v.1 Without in any way discounting the historical veracity of the account we are about to read, remember that the Lord’s miracles were, in many cases, themselves pictures of salvation. He referred to them as such himself. The man blind from birth is like all men. We are all born blind, spiritually speaking, or, if not born blind, conceived in spiritual blindness. Christ came into the world to give sight to the blind. These are the conclusions he himself will draw at the end of the account in vv. 39-41.
v.2 The disciples had a too simple theology of suffering, like Job’s friends. They assumed, rightly, that suffering came from sin, — if there had been no sin, there would be no blindness in the world — but they wrongly assumed that they could connect an individual’s sufferings with his own or another’s specific sins.
v.4 You see that already the Lord is connecting his disciples with his own work. “We must do the work of him who sent me.”
v.5 The Lord seems to be speaking about how the light shines brightly in the world while he is among men. But what does he mean by the “night coming”? Some speak simply of the “remorseless passage of time removing the present opportunity.” [Morris, 479] Others think that the reference to “while it is still day,” and the night coming when no one will work and supported by the “while I am in the world” in v. 5, makes the entire thought have to do with the darkness of the period when Jesus was first taken away from his disciples, after the cross and before the descent of the Holy Spirit. While it is day is while the Lord is with them. The darkness is when he is taken from them. Then, the Spirit comes and makes it day again, but that is not the point here.
v.6 “Having said this…” shows that the miracle that follows is the demonstration of his being the light of the world.
v.6 The fact is, nobody knows for sure why the Lord used saliva and dirt. There are more explanations than one can shake a stick at, but no solid answers. The Lord used saliva on two other occasions, you may remember: Mark 7:33; 8:23. Perhaps more likely than other explanations is that the spit would have been regarded as unclean and so the Lord was accomplishing the miracle, in the very presence of the Jewish religious leadership, in a manner that violated their understanding of purity before God, because, of course, the Lord Jesus completely rejected that understanding. However, that point is not raised in the following discussion, so make of it what you will. The Lord did not always use such means, so clearly it has nothing to do with what had to be done to give sight to the blind. It has some other significance. But what?
v.7 John tells us the symbolic significance of the Pool of Siloam. As we will read in 20:21, Jesus was sent by the Father and then he sends us to do his work, the work of salvation. Now the Lord Jesus drops out of the picture and won’t reappear until v.35.
v.9 Biblical miracles were the genuine article and they staggered everyone!
v.13 Just as today some great event would be brought to the government for comment, so in those days it was brought to the religious authorities, probably here just the leadership of the local synagogue.
v.16 Actually, the first argument is better. The Bible warns against following men who do miracles but teach what is contrary to God’s law. The problem is that the Pharisees had misunderstood God’s law and so saw Jesus as a lawbreaker when he was not.
v.17 The question forces the man to take sides and he sides with Jesus.
v.22 Cf. Luke’s version of the beatitudes in 6:22. “Blessed are you when they exclude you…for my name’s sake.”
v.24 They are determined to find Jesus guilty and come back to the man for the evidence. There must be something the man has hidden from them.
v.25 Remember the importance of testimony and of witnesses in the Gospel of John. Here is this man giving his own testimony to Jesus Christ.
v.27 The man has a sardonic wit and gives as good as he gets.
v.29 These past two verses encapsulate the dispute between Judaism and Christianity, and, of course, Christianity’s claim, as was the claim of Jesus himself, is that the dispute is properly resolved only when such Jews as these Pharisees admit that they are not truly disciples of Moses, that they have, in fact, lost touch almost entirely with the true burden of Moses’ teaching.
v.34 The “they threw him out” is probably a reference to the threatened excommunication mentioned above.
v.39 The Lord naturally moves over from physical to spiritual blindness. He came, we read in 3:17 to save, not to condemn, but he cannot save without forcing a cleavage between men. The gospel is an odor of life to those who believe, but an odor of death to those who will not. That cannot be helped. As Simeon said at the time of his birth, “Behold this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel…that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” As Augustine has it, “That day had made division between light and darkness.”
v.41 This is a characteristic way of speaking on the Lord’s part in the Gospel. He came to heal the sick, those who are well have no need of a physician; but, of course, in the context “those who are well” are the unbelieving Jews, not really well, but those who think they are well. If they knew themselves “blind” salvation would be theirs, but thinking themselves able to see, they miss the brilliant light shining in front of them.
There is no account of the giving of sight to the blind in the OT, no such miracle performed by Moses or Elijah or Elisha. Nor is there any such miracle reported in the NT as having been performed by the apostles after Pentecost. But there are more miracles of this type – giving sight to the blind – reported among the healing miracles of the Lord than of any other type of healing miracle. Perhaps that is because in the Old Testament, giving sight to the blind was something that God alone could do and, further, something that the Messiah would do!
“Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” [Isa. 35:5]
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight…I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind and to free captives from prison… [Isa. 42:7]
Perhaps that is why this miracle is given so much space and commentary in the Gospel of John. It is supremely a revelation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Messiah. Indeed, in Matt. 11:5 the Lord tells the disciples of John the Baptist to tell him, there in prison where he was, that in the Lord’s ministry the blind are receiving their sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. The great miracles that the Lord performed in Judea and Jerusalem, as recorded in the Gospel of John, all deal with these things: in John 5 the lame man is healed; in John 9 the blind man receives his sight; and in John 11 the dead man is raised. [Hengstenberg in Ryle, John, ii, 156]
It is further, of course, a study in the nature and character of salvation as God’s free gift and as that which is accomplished in us by the mighty power of God, a change that comes over us that we could never effect by ourselves or in our own strength. This is what baffled the Jews. They were unwilling to think kindly of the Lord Jesus, but they, no more than anyone else, could offer an explanation for a work as mighty as this.
And, it is further, as so often in the gospels, a study in the nature and character of true faith as well as its opposite, the stubborn, intractable unbelief of the natural human heart. Here are the Pharisees, eaten up by envy and by pride – their utter refusal to admit that they have gotten the most important things of life completely wrong, upside down, unable to separate the astonishing demonstration of the Lord’s divine credentials that they have seen before their eyes from their ego-driven unwillingness to accept their need. They are willfully blind. They will not see, because they see so clearly what they must confess, what they must accept to be true about themselves. They are not about to say, as the man who had been healed said, “I was blind, but now I see.”
As Voltaire once wrote of himself, “If in the market of Paris, before the eyes of a thousand men and before my own eyes, a miracle should be performed, I would much rather disbelieve the two thousand eyes and my own two, than believe it.” [Ryle, ii, 175] “I would much rather…” There is the key. What one will believe is so often what one is willing to believe!
Then there are the man’s parents, representing a class of human beings that is surely very large in every place at every time. These folk realize that there is truth here, they see the evidence of it, but they are unwilling to face the opposition that will come to them if they confess Christ openly. It would be hard to believe that parents of such a son, who had lived so long with the sadness of his condition and had so longed for him to see, could then be so timid about the astonishing change in his condition, if there weren’t such people all around us all the time. How many there are who lose life out of cowardice, the fear of man. How many scientists do you suppose there are who have private doubts, serious doubts about evolution, have reason to believe it isn’t true, but who never say a thing in public for fear of the scorn of their peers.
But, finally, there is this wonderful man, who first does what everyone must do who wishes to be saved. He simply took the Lord at his word and acted on it. He was told to go to Siloam and he did, though he could see no better on the way to that pool than he could when he woke up that morning. Perhaps a friend helped him there. Perhaps he knew the city so well as a beggar, he could get there himself, with his white cane. The Lord did not make it easy for him. But once he had fulfilled Christ’s instructions, his eyes were opened. How many there are who wait for sight before they will commit to Christ. It does not work that way, it never has. The man believed and acted on the Lord’s word and he was healed.
But then this man also sets an example for us of true faith in its demonstration. He tells the truth even at risk to himself, and stands up to all the pressure that was brought to bear upon him. And how much better for that stoutness he was. This was an excommunication to be thankful for. For, as Calvin says, “If he had been kept in the synagogue, he would have run the danger of becoming gradually alienated from Christ and plunged into the same destruction as the ungodly… We have known the same thing in our own time. For when Luther, and others like him, were beginning to reprove the grosser abuses of the Pope, they had scarcely the slightest taste for pure Christianity. But after the Pope had fulminated against them and cast them out of the Roman synagogue by terrifying bulls, Christ stretched out His hand and made Himself fully known to them.” So with this man. He confessed the truth, even when it cost him his place in the synagogue, and the result was that the Son of God came to meet him and bring him to full and complete faith.
Now, as we saw last week, the physical state only symbolizes, it does not define the spiritual state. Last week, we pointed out that physical life and death are an image of two spiritual states, but that those in Christ live, even though they too must die in the physical sense, and those who are dead in their sins should be much more concerned about that spiritual death – which continues beyond the grave – than the prospect of the death of the body. Well, so here. We know people who are blind in the physical sense, who have a perfect sight of those things that are truly important to see. Think of our friend, John Rug, the missionary to Chile, who also was born blind, was also born blind in both senses, but later as a young man was given sight by the Lord Jesus Christ. For some years yet he will not be able to see in the physical sense, but he has for many years been able to see in the sense that the Lord uses the term in vv. 39-41. And, in the same way, we know many people who have very good eyesight, but who are blind as bats when it comes to seeing what is truly and eternally important.
So, in this marvelous event, we have the entire message of the gospel summed up. Christ Jesus is the Son of God and the Messiah sent into the world to bring salvation to human beings who all are in desperate need of salvation and who cannot save themselves. What all men are summoned to do is to acknowledge that Jesus Christ and he alone has eternal life in his hands, he and he alone brings the truth which sets men and women free, and then to seek that life and that truth from hand and set to living according to it. Alas, there are many human beings who would rather starve than come to any feast that is set by the Son of God, who would rather remain in darkness if the price of seeing the light is to confess that one is as blind and has been as wrong as Christ says. But, there are those who, by God’s grace, see themselves blind and hungry and sick and see Christ offering sight, a feast, and eternal health, and they take these things from his hands and the rest of their lives they are found telling others, “I was blind, but now I see.”
Some of us in this church this morning know how great can be the difference between poor eyesight and good eyesight. I distinctly remember the time in my early teens when I discovered that my eyesight was deteriorating. I was standing in our downstairs family room, before a picture window that opened on the woods behind our house. I happened, for some reason, to put on my mother’s glasses, and suddenly, in an instant, what had been indistinct, really a blur, was sharp and clear. Each leaf stood out, each blade of grass. I had so long lived with poor eyesight that I had no idea how little I saw.
I had a similar experience just a few months ago. All these years since I have worn glasses or contact lenses, but last Spring I had the new laser surgery on my eyes. I had very poor eyesight without correction. 20/700 in one eye; 20-800 in another. That is, I could see something twenty feet away about as well as someone with good eyesight could see something that was 800 feet away, almost three football fields away. I could read a sign that was only twenty feet from me only as well as someone else could read the same sign when it was 800 feet away. When I took my glasses off, to go into the room where the procedure was to be done, the entire room was a blur. There were numbers and letters on the large TV screen above and beyond the laser machine that displayed for the doctor certain information of importance to him, but I couldn’t see any of that. It was all gray fuzz to me.
But, a few minutes later, when I sat up after the procedure was completed on both my eyes, and there was the data on the screen, there was the doctor’s face, there was the room in all of its detail. Now, I had not been blind before. Because of glasses and contact lenses I had been able to see very well. But, what a difference between my natural sight and my corrected vision! Imagine what it must have been for that man as he stood up from washing his eyes at the pool of Siloam and saw everything for the first time, saw what everything looked like that he had only had described to him before, saw colors, saw faces, saw the city of Jerusalem, saw his parents and his home. Don’t you imagine that all that day long he would close his eyes to imagine himself back in his blindness and then open them to exult in his being able at last to see? I bet that fellow wore people out over the next weeks talking endlessly about how everything appeared to him that he had never been able to see before. How different the appearance of things must have been to what he had imagined during the years, never having been able to see, never knowing what anything looked like! There was a happy man!
Well, it is not hard, is it, to see how similar it must be for a man who has been spiritually blind, but now sees things as they truly are with the clearest vision, whose eyes the Lord Christ has opened by his Holy Spirit. How many Christians, through the ages, have thought of their salvation in just these terms: I was blind, but now I see.
Thomas Halyburton, one of the great figures of Scottish Christianity in the 18th century, in his magnificent autobiography, describes his coming to faith in Christ as a young man in just this way. Indeed, here is the way he begins his account:
“I cannot be very positive about the day or hour of this deliverance, nor can I satisfy many other questions about the way and manner of it. But this is of no consequence, if the work is in substance sound, for ‘the wind bloweth where it listeth; and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is everyone that is born of the Spirit.” (John iii. 8) Many things about the way and manner we may be ignorant of, while we are sufficiently sure of the effects. As to these things, I must say with the blind man, ‘I know not: one thing I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see.”
But, through the reading of the Word of God and praying for light, the Lord came to him and opened his eyes near the end of January in 1698. And that is how he puts it and how he thought about his conversion. It was an opening of his blind eyes. Indeed words like “see” and “sight” are found all through the account. And then this light that he could now see, he proceeds to describe in nine particulars. He says it was 1) a heavenly light, it shone above me, it opened heaven to me, and led me up, as it were, to heaven; 2) a true light, exposing the falsehoods about himself and the world and God that he had so long entertained; 3) a pleasant light; 4) a distinct and clear light; 5) a satisfying light; 6) a refreshing and healing light, it warmed him and his life; 7) a great light; 8) a powerful light, dissipating the thick darkness that had overspread his mind; and 9) a composing light; not like lightning that appears in a moment and disappears leaving terror behind, but composed and quieted his soul that had been troubled about so many things. Then he concludes, “…I know that no words can express the notion that the weakest Christian, who has his eyes opened, really has of [the glory of this light.] … No words can convey a true notion of light to the blind; and he that has eyes, at least while he sees it, will need no words to describe it.” [Memoirs, 99-104]
Don’t you suppose that the blind man to whom the Lord gave sight would have described his experience in very similar terms? And, don’t you know that, finally, he exulted far more in the spiritual sight that he had been given, the knowledge of Christ and salvation, than the sight of his eyes. I guarantee you that more than once in the remaining years of that man’s life he told people that he would rather have remained blind all his days if in his blindness he had been given to see Christ than to be given his eyesight but never the sight of Christ or heaven.
The Pharisees knew nothing of any of that. Confident that they saw everything clearly, they were blind to the most stupendous and wonderful things right before their eyes. Remember Augustine: “That day had made a division between light and darkness.” But those in darkness thought they had the light. Oh, be careful here, my friends. You check your eyesight, not by a chart on the wall, but by how the Lord Jesus Christ appears to you: you see indeed if he is the Son of God in whom you trust for your life forever and for whom you wish, you intend, you are determined with might and main to live your life so long as you have breath. See that happy man: “Lord I believe, and he worshipped him.” That is what men and women do who can really see!
We cannot but envy you, O happy man, who, the Lord’s patient, was privileged to become his advocate; whose gaining physical sight made way for spiritual sight; who lost a synagogue but found heaven; who, abandoned by sinners, was welcomed by the Lord of Glory. [Cf. Hall, Contemplations, 540]