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Exegetical Commentary on John 9

OUTLINE:

    [3 A The Book of the Seven Signs (2:1 - 12:50)]

      [2 B Selected highlights from the later part of Jesus’ public ministry: conflict and controversy (5:1 -10:42)]

        6 C The sixth Sign, in Jerusalem: the healing of the man born blind (9:1-41)

          1 D The miraculous healing (9:1-7)

          2 D The response by neighbors and acquaintances (9:8-12)

          3 D The investigation by the Pharisees (9:13-34)

          4 D Jesus leads the man born blind to spiritual sight (faith); the Pharisees remain in their spiritual blindness (9:35-41)

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Bligh, J., “Four Studies in St. John, I: The Man Born Blind,” Heythrop Journal 7 (1966): 129-44.

Carroll, K. L., “The Fourth Gospel and the Exclusion of Christians from the Synagogue,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 40 (1957): 19-32.

Horbury, W., “The Benediction of the Minim and Early Jewish-Christian Controversy,” Journal of Theological Studies 33 (1982): 19-61.

Martyn, J. L., History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979), esp. 24-62.

DETAILED EXEGETICAL NOTES:

        6 C The sixth Sign, in Jerusalem: the healing of the man born blind (9:1-41)

Introduction: The opening words of chapter 9, kaiV paravgwn, convey only the vaguest indication of the circumstances. Since there is no break with chapter 8, Jesus is presumably still in Jerusalem, and presumably not still in the Temple area. The events of chapter 9 fall somewhere between the Feast of Tabernacles (7:2) and the Feast of the Dedication (10:22).

But in the Evangelist’s narrative the connection exists—the incident recorded in chapter 9 (along with the ensuing debates with the Pharisees) serves as a real-life illustration of the claim Jesus made in 8:12, “I am the Light of the world”. This is in fact the probable theological motivation behind the juxtaposition of these two incidents in the narrative. The second serves as an illustration of the first, and as a concrete example of the victory of light over darkness.

(Note: This is Jesus’ first explicit claim to be the light in the Gospel of John, although the light/darkness motif was introduced in the Prologue (1:4-5) and mentioned in 3:19-21.)

The contextual link between chapter 9 and 8:12 (as well as 3:19-21) occurs in Jesus’ statement in 9:5: “When I am in the world, I am the light of the world”.

C. K. Barrett summarizes the chapter this way:

This…chapter expresses perhaps more vividly and completely than any other John’s conception of the work of Christ. On the one hand, he is the giver of benefits to a humanity which apart from him is in a state of complete hopelessness: it was never heard that one should open the eyes of a man born blind (v. 32). The illumination is not presented as primarily intellectual (as in some of the Hermetic tractates) but as the direct bestowal of life or salvation (and thus it is comparable with the gift of living water (4.10, 7.37 f.) and of the bread of life (6.27)). On the other hand, Jesus does not come into a world full of men aware of their own need. Many have their own inadequate lights (e.g. the Old Testament, 5.39 f.) which they are too proud to relinquish for the true light which now shines. The effect of the true light is to blind them, since they wilfully close their eyes to it. Their sin abides precisely because they are so confident of their righteousness.90

At the same time, chapter 9 provides an introduction for Jesus’ teaching about the Good Shepherd in chapter 10, where a sharp contrast is made between the good shepherd who gives his life for his sheep and the religious leaders of the day who are nothing but thieves and hirelings and abandon the flock when danger threatens.

One other thing which we should point out about the miracle recorded in chapter 9 is its messianic significance. In the OT it is God himself who is associated with the giving of sight to the blind (Exod 4:11, Ps 146:8). In a number of passages in Isaiah (29:18, 35:5, 42:7) it is considered to be a messianic activity:

Isa 29:17,18—”Is it not yet just a little while before Lebanon will be turned into a fertile field, and the fertile field will be considered as a forest? And on that day the deaf shall hear words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see…”

Isa 35:4-5—”Say to those with anxious heart, ‘Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but he will save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.”

Isa 42:6,7—”I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I will also hold you by the hand and watch over you, and I will appoint you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, and those who dwell in darkness from the prison.”

It is in fulfillment of these prophecies that Jesus gives sight to the blind. As the Light of the world he has defeated the darkness (cf. 1:5). Thus the miracle recorded here has significance for John as one of the seven “sign-miracles” which he employs to point to Jesus’ identity and messiahship. Because light and darkness is such an important theme in the Fourth Gospel, the imagery here is particularly significant.

          1 D The miraculous healing (9:1-7)

9:1 ejk geneth'" This particular phrase does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament, but it is good Greek for “from the hour of birth.” In light of the placement of this account in the narrative, it appears that the Evangelist wants to suggest that this man is representative of all humanity. The fact is that mankind is not by nature receptive to the light (1:5,10). Rather all mankind is spiritually blind from birth. It is the role of the Light who comes into the world to enlighten every man (cf. 1:9).

9:2 rJabbiv, tiv" h{marten The disciples assume that sin (regardless of who committed it) is the cause of the man’s blindness. This was a common belief in Judaism; the rabbis used Ezek 18:20 to prove there was no death without sin, and Ps 89:33 to prove there was no punishment without guilt (see the Talmud, b. Shabbat 55a, which, although later than the NT, illustrates this). Thus in this case the sin must have been on the part of the man’s parents, or during his own foetal existence. Midrash Rabbah on Song of Songs 1:41 (another later rabbinic work) states that when a pregnant woman worships in a heathen temple the fetus also commits idolatry. This is only one example of how, in rabbinic Jewish thought, an unborn child was capable of sinning.

i{na is one of the clearest examples of a i{na indicating result in the New Testament. No one would have deliberately wanted this to come about.

9:3 i{na here can indicate either purpose or result. The question is of grammatical interest but not much theological importance, because from our knowledge of Johannine theology we would not suppose in any case that the man’s birth and blindness took place outside the control (and therefore the purpose) of God. (Compare John’s use of the impersonal dei' with respect to Jesus.) The ultimate idea is the manifestation of the works of God (and through them, the Son of God who does them—compare 9:16, 31).

9:4 hJma'" dei' ejrgavzesqai taV e[rga tou' pevmyantov" me e{w" hJmevra ejstivn Note the divine necessity implicit in dei' again. Also note the contrast between day and night, that is, light and darkness. What does the saying mean? For John, in view of the identification of Jesus as the Light of the world, night involves the departure of Jesus from the world. That departure is drawing near—note the connection with 7:34, 8:21 ff. The Light will soon be withdrawn, and darkness will reign again for a time, but not forever (cf. Prologue, 1:5,10).

9:5 o{tan ejn tw'/ kovsmw/ w, fw'" eijmi tou' kovsmou We may paraphrase: “as long as I am here on my mission of salvation (3:17) upon which I was sent by the Father (tou' pevmyantov", 9:4), I am the Light of the world.”

This verse connects the present account with 8:12. Here, seen more clearly than at 8:12, it is obvious what John sees as the significance of Jesus’ statement. “Light” is not a metaphysical definition of the person of Jesus but a description of his effect upon the kovsmo"compare 3:19-21 .

9:6 ejpoivhsen phloVn It is impossible to say with certainty why he chose to make clay of the spittle. Spittle was recognized in ancient times as having medicinal (and even magical) value but this hardly explains Jesus’ use here. To make the clay was definitely work and thus in violation of the Sabbath (cf. 9:19, also the Mishnah, m. Shabbat 7:2, where kneading dough or other substances on the Sabbath was prohibited).

Note: The textual variant preserved in the Syriac text of Ephraem’s commentary on the Diatessaron (“he made eyes from his clay”) probably arose from the interpretation by Irenaeus in Against Heresies: “that which the Artificer, the Word, had omitted to form in the womb, he then supplied in public”! This involves taking the clay as an allusion to Gen 2:7, which in my judgment is unlikely.

9:7 Silwavm (Siloam) Why does the Evangelist comment on the meaning of the name of the pool? John generally uses ajpostevllw and pevmpw synonymously. Here, the significance is: the Father sent the Son, and the Son sends the man born blind. The name of the pool is applicable to the man, but also to Jesus himself, who was sent from heaven.

The pool’s name in Hebrew is jLV (shiloah) from jlv, “to send.” In Gen 49:10 the somewhat obscure hlyv (shiloh) was interpreted messianically by Jews, and some have seen a lexical connection between the two names (although this is somewhat dubious). We do know, however, that it was from the Pool of Siloam that the water which was poured out at the altar during the Feast of Tabernacles was drawn.91

          2 D The response by neighbors and acquaintances (9:8-12)

9:8-9 Those who knew the man formerly have difficulty recognizing him as the same individual.

Note: The Evangelist’s use of ejgwv eijmi here means simply “I am he” and obviously has no connection with Jesus’ claims. This should be taken as indication that John has not made the phrase a technical term. The context of each instance must determine the significance of the phrase and whether an allusion to Exod 3:14 is in view.

9:10-12 Note that all the man knew about Jesus at this point was his name. He didn’t even know where Jesus was (9:12). At this point the man seems to have no understanding of who Jesus really was, but his insight will grow as the narrative progresses.

          3 D The investigation by the Pharisees (9:13-34)

9:13-14 h deV savbbaton The Evangelist now inserts a note (9:14) that it was the Sabbath, the first indication of this we have been given in the account (cf. 5:9 where a similar note is given). Jesus has again done something which is about to cause controversy—he has performed ‘work’ on the Sabbath.

9:15 Note the subtlety here: on the surface, the man is being judged. But through him, Jesus is being judged. But in reality (as the discerning reader will realize) it is ironically the Pharisees themselves who are being judged by their response to Jesus who is the Light of the world!

9:16 The initial response to the man’s answers: the Pharisees are divided in their opinion. Some assume automatically that since the Sabbath has been broken, this man Jesus cannot be from God. But some others are troubled by the facts: how can a man who is a sinner perform such miraculous signs? This group must have been fairly small, since we hear no more from them in the narrative, and the account proceeds on the premise of the former group, that a man who breaks the Sabbath cannot be from God.

9:17 The second o{ti is usually rendered as causal. But Liddell-Scott-Jones offers the meaning “with regard to the fact that…” which fits well here.92

profhvth" ejstivn —At this point the man, pressed by the Pharisees, admits there was something special about Jesus. But here, since profhvth" is anarthrous and in his initial reply in 9:11-12 the man shows no particular insight into the true identity of Jesus, it is probable that this does not refer to the prophet of Deut 18:15, but merely to an unusual person who is capable of working miracles. The Pharisees have put this man on the spot, and he feels compelled to say something about Jesus, but he still doesn’t have a clear conception of who Jesus is. So he labels him a “prophet.”

9:18 Note again the interchangeability of oiJ =Ioudai'oi (here) with “oiJ Farisaivoi” (9:13). At this point there does not seem to be open hostility; rather the dilemma represented in 9:16 was real: a man who was good enough to perform the miracle would not have performed it on the Sabbath. There must therefore be a mistake somewhere, and it was probably in the man’s story. So the next step was to interrogate the man’s parents. Probably the man was not really born blind in the first place.

9:19-23 The parents respond to the pressure of the Pharisees quite differently than their son. The parents, fearing that they will be “put out of the synagogue,” refuse to have anything to do with the matter. They insist that their son is old enough to speak for himself.

ajposunavgwgo" gevnhtai This reference to excommunication from the Jewish synagogue for those who had made some sort of confession about Jesus being the Messiah is dismissed as anachronistic by some (e.g., Barrett) and non-historical by others. In later Jewish practice there were at least two forms of excommunication: the ywdn, a temporary ban for thirty days, and the <rh, which was a permanent ban. But whether these applied in NT times is far from certain. We have no substantial evidence for a formal ban on Christians until later than this Gospel could possibly have been written. I suspect we have reference here to some form of excommunication adopted as a contingency to deal with those who were proclaiming Jesus to be the Messiah. If so, we have no other record of the procedure than here. It was probably local, limited to the area around Jerusalem.

9:24 Deciding that their interrogation of the man’s parents was fruitless, the Pharisees switch back to the man himself.

doV" dovxan tw'/ qew'/ —As often noted (cf. Josh 7:19) this is equivalent to “Admit the truth.”

Technically, the Jews were correct, there was no doubt that Jesus had transgressed their law, and was a “sinner”. Whether they were correctly interpreting that law was entirely another matter. But the emphatic hJmei'" shows their self-assurance: they know they are right. We should not miss another example of irony here: the Jewish religious leaders, who thought of themselves as enlightened, are trying to pressure the man who was born blind into denying his certainty that he had received light (sight)!

9:25 But the man born blind, an admirably tenacious sort, won’t give up the other side of the dilemma. It is beyond question that he had received sight at the hands of Jesus.

9:26-29 When pressed even further, the man sticks to his story. The Jews are reduced to mocking him (v. 28), and the argument on their part becomes completely ad hominem (v. 34).

But the significant thing here is the question the man asks of his accusers: mhV kaiV uJmei'" qevlete aujtou' maqhtaiV… The expected answer of a question asked with mhv is “no,” but the key word here is kaiv: by the way he asks the question the man betrays that he already numbers himself among Jesus followers.

          4 D Jesus leads the man born blind to spiritual sight (faith); the Pharisees remain in their spiritual blindness (9:35-41)

9:35 The story is not over yet. The Light has shone and it has created division between those who come to it and those who shrink back (compare especially 3:19-21). The Jews have thrown out the man (and thus have also rejected Jesus); however, the man displays admirable tenacity when he refuses to deny the light.

But the man who was healed has not yet understood the full significance of what has taken place. Jesus, as he must, takes the initiative in finding the man.

Note the emphatic pronoun suv (verse 35): Jesus is interested in the man’s belief, having seen the disbelief of the Pharisees. “You saw what they think; now what do you think?”

9:38 After Jesus’ statement of verse 37 the man’s response is extremely significant: he worshipped Jesus. In the Johannine context the word connotes its full sense: this was something due God alone. Note that Jesus does not prevent him. The verb proskunevw is used in John 4:20-25 of worshipping God, and again with the same sense in 12:20. This is the only place in the Gospel of John where anyone is said to have worshipped Jesus using this term. As such, it forms the climax of the entire story of the man born blind.93

9:39-41 Jesus now summarizes: for judgment he has come. There is a contradiction, but only a superficial one, with 3:17. Jesus’ mission is to save the world. He did not come with the mission of condemming it. But (as 3:19-21 goes on to explain, as well as the examples of 8:1-11 and here) by the very fact of the Light coming into the world, judgment is provoked. As men respond, so they are judged. The presence of the Light necessitates a choice—to come to it or to shrink back—and this choice is one’s judgment.

Jesus’ words recall Isaiah’s: the blind receive sight (Isa 29:18, 35:5, 42:7, 42:18) while the seeing are blinded (6:10, 42:20).

The blind man received sight physically; this led him to see spiritually as well. But the Pharisees, who claimed to possess spiritual sight, are spiritually blinded. The reader might recall Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in 3:10, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?”

In other words, to receive Jesus is to receive the Light of the world, to reject him is to reject the light, close one’s eyes, and become blind. This is the dire sin of which Jesus had warned before (8:21-24). The blindness of such people is incurable since they have rejected the only cure that exists.

Summary: R. Brown (AB 29, 376-77) sums up chapter 9 as follows:

The internal construction of the story shows consummate artistry; no other story in the Gospel is so closely knit. We have here Johannine dramatic skill at its best. …Before narrating the miracle, the evangelist is careful to have Jesus point out the meaning of the sign as an instance of light coming into darkness. This is a story of how a man who sat in darkness was brought to see the light, not only physically but spiritually. On the other hand, it is also a tale of how those who thought they saw (the Pharisees) were blinding themselves to the light and plunging into darkness. The story starts in vs. 1 with a blind man who will gain his sight; it ends in vs. 41 with the Pharisees who have become spiritually blind.

The care with which the evangelist has drawn his portraits of increasing insight and hardening blindness is masterful. Three times the former blind man, who is truly gaining knowledge, humbly confesses his ignorance (12, 25, 36). Three times the Pharisees, who are really plunging deeper into abysmal ignorance of Jesus, make confident statements about what they know of him (16, 24, 29). The blind man emerges from these pages in John as one of the most attractive figures of the Gospels. Although the Sabbath setting and the accusation against Jesus create a similarity between this miracle and the healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda in ch. v, this clever and voluble blind man is quite different from the obtuse and unimaginative paralytic of ch. v… . The blind man’s confutation of the Pharisees in verses 24-34 is one of the most cleverly written dialogues in the NT.94


90 C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, 354.

91 For further discussion see Carson, The Gospel According to John, 365.

92 LSJ 1265 s.v. o{ti IV.

93 Some significant early witnesses (75 * W et pauci itb,(l) sams ac2 mf) lack the words, “He said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him. Jesus said,” (vv. 38-39a). The omission may have been an accidental error of sight on the part of a copyist (both vv. 37 and 39 begin with “Jesus said to him”). The inclusion of the words may have been motivated by use of the passage in liturgy (see Brown, The Gospel According to John, 375), since the verb proskunevw (proskunew, “I worship”) is used in John 4:20-25 of worshiping God, and again in 12:20 with the same sense. Even if these words are not authentic, such an omission does not lessen John's high christology (cf. 1:1; 5:18-23; 14:6-10; 20:28) nor the implicit worship of him by Thomas (20:28). Nevertheless, it is difficult to decide whether the words are original or not. The NET Bible retains the words but places them in square brackets to indicate the degree of doubt as to whether they should be included in the original text of John.

94 Brown, The Gospel According to John, 376-77.

Related Topics: Christology, Faith, Miracles