Raymond Brown calls John 9 a "pleasant interlude . . . after the long and intricate discourses" of John 7 and 8. Chapter 9 does represent a kind of material that many people like best in John. Here is another long and finely developed story. As a story it stands on its own with intriguing characterization and deepening plot. Brown also states, "We have here Johannine dramatic skill at its best." Kysar identifies seven segments of the story, which he calls the scenes of the mini-drama of chapter 9.
Like its counterparts in John 4 and 11 this story weaves heavy-duty theology into almost every line. The foundation of the theological interpretation is Jesus' saying in John 8:12, "I am the light of the world." John has taken what could have a simple miracle story as his instrument and played the tune of Jesus as light of the world upon it. The miracle of a blind man receiving sight wonderfully illustrates the saying. The saying is the backdrop of the tragic debate between the former blind man and the Pharisees. Though the blind man confesses his ignorance he is the one with insight. The Pharisees arrogantly press the attack against Jesus, but their spiritual blindness becomes increasingly visible as the story unfolds.
Part of what makes John 9 a "pleasant interlude" is also the fact that the dialog is carried on between the former blind man and Jesus and between the former blind man and the Pharisees. Jesus and the Jews do not enter into direct dialog with each other until the final two verses of the chapter where each party speaks just one sentence. After the bitter debates of chapters 7 and 8 the confrontation between Jesus and the Jews is not as tense. However, John's first audience felt the tension.
Part of the debate between the Pharisees and the man who had been born blind involved putting him out of the synagogue. In 9:22 a very significant word appears for the first time in John. That word in Greek is aposynagogos. It means "expelled from the synagogue." It appears only in John in the entire New Testament and only three times in John. By the time the gospel of John was written, near the end of the first century, that word was being used to describe Christians who had been expelled from worshipping God at the synagogue. It was part of the vocabulary of the final split between church and synagogue. It was a word that spoke hurt, rejection, and bitterness to John's first century readers.
Some scholars believe that the word is connected to the twelfth benediction of the synagogue liturgy. Part of Jewish synagogue worship included eighteen litanies in which the leader made a statement and the worshippers responded with a blessing of God. There is some evidence (though its meaning is debated) that suggests that the twelfth benediction was changed shortly before John's gospel was written. In its new form it read,
The term "Nazarenes" was a designation for Christians and "Minim" meant heretics. Thus part of the synagogue liturgy pronounced a curse on Christians. It is hard to maintain fellowship and worship with people who ask God each week to destroy you. Though to us the tension between Jesus and Judaism does not seem as ferocious in chapter 9 as in chapters 7 and 8, the first readers of John would feel as if the tension were actually increasing in chapter 9.
On the other hand John 9 provides a word of encouragement and comfort to John's readers also. J. Louis Martyn suggested that John 9 is a drama being played out on two stages at once. Front and center we find Jesus and the blind man as described in chapter 9. On the other stage the actors are a Christian preacher and a believer being persecuted by the Jews at the time John wrote his gospel. While 9:22 speaks of the believer being cruelly expelled from the synagogue, there is also good news on this second stage. In verses 35-38 Jesus sought and found the man born blind and led him to worshipping faith. The message is clear for the second stage. Not only is there Jewish persecution; but the persecutor believer can look for Jesus to come and find him and bring the comfort of genuine worship and blessing.
The connection of the events of John 9 to the events of John 7 and 8 is not clear. The chapter begins with a simple, "And while he was going away he saw a blind man." It seems as if the events of chapter 9 follow chronologically on the heels of the dialogs of John 7 and 8 that apparently took place on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. In fact some commentaries speak of the healing of the man born blind as taking place as Jesus was leaving the Temple from the Tabernacles' dialogs. However, there is no chronological indicators from John 7:39 until John 10:22 where the setting is the Feast of Dedication which is in December, approximately three months after Tabernacles.
Thus there is no specific clues to the time of the healing of the man born blind. There are two connections of the content of the story with the Feast of Tabernacles. The first is verse 5 with the repetition of Jesus' statement from John 8:12, "I am the Light of the world." This has obvious connections to the Ceremony of the Illumination of the Temple that took place the first night of the Feast of the Tabernacles. The second connection appears in verse 7 where the blind man is sent to wash in the pool of Siloam. This was the pool from which the priests drew the water for the procession of the water ceremony done each morning of the Feast of Tabernacles. These two connections create a literary and theological link between chapter 9 and the material in chapters 7 and 8 regardless of the chronological relationship.
The structure of chapter 9 has been explained in several ways. However, the seven scenes proposed by Kysar and others provide the clearest picture of the structural elements of the chapter.
John 9:1-7 - Scene 1 - Healing the Blind Man
The core miracle story is found in these opening verses of the chapter. The basic elements of a healing story are: 1) description of the ailment, 2) technique of the cure, and 3) evidence of the cure. Various embellishments were used in ancient times to show how dramatic each aspect was.
The description of the illness often mentions how long the person had been afflicted. The statement in verse 1 that the man had been blind from birth. This indicates the utter hopelessness of the situation.
Verses 6 and 7 describe the technique Jesus used in the cure. The use of clay made from spittle was not unusual in Biblical times as a technique used to attempt to heal blindness. The instruction to go and wash in the pool of Siloam represent an added degree of technique.
The final aspect of a miracle story mentions the cure. This appears at the end of verse 7, he came seeing. John gives the least emphasis to this aspect of the story. All the rest of the chapter will serve to emphasize that the miracle has really occurred.
Though the main function of verses 1-7 is to present the miracle, John manages to work in some significant theological teaching. The first question deals with the cause of the blindness. Despite the message of the book of Job most Jews at Jesus' time believed that most, if not all, suffering was caused by sin. A person who suffered an illness or a handicap in their life was assumed to have brought that tragedy on by their own sin. The theological problem in Judaism was to explain the cause of birth defects. The question of whether a handicapped child suffered the handicap from the sins of the parents or his/her own pre-natal sin was actively debated in Judaism. There is actually a rabbinic pronouncement from near the time of Jesus, "When a pregnant woman worships in a heathen temple the fetus also commits idolatry." (Some interesting, though unfortunate, sermons were apparently preached on this subject from the text of Genesis 25:22 that describes Jacob and Esau struggling [fighting] with each other in Rebecca's womb.)
The question was posed to Jesus in terms of cause. Jesus responded in terms of purpose or result. Though he makes no general statement about the relationship of sin and suffering, Jesus rejected both conclusions that could be drawn from the Jewish assumption. Neither this man nor his parents sinned. The issue is not the cause of the man's blindness but the role that it now will play in the work of God in the world. The Greek text expresses it in terms of purpose. The Semitic mind did not distinguish purpose and result. Thus, from our perspective, we would hear Jesus refusing to discuss the cause of suffering. Rather he answered in terms of what glory to God could result from it. Some of us would do well to follow his pattern as we try to deal with suffering that we do not understand.
Jesus' explanation that this blindness was an opportunity for the work of God to be displayed lead into verse 4. Literally translated the verse reads, It is necessary that we work the works of the one who sent me as long as it is day. Night is coming when no one is able to work. The expression, "it is necessary," was a common Biblical phrase meaning that it was the will of God. It was God's will for Jesus to heal, teach, redeem, and bring people to faith. (It is also God's will that we work those same works as disciples of our Master.) The introduction of the metaphors of day and night fit into the issue of blindness brilliantly. They also form the transition to verse 5 in which Jesus repeats his affirmation in John 8:12 that he was the light of the world.
There is an interesting difference between 8:12 and 9:5. John 8:12 contained the ego eimi construction, I AM the light of the world. John 9:5 uses another method of Greek construction that does not have ego eimi. This means, as Lindars notes, that verse 5, "is not a revelation-formula, but a plain statement of fact." In other words, the emphasis of verse 5 is not on the identity of Jesus as the great I AM of Exodus 3. Rather the emphasis is on the work of Jesus in bringing light to the world. He is the world's light and while there is opportunity he must do the work of the Father. This leads Brown to suggest that Jesus had Isaiah 49:6 in mind. There God tells his [suffering] servant, "I will make you a light to nations, to be my salvation to the end of the earth." The healing of the blind man which immediately follows illustrates one aspect of Jesus bringing light. The urgency of doing his work while he is in the world implies that something is coming that will bring on the darkness again. In this way Jesus and John gently point to the coming Cross.
John 9:8-12 - Scene 2 - Questioning by the Neighbors
The interpretative remarks by Jesus in verses 3 through 5 make it clear that restoring sight to the blind man (verse 7) is a work of God the Father done by Jesus being the light of the world. Given the concerns of John we should not be surprised that a variety of responses come from the crowd. "The neighbors said, . . . Others said, . . . still others said, . . ." However, the question here is not the identity of Jesus, but the identity of the man born blind. The neighbors and others who had often seen him begging ask, "Isn't this the guy who used to sit and beg?" The Greek construction of their question shows that a positive answer is expected. It is almost an exclamation, "This is the fellow who used to sit and beg!" Those who affirm and those deny both spoke their piece and then the man is allowed to speak, "I am he."
The man's response in verse 9 is literally ego eimi. Many scholars use this as an opportunity to declare that John doesn't always mean I AM when he uses ego eimi. That is true, but it is striking that after several debates about Jesus' identity and he responded with I AM, we now have this scene. I do not believe John is thinking that the blind man is the I AM in any way. However, the point of repeating the ego eimi is to show how the follower of Jesus will often find himself or herself in conflict similar to that experienced by Jesus while he was on earth. In drama form this is the message of John 15:20, "The slave is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you."
The goal of this scene, however, is for the man to begin a process of bearing witness to Jesus. This witness begins in verse 11, "The man who is named Jesus made clay, anointed my eyes, and spoke to me." Once again the man who was born blind exemplifies the typical person encountering Christ. He has little understanding of Jesus' identity. He has no Christology. His only clue is the fact that Jesus has healed him. The work of Jesus in a person's life is always the starting point. This ex-blind man will come up with increasingly insightful statements about Jesus. But that process is begun by his own experience with Jesus. The Pharisees demonstrate that good theology does not necessarily lead to a right relationship. However, a relationship with Christ ought to lead to good theology.
The Greek text almost twinkles with a pun in the man's statement about Jesus. We generally miss it in English when we read that Jesus "anointed" his eyes. The Greek verb for anointed is epechrisen. The name "Christ" means anointed one and come from a related root word, christos. We might have caught the pun if we had written, "The man called Jesus made clay and "christed" my eyes. When you've been anointed there must be an anointer who is also anointed. The former blind man is on the verge of Jesus' anointing as Messiah in his very first witness to Jesus' work.
John 9:13-17 - Scene 3 - First Interrogation by the Pharisees
In this scene the neighbors and observers who have been debating about the blind man's identity bring him to the Pharisees. There is no explanation as to why they take the fellow to the Pharisees. Beasley-Murray suggests that the crowd would have naturally sought religious help in understanding this unusual event. He feels that there was no hostility on the part of the crowd - they were not trying to get the man who had been born blind into trouble. All this is speculative. John simply doesn't provide us enough information to learn the reason the crowd take the man to the Pharisees. The result, not the reason, is what John is interested in.
Verse 14 mentions - almost as an afterthought - that this healing miracle took place on a Sabbath. This detail is important for two reasons. First, it becomes the occasion for the Pharisees to reject both the healing and the healer in verse 16, "This man is not from God because he is not keeping the Sabbath." The question of Jesus' identity and origin are thus brought back into the discussion. This breaking of the Sabbath also is the background for the ensuing discussion about whether or not Jesus is a sinner (verses 16, 24, 25, 31).
The second reason that the Sabbath context is important is related to the Jewish debate about the Sabbath. Several things that Jesus did in the healing process could be accounted as Sabbath breaking under Rabbinic law. To make clay violated the injunction against kneading. Lifting or carrying enough water to wash eye ointment off the eye was forbidden. Putting an ointment on an eye was forbidden by some rabbis. There is a humorous story in the Babylonian Talmud regarding anointing an eye on the Sabbath. Rabbi Samuel declared that it was forbidden. Rabbi Jehuda said it was permitted. Later when Rabbi Samuel's own eyes gave him trouble he asked Jehuda if eye ointment on the Sabbath was permissible. Rabbi Jehuda said that it was permitted for others, but not permitted for Rabbi Samuel!
The bottom line in rabbinic argument seemed to be that intervention to prevent death was permitted, but intervention to make life better was not permitted. Rabbi Samuel commented, "Man shall live through the precepts of the Torah, but he should not die in consequence of the same." So the rub with Jesus was that he intervened to heal a person whose life was not in danger. He had not prevented death, he had improved life and that was forbidden! Such disrespect for the Law forced some to conclude that Jesus was a sinner (verse 16).
This sets the stage for the next witness of the man who was born blind in verse 17. The question, "What do you say about him?" is not designed to elicit the man's opinion. It is a technique to force him to one side of the issue or the other. In the context it is a heavy handed way of saying to the man, "Agree with us; say he is a sinner."
The manipulation backfired. When forced to decide the man's statement is a step up from his witness in verse 11. He identifies Jesus as a prophet. Not every prophet performed miracles, but no Jew was ignorant of the fact that Moses' ministry was attended by significant miracles, as was the ministry of Elijah. The New Testament reveals how often Moses and Elijah were seen as the prophets par excellence and the patterns for the final miracle-worker, the Messiah. The insight of the man born blind is growing. His witness is getting closer to the full truth.
John 9:18-23 - Scene 4 - Interrogation of the Man's Parents
Though Jesus has been off stage since verse 6, the Jewish leaders are working like busy prosecutors trying to make their case against him. Manipulation of the man born blind has failed. They now go to work to obtain legal evidence that the breaking of the Sabbath has actually taken place. There is a degree of sarcasm in this narrative technique of John's. Verse 18 states that the Jews did not believe that man's own testimony that he had been born blind and had been given his sight by Jesus. They will call his parents to confirm the matter. Though verse 18 says they don't believe the man, obviously they do believe him and they are intensely concerned that it is true that Jesus healed him. They are collecting evidence to punish Jesus for doing the very thing they say they do not believe he did.
The first question put to the parents in verse 19 is, "Is this fellow your son, whom you say that he was born blind?" The parents are well qualified to answer both the question of sonship and of blindness. They affirm both in verse 20. The second question in verse 19 was more difficult. "How is it that he sees now?" The parents deflect the question to their son with the comment that he is of age. Assuming they meant that he was of age to make a legal response, it simply means he was more than thirteen years old.
The real issue of this section is the fear of the parents. John explains that the Jews had already decreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah (the Christ) would be put out (expelled) from the synagogue. Synagogue discipline had three levels though it is not known if all three were in use at the time of Jesus. The first was a brief expulsion of about a week. The second was a thirty-day suspension with no contact with Jews except one's wife and family allowed. This punishment could be repeated two more times. The third was a total excommunication from the synagogue for life. The exact punishment alluded to here is debated.
Perhaps more importantly, verse 22 allows John to work the idea of Jesus' identity as Messiah into the story. He offer his readers an opportunity to remember and reaffirm Jesus' Messiahship without it being directly stated.
John 9:24-34 - Scene 5 - Second Interrogation by the Pharisees
As suggested by the parents the man is summoned again to give evidence (and to bear witness). The command by the Jews, "Give God glory," is another excellent piece of irony by John. In Jewish culture it was an oath formula for a confession of guilt. Joshua 7:19 provides an example. The Jews are saying, "Confess that you are lying." However, in Johannine humor, the man begins to bring glory to Jesus and the Christian reader knows that that means giving glory to God. He refuses to be drawn into their condemnation of Jesus as a sinner. He sticks to a testimony of what Jesus had done for him. (That is almost always a good strategy.)
When the Jews persist in their questioning the former blind man appears to become frustrated and to take the offensive. Beginning in verse 30 he begins to instruct the Jews. His logic is simple. Surely God does not answer the prayers of sinners. Jesus could not have restored his sight apart from God's help. Therefore, God had answered Jesus' appeal and thus Jesus could not be a sinner. In fact, If this man were not from God, he could do nothing. The Jews do not find the man's teaching acceptable. Regardless of his logic his result contradicted their opinion. They furiously respond, "You were born completely in sin. [How dare] you teach us?"
As Beasley-Murray states, "They reject the man, and the miracle, and the One through whom God wrought it. In so doing they reject the shining of the Light upon them, and plunge further into their darkness. They illustrate the perpetual truth of 1:3-4 and the contemporary truth of 3:19-21." They then threw the fellow out as powerful expression of their rejection. To a Christian reader this will found familiar. Many believers at the time John's gospel was written had experienced the same thing.
John 9:35-38 - Scene 6 - Spiritual Sight
When Jesus heard the man had been thrown out by the Jews he sought the man out and - as we might say - engaged in some soul-winning. "Do you trust in the Son of Man?" The man with the restored sight asked, "Who is He, sir? Tell me, in order that I may believe?" Jesus responded by identifying himself as the Son of Man. This is one of the few places in the gospels where Jesus directly reveals his own identity to an inquirer. It is very similar to his response to the woman of Samaria in John 4:26, "I, the one speaking with you, am he." However, there is a touching twist to Jesus' response to this man. "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he."
Like the Samaritan woman the man born blind responded to Jesus' self-revelation. She had run to the village to proclaim Christ; he bowed down before Jesus and worshipped. This indicates that he has come to full discipleship. The appropriate response to Jesus is to worship him. The story has come almost full circle. Jesus - the light of the world has brought light to this blind man. His eyes are opened and he worships Jesus. Put that way it is clear that John believes that both his physical and his spiritual eyes were opened. That is the appropriate response to the Light of the World.
John 9:39-41 - Scene 7 - Spiritual Blindness
For the first time in this chapter Jesus and the Pharisees come face to face. The conflict and debate that had been carried on indirectly through the man born blind is now summarized. Jesus states his purpose as the light of the world. His light is to accomplish two things: to make the blind see and to make the seeing blind. It appears that Jesus is alluding to Isaiah 6:9-10. Those verses from Isaiah are more directly quoted as the purpose of Jesus' ministry in Matthew 13:14-15 and Mark 4:12. Barrett explains these puzzling words this way, "The primary intention of the saying is to bring out the underlying meaning of the miracle and 'trial', which is also the meaning of the ministry of Jesus as a whole. To receive Jesus is to receive the light of the world; to reject him is to reject the light, to close one's eyes, and to become blind."
The message is clear in spite of the Pharisees' question in verse 40, "Surely, you don't mean that we are blind, do you?" Jesus' reply seems puzzling but it cuts to the heart of the matter. The blind who have never seen are not responsible for choosing darkness. They may well choose to obey and receive their sight (and the Light). But those who are so confident that they know everything and have all possible spiritual light will never receive more light. In that sense they are blind. May the Lord help us to always be open to the light of Christ.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you begin each day pray that the Lord will speak to you through His Word and that the Holy Spirit will make the Word alive to you.
First Day: Read the notes on John 9:1-41. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new ideas that seem important to you.
2. Select a truth for which you see a specific personal application for your own life. Describe how it would apply to you.
3. Have your spiritual eyes been opened? Have you responded in worship of Christ? Ask the Lord to help you always stay open to the light of Christ.
Second Day: Read John 10:1-18. Now focus on John 10:1-6.
1. List the main characters mentioned in these verses.
2. What characteristics of a shepherd mentioned in these verses also apply spiritually to Jesus?
3. Read Ezekiel 34:1-26. What elements from Ezekiel pertain to John 10:1-6? What elements describe Jesus?
Third Day: Read John 10:1-18. Focus on John 10:7-18.
1. What two ways does Jesus identify himself in these verses?
2. In what ways do you see Jesus functioning as "the door of the sheep?"
3. Jesus states in verse 10 that he has come provide life abundantly. Describe what you think it means for Jesus to give life abundantly.
Fourth Day: Read John 10:1-18. Focus again on John 10:7-18.
1. What results does Jesus promise from his being the good shepherd?
2. Think of some "other sheep" (v. 16). What are some things you could do so they would hear Christ's voice and become one flock with one shepherd?
3. What are some things that a shepherd would do for his sheep that you would like Christ to do for you? Write a prayer asking him to be your shepherd and to do those things for you.
Fifth Day: Read John 10:19-39. Focus in on John 10:19-30.
1. What is the reason that no one is able to snatch Christ's sheep out of the Father's hand?
2. List some of the works you think Jesus is referring to in verse 25 when he says that the works he does bear w\witness to him. What kind of (character) witness do those works provide?
3. Describe the relationship with Christ envisioned by verse 27. Do you enjoy such a relationship?
Sixth Day: Read John 10:22-42. Focus in on John 10:31-32.
1. Why did the Jews want to stone Jesus?
2. Summarize what is said about believing in the verses.
3. Verse 41 notes that everything John the Baptist said about Jesus was true. If you were called to be a forerunner of Jesus, what things would you want the world to know about him? Who can you tell those things to now?