Commentary on John 9:1-41
Jesus’ healing of the man born with blindness1 is either the fifth or the sixth sign in the Book of Signs, the first section of John. It is difficult to tell which sign it is, mainly because the author stops counting after the second sign and scholars disagree about whether Jesus walking on water is its own sign or is part of the feeding of the 5,000. If it is the sixth, then it is the sign just before the final and climactic sign of Jesus raising Lazarus (John 11).2 This penultimate position does not take away from its dramatic import or its crucial role in the overarching narrative of John.3
John 9 furthers several of the key themes that permeate the Gospel. As just mentioned, this healing is one of the signs John chooses to narrate—miracles that point to a deeper meaning about Jesus’ identity. In the same way that the wedding at Cana sign reveals Jesus as the abundantly generous host of the messianic banquet and the feeding of the 5,000 sign shows Jesus as a nourishing provider who gives not just manna but his own body and blood, the sign in John 9 demonstrates that Jesus is the giver of sight and revealer of truth. The details of the story describe the illuminating traits of Jesus, both in the literal and the figurative senses. Jesus physically restores sight to a man (9:7-8), he claims in a metaphorical sense to be “the light of the world” (9:5), and he reveals the truth of his own identity as the Son of Man (9:37) while challenging the Pharisee’s blindness to that central truth (9:41).
Jesus’ statement in 9:5, “I am the light of the world,” continues another theme that John weaves into the plot the Fourth Gospel—the famous “I am” statements. The first “I am” statement is in John 4 when the Samaritan woman at the well suggests that the messiah is coming and Jesus answers, “ego eimi” or “I am (he).” After that, Jesus makes seven “I am” statements that contain descriptions (“I am the bread of life”) and seven replies that echo his answer to the woman at the well (simply, “I am”). While these “I am” statements are literary devices, they are also making theological claims. The words “ego eimi” are the Greek version of the name God gave to Moses in Exodus 3, “I am (who I am).” Although the connection may seem subtle to English-speakers in the twenty-first century, it was obvious to the first audience of this Gospel. They would have easily picked up on John’s identification of Jesus with God. Jesus’ declaration here, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world,” (the second time Jesus has said he was the light of the world—see 8:12) highlights both the illuminating work of God and the temporality of Jesus’ time on earth. This statement immediately precedes Jesus’ very tactile healing of the man with blindness, and so his actions serve as evidence for the claim.
The topic of light and darkness, introduced in John 9:4-5, is a motif that undergirds the whole Gospel narrative. In John 1, the prologue informs us that the Word is the true light of all who was not overcome by darkness. During his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, Jesus implies that he is the light who has come into the world to expose the evil deeds of those who love darkness (3:19-21). By chapter twelve, Jesus is warning his disciples, “While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light” (12:36). Compared with these other passages, Jesus as the light in John 9 seems like a brief flash in a story, a light that burns out quickly.
In fact, if we were to envision the narrative in John 9 as a play (as several scholars suggest that John leads us to do), we would see Jesus appears in only three of the seven scenes that comprise the drama (the seven scenes are: Jesus heals the man in 9:1-7, the neighbors question the man in 9:8-12, the Pharisees question him in 9:13-17, the Jews question the parents in 9:18-23, the Jews converse again with the man in 9:24-34, Jesus revisits the man in 9:35-39, and Jesus challenges the Pharisees in 9:40-41). These four center vignettes form the longest passage in the Gospels without Jesus in it, aside from the infancy narratives. It is an odd omission for John, who has focused so intensely on Jesus’ presence and work—why would the light leave the stage for so long?
According to Jo-Ann Brant, a Johannine scholar at Goshen College, Jesus does not completely leave the stage here. She points out that John 9 employs a literary device called mise en abyme (also known as the “Droste effect”). Essentially, the story of the man with blindness serves as a miniature version of the larger story of Jesus. The narrative of the healed man parallels Jesus’ narrative in many ways, including the following: the crowd questions his identity (9:8-9), he asserts “I am” (9:9), he speaks frankly and logically throughout but is treated as an invalid witness (9:18), he is accused of being a sinner, and he combats the Pharisees with sarcasm and truth (9:34).4 This story within the story heightens the ironic punchline of the episode—that those who think they can see are blind to the truth while the one who was blind (and a “sinner” and accused of being an invalid witness) is the one who sees. The mise en abyme also provides the audience with a glimpse at how followers of Jesus might go on after he has left the stage of earth: like the healed man, they should imitate Jesus as a bold witness to the truth despite opposition.
- Disability scholars encourage commentators and preachers to use language that affords dignity to those with disabilities. So, rather than labeling the man by his disability (the blind man), it is better to call him the man born with blindness or, later, the man healed.
- The story in John 9 parallels another sign scene from John—Jesus’s healing of the man at the pool in chapter 5. They are both Sabbath healings, both involve a man disabled for a significant period of time, both take place at a pool, and both result in controversy with the Jewish religious authorities.
- Some scholars will count the raising of Lazarus as the sixth sign and Jesus’s resurrection as the seventh, but because the resurrection does not occur within the Book of Signs section, it is more consistent to conclude that Lazarus is the seventh sign.
- Jo-Ann A. Brant, John, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 151-52, 154-59.