seen in the care he provides to those who do receive him, for in condemning their opponents he is protecting his people. As in the case of Pharaoh, God's hardening of one who rejected his call to repentance revealed God's own glory as the one greater than Pharaoh and as the one who redeems his people from evil (Ex 7:3, 14; 14:4, 17). The evil in the present story is the blindness of Jesus' opponents, which is alienation from God. There is a veil over the opponents' hearts (cf. 2 Cor 3:15). But there is also evil in their preventing people from recognizing Jesus and believing in him. God must condemn such evil not only because it is not in keeping with his reality, but also because it is opposing his work in the lives of those who are open to him.
Jesus' condemnation of the Pharisees at the conclusion of this story reveals their alienation from God more clearly, and it also says something about those who, like the blind man, do come to faith in Jesus. This story is an encouragement to stand up and bear witness, as we have seen, and it also illustrates the experience of everyone who becomes a true disciple. Every human being is in the condition of this man spiritually—born blind and in need of enlightenment. It is not surprising, therefore, that the ancient church saw in this story a depiction of baptism, since baptism was known as enlightenment. Some modern scholars continue to find such allusions here (Brown 1966:380-82) or, in a similar way, to conversion (Michaels 1989:160, 168). This story describes one who is in the process of being born from above, becoming capable of seeing the kingdom of God present in the presence of the King (Jn 3:3). We are all in need of the faith that is itself an organ of spiritual perception similar to what Paul refers to as the "eyes of the heart" (Eph 1:18; cf. Schnackenburg 1980b:255). Unless God opens our eyes we will not see, but he is offering sight to all who will receive it—such is the biblical antinomy of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.
This coming to faith is the crucial point of this story. In the physical healing of the man's eyes we see the agent of creation at work within his world. But the even more astounding work takes place as Jesus leads the man to faith in himself, for this is not just a creative work on the man's body, but the bringing of that essential life that was lost in Eden. That life had existed by virtue of the relationship of intimacy between Creator and created, and now in this man's worship of God in Jesus we see the return to the proper relationship that had been severed by the rebellion. The worship of the man who has found God in Christ is his entrance into eternal life (17:3).
There is also a corporate dimension to this story. Jesus has departed from the temple (8:59), and now a new society is being formed around him in separation from what will become official Judaism. He has revealed himself to people earlier in the Gospel and has accepted spontaneous expressions of faith, but now he takes it a step further and "proposes a test of fellowship" (Westcott 1908:2:43); that is, he offers himself as an object of faith with a specific confession attached: Do you believe in the Son of Man? (v. 35). This is a new development in the process of the light shining and the polarization which that causes. "The separation between the old and the new was now consummated, when the rejected of `the Jews' sank prostrate at the feet of the Son of man" (Westcott 1908:2:44). Jesus is the Good Shepherd of a flock that is distinct from official Judaism, a theme developed in the next chapter.
So this story offers many challenges. We need to realize our own utter poverty, blindness and need apart from Christ. We need to see with his eyes the desperate condition of all who have not been illumined by him, the light of the world. We need to consider before God whether there are ways we reject the evidence of our own experience because we have a faulty understanding of him and his ways. We need to consider before God whether we have God too figured out—or, in this day, whether we have the opposite tendency to think that everything is up for grabs and there is no objective truth or that the Scriptures are not clear and coherent when interpreted in the light of the guidance the Spirit has given to the church. Finally, among many other connections that might be made, we need Jesus to be our center of reference, like this blind man did, so that we are stable, secure and bold no matter what hassles come to us due to our relationship with Jesus, for we have experienced the goodness and mercy of God in Jesus.