Who sinned? (John 9.1-12)

The light of the world

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In Jesus’ verbal teaching in 8.12ff. he began with the key affirmation that he is “the light of the world” (8.12). Now in chapter 9 this verbal teaching is followed by visible teaching through the miracle of giving sight to the man born blind. This visible teaching also starts with the declaration that Jesus is the light of the world (9.5). Through our sin we are all blinded to the glorious hope of abundant and eternal life through Jesus. We all therefore need this same miracle whereby Jesus illuminates our minds and hearts. Indeed, our whole society struggles with rampant evils to which they have no adequate answers. How we long therefore that people in their multitudes would turn to Jesus in faith and trust him to bring light into our darkness! The call to evangelistic witness presses upon us.
The works of God (9.3-5)
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The word ‘must’ (9.4) underlines that in God’s work we are not presented with some voluntary option which we may chose to observe or ignore. The call of Almighty God and the desperate needs of people around us make God’s work absolutely compulsory. Like Jesus himself when he was sent to share God’s life and light with the Samaritan woman, we ‘must’ be able to say that our “food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (4.34). Doing his work is our ‘meat and drink’. Using the picture of day and night, Jesus foresees the time when the world will become so dark that any light-giving witness will become impossible. Already the writing is on the wall. Fierce persecution was already building up (e.g. 8.58, 9.22). So he urges his disciples that he and they together (note his use of “we” in 9.4) must bring his light to the world as long as day-light continues (9.4). Typically, Jesus desires to work with and through his disciples, rather than doing the work of God on his own.
Jesus gives sight to the blind (9.6-11)
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Speculation abounds as to why Jesus spat on the ground, made mud with his saliva and anointed the blind man’s eyes. Was it to underline the spectacular nature of the miracle? Did it help the blind man believe that Jesus could actually heal him, although he had been blind from birth? We have to confess that we don’t know what was in Jesus’ mind.
While the mud and saliva came entirely from Jesus with no active participation from the blind man, washing in the pool of Siloam required the blind man’s obedience and faith. This reminds us of Elisha healing Naaman of his leprosy in 2 Kings 5. Naaman too was told to wash seven times in the River Jordan as the condition and means of his healing. Of course both Elisha and Jesus could have brought healing without Naaman or the blind man doing anything themselves, but they were very aware of the benefit that comes from our playing a small part in our healing. Our act of faith complements God’s supreme love and grace.
Why? Who sinned? (9.1-5)
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Even after already having walked with Jesus now for some time, the disciples’ theology remained sadly deficient. They assumed that suffering always has sin as its cause – and perhaps also that prosperity stems from faith and obedience.  Some times in the Old Testament history of Israel and throughout history God’s judgment may bring terrible suffering and God may honour his people’s faith and obedience with prosperity. But Jesus does not accept the simple formula:  suffering = sin, prosperity = faith. So, when the disciples ask Jesus whose sin lay behind the man’s blindness, Jesus strongly rejects any such theological belief system. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (9.3).

What then does lie behind the man’s blindness? With a stark “But” ((9.3) Jesus contrasts the disciples’ wrong understanding with God’s actual purpose. Jesus’ “so that” (9.3) shows that there is a divine purpose behind the man’s disability. It is “so that the works (plural) of God might be manifested (singular) in him”. Evidently the ‘works of God’ have a composite nature, all belonging together to one singular entity in the mind and will of God. In the context of John 8 and 9 all the works of God relate to Jesus’ function as the light of the world, bringing true enlightenment to the whole world.

Whereas in 8.12 we find a typical Johannine “I am” statement in the words “I am the light of the world”, here in 9.5 it comes within an ordinary sentence. Strangely, and in marked contrast, the blind man, faced with people’s uncertainty whether he is indeed the man who had been born blind, strikingly declares, “I am” (9.9). Normally in John’s Gospel the bold declaration “I am” is only found on Jesus’ lips. What then are we to understand by the blind man’s use of this divine title? Raymond Brown in his Anchor Bible commentary states unequivocally that “this is an instance of a purely secular use of the phrase”. D.A.Carson just translates the bald statement “I am” as “I am the man” and ignores the problem of its apparent divine claim. Quite possibly Brown and Carson are right not even to think of or consider any suggestion that the man born blind now adopts Jesus’ divine title because he is now healed and by faith united with Jesus, the perfect “I am”. But, in any case, the striking likeness to Jesus’ “I am” statements compels us to think seriously about it.

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When suffering afflicts us, we should firmly reject the ‘blame game’ which has become so common in our time. But the question “why?” springs easily into our minds and needs to be answered. In the case of this man born blind Jesus declares that his disability had the aim of manifesting the work of God. In our pain we need to ask ourselves how we can show forth the love, grace and enlightening glory of God through our attitudes and life. In the will of God our suffering never lacks purpose, however unjust and senseless it may appear to us.
“I am the light of the world” (John 8.12 and 9.5) – “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5.14).
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