When the Jewish authorities put the "how" question to the man himself they get a very different response than they got from the parents, and the fur flies. They begin their interrogation on a solemn, formal note: Give glory to God (v. 24). This is not an invitation to sing a hymn of praise for his healing! The expression means the man is being exhorted to confess his guilt (cf. Josh 7:19; m. Sanhedrin 6:2). The man has told them the truth, but they don't really want the truth, they want their own answer. These people, whom Jesus called liars (8:55), are trying to force this man to lie, and they are doing so in the name of truth. (Double talk is not an invention of the twentieth century.) The terms they use are full of irony. These people who care only for the glory of men, not God (12:43; cf. 5:44), are telling him to give glory to God. They are demanding that he give glory to God by confessing his sin, but the man has given glory to God by bearing witness to Jesus.
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).
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