John 9:1-41 – The man born blind

(These notes were prepared for a series of studies on John’s gospel, given in Pretoria in 2008 & 2009.)
In light of our previous teaching, let us now look in more detail at chapter 9:

JN 9:1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. 4 As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

As we saw previously, the sin of Adam is the ultimate cause of every disease and Jesus healed as a sign that the way of forgiveness and reconciliation was being revealed through him. The link between sin and disease was common knowledge among the Jews, and also that it was stated in the Law, that God visits the sins of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children through the generations. Their question was thus quite legitimate. Jesus in his response is not suggesting that this man and his ancestors were free of sin, but rather that it was not on account of any particular sin that he was born blind. He was born blind in order for God to be glorified through him. (Let each of us consider our own defects and adverse circumstances as a similar opportunity!)

‘As long as it is day …’. Jesus is explaining why he would do his next work of healing on this festive Sabbath, the eight day of Tabernacles, when it was known by all that it was forbidden by Rabbinical law. The cross of Calvary was already in view, and Jesus’ time was running out. He had to do his work when the opportunity arose. His encounter with this blind man presented him with the opportunity to show God’s mercy in healing, but more importantly on account of the day, to confront the Pharisees head on.

To the Sabbath commandment in Moses, the rabbis had added no less than 1500 obligatory rules. These can be found in the Mishna in the section Moed and in the Talmudic tractate Shabbat. (Alfred Edersheim gives a useful overview in Annexure 17 toThe Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.)

Of greatest relevance to the present circumstance are the following rules:

  • An outright prohibition against healing, except if the person’s life was in danger.
  • For this reason, a prohibition on the healing of a blind man – since blindness was not life-threatening and so the healing could always wait for the next day (tractate Shabbat 108.20).
  • To inject or apply any substance into the person’s eye was considered an act of healing and thus prohibited on the Sabbath (tractate Shabbat 108.20).
  • It was also prohibited to knead things together, i.e. mix clay (tractate Shabbat 7.1).

By healing this man, Jesus would not only restore his sight, but simultaneously demonstrate the Pharisees’ blindness. This he did by deliberately doing this great work of God in a way that offended against all their above-mentioned rules.

JN 9:6 Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7 “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.
8 His neighbours and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some claimed that he was.
Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”
But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”
10 “How then were your eyes opened?” they demanded.
11 He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”
12 “Where is this man?” they asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said.
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. 15 Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”
16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”
But others asked, “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” So they were divided.

Indeed, Israel would be divided on this line: Man-made religion versus the word of God.

The man was sent to the Pool of Siloam. We remember that the previous day had been the climax of the Feast, when the priests came in joyful procession to fetch water from this Pool for the water libation at the Temple. Even on this subsequent day, many thousands of pilgrims would have followed this route back and forth from the Temple. We may even speculate that many would visit again this sacred Pool which had been the focal point of the mystical ceremony of the previous day. Many would thus have witnessed a man with cakes of mud over his eyes groping his way, or being hurriedly led down this thorough-fare by the arm of a friend. Many thousands would have seen this same man, a few minutes later coming back up the same way, now without the mud and unaided by anything except the sight which he had just received, staring thus with child-like amazement at every face, every object, every detail of God’s wonderful creation which had just now become visible for the first time – while, in the highest probability, crying out the praises of God in ecstatic speech and bringing forth his exuberant testimony to His glorious mercy and mighty power.

As much as the Pharisees might have preferred to ignore this incident, which appeared to be yet another messianic sign, they were compelled by its publicity to commence yet a further investigation. The rest of the chapter contains the record of its proceedings (see verses 17-23.)

It was not for their verdict on the man who was healed, that he was brought to the Pharisees – but for their verdict on the one who healed him. Thus, when they question him a second time at verse 24, they say:

JN 9:24 “Give glory to God … We know this man is a sinner.”
25 He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”
26 Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
27 He answered, “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?”
28 Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”
30 The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. 32 Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

This simple, uneducated man, who had but recently gained his sight, could see it so clearly, while those who taught the Law would not admit it. ‘God does not listen to sinners (on the basis of Isaiah 59:2) – how then could this man heal me if he were not from God?’

Later, when he met them again:

JN 9:39 Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”
41 Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.

Jesus would repeat Isaiah’s prophetic mission, recorded in Isaiah chapter 6:8-13:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
He said, “Go and tell this people:
” `Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
Then I said, “For how long, O Lord?”
And he answered:

“Until the cities lie ruined
and without inhabitant,
until the houses are left deserted
and the fields ruined and ravaged,
until the LORD has sent everyone far away
and the land is utterly forsaken.
And though a tenth remains in the land,
it will again be laid waste.
But as the terebinth and oak
leave stumps when they are cut down,
so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”

(Isaiah 6:8-13)

Once again God would impose blindness upon this people, so that even in Messiah’s resurrection and in the miracles that followed, they would not see or understand. Again Jerusalem and the Temple and the cities of Judah would be laid waste – and after that God would have mercy and many Jews would be saved.