Commentary on John 9:1-41
The account of Jesus healing a blind man in John 9 is one of the “signs” (semeia) Jesus performs in John’s gospel.
It is related to the healing of the lame man in 5:1-18 which also involves a pool, the Sabbath, issues of Jesus’ whereabouts and identity and the “work” he does, and increasing tension between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. We shall see that John 9 functions as a dramatic unit, but the implications of the healing continue through chapter 10 where again opinions about Jesus’ identity and “work” separate those who believe in him or not.
John 9 is best understood as a drama in seven scenes. (Cf. J.L.Martyn’s, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel.) In the table below, note the actors in each scene, the questions and answers that propel the drama, the titles and descriptions applied to Jesus, and the issues that emerge.
Scene I, Verses 1-7
Actors: Jesus & disciples, Jesus & blind man
Description of Jesus: Rabbi, Light of the world
Issues: Blindness, Sin, When to “work”
|Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”||Neither, instead God’s works revealed|
Scene II, Verses 8-12
Actors: Neighbors & blind man
Description of Jesus: Man called Jesus
Issues: Blind man’s identity, Healing procedure, Jesus’ location
|“Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”||Yes|
|“Then how were your eyes opened?”||[description]|
|“Where is he [Jesus]?”||“I don’t know.”|
Scene III, Verses 13-17
Actors: Pharisees & blind man
Description of Jesus: Man is not from God, Sinner, Prophet
Issues: Healing done on Sabbath, Sinner doing signs, Division among Pharisees
|How did he receive his sight?||Described|
|“How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”||Dispute whether Jesus is from God or not|
|“What do you say about him [Jesus]?”||“He is a prophet.”|
Scene IV, Verses 18-23
Actors: Jews & blind man’s parents
Description of Jesus: Don’t know who opened son’s eyes (Messiah)
Issues: Fear of Jews and being put out of synagogue
|“Is this your son, who you say was born blind?”||Yes|
|“How then does he now see?”||We don’t know how. Ask him.|
Scene V, Verses 24-34
Actors: Jews & blind man
Description of Jesus: Man is a sinner, A man from God, One who worships and obeys God
Issues: Disciple of Jesus or Moses, Don’t know where Jesus is from, Born entirely in sins, Man driven out
|What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”||I’ve already told you|
|“Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” |
“You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?”
|blind man driven out|
Scene VI, Verses 35-38
Actors: Jesus & blind man
Description of Jesus: Son of Man, Lord
Issues: Belief, Worshiping Jesus
|Do you believe in the Son of Man?|
And who is he, sir?
Scene VII, Verses 29-41
Actors: Jesus & Pharisees
Description of Jesus: Came into this world for judgment
Issues: Judgment, Seeing / blindness, Sin remains
|Surely we are not blind, are we?||question has implied negative answer|
It is immediately apparent that this account is much more than a simple miracle story. The account is introduced with a question about blindness and sin, an issue that reappears in scenes 5 and 7. Further, the man’s sight is restored in verse 7, but the rest of the chapter deals with his increasing insight as each scene introduces new characters or new combinations of characters struggling to understand what has happened. Jesus disappears after the first scene until the sixth, following the blind man’s dramatic expulsion from the synagogue, and even the blind man himself is not in every scene. If not a typical miracle story, what then is going on here?
First, the Gospel of John needs to be read as a two-level story. One level reflects the situation when the events happened in Jesus’ life. The other level reflects the situation in the predominantly Jewish Johannine community. In the fifty or so years since Jesus had died, the Johannine Christians repeated the stories and sayings of Jesus, seeking to see how matters in Jesus’ life mattered in their lives. That is, by looking at Jesus in his time, these Christians were better able to see what was happening in their own time.
This two level reading is evident in the designation used for the antagonists. In verses 13-17 and 39-41, they are called the Pharisees. In 18-34, they are “the Jews.” (In John, “the Jews” refers either to people who live in Judea, the Jewish people, or Jewish authorities. In John 9, it is clearly the latter.)
So, just as there was controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees which ultimately ended in his rejection and death, so too in John’s community there is controversy between those who believe in Jesus and the Jewish authorities which is resulting in rejection and expulsion from the synagogue. Jewish followers of Jesus were not being expelled while Jesus was alive, but there is evidence that it indeed was happening in the latter decades of the 1st century. (Note how the blind man switches to “we know” in verse 31!)
Second, note the remarkable progression in understanding exhibited by the blind man. In scenes 1 and 2, he does not even see Jesus, and after he has been cured, describes him as the “man called Jesus” and does not know where he is. In scene 3, he believes Jesus to be a prophet. In scene 5, he boldly rebuts the charges of the Jewish leaders and asserts that Jesus is indeed from God. In scene 6, he acknowledges Jesus as Son of Man and Lord and worships him. Just like the blind man, John’s community is being encouraged to come to a deeper understanding of Jesus and to worship him, even when it means expulsion from what has long been their religious and social center.
Third, this story serves to further work out issues related to Jesus that run through the Gospel of John, issues that provide clear demarcations between Christian and non-Christian Jews. Jesus had declared that the man’s blindness was not a result of sin, so when the Jewish authorities declare that the man was “born entirely in sins” (verse 34), they demonstrate their total misunderstanding of how God — and Jesus — works in the world.
Jesus states at the outset that he is the “light of the world,” and the blind man’s increasingly profound confessions contrast with the Jewish leaders’ pronouncement that he is a sinner. The end result is that one must either identify as a disciple of Moses or of Jesus the Messiah to whom Moses testified (John 5:45ff.).
John 9 recounts a cure of a blind man which more importantly is also the spiritual healing of one who has been in the dark. It is an encouragement for all to recognize Jesus as the true light of the world. The assertions and the stakes will only increase in chapter 10 where the metaphor will shift from seeing to hearing.
March 2, 2014