Summary of the Text
What does it mean to lean towards the light of Christ? What does it mean to be open to the work of God? For the Pharisee in Jesus’ time, the answer was clear: you look to the book: to the Torah, the Law, and to the prophets. But as we will see in our text, a clash is coming. A clash between the stewards of religion, and this new man, who some call a prophet, who seems to be doing works only possible with God’s help. As we will see this clash will play out in a series of meetings.
We are about to dive into a rather long passage of scripture, but as we will see, it’s a passage that really should be considered as a whole, rather than broken into smaller sections. The way it is written fits perfectly with the larger themes of John’s gospel: that is, with the krisis (decision) one must make after encountering the messiah Jesus. Will they lean towards the light? Or will they remain in the darkness of bad religion? A religion that has become so preoccupied by rules that it can’t see its own blindness-trying to accuse and condemn someone who has been blind from birth but now can see.
The irony is there for all to see: the supposed “sinful man” (remember that’s how we are introduced to the blind man) blind from birth, can now see because he has been exposed to the light: Jesus Christ. The religious leaders, on the other hand, refuse to even consider whether this act is the work of God, because it interferes with their beliefs related to the sabbath. They are blind to God’s will and blind to the light.
Preaching Angle: When are we unwilling to open our eyes to the light of Christ, just because perhaps it is coming from a different place than we are used to? The Christian’s heart ought always remain soft (while also vigilant) to God’s work in the world. Often we reject expressions of God’s presence simply because they are new or foreign or make us uncomfortable.
As we will see, John’s cast of characters each respond differently, setting off a showdown between the Jewish leaders and those who experience Jesus’ life and ministry.
Ancient Lens: What can we learn from the historical context?
When we think about the context of a passage, we often think of the original setting in which the text took place. But there is of course another contextual element that can often relate significantly to why the passage was both written down, and the specific tack the writer takes. The apostle John, who obviously wrote the fourth gospel, most likely wrote his account towards the end of the first century A.D.
The early church was quite small still at this time, and was composed of a large number of Jewish believers. At some point, the “Nazarenes” as they were derisively called, were kicked out of the synagogue and were therefore cut off from their ancestral places of worship. How do we know this? One historical document in particular, known as the “Benediction Against Heretics” explains the magnitude of the situation:
For the apostates let there be no hope and let the arrogant government be speedily uprooted in our days. Let the Nazarenes [Christians] and the Minim [heretics] be destroyed in a moment and let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the proud!
Some have argued that it is difficult to pinpoint the dating of the “Benediction” (quite a strange name for something when you think about it!) and whether it can be effectively connected to our passage. Nevertheless, it seems as though the Benediction text, along with other extra-biblical sources like Jospehus point towards Jewish Christians being in the crosshairs of Jewish leadership towards the end of the 1st Century AD.
As Dale Bruner argues in his commentary, after the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, to be banned from the synagogue was to be effectively cut off from the religious life a Jewish Christian would have experienced their entire lives previously. In such circumstances, it would make all the sense in the world for John to include this story that involves the threat of banishment from Jewish life in the synagogue (and the temple as well). For John, it would be crucial to remind the early Christians that by following Jesus, they had chosen the light over darkness, even if that somehow meant they could not worship in the broader Jewish community.
Ἰησοῦς Lens: How do we point to Jesus?
Having now explained the context in which John 9 was written, let’s focus on the miracle and the consequent encounters (there are five scenes in all) that take place in our text.
Scene 1: Jesus Heals the Blind Man (on the Sabbath):
John begins our text with a conversation that takes place as Jesus and his disciples come upon a man born blind. The disciples use the opportunity to learn more of Jesus’ theology:
His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
It’s interesting isn’t it, that they assume the man has sinned in some special sense? They don’t ask, “did the man sin?” But merely, who is the cause of the blindness? Jesus corrects them by arguing neither he nor his parents caused his blindness. How a man, who happened to be born blind, could be punished before even having the opportunity to sin, I don’t know. Perhaps the disciples were not aware that the man was blind from birth.
But this is the big question, is it not? Why do such significantly challenging and painful things happen to some of us and not others? We don’t know, and so we come up with various theodicies (theories of why suffering happens the way it does) to explain these circumstances.
And while we may scoff at the disciples for such an immature theology of suffering, we should consider that the Ten Commandments seem to imply just what they are thinking:
You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
A common-sense reading would assume that blindness since birth would be the direct result of an ancestor’s disobedience towards God and the Torah. The prophets, especially Jeremiah and Ezekiel, criticized an overly literal application of the text above. A better explanation of the punishment language in the Ten Commandments is to see the natural effects sin has from one generation to another.
Dale Bruner, again is helpful on this subject: “public fact and personal experience teach us the commonsense connection between parental behavior and childhood consequence: the crack baby, the abused child, the absentee father, and so on. But if too much is made of the parent-child connection, serious wrong is done to fair judgment.”
Bruner goes on to comment on the book of Job, which most scholars agree is one of the oldest, if not the oldest written book in the Bible. The fact that it undermines the prevailing wisdom of the time regarding “acts of God,” i.e. plagues, death, etc., should remind us that suffering is a mystery and not something to be quickly attributed to any one party.
So Jesus rejects both possibilities for being the cause of the man’s blindness, but instead he says “this happened the works of God might be displayed in him.” (9.3)
After this, it tells us that the man’s “neighbors” noticed he was no longer blind, and so they brought him to the Pharisees for interrogation. “Gee, thanks, neighbors!”
We get a glimpse of the “cheeky” personality of the man as he answers the neighbors’ questions, but only responding exactly to what they ask. He knows their motivations are to cover their own skin, not really to care about his sudden ability to see.
The neighbor’s response also gives us a picture of the communal nature of the world that Jesus inhabits. For those of us who come from an individualist culture, we wouldn’t assume there would be a role for the community if I were to suddenly be healed of my blindness. It also gives us a picture of how sin and bad religion infuse a communal society.
Preaching Angle: When I was in seminary, it often seemed like we were constantly criticizing our individualist culture, while also espousing the values of a communal one. This text demonstrates how sin can corrupt a communal culture. So it’s important to recognize that both individualist and communal cultures have their strengths and weaknesses, but, as Calvin said, everything is touched by the scourge of sin.
Scene 2:The Pharisees Interrogate the (Formerly) Blind Man:
Having been delivered to the Pharisees (the word Jews and Pharisees are used interchangeably by John in this text) by his neighbors, the man now is in the extremely uncomfortable place of having to explain how he can now see without getting on the wrong side of the religious authorities, who can make or break his life, faith, and relationship to his community at a moment’s notice.
At the heart of the conversation was whether the miracle had taken place on the sabbath. According to the strict Pharisaic rules, you could not heal by mixing saliva and mud, as Jesus had done. The text tells us that some of the Pharisees didn’t believe it possible for a man of God to heal on the sabbath.
Because of this they decided to do further research by finding the man’s parent’s to make sure that this was even possible. Ironically, John tells us “they still didn’t believe…in other words, who are the blind ones now? The irony is palpable: the Pharisees’ beliefs keep them from believing what is plain to all around them, they are the one who remain blind in response to Jesus’ miracle.
Preaching Angle: Where do we as the “religious authorities” dismiss and discount experiences of God’s work in the world?
Scene 3: The Pharisees Interrogate the Man’s Parents:
Now the man’s parents are firmly in the crosshairs of the Pharisees. How will they respond? Just like their son, they see the cost that would be associated with answering these questions in the wrong way: social and religious ostracism. So they do what many of us do when we realize we are about to get run over by a bus: we pass the buck.
Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.
In other words, we’re not dying on this hill, even though it is their own son, who must have been thrown out of their home to beg for a living, and now, having miraculously gained his sight, they continue to be unsupportive of their son.
Preaching Angle: There’s a lot of passing the buck happening in this encounter. And it’s easy for us to look down on these parents for their equivocating. But it’s important to recognize that their entire communal lives were at stake at this moment. We’re not often put in similar situations in the West, where we have to decide between our faith and our community. But this is why Jesus said, “They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother” (Luke 12:53)
Scene 4: The Pharisees Interrogate the Man Again:
Having not received the answer they want, the Pharisees return to interrogate the man formerly blind. John records them saying, “Give glory to God by telling the truth.” The phrase here is actually an oath used to get a statement from the formerly blind man (see Joshua 7:19) There’s an irony in this, as the truth (and God’s glory) is right in front of them, they are merely unwilling to accept it.
Nevertheless, the formerly blind man’s response sounds like something you might hear at a revival, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (vs.25) These powerful words will, of course, be picked up by John Newton in his classic hymn “Amazing Grace.”
At this point, the full weight of the man’s cheekiness comes to the fore as he says to them:
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?
Clearly meant as a barb against the religious authorities, the man is unwilling to bend the truth to fit the preconceived notions of how God works in our lives. Of course, this is an important reminder for those of us who continue the Christian faith.
After the man’s cheeky response, more insults are leveled by the leaders toward the blind man. “We know you are a sinner!” they proclaim. “Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind.” (vs.33) Interestingly this is true, with all the miracles performed in the Old Testament, there isn’t one case of someone with congenital blindness being healed. Instead of seeing this as an example of God’s “glory,” the religious leaders see it as proof that it’s not possible.
Ultimately, the leaders throw the man out of the synagogue, cutting him off from the place where he (most likely) has worshiped God his entire life. And while this must have been painful, he can’t deny that his life changed radically by his encounter with Jesus.
Preaching Angle: What are we willing to give up for the sake of the gospel? Are we ready to lose our place in society, in our communities, if need be?
Scene 5: Jesus meets with the (formerly blind) man
Having heard the punishment enacted by the Pharisees, Jesus sought after the man he had previously healed. Jesus, always looking at the heart, begins their encounter with a question. Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man’s response keeps in common some of his “know-nothing” personality we already experienced with the Pharisees:
Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.
Why didn’t he just say it’s you? Perhaps this man has learned from a life of pain as someone far down the social/political totem pole that it’s best to let your superiors tell you the answer rather than give it yourself. Even if he assumed it was Jesus, he may be simply continuing his self-preservation, as he knows all too well that a person with little power can become a tool or a prop for someone else.
The good news is, the man doesn’t stay there, hedging his bets to keep the peace. Once Jesus identifies as the Son of Man, John tells us the man confessed belief in Him and “worshiped him.”
Jesus uses this opportunity to comment: the kingdom’s upside-down ethics will make the blind see and the sighted blind.
Preaching Angle: Where are we currently blind to God’s work in the world? Where do we clearly see His presence at work?
Modern Lens: How does this touch our heart, life, emotions, thoughts, and relationships today?
John 9:1-41 is a fascinating text, whose themes continue to resonate down to today. People continue to believe in simplistic theodicies, in which those who experience significant suffering are somehow cursed by God. The pain of these experiences alone can feel overwhelming, but bad theology heaped upon significant challenges is unnecessary at best and abusive at worst.
At the same time, many Christians are not well-versed in the Bible, and they see cause and effect in one area of life and apply the same principle to God. For those of us privileged to shepherd a flock, we have the opportunity to both teach from the pulpit and in one-on-one situations that it is dangerous, if not heretical to assume we know why certain tragedies strike.
The major theme of this text has to do with sight and blindness. John imaginatively re-tells the story of the blind man with the intention of drawing his readers/listeners in to see the irony of a blind man who has more vision than the religious leaders of his day. These same leaders are so blinded by their beliefs that they can’t experience “the glory of God” made manifest in the healing of a blind man.
Sometimes God works in ways we may initially find hard to believe. Throughout each of the gospels, Jesus’ kingdom message upends our conventional religious beliefs. How many of us have done the same?
How many of us deny God’s presence in situations because they don’t conform with our experiences? This is natural, but passages like this one are a stark reminder that a religious person has a spectacular ability to ignore the light of the gospel even when it’s as bright as a miracle being performed in our midst. So may we be more like the blind man, aware of his lack of sight, than the religious leader unwilling to even consider God’s work in and amongst us.
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
There’s none so blind as they that won’t see.
Blind in heart since my birth, I come to you, Light of the World…Let me live as a child of light.
Source Unknown, Aveugle de Coeur
Spiritual Blindness in The Magician’s Nephew
Jesus is clear that it is dangerous to close one’s ears, eyes, and heart to the leading of the Holy Spirit. In The Magician’s Nephew, a novel from C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, Narnia is created when Aslan—the lion who represents Jesus—sings it into being. The creation song reveals Aslan’s majesty and glory. It is a grand “call to worship!” But there is one, Uncle Andrew, who refuses to hear it, and the consequences are staggering:
When the great moment came and the beast spoke, he missed the whole point for a rather interesting reason. When the lion had first begun singing, long ago when it was still quite dark, he had realized that the noise was a song. And he had disliked the song very much. It made him think and feel things he did not want to think and feel.
Then, when the sun rose and he saw that the singer was a lion (“only a lion,” as he said to himself) he tried his hardest to make himself believe that it wasn’t singing and never had been singing—only roaring as any lion might in a zoo in our own world.
“Of course it can’t really have been singing,” he thought, “I must have imagined it. I’ve been letting my nerves get out of order. Who ever heard of a lion singing?” And the longer and more beautifully the lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring.
Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. Uncle Andrew did. He soon did hear nothing but roaring in Aslan’s song. Soon he couldn’t have heard anything else even if he had wanted to. And when at last the lion spoke and said, “Narnia awake,” he didn’t hear any words: he heard only a snarl. And when the beasts spoke in answer, he heard only barkings, growlings, bayings, and howlings.”
C.S. Lewis, The Magicians Nephew, HarperCollins.