It appears that Jesus is still in Jerusalem (since the man is sent to wash in Siloam), but Jesus is no longer in hiding (contrast 8:59). Perhaps some time has elapsed since his confrontation with the authorities in the temple, though as the story reads he could be coming straight from their debate. Certainly John intends us to connect this healing with the previous chapter, as the references to Jesus as the light of the world indicate (8:12; 9:5).
The disciples' question was a request that Jesus comment on this debate. Jesus shifts the focus, and instead of addressing the cause of the man's blindness he speaks of its purpose: so that the work of God might be displayed in his life (v. 3). We should not be concerned with assigning blame. Trying to figure out the source of suffering in an individual's life is futile given our limited understanding, as the book of Job should teach us. Rather, here is one in whom Jesus can manifest God's works and thus reveal something of God himself and his purposes on earth. Jesus is being led by his Father to provide a sign that he is indeed the light of the world. In this sign he continues to reveal the Father's glory, that is, his love and mercy. For the ultimate truth about Jesus' works is that the Father, living in him, is doing his own works (14:10). This is what it means that his works are done from the Father (10:32) and in the Father's name (10:25, 37), revealing that Jesus is in the Father and the Father in him (10:38; cf. 10:30). As is always the case in John, Jesus' identity and his relation to the Father are at the heart of what is being said and done.
Jesus' statement touches on the theme of suffering. There is a sense in which every aspect of our lives, including our own suffering, is an occasion for the manifestation of God's glory and his purposes. Scripture describes four types of suffering viewed in terms of causes or purposes (cf. John Cassian Conferences 6.11): first, suffering as a proving or testing of our faith (Gen 22; Deut 8:2; Job); second, suffering meant for improvement, for our edification (Heb 12:5-8); third, suffering as punishment for sin (Deut 32:15-25; Jer 30:15; Jn 5:14); and fourth, suffering that shows forth God's glory, as here in our story and later in the raising of Lazarus (Jn 11:4). To these should be added a fifth form of suffering, that which comes from bearing witness to Christ, illustrated by what happens to this former blind man in being cast out of the synagogue.
Suffering is connected to sin (see comment on 5:14), at least generally if not always directly. But the present passage develops this connection further. Our sufferings are opportunities for God's grace. If our suffering is indeed a punishment for sin, then it becomes an occasion for repentance and thus the manifestation of God's grace as we are restored to fellowship with God. If our suffering is not a direct punishment for sin, then it is something God allows to happen in our lives, usually for reasons beyond our knowing, which nevertheless can help us die to self and find our true life in God. God does not allow anything to enter our lives that is not able to glorify him by drawing us into deeper intimacy with him and revealing his glory. When we cling to self and our own comfort we are led to resentment. When we trust in God's goodness and providence we are able to find comfort in God himself and not in our circumstances. Consequently, we can genuinely "give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thess 5:18). This is not to say that misfortune and evil are God's will in general, but they are part of what it takes to live with him and unto him in this mess we have made through our rebellion against him and his rule over us. Our rebellion has brought disorder to every aspect of our existence, and the way back to the beauty and peace and order of his kingdom leads through suffering, as the cross makes clear. So we should not deny or avoid the reality of our suffering, but we should ask God to use it to further his purposes in us and through us. Some lessons only become ours in reality through suffering and the relationship with God that results from these tests. We can help others with the truths we learn in this way (cf. 2 Cor 1:3-11), and we can identify with the blind man and reflect on ways the Lord might display his works in us in the midst of our own sufferings.
In his keynote address Jesus said he does what he sees the Father doing, which includes in particular giving life and judging (5:19-30). Both features are evident here. In giving sight to his man Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah who brings the new quality of life that the prophets promised, seen now in terms of a relationship with himself. He brings light into this man, both physically and spiritually. In the conflict that erupts as a result of this act of divine grace and mercy, the other aspect of the coming of the light, judgment, is also clearly seen.
Jesus includes his disciples in such work when he says, we must do the work of him who sent me (9:4). Such involvement on the disciples' part has been hinted at earlier (3:11; 4:32-38; cf. 6:5) and will be developed more later (chaps. 13--17; 20:21). Jesus' disciples are to share in his relationship with the Father and thereby in the revelation of the Father's glory through doing the work of the Father and in the judgment of the world.
The fact that Jesus' disciples will do such works in the future--indeed, even greater works (14:12)--makes Jesus' next statement puzzling. He says this work is to go on as long as it is day for night is coming, when no one can work (9:4). Clues appear later in the Gospel as to when this night occurs. As Jesus approaches his Passion he will warn the people, "You are going to have the light just a little while longer" (12:35). When Judas leaves to betray Jesus it is said, "And it was night" (13:30). This is the beginning of the Passion, when Jesus will be taken from them for three days (cf. also Lk 22:53). When the light is absent it is night, and the night for John is when Jesus is absent, as Jesus himself says in verse 5: While I am in the world, I am the light of the world. Thus, the night seems to be the time when Jesus is absent from the world between his death and resurrection, since thereafter the Spirit will be present (20:22) who will continue Jesus' work through the disciples. Through this strong warning, which regards such a limited period of time, we are led to see the enormity of the darkness of those three days in salvation history.
Thus, Jesus' somewhat cryptic statement tells us that what is about to occur is a work of God made possible because Jesus, the light of the world, is present. The glory of God continues to be manifested in Jesus' activity, as it has from the outset (2:11).
Jesus' identity is revealed by the very act of healing a blind man, for a sign of the messianic age was the healing of blindness, both physical blindness (for example, Is 35:5) and spiritual blindness (for example, Is 42:18-19; cf. Westcott 1908:2:31). It is quite striking that the only references to healing of blindness in the Bible other than in Jesus' ministry are Tobit (Tobit 2:10; 11:7-13) and Paul (Acts 9:8, 17-19). Tobit may not have actually been blind, since his loss of sight resulted from getting bird droppings in his eyes. In the case of Paul it was Jesus who both blinded and restored him. So Jesus' healing of the blind stands out as a major sign of his identity and the significance of his coming.
Although the healing reveals Jesus as Messiah, the way Jesus goes about healing suggests his identity as Messiah goes beyond anyone's conception of the Messiah. The use of saliva for medicinal purposes was common in the ancient world (Barrett 1978:358), and Jesus himself uses it in his healings at times (Mk 7:33; 8:23). Clay also could have associations with pagan healing practices, in particular with the cult of Aesculapius (Rengstorf 1968:118-19). But for the healer to make clay out of spittle and use it for healing is unusual. John emphasizes this mud in the repeated recounting of the event by the former blind man (9:6, 11, 15) and also by including it where it is unnecessary (v. 14). K. H. Rengstorf suggests that this emphasis may be intended to draw a contrast with Aesculapius, but more likely the allusion is to the biblical picture of God as a potter and human beings as clay (for example, Job 10:9; Is 45:9; 64:8; Jer 18:6; Sirach 33:13; cf. Rom 9:21). Irenaeus picks up this allusion when he interprets this story in the light of the creation of man from the ground (Gen 2:7), for "the work of God [cf. Jn 9:3] is the fashioning of man" (Against Heresies 5.15.2). Thus, "that which the artificer, the Word, had omitted to form in the womb, [namely, the blind man's eyes], He then supplied in public, that the works of God might be manifested in him" (Irenaeus Against Heresies 5.15.2). In this way Jesus revealed his own glory, "for no small glory was it that He should be deemed the Architect of the creation" (Chrysostom In John 56.2). This story illustrates the truth revealed in John's prologue that Jesus, the Word, is the one through whom all things were made, having in himself the life that is "the light of men" (1:3-4). While many modern scholars would agree with C. K. Barrett that Irenaeus's interpretation is "improbable" (Barrett 1978:358), the association with the prologue actually makes it likely--all the more so as this story follows directly Jesus' clear expression of his claim to divinity (8:58).
The healing was not effected until the man obeyed Jesus' command: Go . . . wash in the Pool of Siloam (9:7). Why didn't Jesus just heal him on the spot, as he did others? Why send a blind man, in particular, on such a journey? There must be something involved here that contributes to the revealing of God's work. Perhaps the man's obedience is significant, revealing that he shares a chief characteristic of Jesus' true disciples. Like Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5:10-14), this man obeys God's command to go and wash and is healed. Also like Naaman, he is able to bear witness to God as a result (2 Kings 5:15). But John's parenthetical note that Siloam means Sent (v. 7) suggests more than the man's obedience is involved. References to Siloah, the stream associated with the pool of Siloam (Shiloah in Gen 49:10 [NIV margin]; Shiloah in Is 8:6), were seen as messianic (Genesis Rabbah 98:8; Gen 49:10 in Targum Onqelos; b. Sanhedrin 94b; 98b). This fits with the emphasis in John's Gospel on Jesus as the one sent from the Father, including such an emphasis in the immediate context (8:16, 18, 29, 42; 10:36). Thus, both the healing itself and the details involved point to Jesus as the Messiah. Here is an example of the triumph of the light over the darkness (1:5).
Once they have established that he is indeed the blind beggar they had known, they ask the obvious question of how he came to have his sight (v. 10), and he recounts what happened (v. 11). This question will be asked four times in this story, stressing that something highly unusual has taken place, something that cannot be explained in the categories of this world (Beasley-Murray 1987:156). Unlike the man by the pool of Bethesda, this man does realize from the beginning that Jesus is the one who has healed him (v. 11; cf. 5:12-13), but he does not know where Jesus is (v. 12). This ignorance will be resolved soon enough. The deeper ignorance of the opponents, who do not know where Jesus is from (v. 30), does not improve as a result of this act of mercy and glory on Jesus' part. The man's admission of ignorance is an attribute of a true disciple, revealing him to be honest and humble. He stands in marked contrast to the Jewish opponents in this story, for they claim to know what in fact they realize they do not really know (v. 24; cf. v. 16). It is precisely this lack of integrity and self-awareness that Jesus criticizes in his conclusion to this story (vv. 39-41).
The fact that this healing took place on the sabbath is mentioned in dramatic fashion midway in the story (v. 14; so also 5:9). In healing the blind man Jesus broke the sabbath rules in several ways, at least as they appear in later texts. Healing was permitted on the sabbath since "whenever there is doubt whether life is in danger this overrides the Sabbath" (m. Yoma 8:6; cf. b. Yoma 84b-85b; Lohse 1971:14-15). But, as in the case of the man at the pool of Bethesda, Jesus again heals what is not a life-threatening condition. Furthermore, just as his command to the man to carry his mat violated sabbath rules (5:11), so now Jesus' own activity of making mud violated the prohibition of kneading on the sabbath (m. shabbat 7:2). It is possible that his use of spittle also violated sabbath rules, since later at least "painting" the eye, that is, anointing it for healing, was clearly prohibited (b. 'Aboda Zara 28b), and some included the use of spittle in this prohibition (y. 'Aboda Zara 14d; cf. Beasley-Murray 1987:156-57). Finally, it was unlawful to take a journey of more than 2,000 cubits (1,000 yards) on the sabbath (cf. m. 'Erubin 4-5). A trip to Siloam and back from the nearest wall of the temple, for example, would be about 1,300 yards. It is perhaps likely that the trip to and from Siloam was further than was allowed, though we cannot be sure since we do not know where the healing took place. Jesus may be not just breaking the sabbath, but trampling on it, at least according to the views of these Jewish opponents!
The former blind man has to tell the story a second time, this time speaking to a new audience and adding the dramatic note that it was the sabbath. The crowd had wanted to know how the healing had happened out of understandable curiosity. The Pharisees now ask the same question but with different intent, for they want to determine whether any sabbath laws have been broken. The man recounts his healing with great brevity (v. 15). Many scholars see in this brevity an exasperation with having to retell his story, but this is only the first time he has told it to these people. Perhaps he senses their displeasure and sticks to the bare facts, as peasants have a tendency to do when interrogated by the junta--not an inappropriate image for this story, as we will see.
The Pharisees are divided over the man's witness (v. 16), a common occurrence when the light shines (cf. 7:43). The division among his opponents bears witness to Jesus' identity as the light of the world (cf. Lohse 1971:28). But here the light is shining through this man's testimony, providing an example of what all disciples are to do in the future (20:21).
The Pharisees face a dilemma for Jesus' sabbath breaking suggests he is not of God whereas his extraordinary power to heal suggests he is of God. Some of the Pharisees ask, How can a sinner do such miraculous signs? (v. 16). The plural, signs, indicates a larger familiarity with Jesus' activity. Perhaps we may assume that we are hearing the voice of Nicodemus, who has already said the same thing to Jesus himself (3:2). If so, then the one who came to Jesus at night is now sticking up for him once again (7:50-51) while it is day.
Divided amongst themselves, the Pharisees ask the blind man for his opinion of Jesus, given that it was his eyes Jesus had opened (v. 17). It is ironic that these Jewish leaders, who are so proud of their possession of the law and their ability to evaluate religious claims, are asking this man for his opinion on a religious matter. The Christians in John's own day would have loved this verse, since they were being persecuted by these same authorities for their loyalty to Jesus. This scene is like an underground political cartoon that deflates the self-important persecuting officials.The man responds that Jesus is a prophet. This is true as far as it goes, though it is not in itself adequate. He clearly thinks Jesus is on the side of God, despite such supposed abuse of the sabbath. The crowd has also viewed Jesus as a prophet (7:40), as have those so misguided as to want to make Jesus king (6:14). But the Samaritan woman also held this view (4:19), and Jesus went on to lead her into a deeper understanding of himself. Jesus will lead this man in the same way.
This scene is full of tragedy, for these parents are not allowed to give thanks to God for the great thing he has done for their son. They must have agonized over his blindness and the begging he was forced into. Now he has been miraculously healed, and they must put aside the overwhelming parental joy and knuckle under to the goons from the committee for the investigation of un-Jewish activity, as it were. The parents' agony would have been very great, given the guilt over the possibility that it was their sin that had been responsible for their son's blindness. In such a situation Jesus' healing would have far-reaching implications concerning God's gracious acceptance of sinful humanity. Not only was their son released from the bondage of his blindness and its related life of begging, but they and their son would see themselves in a new relation to God. Yet they had to stifle all of these feelings of joy and gratitude when they were called in by the authorities for questioning.
The parents' fear stems from the threat that anyone who acknowl-edged that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue (9:22). Such exclusion was used in the Old Testament (Ezra 10:8), and later sources speak of different degrees of exclusion that were exercised, from a week-long exclusion from the congregation, to a thirty-day exclusion, to an unlimited exclusion from the congregation with avoidance of all contact, to an exclusion from the entire community of Israel (Schrage 1971:848-49). At the time of Jesus one of the lighter forms may have been exercised, and this continued to be the case for some time, as Paul's example indicates: he was thrown out of local synagogues (for example, Acts 13:50; cf. 1 Thess 2:14-16) but was not viewed as outcast from the people of Israel.
Later in the first century, as the gulf between followers of Jesus and the synagogue widened, the harshest form of exclusion came into force. Many scholars see this reference to being put out of the synagogue (aposynagogos poieo, v. 22; 12:42; 16:2) as reflecting changes in the synagogue liturgy late in the first century. A curse against heretics, known as the Twelfth Benediction, or the birkat ha-minim, was added to the liturgy (cf. b. Berakot 28b-29a). This is taken as a way of smoking out the Christians and thus causing the separation between church and synagogue. John is probably writing late in the first century, and although such a separation was taking place then, it is unclear whether John is referring specifically to this addition to the liturgy and whether the addition had such an intent (Robinson 1985:72-80; Beasley-Murray 1987:lxxvi-lxxviii, 153-54; Carson 1991:369-72). After a careful study William Horbury concludes that the addition "was not decisive on its own in the separation of church and synagogue, but it gave solemn liturgical expression to a separation effected in the second half of the first century through the larger group of measures to which it belongs" (Horbury 1982:61; cf. Lindars 1981:49-54). Given such separation, this story would have particular relevance for John's first readers.
Under this threat of expulsion we can see the nucleus of a community gathering around Jesus, clearly distinct from these officials who represent what emerges after A.D. 70 as official Judaism. Jesus has withdrawn from the temple (8:59), and now he is gathering a group around him over against the structures and leadership of Israel. Jesus will set this process in place as this story continues (9:35). The full expression of this split will not emerge for some years, but its seed was planted, John says, by Jesus himself.
They are being deceptive when they say, We know this man is a sinner (v. 24). Jesus has clearly broken their sabbath rules and thus could be labeled a sinner, but we have just been told they are divided over this very question (v. 16). John is showing us the deception and bullying of these ideologues who are in power. The Christians in John's day could identify with this man. Indeed, John himself had such an experience with some of these very same individuals (Acts 5:17-41). Those Christians in the world today who are persecuted for their faith can also identify with this man.
The authorities say Jesus is a sinner, but the man does not pick up on that. Instead he points to the one certain fact of the case--he was blind and now he sees (v. 25). Their supposed knowledge about Jesus is pitted against his certain knowledge of his healing. With this fact thrown in their faces again they are stymied. They can only repeat once more their questions of what happened (v. 26). They are at a loss, and the man pushes them. His reply is very cheeky: I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too? (v. 27). Here he reveals much about them and himself. They didn't listen, which Jesus has already pointed out (8:43, 47). And by asking if they want to become Jesus' disciples too he reveals that he himself has such a desire (cf. Michaels 1989:169). The man has progressed yet further in his Christology, for he here implies "that Jesus is his master" (Talbert 1992:160).
The man may simply be being cheeky when he asks whether they want to become Jesus' disciples, but in effect he is doing the work of an evangelist. Here is another offer of God's grace to those most deeply opposed to Jesus and alienated from God. In their furious reply they comment again that they are disciples of Moses (v. 28; cf. 5:45-47). The Pharisees insist that a choice must be made between being a disciple of Jesus and being a disciple of Moses, at least as they understand Moses. It is one of John's purposes to show how Moses and the Scriptures actually witness against the opponents and to Jesus (cf. 5:46). This story is preparing us for an important example of such a witness in the next chapter (10:34-36).
The Pharisees once again condemn Jesus by saying they do not know where he comes from (v. 29), a major theme of chapter 7. But now someone stands up to them and uses what they think is a charge against Jesus as a condemnation of themselves. He focuses on their ignorance. It is remarkable (v. 30) that those who know God and his ways so well would not be able to recognize one who is able to do what is unheard of--open the eyes of a man who had been blind from birth (v. 32). For a man born blind would have defective eyes, not just damaged eyes. A person born blind had no hope of sight, as this man well knew from experience. He picks up the very misgiving some of the Pharisees were having (v. 16) and drives it home: God listens to those who are godly and who do his will, not to sinners (v. 31). If this man were not from God, he could do nothing (v. 33). Earlier the man refused to say whether Jesus was a sinner (v. 25), but now he makes it very clear what he thinks.
The authorities do not deal with his argument. Instead, they cast him out, saying, You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us! (v. 34). Literally they say, "would you teach us," revealing again their unteachable spirit. Instead of facing up to the evidence the once-blind man has presented they throw back at him his blindness as evidence of his sinfulness. They refuse to entertain the possible implications of his healing, that is, that he is accepted by God. These who had asked him for his opinion earlier (v. 17) now show their true contempt for him. We get the impression that if he had gone along with them and attributed his healing to someone other than God, then they might not have thrown this in his face. But four times in this story Jesus has been referred to directly or indirectly as a sinner. This is the only place in John that this word occurs. So we have the Master referred to as a sinner and the one who confesses him suffering the same fate. Such a fate awaits all of Jesus' disciples, as he will make clear later (15:18-25). Again we see this man as a model disciple (cf. Chrysostom In John 58.3-4).
So the issue comes down to who is the real sinner, Jesus and his disciple or the Jewish authorities. The impasse these leaders face is the same that faced Saul of Tarsus when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. To accept Jesus means a complete rethinking of the law for a Pharisee. The reality of the law and the reality of Jesus come up against one another, and one of them has to budge. Jesus' approach to the law is only appropriate if he is God himself. This has been illustrated by the modern rabbi and prolific scholar Jacob Neusner. In his book A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, Neusner puts himself back in the days of Jesus and watches and listens to him as Matthew's Gospel records his life. He asks himself whether he would have been a follower of Jesus and concludes he would not. The reason is Jesus' use of the Torah. He would part from Jesus, saying, "Yours is not the Torah of Moses, and all I have from God, and all I ever need from God, is that one Torah of Moses" (Neusner 1993:3). The main problem is that "Jesus has asked for what the Torah does not accord to anyone but God" (Neusner 1993:32; cf., e.g., pp. 53, 74). Neusner illustrates that the main sticking point, as we've seen in John's Gospel, is Jesus' view of himself.
With these implications regarding the law this story continues the development of the theme in chapter 5 that the law bears witness to Jesus. In chapters 6--8 we find Jesus replacing the temple and its festivals with himself. Now we see that the law as regulation is also superseded in Jesus. "The Law in condemning Jesus had condemned itself (Gal. 3.10-14); this theme forms the theological basis of the present chapter. The Law condemns itself, and so do its exponents, when they try and condemn Jesus" (Barrett 1978:362). Here is the great divide between Jesus and his Jewish opponents, with each side claiming loyalty to the Torah rightly interpreted.
On the surface this story may look like a showdown between personal experience and Scripture, but it is more complicated than that. The man's statement that if Jesus were not from God, he could do nothing (v. 33) is not true, strictly speaking. The works of the Egyptian magicians show as much (Ex 7:11, 22; 8:7). Indeed, Jesus warns against false Christs and false prophets who "will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect" (Mt 24:24) and speaks of those who prophesy in his name, cast out demons in his name and do many mighty works in his name, whom he does not know at all (Mt 7:22-23). So much for experience being an infallible guide! But then the Scriptures, in and of themselves, are not an infallible guide either, as the example of the Jewish opponents reveal. It depends on one's interpretation. The Christian claim is that the Scriptures are an organic whole that make sense when interpreted in the light of Jesus the Christ under the guidance the Spirit has provided the church (Jn 14:26; 15:26). The bottom line is that we need God to guide our understanding of both the Scripture and our experience. Once again we see the importance of humility and openness to God as a core attribute of true discipleship. If the opponents of Jesus had really been loyal to God, open to him and holding to his truth, then they would have been able to see him when he came, as did Nathanael, the true Israelite (1:45-49).
The man responds in a way that reveals his desire to believe (v. 36). He does not ask what the Son of Man is, he asks who he is. Belief is not merely an intellectual assent to a proposition, but an attachment of trust to an individual as the one who comes from God. Such an expression of a "longing and inquiring soul" (Chrysostom In John 59.1) does not go unanswered any more than the openness and desire of the Samaritan woman did (4:25-26). Jesus responds, You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you (v. 37), a particularly poignant way of speaking to one who has only been able to see anything at all for a very short time. Here is a crucial step in the development of this relationship: Jesus has cured him and found him, but he now reveals something of his identity to the man. The man has spoken of Jesus as a prophet (v. 17), but will the man accept Jesus on Jesus' own terms? True faith requires such a humble acceptance, as John emphasizes throughout this Gospel.
The man responds with faith: Then the man said, "Lord, I believe," and he worshiped him (v. 38). The word for Lord (kyrios) could simply mean "sir," (cf. 4:11; 12:21). Likewise, the word for worshiped (proskyneo) means to fall down and do homage to either God or a human being (Greeven 1968:758-63), and thus could refer to homage due to a man of God rather than God himself. But H. Greeven has argued that the word is always used in the New Testament for adoration of "something--truly or supposedly--divine" (Greeven 1968:763). Certainly the other uses in John signify worship of God (4:20-24; 12:20). Jesus has been presented in divine categories with increased emphasis at the end of chapter 8. But the title "Son of Man" would not convey such a notion in Jewish ears. So while the language used in the man's response to Jesus continues the presentation of the man as a model disciple, it is unclear how much of all this he grasped at the time. He has been progressing as a true disciple, moving from knowledge of Jesus' name (v. 11), to confession of him as a prophet (v. 17), to bearing witness that Jesus is one come from God (v. 33) and finally to accepting his claim to be the Son of Man (vv. 35-38; cf. Brown 1966:377; Westcott 1908:2:37). So even if he does not understand the full significance of his confession and homage to Jesus, he is accepting Jesus on Jesus' own terms and thus placing himself in the position to receive further revelation and grow in his understanding of Jesus and his relationship with him. None of the disciples have understood with any real depth the identity of Jesus or the nature of the salvation he brings. But here in this former blind man we have the anticipation of Thomas' dramatic confession of Jesus as Lord and God (20:28).
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.
Jesus Forms a Community Around Himself Over Against Official Judaism
About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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