Interpretation 9

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  Copyright © 2001 Jeanie C. Crain
Last modified: March, 2002

   John 9

    In John 9, linking back to chapters seven and eight describing Jesus as the bread of life and the living water, Jesus now becomes  light of the world

4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world."

Jesus again confronts the legalities of the law where those looking at a blind man suffering can only wonder what sin of his or his parents reduced him to this state. Jesus quickly explains, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him" (3). Jesus immediately acts, restoring sight to the suffering blind man. When the blind man departs to wash in the pool of Siloam as instructed and returns, the crowd questions whether he is the man they've seen since his birth begging.  Neighbors and those who have seen him before question this miracle of healing. The ever watchful religious community, more concerned about ritual observance than healing, point out the law has been broken by this healing on the abbath (16). Even the blind man, contributing to the continuing controversy about identity, replies to questioning that Jesus is a prophet: he said, "He is a prophet" (17). In an almost humorous turn of events, the Pharisees question the man's parents about this miracle, who tell them to ask the son himself, since he's old enough to be responsible:

 20 His parents answered, "We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself." 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus † to be the Messiah † would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, "He is of age; ask him."

Yet a second time, they call the blind man to account for the healing, and the blind man turns the tables on them:

25 He answered, "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." 26 They said to him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?" 27 He answered them, "I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?"

The question asked goes to the heart, but the Pharisees, in the face of miracle, cling to the law:

 28 Then they reviled him, saying, "You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from." 

The now healed blind man replies in an almost taunting way:

30 The man answered, "Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." 

The only face-saving response must bes ridicule:

34 They answered him, "You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?" And they drove him out.

Fortunately, Jesus concentrates on the individual and healing; knowing they have driven the blind man out, Jesus goes in search of the individual; his purpose, the divine purpose, continues to unfold as God's extended grace:

35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" 

Confronted individually, the blind man asks a question of identity, continuing the discussing of chapter eight:

 36 He answered, "And who is he, sir? † Tell me, so that I may believe in him." 

Jesus responds immediately to the seeing blind man:

37 Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he." 38 He said, "Lord, † I believe." And he worshiped him.

The chapter rounds out theologically:

 39 Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" 41 Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

The irony of the blind seeing and the seeing being blind translates in John into two ways of seeing.

    One issue that continues to confront students of the Bible and all of us everyday can be described as simple reductionism: old versus new, Judaism against Christianity. John never should be read so simplistically, and certainly not Jesus. In fact, a number of simple parallelisms begin to evolve--old, new; Judaism, Christianity; bread, satiation of hunger; water, satiation of thirst; darkness, light: located temple, temple mobile with us, and so forth:

Jesus has just revealed himself as the light of the world and has passed judgment on the leaders among the Jews and, indeed, on the temple itself (chap. 8). Now he heals a man born blind, thus giving a sign that bears witness to his claim to be the light of the world. He also continues to condemn the opponents by accusing them of being blind spiritually, a far worse condition than the physical blindness of the man he has healed.

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Another parallelism can be seen in temple versus synagogue (Intervarsity Commentary):

In the midst of these continuing themes a new element is added. When the Jewish authorities cast the healed blind man out of the synagogue, Jesus begins to form a body of disciples that are clearly separate from the synagogue. Thus the break between Jesus and the Jewish authorities (chap. 8) is now seen to characterize his followers also.

Most importantly, John controls theology:

This separation brings to a head the crisis that has been building for several chapters. Chapter 5 revealed Jesus as the true referent of the law, while chapters 6 through 8 showed Jesus to be the fulfillment of Judaism as represented by its feasts and temple. Now Jesus is forming a new community apart from the institutions of Judaism, with himself as its center and guide. Thus, the story of the man born blind provides a sign regarding not only Jesus, but also his opponents and the community of those believing in Jesus. All three of these themes are continued in chapter 10, when Jesus teaches that he is the Good Shepherd in contrast to the evil shepherds who have gained power in Jerusalem. In a climactic confrontation at the end of chapter 10 Jesus declares that the Jewish opponents are not members of his flock. He concludes with a clear claim to a unique oneness with God, and he grounds that claim in the Scriptures. This forms the culmination of his public ministry and prepares for the greatest of his signs--the raising of Lazarus--and the fulfillment of all the signs in his own death, resurrection and ascension (Intervarsity Commentaries).

John Darby in his commentary points out what the reader recognizes instinctively; John gives us an individual in our world acting, God come down:

In chapter 9 we come to the testimony of His works, but as down here as a man in lowliness. It is not the Son of God quickening whom He will as the Father, but by the operation of His grace down here, the eye opened to see in the lowly man the Son of God. In chapter 8 it is that which He is towards men; in chapter 9 it is that which He does in man, that man may see Him. Thus we shall find Him presented in His human character, and (the word being received) acknowledged to be the Son of God; and in this way the remnant separated, the sheep restored to the good Shepherd. He is the light of the world while He is in it; but where, through grace received in His humiliation, He communicated the power to see the light, and to see all things by it.

Essentially, Jesus in the world acting, in this case, healing on the sabbath, gives rise to the theological questions of sin and its consequences, God's grace and its relation to work and rest, and finally, judgment. John Darby summarizes the sin argument and concludes that blindness offers opportunity for grace:

Chapter 9 opens with the case of a man that gives rise to a question from the disciples, in relation to the government of God in Israel. Was it his parents' sin that brought this visitation on their child, according to the principles God had given them in Exodus? Or was it his own sin, known to God though not manifested to men, that had procured him this judgment? The Lord replies, that the man's condition did not depend on the government of God with respect to the sin either of himself or of his parents. His case was but the misery which gave room for the mighty operation of God in grace. It is the contrast that we have continually seen; but here it is in order to set forth the works of God.

The theological debate centers on the cause of sin:

People commonly assumed that disease and disorders on both the personal and national level were due to sin, as summarized in the rabbinic saying from around A.D. 300 that "there is no death without sin and there is no suffering without iniquity" (b. shabbat 55a). But the case of a person born blind raises the question of whose sin caused this condition, that of his parents or of the person himself while in the womb. The idea that the parents' sins can affect their children finds support in the Old Testament itself (Ex 20:5), as does its antithesis (Ezek 18:20). Likewise the rabbis debated whether fetuses could sin, some arguing they could (for example, Genesis Rabbah 63:6) and others that they could not (Genesis Rabbah 34:10). Obviously, such issues were matters of debate within Judaism (cf. Schrage 1972:290-91), including the time during Jesus' ministry, as our text indicates (Intervarsity Commentary, Bible Gateway)

According to Intervarsity, Jesus shifts the focus the purpose "that the work of God might be displayed" (3). Notes to the New Oxford Annotated Bible agree that the shift is to God's purpose:

9.1–41: Jesus manifests himself as the light of life. 2–3: Suffering was attributed to sin, either of the parents or of the man prenatally. Jesus denies this and shifts attention from cause to purpose; this is an opportunity for God to act. 

God's purpose reveals itself in Jesus, the light of the world, acting to bring divine grace and mercy, but also judgment, for the light reveals all works and their nature:

 Jesus said he does what he sees the Father doing, which includes in particular giving life and judging (5:19-30). Both features are evident here. In giving sight to his man Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah who brings the new quality of life that the prophets promised, seen now in terms of a relationship with himself. He brings light into this man, both physically and spiritually. In the conflict that erupts as a result of this act of divine grace and mercy, the other aspect of the coming of the light, judgment, is also clearly seen...

Jesus' purpose is to "work the works of him who sent me while it is day" with the sober reminder that "night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world" (4,5).

As always with John, narrative is the foundation for building theology, a consistent theology from the prologue until the final conclusion where Jesus' actions unite to bring individuals "to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, [they]you may have life in his name" (20:30). The Intervarsity Commentary explains Jesus' healing in chapter nine as exactly this revelation of his messianic identity:

Although the healing reveals Jesus as Messiah, the way Jesus goes about healing suggests his identity as Messiah goes beyond anyone's conception of the Messiah. The use of saliva for medicinal purposes was common in the ancient world (Barrett 1978:358), and Jesus himself uses it in his healings at times (Mk 7:33; 8:23). Clay also could have associations with pagan healing practices, in particular with the cult of Aesculapius (Rengstorf 1968:118-19). But for the healer to make clay out of spittle and use it for healing is unusual. John emphasizes this mud in the repeated recounting of the event by the former blind man (9:6, 11, 15) and also by including it where it is unnecessary (v. 14). K. H. Rengstorf suggests that this emphasis may be intended to draw a contrast with Aesculapius, but more likely the allusion is to the biblical picture of God as a potter and human beings as clay (for example, Job 10:9; Is 45:9; 64:8; Jer 18:6; Sirach 33:13; cf. Rom 9:21). Irenaeus picks up this allusion when he interprets this story in the light of the creation of man from the ground (Gen 2:7), for "the work of God [cf. Jn 9:3] is the fashioning of man" (Against Heresies 5.15.2). Thus, "that which the artificer, the Word, had omitted to form in the womb, [namely, the blind man's eyes], He then supplied in public, that the works of God might be manifested in him" (Irenaeus Against Heresies 5.15.2). In this way Jesus revealed his own glory, "for no small glory was it that He should be deemed the Architect of the creation" (Chrysostom In John 56.2). This story illustrates the truth revealed in John's prologue that Jesus, the Word, is the one through whom all things were made, having in himself the life that is "the light of men" (1:3-4). While many modern scholars would agree with C. K. Barrett that Irenaeus's interpretation is "improbable" (Barrett 1978:358), the association with the prologue actually makes it likely--all the more so as this story follows directly Jesus' clear expression of his claim to divinity (8:58).

    Chapter nine in John reveals as well as any chapter in this gospel the importance of reading far beyond the literal into the symbolic. On the literal level, the reader encounters a man blind from birth; on a symbolic level, Jesus addresses spiritual blindness and reveals that those who claim to see (know) really are the spiritually blind. Reading symbolically, the reader quickly realizes that physical blindness describes the condition of humankind apart from divine intervention. Thus, blindness (our physical nature) becomes the very condition for the exacting of grace.  Prosper Grech in the Oxford Companion provides the careful connotations of blindness that will allow the reader to move from just literal meanings to symbolic application:

Blindness. Due to several causes, blindness was common in the ancient world. The blind were one of the groups to whom special protection was due; it was true piety to help them (Job 29.15) and a severe violation to mislead them (Leviticus 19.14; Deuteronomy 27.18). Blindness was a ritual blemish: the blind could not function as priests (Leviticus 21.18), nor could blind animals be offered in sacrifice (Leviticus 22.22; Deuteronomy 15.21; Malachi 1.8). Although blindness was attributed to various physical causes, including old age (1 Kings 14.4; cf. Genesis 27.1; Deuteronomy 34.7) and trauma (Tobit 2.10), it could be interpreted as divine punishment (Deuteronomy 28.28; John 9.2). In the Gospels, healing the blind is one of the characteristic activities of Jesus (Matthew 9.27–30 par.; Matthew 11.5; Matthew 21.14; Mark 8.22–25; John 9.1–7), and it was interpreted as a messianic sign (Matthew 11.4 par.; Luke 4.18–21; see Isaiah 35.5; Isaiah 61.1–2).

Blindness is also used metaphorically throughout the Bible. Isaiah 6.9 is a classical illustration, taken up repeatedly in the New Testament (Matthew 13.13–15 par.; John 12.39–41; Acts 28.26–27). The Pharisees are denounced in Matthew 15.14 as "blind guides of the blind" (cf. John 9.40–41), but for the author of the gospel of John, Jesus is the "light of the world" (John 8.12), that helps the blind see but can also blind the sighted (John 9.39).

The condition of the blind man is, in fact,  the condition of every human being, as explained by the Intervarsity Commentary on John:

Every human being is in the condition of this man spiritually--born blind and in need of enlightenment. ..


This coming to faith is the crucial point of this story. In the physical healing of the man's eyes we see the agent of creation at work within his world. But the even more astounding work takes place as Jesus leads the man to faith in himself, for this is not just a creative work on the man's body, but the bringing of that essential life that was lost in Eden. That life had existed by virtue of the relationship of intimacy between Creator and created, and now in this man's worship of God in Jesus we see the return to the proper relationship that had been severed by the rebellion. The worship of the man who has found God in Christ is his entrance into eternal life (17:3)