To Open Blind Eyes, First Open Yours
Dr. Jim Denison
Thesis: Jesus heals us as he healed this man,
and now calls us to join him in his ministry of compassion
The following report to a state industrial commission was filed by a worker who was injured in the act of repairing a chimney:
“When I got to the building, I found that the hurricane had knocked some bricks off the top. So I rigged up a beam with a pulley at the top of the building and hoisted up a couple of barrels full of bricks. When I had fixed the building, there were a lot of bricks left over.
“I hoisted the barrel back up again and secured the line at the bottom, and then went and filled the barrel with extra bricks. Then I went to the bottom and cast off the line.
“Unfortunately, the barrel of bricks was heavier than I was, and before I knew what was happening, the barrel started down, jerking me off the ground. I decided to hang on, and halfway up, I met the barrel coming down and received a severe blow on the shoulder. I then continued to the top, banging my head against the beam and getting my finger jammed in the pulley. When the barrel hit the ground, it burst its bottom, allowing the bricks to spill out. I was heavier than the empty barrel, so I started up again at high speed. Halfway down, I met the barrel coming up, and received severe injuries to my shins. When I hit the ground, I landed on the bricks, getting several painful cuts from the sharp edges.
“At this point I must have lost my presence of mind, because I let go of the line. The barrel then came down giving me another heavy blow on the head and putting me in the hospital.”
We’ve all been on that brickpile, and we’ll all return there again. Are you there today? This week’s miracle will help you find the Great Physician and his hope. Do you know people on brickpiles of pain, despair, or loneliness? The miracle before us will help you help them. Our suffering can be great, but our Savior is greater, as this week’s study will prove.
See the need (v. 1)
Our story occurred on a Sabbath (John 9.14). Jesus has returned to Judea, where he has been teaching in the temple courts (John 8.2). The annual Feast of Tabernacles has just occurred in mid-October (Tenney 100). Jesus may have met the man in our story as he sat begging by the Temple, or at the Pool of Siloam (since its waters were used for the Feast of Tabernacle rituals just completed). Wherever our story began, it started with Jesus. He noticed a man who could not see him: “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth” (John 9.1).
Jesus had not begun the day intending to heal this man. He was “passing along,” walking through the day before him. So much of his ministry was done by “walking around,” helping the people he chanced to meet, seeing their pain and offering his hope.
So it was that he “saw” this man. The Greek word translated “saw” here means to fix the gaze, to look earnestly (Hovey 201). Jesus gave him more than a passing glance—he paid attention to his predicament.
When he saw the man, he saw his need: he was “blind from birth.” Simple observation could not have told him this. How would anyone know when the man’s blindness had begun? It’s possible that the man told him (Lenski 675), or that his reputation preceded him (cf. v. 8). But the syntax suggests to me that the instant Jesus saw the man he knew that his blindness was congenital. If he could heal this man’s blindness, he could determine its source.
This insight gave the Great Physician enough information for a diagnosis: his illness has persisted for many years, caused by a physical abnormality which could not be treated by first-century medicine. There was no medical option for this man. He needed not a physician, but a miracle.
What Jesus knew of this man, he knows today of you: “My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious concerning me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand” (Psalm 139.15-18, NIV footnote). The Physician who saw this man and his need sees yours. The blind man could not see Jesus, as we cannot see him today. But the one who cannot see is visible to the One who can.
He sees you and your problems today: “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6.8). Our prayers do not inform God of our needs; rather, they yield them to the only One who can solve them.
Now Jesus calls us to see others as he sees us. This week’s miracle is the only account in the gospels of Jesus healing a person with a congenital physical problem (Robertson 160, Barclay 37). But we find another such account early in Christian history: “One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts” (Acts 3.1-2). Here is a man who had begged for 40 years beside the Temple (Acts 4.22). For their entire lives, Peter and John have seen him there and passed him by. But not today.
Today, filled with the Holy Spirit who came upon them at Pentecost, “Peter looked straight at him, as did John” (v. 4). “Looked straight at” translates a Greek word which means to stare with intent purpose. It is the same word used of the disciples as they stared at Jesus during his Ascension (Acts 1.10: “they were looking intently up into the sky”). It is the same word used of Stephen as he stared into heaven during his martyrdom (Acts 7.55: “Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God”). These men are now controlled by the Spirit of Jesus. They see what he saw.
We can tell how close we are to Jesus by the degree to which we love those he loves. The first “fruit of the Spirit,” the first result of the Spirit at work in our lives, is love (Galatians 5.22). The first commandment is that we love God, and the second is that we fulfill the first by loving our neighbor (Matthew 22.37, 39). When was the last time you stepped out of your routine to see someone as Jesus does?
Be practical (vs. 2-3)
The disciples followed their Master’s gaze, but for a very different reason. He saw a man in personal pain; they saw a theological question. He stopped to heal this man; they stopped to use him as an example for their theological discussion: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (v. 2).
Before we listen to Jesus’ answer, first let’s explore their question, lest we ask it ourselves. The rabbis taught that suffering is the result of sin: “There is no death without sin, and there is no suffering without iniquity” (Rabbi Ammi, in Shab. 55a, cited in Morris 478). First-century Judaism assumed that suffering was proof of divine wrath, and prosperity proof of his pleasure and reward. Such logic is not confined to ancient Judaism—every world religion holds an aspect of its claim.
Hindus believe in the law of karma, the idea that our present suffering is punishment for wrongs we committed in a previous lifetime. According to Gautama Buddha’s “First Sermon at Benares,” all suffering is due to wrong desire. Newspaper accounts following the Columbia tragedy quoted al-Qaeda sympathizers as attributing the disaster to America’s sins against Allah.
In Christian theology, the disciples’ question has been most fully formulated by St. Augustine. His “theodicy” (an account of evil in the light of God’s goodness and power) attributes suffering to the misuse of our free will. God created us to worship him; worship requires freedom; when we misuse this freedom, the consequences are not God’s fault but ours.
Often Augustine is right. I’ve seen marriages end because of adultery; I’ve buried alcoholics who died of cirrhosis of the liver; I’ve known drug users who contracted AIDS; I’ve watched students who didn’t study fail the test and then blame God or me. I know of suffering in my life which has come from my sins. You do too.
The disciples didn’t doubt that the man’s congenital blindness was the result of sin. They only want to know who to blame: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9.2). It’s hard to understand how they could believe that a man’s blindness at birth could be his own fault, but many people did. The authorities would later say to this man, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” (John 9.34). Some Jews thought that a person could sin while still in the mother’s womb (cf. Psalm 51.5, “Surely I was sinful at birth”). Some knew the Greek idea that the soul preexisted the body (Barclay 38), and tied it to Jeremiah 1.5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” and Psalm 58.3, “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies” (cf. Beasley-Murray 155). So the disciples certainly believed this man’s blindness could be his own fault.
If not his, it must be his parents’. The Jews remembered God’s warning, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of their fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20.5-6). So the disciples were curious, not compassionate. They assumed that this man deserves his fate, and had no interest in helping him avoid it. They rushed to judgment, with no idea that the ones they judged were really themselves.
Jesus cleared up their confusion: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9.3). Some suffering is the result of sin, but such was not the case here. Much of the world’s grief and pain is not the result of anyone’s sin or failure. Remember Job’s plight; think of the Columbia astronauts and their noble quest; remember Jesus’ innocent crucifixion. To attribute all suffering to sin often increases the suffering of the innocent.
Helen Spinks was one of the most godly people I’ve ever known. She suffered with cancer all the years I knew her in Midland, and eventually died of the disease. We were talking one day shortly before the end, and I asked her the hardest part of her ordeal. She looked at me through pain-wracked eyes and told me about all the people who had told her that if she would just repent of her sins she would be healed. She wasn’t bitter about them, but I was.
In this case, the man’s inherited blindness was no one’s fault. He had certainly not sinned, and neither had his parents’ sin caused his handicap. Rather, “this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Now it seems that we have traded one theological dilemma for another. We are comfortable with Jesus’ claim that the man’s blindness was not caused by sin. But how do we feel about the assertion that it was caused by God, to display his glory?
There can be no doubt that the Lord of the universe must permit all that happens, or he is not God. But Jesus’ answer seems to indicate that he caused this man’s blindness, through no fault of the man or his family. Fortunately, the NIV translation is not the only option. The word translated “so that” can also be rendered “with the result that” (Bruce 782, Morris 477, cf. Brown 371). As a result, his answer can be translated, “this happened with the result that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”
Herschel Hobbs suggests yet another possibility. The punctuation marks in the Greek text were placed there by editors; the originals had no punctuation except the question mark. So Hobbs rearranges the punctuation of the verse to read, “Neither this man sinned, nor his parents. But that the works of God should be made manifest in him, we must work the works of him that sent me . . .” (Hobbs, Invitation 58).
I do not understand Jesus’ statement to teach that God created this man’s blindness. He permitted it, as a consequence of the natural, fallen world in which we live. When mankind fell, all of creation was affected by the fall (cf. Romans 8.22). Blindness, birth defects, cancer, and other diseases are often the result of our fallen world, not our fallen actions. So it was here.
But the Lord would redeem this suffering for his glory and the man’s good: “the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Jesus came to do the “work of God” (cf. Matthew 12.28, Mark 2.7). The healing to come is a miracle to us, but it is merely the “work” of God, his normal activity and ability (cf. Morris 479).
Jesus turned the disciples’ speculative question into practical truth. He did not tell them why the man was blind, but what God intended to do about his blindness. He did not explain the source of the pain, but its solution. In the hardest places of life, his answer is what we need.
Are you hurting along with the blind man? Are you or others asking why? Sometimes knowing the cause is important to the cure, especially if your suffering is the result of sin which must now be confessed to be cleansed (1 John 1.8-9). But often our speculative questions cannot give practical help. Knowing why the Columbia tragedy occurred will prevent future disasters, but it will not bring the Columbia astronauts back.
So we should focus on the practical. Now that we are in this place of suffering, what are we to do? How will God help us? How would he use us to help someone else? Jesus redeemed this man’s blindness by displaying his own miraculous glory, and then by leading the man to spiritual sight as well (v. 38: “the man said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him”). He will redeem our pain for his glory and our good. And he will use us to do the same for those we can help.
On the brick piles of suffering, we don’t often need to know why the bricks are there. Just how to remove them from our lives.
Become Jesus’ hands (vs. 4-7)
Now you and I join our story: “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me” (John 9.4a). Note two words: “we must.” All of Jesus’ followers must “do the work of him who sent” our Lord. We are engaged in the same ministry which brought him to our planet. We are now the presence of Christ on earth, his ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5.20). How do we become Jesus’ hands?
With urgency: “Night is coming, when no man can work” (v. 4b). The King James renders this phrase, “Night cometh,” the origin of the Park Cities Baptist Church (Dallas, TX) clock tower inscription. Night was coming for Jesus: “I am with you for only a short time, and then I go to the one who sent me” (John 7.33). It is coming for us as well. None of us is promised tomorrow. We have only today to join Jesus at work.
When the night comes, “no man can work” (cf. John 11.9-10, 12.35-36). One day will be the last day. One hour will be the last hour. The “night cometh,” and all work is done. Love your Lord by loving your neighbor, with urgency.
In his power: “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (v. 5). The New Testament repeatedly testifies that Jesus is the spiritual light of a world darkened by sin: “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1.4-5); “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world” (John 1.9); “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life'” (John 8.12). His ministry fulfilled the prophet’s prediction, through whom God said, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49.6).
He is the light—we are his reflection: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4.6). Jesus called us: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5.14). We are to reflect his light as the moon does the sun’s rays.
We cannot heal blind eyes, of course. But Jesus can. And so we share his power, his love, his hope. Peter said to the man crippled from birth, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3.6). We pray for the one in pain. We share God’s word with the one who needs hope. We bring God’s love to the one in despair. We become Jesus’ hands, in his power.
At the level of need: “Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes” (v. 6). We know why a first-century physician would do such a strange thing. Ancients like Pliny, the Roman scientist, believed that spit would cure snakes’ poison, epilepsy, lichens and leprosy, and neck pains (Barclay 42). Saliva was highly esteemed as an ancient cure for illness (Rienecker 240).
But we wouldn’t expect a Jewish rabbi to attempt this cure. The rabbis warned against using spittle for medicine because of its frequent connection with medical practices (Beasley-Murray 155). Also, making mud with the spit and then applying that mud to the eyes were both acts forbidden on the Sabbath (Rienecker 240, Robertson 162, Morris 480, Barclay 44-5). Later the authorities would raise this very objection: “Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath'” (v. 16).
So two questions arise. Why would Jesus accommodate himself to a belief he knew to be more superstition than medicine? He healed other blind eyes without using spit and mud, showing that the miracle was not in the dirt but the One who first created it (cf. Mark 10.46-52; Matthew 9.27-31; 12.22; 15.30; 21.14). And why would he be willing to flaunt rabbinic conventions to use spit-made mud here?
Our text does not say, but I can think of no reason except that the blind man needed this accommodation. He knew Jesus’ action to be accepted medical practice. To our knowledge, he had no previous information regarding Jesus’ healing powers. Had the Divine Physician not acted as a human doctor, it is likely that his patient would not have accepted his cure.
The application to us is simple: meet need on its level. It’s hard to talk to a hungry man about his soul before we feed his body. There is little point in explaining fully Augustine’s free-will theodicy to a man dying of cancer. Win the trust of the person you are called to help. Develop relationship—establish common ground—earn confidence. Is someone in your class hurting today? Meet them where they hurt. Learn their pain. Join their grief. Connect with their suffering, before you try to bring it to the Savior.
Jewish theology taught that touching a “sinner” like this man implicated the person in his sin. But Jesus touched the man’s eyes, all the same. So must we.
Call to faith: “‘Go,’ he told him, ‘wash in the Pool of Siloam’ (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing” (v. 7). Now Jesus asked the man to trust him. Washing in the pool of Siloam was not part of any accepted medical practice. And it required sacrifice on the part of a blind man.
The pool of Siloam was one of the great landmarks in ancient Jerusalem. The reservoir is 53 feet long, 18 feet across, and 19 feet deep, with columns built into the side walls (Hovey 204). It is a pool with a marvelous history.
When King Hezekiah was at war with Assyria, seven centuries before Christ, he became concerned about the city’s water supply. The spring of Gihon, situated in the Kidron Valley below Jerusalem, was and is a constant source of water. But the spring was completely exposed, and could only be reached by climbing down the 33 steps carved into the side of the mountain on which Jerusalem had been built. During war, this water source could easily be compromised (Barclay 42-3).
Hezekiah had the spring of Gihon channeled into the city, by building the tunnel which created the pool of Siloam. This “tunnel of Hezekiah” was chiseled for 1748 feet through solid rock. It was rediscovered in 1880, with Hezekiah’s inscription recounting its completion: “The boring through is completed. Now is the story of the boring through. While the workmen were still lifting pick to pick, each towards his neighbor, and while three cubits remained to be cut through, each heard the voice of the other who called his neighbor, since there was a crevice in the rock on the right side. And on the day of the boring through the stonecutters struck, each to meet his fellow, pick to pick; and there flowed the waters to the pool for a thousand and two hundred cubits, and a hundred cubits was the height of the rock above the heads of the stonecutters” (Barclay 43).
The pool took its name from this historic event: it was called the Hebrew word for “sent,” since waters were “sent” into it through the tunnel Hezekiah had constructed. My last time in Jerusalem, I walked, stooped over, the length of the tunnel to the pool, to find children swimming in it.
Jesus sent the blind man to one of the most famous pools in Jewish history. But we’re not sure the distance this trip required. If Jesus’ encounter with the man took place outside the Temple (which was likely, as beggars usually congregated there), then the man had to walk to the southern end of the city, a considerable distance and hardship for a blind person. But since the waters of the pool were used during the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles which had just ended, it is possible that Jesus and the blind man were both in its vicinity (cf. NIB 653).
Whatever the distance, Jesus’ patient walked it: “The man went and washed, and came home seeing” (v. 7). Here we see the divine-human partnership at work again. Jesus would heal the man’s eyes, but he would have to wash them first. He did what he could, and Jesus did what he could not.
Similar faith was required of Naaman the leper. Remember his reluctance to obey the prophet Elisha’s prescription to wash in the Jordan river. Finally he did, “and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy” (2 Kings 5.14). And so the man “washed” his eyes—the word means that he bathed his eyes, not merely splashing or washing them (Robertson 163).
With this result: he “came home seeing.” In the same way, the man crippled from birth got up at Peter’s word and with his help, and “instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk” (Acts 3.7-8). God requires our faith, not to earn his power but to receive it.
Jesus’ physical healing soon became spiritual. The authorities, with no compassion for the man’s healing, were concerned only that his miracle occurred on the Sabbath. So they wanted to know how he received his sight at the hands of a “sinner” who would break their Sabbath rules. His reply is my favorite witness in Scripture: “One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (v. 25). He paid for his faith with expulsion from the synagogue and faith community (v. 34), condemnation which isolated him from his family, friends, and intended future.
But not from Jesus: “Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?'” (v. 35). Just as our Lord initiated the man’s physical healing, so he took the initiative for his spiritual salvation. And the man who had been healed in body was healed in soul (v. 38).
Now you and I are enlisted in Jesus’ continuing work as his spiritual physicians. We are to do for those we know what Jesus did for us. Jesus came to us with urgent compassion. He met our need with his power, and led us to faith. Now we are to do the same for those we can help. Believing all the while that the One who healed blind eyes and blind hearts will use us as his hands today.
Do for others what Jesus did for this blind man. See their need. Be practical in helping meet it. Become Jesus’ hands with urgency, bringing God’s power to their need, calling them to faith in him. Believe that God will use you. And he will.
John Patton was a missionary in the South Pacific in the early 1800’s. After working for a year, not a single person had come to Christ. People attended his Bible studies and nodded approvingly, but would not respond to his invitation to faith. He began to considering a move to another mission field, and prayed that the Lord would give him just one convert. If one man came to Christ, he reasoned, he could move on while knowing that the work would continue there.
For eight years he worked and prayed for that one convert. Then one morning, Patton awoke to see the entire population of the island, 1200 people, assembled near his home. The chief said, “We are all ready to receive Christ.” Patton was stunned. He learned that tribal culture required that no one receive Christ until all were ready. He spent three days baptizing the 1200 converts. He had prayed for one to be saved, but God saved them all.
To open blind eyes, there is only one requirement: we must first open ours.