Jesus Heals a Man Born Blind (9:1–7) Jesus, taking the initiative, notices a man blind from birth. It is not said how Jesus and his followers know that he has been blind from birth. Perhaps the Lord knew preternaturally, or maybe he simply asked him. Once this information is known the disciples treat the man’s condition as a theological problem. People commonly assumed that disease and disorders on both the personal and national level were due to sin, as summarized in the rabbinic saying from around A.D. 300 that “there is no death without sin and there is no suffering without iniquity” (b. Šabbat 55a). But the case of a person born blind raises the question of whose sin caused this condition, that of his parents or of the person himself while in the womb. The idea that the parents’ sins can affect their children finds support in the Old Testament itself (Ex 20:5), as does its antithesis (Ezek 18:20). Likewise the rabbis debated whether fetuses could sin, some arguing they could (for example, Genesis Rabbah 63:6) and others that they could not (Genesis Rabbah 34:10). Obviously, such issues were matters of debate within Judaism (cf. Schrage 1972:290–91), including the time during Jesus’ ministry, as our text indicates.
The disciples’ question was a request that Jesus comment on this debate. Jesus shifts the focus, and instead of addressing the cause of the man’s blindness he speaks of its purpose: so that the work of God might be displayed in his life (v. 3). We should not be concerned with assigning blame. Trying to figure out the source of suffering in an individual’s life is futile given our limited understanding, as the book of Job should teach us. Rather, here is one in whom Jesus can manifest God’s works and thus reveal something of God himself and his purposes on earth. Jesus is being led by his Father to provide a sign that he is indeed the light of the world. In this sign he continues to reveal the Father’s glory, that is, his love and mercy. For the ultimate truth about Jesus’ works is that the Father, living in him, is doing his own works (14:10). This is what it means that his works are done from the Father (10:32) and in the Father’s name (10:25, 37), revealing that Jesus is in the Father and the Father in him (10:38; cf. 10:30). As is always the case in John, Jesus’ identity and his relation to the Father are at the heart of what is being said and done.
Jesus’ statement touches on the theme of suffering. There is a sense in which every aspect of our lives, including our own suffering, is an occasion for the manifestation of God’s glory and his purposes. Scripture describes four types of suffering viewed in terms of causes or purposes (cf. John Cassian Conferences 6.11): first, suffering as a proving or testing of our faith (Gen 22; Deut 8:2; Job); second, suffering meant for improvement, for our edification (Heb 12:5–8); third, suffering as punishment for sin (Deut 32:15–25; Jer 30:15; Jn 5:14); and fourth, suffering that shows forth God’s glory, as here in our story and later in the raising of Lazarus (Jn 11:4). To these should be added a fifth form of suffering, that which comes from bearing witness to Christ, illustrated by what happens to this former blind man in being cast out of the synagogue.
Suffering is connected to sin (see comment on 5:14), at least generally if not always directly. But the present passage develops this connection further. Our sufferings are opportunities for God’s grace. If our suffering is indeed a punishment for sin, then it becomes an occasion for repentance and thus the manifestation of God’s grace as we are restored to fellowship with God. If our suffering is not a direct punishment for sin, then it is something God allows to happen in our lives, usually for reasons beyond our knowing, which nevertheless can help us die to self and find our true life in God. God does not allow anything to enter our lives that is not able to glorify him by drawing us into deeper intimacy with him and revealing his glory. When we cling to self and our own comfort we are led to resentment. When we trust in God’s goodness and providence we are able to find comfort in God himself and not in our circumstances. Consequently, we can genuinely “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess 5:18). This is not to say that misfortune and evil are God’s will in general, but they are part of what it takes to live with him and unto him in this mess we have made through our rebellion against him and his rule over us. Our rebellion has brought disorder to every aspect of our existence, and the way back to the beauty and peace and order of his kingdom leads through suffering, as the cross makes clear. So we should not deny or avoid the reality of our suffering, but we should ask God to use it to further his purposes in us and through us. Some lessons only become ours in reality through suffering and the relationship with God that results from these tests. We can help others with the truths we learn in this way (cf. 2 Cor 1:3–11), and we can identify with the blind man and reflect on ways the Lord might display his works in us in the midst of our own sufferings.
Whitacre, R. A. (1999). John (Vol. 4, pp. 235–237). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.