John 9

The Man Blind from Birth

One thing I do know. I was blind, but now I see.—John 9:25, NIV

Richard Doctor1

Poised between awe and horror the hastily assembled council of the temple in Jerusalem was facing a dilemma. Surely only the Messiah could heal blindness. How could it be that blindness was just healed at the hands of Jesus?

The healing of blindness as a demonstration of Messianic power may well have been in our Lord’s planning as he led his disciples to the feast of tabernacles. This festival stood as the crowning celebration of the Jewish agricultural year. During the final autumn of Jesus’ human life he took the occasion to depart from the ­relative security in “Galilee of the Gentiles” to go up to Jerusalem. All of God’s promises are sure, and in some measure the immutable promise of blindness turned to sight that opens Isaiah’s prophecy of kingdom blessings called for a partial demonstration: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing” (Isaiah 35:5,6).


Already the gospel forewarns us that “he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him” (John 7:1). But as Jesus taught in the temple in Jerusalem, he had numerous supporters: “As he spoke these words many believed on him” (John 8:30). At the same time his message further polarized his adversaries—the Sanhedrin, lawyers, Pharisees and their sympathizers. Eagerly they looked for opportunities to tear into his words. They listened with the special attention that is only possible for critics as Jesus spoke of a freedom, greater than the freedom brought by Moses. This freedom would abide with those who accepted his teachings: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). His adversaries resolutely spoke of their adherence to Moses. They needed no such novel freedom.


As the exchange continued it became more intense and personal. Jesus decried the hardened hearts of Israel’s elite: “Ye are of your father the Devil” (John 8:44). In response the Jews shot back, “We know that you have a devil.”


Finally, after Jesus spoke openly of his pre- human experience—“before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:582) the dialogue ended in an attempt to foment a riot. These words provided the hoped for opportunity and some of the crowd affecting a loss of restraint sought to stone him. Jesus hid himself and, passing through their midst, escaped. Our Lord’s hour had not yet come.


What remarkable composure we witness in Jesus. He knew that as quickly as a mob’s false passions arose, they could ebb. Both Jesus and his disciples soon regathered as an organized band at the temple gate. In short order the critics, without stones for stoning, appeared. Now the Master’s awesome gaze focused on a blind man near the gate seeking alms. Jesus was about to add an epilogue to his discourse in the temple. Perhaps the man himself announced his miserable condition of blindness from birth; or possibly this was written on a placard he displayed. This pitiable circumstance, brought on by the effects of man’s fall, created an academic question for the Jews3 Tradition regarded special suffering as the necessary and immediate consequence of special sin. This seemed reasonable to the disciples. Perhaps this even seemed sanctioned by our Lord’s warnings to the paralytic he healed at the Pool of Bethesda, as well as his warning to the paralytic he healed at Capernaum. The disciples asked how this man came to be born blind? Was it because of the sins of his parents? If not, was it for his own sins? The supposition in the former case seemed hard; and in the latter, impossible! The disciples were perplexed.


In all likelihood this dialogue was not conducted in discreet whispers. Whenever the mind of an otherwise healthy adult is diminished in one of its senses, such as by the loss of eyesight, it is typical for other senses to compensate by becoming much keener. For those afflicted with blindness, it is not unusual for the sense of hearing to become acute. The unguarded and painful words of the disciples no doubt reached the ears of this man who was blind from birth. Whether these words caused anguish or not, no doubt such conversations among the temple crowds were not spoken for the first time.


What a ray of hope Jesus offered when he announced, “I am the Light of the World” (John 9:5). Neither the man’s sins, he told the disciples, nor those of his parents, were the cause of this lifelong affliction; but now, by means of it, “the works of God should be made manifest” (John 9:3).


Speaking no further words, Jesus spat on the ground, made clay with the spittle, and smearing it on the blind man’s eyes, bade him, “go wash in the Pool of Siloam.” The blind man went, washed, and was healed!


It is of small consequence that this therapeutic approach may seem repugnant to modern sensibilities even though medical research has established that healing hormones are present in saliva and that the “licking of wounds” offers more than psychological comfort. During the time of this incident the saliva of one who was fasting was believed to remedy weak eyes. Moreover, clay was occasionally used to repress tumors on the eyelids. But that both of these instruments were accepted medical practices of that era in no way detracted from the splendor of the miracle. Here more than in the parallel instances, it is not clear why our Lord, who sometimes healed by a word, preferred at other times to adopt slow and more elaborate ways to employ his miraculous power.


Jesus’ mode of action led to serious results. This man was well known in Jerusalem as a beggar born blind. Now his appearance as one who could see caused a sensation. Scarcely could those who had known him believe he was the same man. They were amazed and made him repeat again and again the story of his cure. But that story infused into their astonishment a fresh element of Pharisaic indignation, for this healing had occurred on the Sabbath. Except in cases of mortal danger the rabbis had forbidden any man to smear even one of his eyes with spittle on the Sabbath. Jesus not only smeared both the man’s eyes, but had actually mingled the saliva with clay!


Sadly, this spirit of narrow legalism, slavish minuteness, and feigned obedience to God’s law had long degraded the Sabbath from its true institution into a pernicious superstition. The Sabbath of Rabbinism, with all its petty servility, was in no respect the Sabbath of God’s loving and holy law. Our Lord’s adversaries were so imbued with this utter littleness, that even this miracle of mercy awoke in them a horror kindled by a neglect of their Sabbatical superstition rather than astonishment and gratitude. This healing, as an act of mercy, was in the deepest and in the most inward accordance with the very causes for which God had ordained the Sabbath—rest and refreshment.


Soon the man found himself facing the council. First came the repeated inquiry, “How was this thing done?” This was followed by the repeated assertion of some who held that Jesus could not be from God because he had not ­observed the Sabbath. However, even in the council there was a division. Others astutely replied that to press the charge of Sabbath-breaking, was to admit the miracle, and to admit the miracle was to establish the fact that he who performed it had great power from God if indeed not Messianic power.


Then, being confounded, they asked the blind man for his opinion of his deliverer. The man, not caught in their vicious circle of reasoning, replied with fearless promptitude, “He is a prophet.” By this time the council was anxious for any loophole by which they could deny or set aside the miracle so they sent for the man’s parents. Was this their son? And, if they asserted that he had been born blind, how was it that he now saw? Perhaps they hoped to frighten the parents into a denial of their relationship, or an admission of imposture. But the parents also cautiously clung to the irrefutable truth of the healing and answered, “This is certainly our son, and he was certainly born blind; as to the rest, we know nothing. Ask him. He is quite capable of answering for himself.”


In sheer perplexity they turned once again to the blind man. He, as well as his parents, knew the Jewish authorities had agreed to a ban of exclusion from the synagogue upon any who should acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. It is likely that the council hoped that the now sighted man would for the sake of peace be content to follow their advice to, “Give glory to God.” Joshua first employed this pious phrase as he entreated Achan to publicly confess his sins (Joshua 7:19). It meant to acknowledge and confess one’s guilt, deny or ignore the miracle, and to accept the council’s dictum that ­Jesus was a sinner.


If securing a confession was the hope, they were disappointed, for the man proved less easy to coerce than his parents. He was not to be overawed by their authority, or intimidated by their assertions. “Whether he is a sinner,” the man replied, “I do not know. One thing I do know. I was blind, but now I see.” Then they began again their weary and futile cross- examination. “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” But the man had had enough of this. “I told you once, and ye did not attend. Do ye wish to hear again? Is it possible that ye too wish to be his disciples?” This bold sarcasm ended the deadlock and now the council broke into abuse: “You are his disciple. We are the disciples of Moses; of this man we know nothing.” “Strange,” replied the man now possessed of both actual and spiritual sight, “that you should know nothing of a man who has wrought a miracle such as not even Moses ever wrought; and we know that neither he nor any one else could have done it, unless he were from God.” Indeed, in both the Old and New Testaments, there stands no other biblical testimony to the healing of blindness except that which took place at our Lord’s hands. Unable to control their indignation any longer, the council dismissed the man and banned him from the synagogue.


Jesus did not neglect this brave confessor. He sought out the man and asked, “Do you believe on the Son of God?” Perhaps the man thought this was a further cross-examination. “Why? Who is he, Lord,” answered the man, “that I should believe on him?” Now Jesus spoke very directly. “You have both seen him, and he is the one talking with you.” “Lord, I believe,” the man answered; and he did our Lord obeisance. It must have been shortly after this that Jesus pointed to the contrast between the different effects of his teaching: those who saw not, were made to see; those who saw, were made blind. The Pharisees, restlessly and discontentedly hovering about, ever self-absorbed and always on the look-out for some reflection on themselves, asked “if they too were blind?” The answer of Jesus was that in natural blindness there would have been no guilt, but abiding judgment remained on the blindness of willful error. If the teachers, the guides were blind, how could the people see?


The record of this incident closes with Jesus reflecting on the nature of true and false shepherds. The true shepherd was one who would lay down his life for his sheep. In this he prophesied of his coming death and sacrifice: “But they did not understand what he was telling them” (John 10:6, NIV).

Few now have the ability to see or hear. Yet, although the majority are both blind and deaf to this message in the present time—some completely blind and completely deaf, others partially blind and partially deaf—the glorious assurance of the Lord’s word is that in God’s due time all the blind eyes shall be opened and all the deaf ears unstopped.

This was the lesson the Lord taught from this incident when he declared, “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world” (John 9:4,5, NIV). True, the opening of blind natural eyes could not give sight to the eyes of understanding, but it could and did illustrate the real essence of our Lord’s teachings of which this miracle was a part. He came to do the work of him who sent him, and to finish that work, and the special feature of it that was then due was the sacrificing of himself, the laying down of his life in the service of his brethren, in the declaration of the good tidings, in the teaching of the people through parables, dark sayings, and miracles. Subsequently under the holy spirit’s illumination these would guide a certain class to the real seeing, the real understanding and the real fellowship of heart with him and his work and with the Father, that was intended.

Thus with both a clear Messianic sign and bitter fruitage among his enemies the visit of Jesus to the Feast of Tabernacles ended. And since his life was now in danger, he withdrew once more from Jerusalem to Galilee for one brief visit before he bade his old home one last farewell. The blind in the most hopeless and incurable form had been made to see. For a brief moment the light had shown in the darkness, and the darkness had not comprehended it. In God’s providence not only has his love provided the redemption and the opportunity for blessing to the world, but the same love and wisdom will allow all to see the great light and hear the voice of him who speaks from heaven, and learn of our loving heavenly father’s offer for life everlasting, on terms of full obedience. Though the lengthening shadows of the coming night already shroud much around us, while it is yet day, let us seek to do his works; let us boldly turn our eyes upon Jesus and let us urge those seeking to escape spiritual darkness to turn their eyes to the one true light of the world.

1. Portions of this article are largely adapted from Fredric W. Ferrar, The Life of Christ, reprinted by Fountain Publications, Portland, Oregon, 1980, ppg. 419-424. 

2. The verb “I am” is translated from the Greek verb “eimi” and is a direct linguistic relative of the English verb “am.” “Eimi” is distinctly different from most Greek verbs. First, it falls into a family of the most ancient verbs used in Greek. Such ancient verbs employ the ending “mi.” Second, in sharp contrast to the many shades of meaning Greek verbs may convey with their twelve distinct voices, “eimi” is recorded only in two voices—the present active and future passive voices. Claims have been made that John 8:58 is an assertion that Jesus was Jehovah. In fact, while this statement stands as another confession of a pre-human existence, an existence as the “Logos” (John 1:1-3), the thought that Jehovah might be meant by “I am” does not logically follow. In the context Jesus declares, “I proceeded forth and came from God” (John 8:42) and was continually seeking to establish his position as the son of the Father (John 8:16,18,19,27,28,29,35,38,42,49,54).

3. For an expanded discussion please see Reprints, p. 3519.