Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

124. Born Blind - The Meaning of the Miracle (John 9)

The story of the healing of the blind man is marvellously impressive in itself, but to concentrate on exciting details and graphic delineation of character may mean missing the deeper truths.

The record seems to imply that Jesus paused deliberately to contemplate the blind man as he sat begging, considering the problem which his sad plight presented and also the opportunity of witness which it afforded. One of the twelve, alert to an opportunity of enlightenment, put the problem to Jesus point-blank: "Who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?"

There was here an implied assumption that this affliction must surely be an expression of God's displeasure at some outstanding act of sin. There are examples enough in the Old Testament to encourage such an interpretation. The deaths of Nadab and Abihu, of Achan, of Uzzah, the stroke afflicting king Jeroboam, the leprosy of Gehazi—all of these were open expressions of the wrath of God. So it could happen again. Indeed, whenever any servant of God finds himself smitten with some special affliction he should contemplate the possibility that this might be the explanation of his own suffering (but it is not permissible for others to canvass such a possibility regarding him!).

Much ridiculous speculation is to be found in me commentaries as to how, in the thinking of the disciples, the blind man could be deemed to have sinned in some special way before he was born. Attempts have been made to demonstrate that the rabbis had theories about transmigration of souls (with this life penalised according to the quality of the existence that has preceded it), and even about the possibility of sin in the months before birth. There is precious little likelihood that the disciples, having spent nearly three years in the company of Jesus, would have much sympathy for such stupidities.


It has been suggested that the disciples' point, that blindness from birth might be a punishment for he man's own sin, was their way of expressing what they believed to be the absurdity of seeking any cause-effect link between sin and suffering. A kind of reductio ad absurdum. Much more probable is the explanation put forward by R.R. in "Nazareth Revisited" (p.216b) that they considered the possibility of God's foreknowledge anticipating some outstanding sin in the man's life and also anticipating its needful punishment.

The alternative, that God was visiting "the iniquity of the fathers on the children" is a commonplace notion. Hardly anyone goes through life without being made to contemplate this possibility, in the experience of others if not of self. Life presents enough examples of people being born with congenital defects which are traceable to the sin of a parent for anyone to wonder if this is the meaning of the second commandment. Yet there is also the evident discordance of such a view with the familiar words of Ezekiel: "The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son" (18:20; cp.Jer.31:30).

Again, it is not out of the question that the sin of the parents which the disciples had in mind, was the Fall in Eden.

So there were, and still remain, complexities enough about this problem of human suffering.

Regarding this particular case the interpretation given by Jesus was fairly explicit: "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but (this affliction is his from birth) that the works of God should be made manifest in him." In two other instances—the man healed at Bethesda (Jn. 5:13), and the paralytic let down through the roof (Lk. 5:20)—Jesus had clearly implied that suffering was a direct punishment for the sin of the individual. Here now was his warning against the facile assumption that this was the simple explanation of all such problems. In some instances, yes, but in others—the present being one of them—the specific divine intention was "a shewing forth of the Works of God."

"For the glory of God"

Jesus had already used this expression in two different senses, and in the healing of the blind man both were valid. "The works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do, bear witness of me, that the Father hath sent me" (Jn.5 :36). Similarly, concerning the death of Lazarus: "This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby" (11 :4). But/in a very different sense: "This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent" (Jn.6:29).

In the giving of sight to this blind beggar both principles were to be very evident. Jesus put the emphasis on the former: "I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh when no man can work." These are remarkable words to be spoken on a sabbath. They can only mean that whatever is done on a sabbath with the intention of glorifying God is not a "work" of the kind God's sabbath law proscribed. Jesus tried to teach this wider view choosing the sabbath for at least seven miracles of healing:

  1. The demoniac at Capernaum (Mk.l :23).
  2. Peter's mother-in-law (Mk.l :29).
  3. The man with the withered hand (Mt.12:10).
  4. The paralytic at Bethesda (Jn.5 :10).
  5. The man born blind (Jn.9:14).
  6. The women eighteen years bowed down (Lk.13 16).
  7. The man with the dropsy (Lk.l4:l).
By "the night, when no man can work" Jesus probably meant the end of his ministry. There was only a limited time—an appointed time-available to him, so an obligation lay on him to use to fullest advantage the duration of opportunity for appeal to the people of God.

"Whenever (this is what the Greek really says) I am in the world, I am the light of the world." Did Jesus mean: "Whenever I am in Jerusalem, the centre of the Jewish kosmos?" His figure of speech was doubtless intended in a double sense—as giving sight to the spiritually blind, and also providing the daylight of the New Creation (Gen.1:3,4; and consider v4, 6, 16d here).

In the last week of his ministry he employed lie same figure with reference, not to his opportunity to bring conviction to the people but to their opportunity to make up their minds about him: "Yet a little while is the light with you. Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you" (Jn.12 :35; cp. Ecc.9 :10).

Light from the prophets

Just as the sun's course in the heavens is for a set time, so also he had now little time left to him in which to bring the light of life to this people walking in darkness (11:9,19; 12 :35,36; Ecc9:10). The recent attempt to stone him (8:59) y sounded in the mind of Jesus a note of urgency. In their blindness and wilful disregard of the call of Christ, Israel had become a nation of Gentiles. This idea is certainly behind the symbolism of Christ's mode of healing. In the Old lestament spitting is an expression of contempt, reprobation or disgust (Num. 12:14; Dt. 25:9; Is. 50:6; Mt.26:67).

The daubing of the eyes with clay enacted the prophecy of Isaiah 44. After his long derisive description of the futility of a false religion (44:9-17), the prophet continues: "They have not Blown nor understood: for he daubed their eyes that they cannot see." (The word "know" comes 13 times in John 9:12-10:5).

Isaiah 29 has the same theme. After a trenchant denunciation of Israel, which Jesus had already used with vigour against the blind leaders of the nation (29:13 = Mt. 15 :8,9), there comes the warning: "Surely your turning of things upside down shall be esteemed as the potter's clay" (v.16); so I (the Lord) will turn things upside down—Israel shall be cast off, and the Gentiles accepted: "Is it not yet a very little while, and (Gentile) Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field (Israel) shall be counted for a (wild unfruitful) forest? And in that day ... the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity, and out of darkness" (v.17,18).

Nor is this the only prophetic testimony of this kind: "I the lord . . . will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles; to open the blind eyes . . . And I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not; I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight..." (42 :6,7,16).

Even the rough treatment meted out to the blind man is anticipated in Isaiah: "Your brethren that hated you, that cast you out for my name's sake, have said, Let the Lord be qlorified. But he shall appear to your joy, and they shall be ashamed" (66:5).

By the way in which he healed the blind man Jesus showed that since Israel were become as blind as Gentiles, the Gentiles also were to be offered the gospel on the same terms as Israel. This explains the use of the waters of Siloam. Zechariah had foretold the opening of a fountain of waters in Jerusalem for the cleansing of the sin of Israel (13 :1). But his next prophecy tells of living waters that shall go out from Jerusalem, east and west, to the nations of the world, "and the Lord shall be king over all the earth" (14:8,9).

Miracle symbolism

These prophecies are matched by Christ's symbolic acts of healings in Jerusalem. The cure of the paralytic at the waters of Bethesda has already been expounded (Study 37) as a sign of the Lord's redemption of Israel bound under the Law. And now the waters of Siloam heal the one who pre-figures the blindness of the Gentiles. Both of these were described by Jesus as "the works of him that sent me"(5 :36; 9:3,4). It is not for nothing that John records the blind man's emphatic pronouncement: "He is a prophet" (v.17).

It has already been observed that the three miracles of Jesus worked at a distance—the nobleman's son, the Syro-Phoenician woman's daughter, and the centurion's servant—were all for the benefit of Gentiles. But now the blind man, healed at Siloam when Jesus was no longer with him appears not to fall into the same pattern, for he was undoubtedly a Jew. Nevertheless, in all other respects this man presents a graphic picture of Gentile redemption, as will be demonstrated by and by. The close parallel with the healing of Gentile Naaman has often been commented on (2 Kgs 5). Also, this is the only known example of Jesus healing a congenital disability. The nation of Israel can hardly be described as "blind from birth," but this description is apt enough with respect to the Gentiles. More that this, does not the phrase: "which is by interpretation"(v.7) suggest pointed application to Gentiles? What Jew should need to be told the meaning of "Siloam"?

The details of the cure suggest a New Birth. The making of clay recalls the fashioning of the first man (Gen. 2:7; cp. Job 4:19; 10:9). And the elaborate details with which John reports the neighbours' excited discussion as to whether this really was "he that sat and begged" is surely designed to present a picture of one so changed that he is a New Man!

The details with which the miracle is introduced open the way for a parabolic interpretation of the rest. There was an attempt to take the life of Jesus, but he hid himself from them, and left them with their temple bereft of divine glory (8 :59). Then as he passed by (for Jesus had no personal mission to the Gentiles), he gave attention to the blind man, afflicted by an incurable congenital disease, he also explained the problem of his blindness, and then left him in the hands of the apostles for the completion of the cure.

'Was this man to blame for his blindness?' the disciples asked. No, but his predicament has presented a splendid opportunity for the grace of God. In the same way, ignorant Gentiles were not held responsible by God, but their very blindness became the occasion of a marvellous divine miracle of enlightenment through the ministry of the apostles. He who had begged for meagre benefactions of truth from Jews passing by now needed neither their pity nor their charity. He had all the blessings they enjoyed, and more.

It has already been suggested that the mode of cure was designed to imply a man new-born. But another essential element in the miracle was the recourse to Siloam. Not everything was done for him. He had to bestir himself to make his way to the water (cp. 2 Kgs.5 :14). He needed also the humility to accept the guidance of others who saw where he could not (Acts 8:31).

Siloam, John is careful to remind his readers, means Sent. This is significant, not because the man was sent to the pool, but because the water was regarded as sent from God (cp. "sent" in v.4). It came from the Virgin's Pool, and was only to be reached by going down into a pit as deep as the grave. To the Jews this water of Siloam was their contemporary equivalent of the smitten rock pouring forth water of life, a type of Messianic Scripture, and at the Feast of Tabernacles (Jn.7 :32) Jesus had carried over that interpretation to himself.

With the clay washed away—'putting off the body of the sins of the flesh'—the man now rejoiced in the light of life, and this on a sabbath of rest from works of his own righteousness, Indeed, he was now hardly recognizable as the same person (v.9)!

There followed much scornful treatment from Jews of the temple who despised this new-born disciple of Jesus. But it was a fine opportunity to witness concerning him, and this was used with avidity and vigour. It proved too much for those who were disciples of Moses and, intolerant, they broke off fellowship.

Some time later Jesus comes again, and for the first time the man will set eyes on his Saviour. With what gladness will he now re-affirm his faith and worship Jesus as the Lord of Glory. But those who have eyes to see, and yet refuse the authority of Jesus come under judgment-"your sin remaineth!"

Thus, here, once again, woven into the fabric of the story is the watermark of truth, the stamp of inspiration. So many of the miracles of Jesus prove to be acted parables for which coherent interpretations are possible, that no other explanation is adequate which does not concede the providential control of the events, the basic truth of the divine purpose they reveal, and the inspiration of the Book which has preserved them. All these are inextricably intertwined in the interpretation of the Lord's miracles as acted parables. This impressive example is by no means unique.

Judgment to come

The incident is rounded off with one further lesson of basic importance. Taking the mirade as his text Jesus spoke solemnly to an assembly of the Jewish leaders: "For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not (and are aware of their blindness, and would be rid of it), might see; and that they which see (that is, those who believe themselves to be already fully enlightened) might be made blind." There is such a thing as judicial blindness, inflicted by God on men rotten with self-sufficiency and without the humility to rely thankfully on the grace of God in Christ.

Some of the better-disposed Pharisees, those who were "with him," suspecting that Jesus was addressing his warning to them (as indeed he was), asked: "Are we blind also?" It was a sad but necessarily blunt reply which Jesus had to give them: "If ye were blind (and recognized the fact), ye would have no sin (for then what happened to the blind man could also happen to you); but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth." It was a strange and unhappy paradox that such hard words must be said to Pharisees who were better than the rest. Yet it was their very inclination to side with Jesus which put them in a position of special spiritual peril. They had to learn that sympathy with the work of Jesus, and being on tolerably good terms with him, was not discipleship. They could say: 'We see the truth concerning Jesus.' Therefore their sin was all the more marked, because they held off from committing themselves to open and complete allegiance to him.

This incident is of special value in its bearing on the Bible's doctrine of responsibility. When a man reaches the point of recognizing that "This is the Truth in Christ," this is also the point at which he says: "I see." It is then that his sin remains if he continues to rob Christ of the loyalty due to him.

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