Jesus, taking the initiative, notices a man blind from birth. It is not said how Jesus and his followers know that he has been blind from birth. Perhaps the Lord knew preternaturally, or maybe he simply asked him. Once this information is known the disciples treat the man's condition as a theological problem. People commonly assumed that disease and disorders on both the personal and national level were due to sin, as summarized in the rabbinic saying from around A.D. 300 that "there is no death without sin and there is no suffering without iniquity" (b. shabbat 55a). But the case of a person born blind raises the question of whose sin caused this condition, that of his parents or of the person himself while in the womb. The idea that the parents' sins can affect their children finds support in the Old Testament itself (Ex 20:5), as does its antithesis (Ezek 18:20). Likewise the rabbis debated whether fetuses could sin, some arguing they could (for example, Genesis Rabbah 63:6) and others that they could not (Genesis Rabbah 34:10). Obviously, such issues were matters of debate within Judaism (cf. Schrage 1972:290-91), including the time during Jesus' ministry, as our text indicates.
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).