Lent 4 • John 9:1–41 • April 3, 2011
By Paul Raabe
John 9 is the appointed gospel lesson for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Series A). The appointed Old Testament lesson works well with the gospel lesson, since Isaiah 42:14–21 announces both God’s promise to lead the blind and his rebuke of ancient Israel for its spiritual blindness. Jesus picks up this Isaianic theme and focuses on its fulfillment. Jesus is the light of the world, not a static light, but the one who gives light and sight to the blind.
John 9 records the sixth “sign” when Jesus gave sight to a man born blind on a sabbath day. The time is during Jesus’s third trip to Jerusalem, and the location is set outside the temple (8:59). The preacher might consider an expository style that walks through the entire chapter in summary form in order to highlight the layers and ironic reversals revealed in the entire narrative.
Jesus “saw” a man who had been blind from birth. Jesus can “see” people in need and he takes the initiative. His disciples, presumably the Twelve (last mentioned in 6:67–71), assumed a constant and predictable nexus between a person’s actual sins and his maladies. Since the man was born blind, they wondered if he sinned or his parents. Jesus corrected his disciples by focusing on the purpose, the “final cause” (to use Aristotle’s distinction), that God’s works might be displayed in him. During his public ministry Jesus was sent by God to do the works of God. So also his disciples in fellowship with Jesus were to do the works of God (“we” is the most likely reading in 9:4). Jesus repeats, “I am the light of the world” (8:12). As the light he shines in the darkness and enlightens everyone (1:4-9). Jesus used the physical elements of mud and his own saliva to give the blind man sight. His divine power does not deal with people directly and immediately, but in, with, and through his own human nature and with earthly elements. The blind man hearkened to Jesus’s words and returned seeing.
The rest of the narrative consists of conversations. The first is between the man and his neighbors and acquaintances (9:8–12). The formerly blind man testified to what happened. He is the key public witness for Jesus. So far, the only thing the man knew about Jesus is that he was “the man called Jesus.”
In the next paragraph (vv. 13–17), the man testifies before the Pharisees. They dispute whether Jesus is “from God,” and there is a schism among them. When the name of Jesus enters, there is always a division (7:43; 10:19). Now the man confesses that Jesus is “a prophet” (9:17). In the next scene “the Jews” (here John’s designation for the Pharisees) disbelieve the “sign.” They interviewe the man’s parents, who testify to their son’s previous blindness. But they are afraid to testify more, because of the Pharisees’ pact to exclude anyone who confesses that Jesus is “the Christ/Messiah/Anointed One” (cf. 7:13; 12:42; 16:2).
So the Pharisees, with hostility, interview the man a second time. They claim to know that Jesus is a sinner (9:24). The man testifies that Jesus must be “from God.” Ironically, the Pharisees end up taking a position that was initially raised by the disciples (v. 2). They accuse the man of being born in sin. They reject the man’s witness and cast him out, as agreed upon earlier. But Jesus finds him and asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (=the more likely reading). The man asks “Who is he?” Jesus identifies himself as the one whom he saw and heard. Faith comes by hearing. The man now “gives glory to God” (v. 24) by confessing that he “believes,” by calling Jesus “Lord,” and by worshiping him (v. 38). Through the word, the man now sees spiritually and not only physically.
Division is inevitable. Jesus is from God, not from the world. He came into the world to do God’s works, for judgment (krima), that the blind may spiritually see and the sighted may become spiritually blind (v. 39). In one sense he came for the world’s judgment and to cast out its ruler (12:31). But in another sense he came not “to judge the world but to save the world” (12:47). How did he do that? By submitting to the world’s darkness as the atoning sacrifice for the world (9:4). On the third day God raised him from the dead, so that now his light shines in every land where his words are retold, where he gives new birth through water and the Spirit (Jn 3), where his flesh and blood are received in faith (Jn 6).