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
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
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
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;
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"
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:
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.
- The demoniac at Capernaum (Mk.l :23).
- Peter's mother-in-law (Mk.l
- The man with the withered hand (Mt.12:10).
- The paralytic at
Bethesda (Jn.5 :10).
- The man born blind (Jn.9:14).
- The women eighteen
years bowed down (Lk.13 16).
- The man with the dropsy
"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,
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
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"
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"
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
'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
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
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
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.