9:1-5 As Jesus was passing by, he saw a man who was blind from the day of his birth. "Rabbi." his disciples said to him, "who was it who sinned that he was born blind--this man or his parents?" "It was neither he nor his parents who sinned," answered Jesus, "but it happened that in him there might be a demonstration of what God can do. We must do the works of him who sent me while day lasts; the night is coming when no man is able to work. So long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world."
This is the only miracle in the gospels in which the sufferer is said to have been afflicted from his birth. In Acts we twice hear of people who had been helpless from their birth (the lame man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple in Acts 3:2 , and the cripple at Lystra in Acts 14:8 ), but this is the only man in the gospel story who had been so afflicted. He must have been a well-known character, for the disciples knew all about him.
When they saw him, they used the opportunity to put to Jesus a problem with which Jewish thought had always been deeply concerned, and which is still a problem. The Jews connected suffering and sin. They worked on the assumption that wherever there was suffering, somewhere there was sin. So they asked Jesus their question. "This man," they said, "is blind. Is his blindness due to his own sin, or to the sin of his parents?"
How could the blindness possibly be due to his own sin, when he had been blind from his birth? To that question the Jewish theologians gave two answers.
(i) Some of them had the strange notion of prenatal sin. They actually believed that a man could begin to sin while still in his mother's womb. In the imaginary conversations between Antoninus and Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, Antoninus asks: "From what time does the evil influence bear sway over a man, from the formation of the embryo in the womb or from the moment of birth?" The Rabbi first answered: "From the formation of the embryo." Antoninus disagreed and convinced Judah by his arguments, for Judah admitted that, if the evil impulse began with the formation of the embryo, then the child would kick in the womb and break his way out. Judah found a text to support this view. He took the saying in Genesis 4:7 : "Sin is couching at the door." And he put the meaning into it that sin awaited man at the door of the womb, as soon as he was born. But the argument does show us that the idea of prenatal sin was known.
(ii) In the time of Jesus the Jews believed in the preexistence of the soul. They really got that idea from Plato and the Greeks. They believed that all souls existed before the creation of the world in the garden of Eden, or that they were in the seventh heaven, or in a certain chamber, waiting to enter into a body. The Greeks had believed that such souls were good, and that it was the entry into the body which contaminated them; but there were certain Jews who believed that these souls were already good and bad. The writer of The Book of Wisdom says: "Now I was a child good by nature, and a good soul fell to my lot" ( Wisdom of Solomon 8:19 ).
In the time of Jesus certain Jews did believe that a man's affliction, even if it be from birth, might come from sin that he had committed before he was born. It is a strange idea, and it may seem to us almost fantastic; but at its heart lies the idea of a sin-infected universe.
The alternative was that the man's affliction was due to the sin of his parents. The idea that children inherit the consequences of their parents' sin is woven into the thought of the Old Testament. "I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation" ( Exodus 20:5 : compare Exodus 34:7 , Numbers 14:18 ). Of the wicked man the psalmist says: "May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out" ( Psalms 109:14 ). Isaiah talks about their iniquities and the "iniquities of their fathers," and goes on to say: "I will measure into their bosom payment for their former doings" ( Isaiah 65:6-7 ). One of the keynotes of the Old Testament is that the sins of the fathers are always visited upon the children. It must never be forgotten that no man lives to himself and no man dies to himself. When a man sins, he sets in motion a train of consequences which has no end.
In this passage there are two great eternal principles.
(i) Jesus does not try to follow out or to explain the connection of sin and suffering. He says that this man's affliction came to him to give an opportunity of showing what God can do. There are two senses in which that is true.
(a) For John the miracles are always a sign of the glory and the power of God. The writers of the other gospels had a different point of view; and regarded them as a demonstration of the compassion of Jesus. When Jesus looked on the hungry crowd he had compassion on them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd ( Mark 6:34 ). When the leper came with his desperate request for cleansing Jesus was moved with compassion ( Mark 1:41 ). It is often urged that in this the Fourth Gospel is quite different from the others. Surely there is no real contradiction here. It is simply two ways of looking at the same thing. At its heart is the supreme truth that the glory of God lies in his compassion, and that he never so fully reveals his glory as when he reveals his pity.
(b) But there is another sense in which the man's suffering shows what God can do. Affliction, sorrow, pain, disappointment, loss always are opportunities for displaying God's grace. First, it enables the sufferer to show God in action. When trouble and disaster fall upon a man who does not know God, that man may well collapse; but when they fall on a man who walks with God they bring out the strength and the beauty, and the endurance and the nobility, which are within a man's heart when God is there. It is told that when an old saint was dying in an agony of pain, he sent for his family, saying: "Come and see how a Christian can die." It is when life hits us a terrible blow that we can show the world how a Christian can live, and, if need be, die. Any kind of suffering is an opportunity to demonstrate the glory of God in our own lives. Second, by helping those who are in trouble or in pain, we can demonstrate to others the glory of God. Frank Laubach has the great thought that when Christ, who is the Way, enters into us "we become part of the Way. God's highway runs straight through us." When we spend ourselves to help those in trouble, in distress, in pain, in sorrow, in affliction, God is using us as the highway by which he sends his help into the lives of his people. To help a fellow-man in need is to manifest the glory of God, for it is to show what God is like.
Jesus goes on to say that he and all his followers must do God's work while there is time to do it. God gave men the day for work and the night for rest; the day comes to an end and the time for work is also ended. For Jesus it was true that he had to press on with God's work in the day for the night of the Cross lay close ahead. But it is true for every man. We are given only so much time. Whatever we are to do must be done within it. There is in Glasgow a sundial with the motto: "Tak' tent of time ere time be tint." "Take thought of time before time is ended." We should never put things off until another time, for another time may never come. The Christian's duty is to fill the time he has--and no man knows how much that will be--with the service of God and of his fellow-men. There is no more poignant sorrow than the tragic discovery that it is too late to do something which we might have done.
But there is another opportunity we may miss. Jesus said: "So long as I am in the world I am the light of the world." When Jesus said that, he did not mean that the time of his life and work were limited but that our opportunity of laying hold on him is limited. There comes to every man a chance to accept Christ as his Saviour, his Master and his Lord; and if that Starbuck in The Psychology of Religion has some interesting and warning statistics about the age at which conversion normally occurs. It can occur as early as seven or eight; it increases gradually to the age of ten or eleven; it increases rapidly to the age of sixteen; it declines steeply up to the age of twenty; and after thirty it is very rare. God is always saying to us: "Now is the time." It is not that the power of Jesus grows less, or that his light grows dim; it is that if we put off the great decision we become ever less able to take it as the years go on. Work must be done, decisions must be taken, while it is day, before the night comes down.
Before we leave this very wonderful chapter we would do well to read it again, this time straight through from start to finish. If we do so read it with care and attention, we will see the loveliest progression in the blind man's idea of Jesus. It goes through three stages, each one higher than the last.
(i) He began by calling Jesus a man. "A man that is called Jesus opened mine eyes" ( John 9:11 ). He began by thinking of Jesus as a wonderful man. He had never met anyone who could do the kind of things Jesus did; and he began by thinking of Jesus as supreme among men.
We do well sometimes to think of the sheer magnificence of the manhood of Jesus. In any gallery of the world's heroes he must find a place. In any anthology of the loveliest lives ever lived, his would have to be included. In any collection of the world's greatest literature his parables would have to be listed. Shakespeare makes Mark Antony say of Brutus:
"His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, 'This was a man!'"
Whatever else is in doubt, there is never any doubt that Jesus was a man among men.
(ii) He went on to call Jesus a prophet. When asked his opinion of Jesus in view of the fact that he had given him his sight, his answer was: "He is a prophet" ( John 9:17 ). Now a prophet is a man who brings God's message to men. "Surely the Lord God does nothing," said Amos, "without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets" ( Amos 3:7 ). A prophet is a man who lives close to God and has penetrated into his inner councils. When we read the wisdom of the words of Jesus, we are bound to say: "This is a prophet!" Whatever else may be in doubt, this is true--if men followed the teachings of Jesus, all personal, all social, all national, all international problems would be solved. If ever any man had the right to be called a prophet, Jesus has.
(iii) Finally the blind man came to confess that Jesus was the Son of God He came to see that human categories were not adequate to describe him. Napoleon was once in a company in which a number of clever skeptics were discussing Jesus. They dismissed him as a very great man and nothing more. "Gentlemen." said Napoleon, "I know men, and Jesus Christ was more than a man."
"If Jesus Christ is a man
And only a man--I say
That of all mankind I cleave to him
And to him will I cleave alway.
If Jesus Christ is a god--
And the only God--I swear
I will follow him through heaven and hell,
The earth, the sea, and the air!"
It is a tremendous thing about Jesus that the more we know him the greater he becomes. The trouble with human relationships is that often the better we know a person the more we know his weaknesses and his failings; but the more we know Jesus, the greater the wonder becomes; and that will be true, not only in time, but also in eternity.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)