Expositor's Bible Commentary
And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.Chapter 20
SIGHT GIVEN TO THE BLIND.
“And as He passed by, He saw a man blind from his birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, Rabbi, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he should be born blind? Jesus answered, Neither did this man sin, 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, while it is day; the night cometh, when no man can work. When I am in the world, I am the Light of the world. When He had thus spoken, He spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and anointed his eyes with the clay, and said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam (which is by interpretation, Sent). He went away, therefore, and washed, and came seeing. The neighbours therefore, and they which saw him aforetime, that he was a beggar, said, Is not this he that sat and begged? Others said, It is he: others said, No, but he is like him. He said, I am he. They said therefore unto him, How then were thine eyes opened? He answered, The man that is called Jesus made clay, and anointed mine eyes, and said unto me, Go to Siloam, and wash: so I went away and washed, and I received sight. And they said unto him, Where is He? He saith, I know not. They bring to the Pharisees him that aforetime was blind. Now it was the sabbath on the day when Jesus made the clay, and opened his eyes. Again therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he received his sight. And he said unto them, He put clay upon mine eyes, and I washed, and do see. Some therefore of the Pharisees said, This man is not from God, because He keepeth not the sabbath. But others said, How can a man that is a sinner do such signs? And there was a division among them. They say therefore unto the blind man again, What sayest thou of Him, in that He opened thine eyes? And he said, He is a prophet. The Jews therefore did not believe concerning him, that he had been blind, and had received his sight, until they called the parents of him that had received his sight, and asked them, saying, Is this your son, who ye say was born blind? how then doth he now see? His parents answered and said, We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind: but how he now seeth, we know not; or who opened his eyes, we know not: ask him; he is of age; he shall speak for himself. These things said his parents, because they feared the Jews: for the Jews had agreed already, that if any man should confess Him to be Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue. Therefore said his parents, He is of age; ask him. So they called a second time the man that was blind, and said unto him, Give glory to God: we know that this man is a sinner. He therefore answered, Whether He be a sinner, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see. They said therefore unto him, What did He to thee? how opened He thine eyes? He answered them, I told you even now, and ye did not hear: wherefore would ye hear it again? would ye also become His disciples? And they reviled him, and said, Thou art His disciple; but we are disciples of Moses, We know that God hath spoken unto Moses: but as for this man, we know not whence He is. The man answered and said unto them, Why, herein is the marvel, that ye know not whence He is, and yet He opened mine eyes. We know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and do His will, him He heareth. Since the world began it was never heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, He could do nothing. They answered and said unto him, Thou wast altogether born in sins, and dost thou teach us? And they cast him out. Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and finding him, He said, Dost thou believe on the Son of God? He answered and said, And who is He, Lord, that I may believe on Him? Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen Him, and He it is that speaketh with thee. And he said, Lord, I believe. And he worshipped Him. And Jesus said, For judgment came I into this world, that they which see not may see; and that they which see may become blind. Those of the Pharisees which were with Him heard these things, and said unto Him, Are we also blind? Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye would have no sin: but now ye say, We see: your sin remaineth.”- John 9:1-41We have already considered the striking use our Lord made of the Temple illumination to proclaim Himself the Light of the world. A still more striking physical symbol of this aspect of our Lord’s person and work is found in His healing of the blind man. It is, as we have already had occasion to see, the manner of this evangelist to select for narration those miracles of Christ’s which are especially “signs,” outward embodiments of spiritual truth. Accordingly he now proceeds to exhibit Christ as the Light of the world in His bestowal of sight on the blind.
The disciples of Jesus had apparently been exercised by one of the outstanding problems of human life which perplex all thoughtful men: What regulates the distribution of suffering; why is it that while many of the most criminal and noxious men are prosperous and exempt from pain, many of the gentlest and best are broken and tortured by constant suffering? Why is it that inexplicable suffering seems so often to fall on the wrong people, on the innocent not on the guilty, on those who already are of refined and chastened disposition, not on those who seem urgently to need correction and the rod? Is suffering sent that character may be improved? But in Job’s case it was sent because he was already irreproachable, not to make him so. Is it sent because of a man’s early transgressions? But this man was born blind; his punishment preceded any possible transgression of his own. Was he then the victim of his parent’s wrong-doing? But suffering is often the result of accident or of malice, or of mistake, which cannot be referred to hereditary sin. Are we then to accept the belief that this world is far from perfect as yet; that God begins at the beginning in all His works, and only slowly works towards perfection, and that in the progress, and while we are only moving towards an eternal state, there must be pains manifold and bitter? They are the shavings and sawdust and general disorder of the carpenter’s workshop, which are necessarily thrown off in the making of the needful article. It is to it, to the finished work, we must look, and not to the shavings, if we would understand and be reconciled to the actual state of things around us.
When Jesus said, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God should be made manifest in him,” He of course did not mean to suggest that there is no such thing as suffering for individual or hereditary sin. By breaking the great moral laws of human life men constantly involve both themselves and their children in lifelong suffering. There is often so direct a connection between sin and suffering that the most hardened and insensible do not dream of denying that their pain and misery are self-inflicted. Sometimes the connection is obscure, and though every one else sees the source of a man’s misfortunes in his own careless habits, or indolence, or bad temper, he himself may constantly blame his circumstances, his ill-luck, his partners, or his friends. It was our Lord’s intention to warn the disciples against a curious and uncharitable scrutiny of any man’s life to find the cause of his misfortunes. We have to do rather with the future than with the past, rather with the question how we can help the man out of his difficulties, than with the question how he got himself into them. The one question may indeed be involved in the other, but all suffering is, in the first place, a field in which the works of God may be exhibited. Wherever suffering has come from, there can be no manner of doubt that it calls out all that is best in human nature-sympathy, self-denial, gentleness, compassion, forgiveness of spirit, patient forbearance, all that is most Divine in man. To seek for the cause of suffering in order to blame and exonerate ourselves from all responsibility and claim on our pity and charity is one thing, quite another to inquire into the cause for the sake of more effectually dealing with the effect. No matter what has caused the suffering, here certainly it is always with us, and what we have to do with it is to find in it material and opportunity for a work of God. To rid the world of evil, of wretchedness, lonely sorrow, destitution, and disease is, if anything, the work of God; if God is doing anything He is carrying the world on towards perfection, and if the world is ever to be perfect it must be purged from agony and wretchedness, irrespective of where these come from. Our duty then, if we would be fellow-workers with God in what is real and abiding, is plain.
To the work of healing the blind man Jesus at once applies Himself. While the lifted stones were yet in His pursuers hands He paused to express His Father’s love. He must, He says, work the works of Him who sent Him. He represented the Father not mechanically, not by getting well off by rote the task His Father had set Him, not by a studied imitation, but by being Himself of one mind with the Father, by loving that blind man just as the Father loved him, and by doing for him just what the Father would have done for him. We do the works of God when in our measure we do the same, becoming eyes to the blind, feet to the lame, help any way to the helpless. We cannot lay our hand on the diseased and heal them; we cannot give sight to the blind and make a man thus feel, this is God’s power reaching to me; this is God stooping to me and caring for my infirmity; but we can cause men to feel that God is thinking of them, and has sent help through us to them. If we will only be humble enough to run the risk of failure, and of being held cheap, if we will only in sincerity take by the hand those who are ill-off and strive to better them, then these persons will think of God gratefully; or if they do not, there is no better way of making them think of God, for this was Christ’s way, who had rarely need to add much explanation of His kind deeds, but letting them speak for themselves, heard the people giving God the glory. If men can be induced to believe in the love of their fellow-men, they are well on the road to belief in the love of God. And even though it should not be so, though all our endeavours to help men should fail to make them think of God as their helper, who has sent us and all help to them, yet we have helped them, and some at least of God’s love for these suffering people has got itself expressed through us. God has got at least a little of His work done, has in one direction stopped the spread of evil.
Neither are we to wait until we can do things on a great scale, and attack the evils of human life with elaborate machinery. Our Lord was not a great organiser. He did not busy Himself with forming societies for this, that, and the other charitable work. He did not harangue assemblies convened to consider the relief of the poor; He did not press the abolition of slavery; He did not found orphanages or hospitals; but “as He passed by,” He saw one blind man, and judged this a call sufficiently urgent. Sometimes we feel that, confronted as we are with a whole world full of deep-rooted and inveterate evils, it is useless giving assistance to an individual here and there. It is like trying to dry up the ocean with a sponge. We feel impatient with individual acts, and crave national action and radical measures. And that is very well, so long as we do not omit to use the opportunities we actually have of doing even little kindnesses, of undergirding the shattered life of individuals, and so enabling them to do what otherwise they could not do. But we shall never do our part, either to individuals or on a large scale, until we apprehend that it is only through us and others that God works, and that when we pass by a needy person we prevent God’s love from reaching him, and disappoint the purpose of God. It was this feeling that imparted to Christ so intense and wakeful an energy. He felt it was God’s work He was on earth to do. “I must work the works of Him that sent Me while it is day.” He recognised that God was in the world looking with compassion on all human sorrow, but that this compassion could find expression only through His own instrumentality and that of all other men. We are the channels or pipes through which the inexhaustible source of God’s goodness flows to the world; but it is in our power to turn off that flow, and prevent it from reaching those for whom it is intended. We do less than we ought for our fellow-men until we believe that we are the bearers of God’s gifts to men; that to however few a number and in however small a way we are the media through which God finds way for His love to men, and that if we refuse to do what we can we disappoint and thwart His love and His purpose of good.
The blind man, with the quickened hearing of the blind, heard with interest the talk about himself; and a new awe fell upon his spirit as he heard that his blindness was to be the object of a work of God. He had learned to judge of men by the tones of their voice; and the firm, clear, penetrating voice which had just uttered these all-important words, “I am the Light of the world,” could not, he knew, belong to a deceiver. In other ways also Jesus compensated for his lack of sight, and encouraged his faith by touching him and by laying on the closed eyes an extemporised ointment. But the miracle was not completed on the spot. The patient was required to go to the pool of Siloam and wash. John tells us that the name Siloam means Sent, and evidently connects this name with the claim Jesus constantly made to be the Sent of God.
But as the peculiarity of the miracle consisted in this, that the man was sent to the pool to be healed, we may be sure this arrangement was made to meet some element in the case. The man, with his bespattered eyes, had to grope his way to the pool, or get some kindly soul to lead him through the scoffing, doubtful crowd. And whatever this taught the man himself, it is to us a symbol of the truth that light does not come by the instantaneous touch of Christ’s hand so much as by our faithfully doing His bidding. It is He who gives and is the light; but it does not stream in suddenly upon the soul, but comes upon the man who, though blindly, yet faithfully, gropes his way to the place Christ has bid him to, and uses the means prescribed by Him. “He that doeth the will of God, shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God.” All the commands of Christ are justified in their performance; and clear light upon the meaning of much that we are commanded to do is only found in the doing of it.
But no doubt the special significance of the man’s being sent to the pool of Siloam lay in the circumstance that it was in John’s eyes a symbol of Christ Himself. He was sent by God. The people found it difficult to believe this, because He had slowly and unostentatiously grown up like any other man. “We know this Man, whence He is.” “Is not this the carpenter’s Son?” “How sayest Thou, I came down from heaven?” They could trace Him to His source. He did not appear fullgrown in their midst, without home, without any who had watched over His boyhood and growth. He was like the river whose sources were known, not like the stream bursting in full volume from the rock. The people felt ashamed to laud and celebrate as sent by God One who had grown up so quietly among themselves, and whose whole demeanour was so unostentatious. So had their fathers despised the waters of Siloam, “because they went softly;” because there was no mighty stream and roar, but a quiet pool and a little murmuring stream.
So might this blind man have reasoned when sent to Siloam: “Why, herein is a marvellous thing that I am to be healed by what has been within my reach since I was born, by the pool I used to dip my hand in when a boy, and wonder what like was the coolness to the sight. What hidden virtue can there be in that spring? Am I not exposing myself to the ridicule of all Jerusalem?” But, as this blind man’s conduct afterwards showed, he was heedless of scorn and independent of other people’s opinion, a fearless and trenchant reasoner who stands alone in the Gospel history for the firmness and sarcasm with which he resisted the bullying tone of the Pharisees, and compelled them to face, even though they would not acknowledge, the consequences of incontrovertible facts. This characteristic contempt of contempt, and scorn of scorn served him well now, for straight he went to the pool in the face of discouragements, and had his reward.
And the Pharisees might, with their gift of interpreting trifles, have deduced from this cure at the humble and noiseless Siloam some suggestion that though Jesus did seem a powerless and common Man, and though for thirty years His life had been flowing quietly on without violently changing the established order of things, yet He might, like this pool, be the Sent of God, to whom if a man came feeling his need of light and expecting in Him to find it, there was a likelihood of his blindness being taken away. This, however, as our Lord had afterwards occasion to tell them, was precisely what they could not submit to do. They could not, in the presence of a wondering and scorning crowd, admit that they needed light, nor could they condescend to seek for light from so commonplace a source. And no doubt it was a very severe trial-it was well-nigh impossible, that men in high esteem for religious knowledge, and who had been accustomed to reckon themselves the protectors of the faith, should own that they were in darkness, and should seek to be instructed by a youth from the benighted district of Galilee. Even now, when the dignity of Jesus is understood, many are prevented from giving themselves cordially to the life He insists upon by mere pride. There are men in such repute as leaders of opinion, and so accustomed to teach rather than to learn, and to receive homage rather than to give it, that scarcely any greater humiliation could be required of them, than to publicly profess themselves followers of Christ. For ourselves even, who might not seem to have much on which to pride ourselves, it is yet sometimes difficult to believe that a mere application to Christ, a mere sprinkling of this fountain, can change our inborn disposition, and make us so different from our former selves, that close observers might well doubt our identity, some saying, “This is he,” others more cautiously only venturing to assert, “He is like him.”
Though very pleasant to contemplate, it is impossible adequately to imagine the sensations of a man who for the first time sees the world in which he has for years been living blind. The sensation of light itself, the new sense of room and distance, the expansion of the nature, as if ushered into a new and ampler world, the glory of colour, of the skies; of the sun, of the moon walking in brightness, the first recognition of the “human face Divine,” and the joy of watching the unspoken speech of its ever-changing expression, the thrill of first meeting parent, child, or friend eye to eye; the sublimity of the towers of Jerusalem, the glittering Temple, the marble palaces, by the base of which he had before dimly crept, feeling with his hand or tapping with his stick. To a man who, by the opening of one sealed sense, was thus ushered into so new a world, nothing can have seemed “too grand and good” for him to expect. He was prepared to believe in the glory and perfectness of God’s world, and in Christ’s power to bring him into contact with that glory. If the opening of his bodily organs of vision had given him such exquisite pleasure, and given him entrance to so new a life, what might not the opening of his inward eye accomplish? He had no patience with the difficulties raised by those who had not his experience: “How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles?” “Give God the praise; we know that this man is a sinner.” To all these slow-brained, bewildered pedants, he had but the answer, “Whether He be a sinner or no, I know not; one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.” No arguments, happily, can rob me of the immense boon this Man has conferred upon me. If it gives you any satisfaction to apply your paltry tests to Him, and prove that He cannot have done this miracle, you are welcome to your conclusions; but you cannot alter the facts that I was blind, and that now I see. He who has given me so Divine a gift seems to me to carry with Him in some true form the Divine presence. I believe Him when He says, “I am the Light of the world.”
This miracle was so public as to challenge scrutiny. It was not performed in the privacy of a sick-room, with none present but one or two disciples, who might be supposed ready to believe anything. It was performed on a public character and in broad day. And we nowadays may congratulate ourselves that there was a strong party in the community, whose interest it was to minimise the miracles of our Lord, and who certainly did what they could to prove them fictitious. In the case of this blind man, the authorities took steps to sift the matter; the parents were summoned, and then the man himself. They did precisely what sceptical writers in recent years have desiderated; they instituted a jealous examination of the affair. And so straightforward was the man’s testimony, and so well-known was he in Jerusalem, that instead of denying the miracle, they adopted the easier course of excommunicating him for acknowledging Jesus as the Christ.
Ready witted, bold, and independent as this man was, he cannot but have felt keenly this punishment. His hope of employment was gone, and even his new joy in seeing would scarcely compensate for his being shunned by all as a tainted person. Had he been of a fainthearted and moody disposition he might have thought it had been as well had he been left in his blindness, and not become an object of abhorrence to all. But Jesus heard of his punishment, and sought him out, and declared to him more fully who He Himself was. He thus gave to the man assurance of a friendship outweighing in value what he had lost. He made him feel that though cut off from the fellowship of the visible Church, he was made a member of the true commonwealth of men-numbered among those who are united in friendship, and in work, and in destiny to Him who heads the real work of God, and promotes the abiding interests of men. And such is ever the reward of those who make sacrifices for Christ, who lose employment or friends by too boldly confessing their indebtedness to Him. They will themselves tell you that Christ makes up to them for their losses by imparting clearer knowledge of Himself, by making them conscious that they are remembered by Him, and by giving them a conscience void of offence, and a spirit superior to worldly misfortunes.
As a final reflection on the miracle and its results our Lord says: “For judgement am I come into the world, that they which see not might see, and that they which see might be made blind.” A kind of sad humour betrays itself in His language, as He sees how easily felt-blindness is removed, but how absolutely blind presumed knowledge is. Humility ever wins the day. The blind man now saw because he knew he was blind, and trusted that Christ could give him sight; the Pharisees were stone-blind to the world Christ opened to them and carried in His person, because they thought that already they had all the knowledge they required. And wherever Christ comes men thus form themselves around Him in two groups, blind and seeing. “For judgment,” for testing and dividing men, He is come. Nothing goes more searchingly into a man’s character than Christ’s offer to be to him the Light of life, to be his leader to a perfect life. This offer discloses what the man is content with, and what he really sighs for. This offer, which confronts us with the possibility of living in close fellowship and love with God, discloses whether our real bent is towards what is pure, and high, and holy, or towards what is earthly. This man who eagerly asked, “Who is the Son of God that I might believe on Him?” acknowledged his blindness and his longing for light, and he got it. The Pharisees, who claimed to see, condemned themselves by their rejection of Christ. “If,” says our Lord, “ye were blind, if you were ignorant like this poor man, your ignorance would excuse you. But now ye say, We see, you boast that you can discern the Christ, you have tests of all kinds that you plume yourselves on, therefore your darkness and your sin remain.” That is to say, the one sufficient test of Christ’s claim is need. He presents Himself as the Light of the world, but if we are unconscious of darkness we cannot appreciate Him. But surely there are many of us who feel as if we were born blind, unable to see things spiritual as we ought; as if we had a sense too little, and could not find our way satisfactorily through this life. We hear of God with the hearing of the ear, but do not see Him; we have not the close and unmistakable discernment that comes by sight.
 See the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.