[September 18, 2011] This week we come to the crowning miracle of the Feast of Tabernacles, which began in chapter 7. There we began with the hiddenness of Jesus during Israel’s wilderness sojourn (the present day) and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon those who believe. As in the parallel story in chapter 5 of the paralytic by the side of the pool of Bethesda, another healing that took place on the Sabbath, Jesus is the Sabbath rest for the people of God (Hebrews 4:9), that is, the Promised Land for those who believe. As the Feast of Tabernacles unfolds, we see that He is not only the Promise Land but He is the Presence of God in the Land and the blessing of God in the Land.
Born Blind (John 9:1-3)
Israel, though, remains in the wilderness, charged with adultery since the days of the prophets, awaiting the Messiah’s (Second) Advent, and the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement. Israel—like Nicodemus—is in darkness awaiting the coming of the Shekinah light. It does not see the “hidden” presence of Him who is that light. By its unbelief it is like Israel on the border of the Promised Land in Kadesh-barnea unwilling to enter (Psalm 95). Not being able to recognize Jesus, they are exposed as children of the devil, born blind like all the Gentiles. (“He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her!”) Though the gracious gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable, by this crisis a leveling takes place. God has now shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all (Romans 11:29, 32).
Those who do not believe may be Abraham’s children in the flesh or not (Abraham’s true children believe), but by their unbelief they have all become the “world” enslaved to the powers of the world and unable to see anything outside of that hermetically sealed container. (Of course, even in their unbelief, Israel remains God’s elect people, the promises of God are not revoked: the coming of the Messiah Jesus and His atoning death in fact is the security and seal of the promises made to their ancestors.)
But who Jesus will be manifested to be, the “I AM” who Redeems Israel, the Shekinah glory of God’s manifest presence, He already is for those who believe. “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me shall by no means walk in darkness, but shall have the Light of life” (8:12). Though we be in darkness, it is the darkness of our blindness. He can open our eyes so we can see light, His light, the light of the eternal life of God, the “I AM.”
In 8:59 those who refuse to see outside of their realm of the “flesh” (the world as an artificially closed system) attempt to stone Jesus but He hid Himself and left the Temple (“Behold, your house is left to you desolate,” Matthew 23:38). The Shekinah was there for a moment—in the midst of Israel—but it left (“where I am going, you cannot come”), it left because the Judeans wanted to kill him, and after 70 AD the Temple was no more. (It is another story about the zealots whom Jesus opposed and who opposed the early Christian movement; the judgment of God would have fallen on them even if Jesus had not come; Jesus as the King, however, took on the role of their Judge and thus became the prophet of the Temple’s destruction—even as He took that the judgment of Israel upon Himself.)
“And as He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth.” The man becomes a parable of us, all of us, not as created by God but as those who are born into the “world” and have become children of the devil. Without exception we are all born blind. This man represents that inability to see which Jesus has been confronting since chapter 7.
His healing will be a parable. His actual blindness is not a judgment of his personal sins but a parable of the world born in blindness. “Neither has this man sinned nor his parents, but he was born so, that the works of God might be manifested in him.”
Sight Given by a New Creation (9:4-7)
“We must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world.” Apparently, during the brief days of His incarnate presence it was day, and when He becomes hidden, it will be night. At face value Jesus seems to be saying that once He goes to the cross and dies, “no one can work” the works of God for it will be night. Of course, at face value that would seem to deny the existence of His continuing presence in the church through the Holy Spirit which He breathes into His disciples—which would deny 7:39.
At face value. The night is coming, yes, when He will again be hidden, and Israel will no longer have Him in their midst. In what way, however, will He continue to be the light of the world, in the sense that He will continue to be the light of the world? He will be present to the disciples, indeed, present within them, as the Holy Spirit. However, He will be present as light through the Word, namely the word of the Gospel, as it enlightens people through the Holy Spirit. The word of the Gospel is not an abstract message, but rather the story of Jesus, of the “day” when He was here. As Jesus tells His disciples later, “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and remind you of all the things which I have said to you” (14:26). When the Holy Spirit, “He will testify concerning Me; and you testify also, because from the beginning you have been with Me” (15:26-27). The Holy Spirit, and the chosen eye-witnesses will testify of Jesus, of when He was here—this is the Gospel, the testimony of Jesus. The Holy Spirit “will not speak from Himself, but what He hears He will speak; and He will declare to you the things that are coming. He will glorify Me, for He will receive of Mine and will declare it to you” (16:13-14). Though the Holy Spirit may speak “new” things, they will not really be new, for they will always come out of the revelation of Jesus Christ who came. His coming in time has been divinized into the shared divine essence and thus, in His resurrection, transcends time and is thus eternal. It is out of this that the Holy Spirit will speak to us. In other words, unless we work by the Holy Spirit in the “daylight” of the revelation of Jesus (His coming), we cannot work for we will be in the night. While He was in the world—the Gospel—that is the light of the world (that is, He as He revealed Himself to be while He was in the world). It is this which the Holy Spirit reveals to us, and reveals to the unbeliever, when the Scriptures—or our proclamation (and sharing) of the Scriptures—give us light.
“When He had said this, He spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle and anointed his eyes with the clay.” It seems obvious that the spittle is a visual representation of Jesus’ word. The power of His word is mixed with clay. He said, “I am the light of the world,” and spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle. We are almost forced to remember the story of the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:7. When God breathed into the clay, it came alive. This clay, of course, does not come alive but Jesus does anoint the man’s eyes with it and his eyes come alive. Symbolically, Jesus made the man a new set of eyes.
In 8:6, 8 Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground, and here He spat on the ground. Later when we see that the earth became a kind of womb for Jesus from which emerged in resurrection, we might pick up on a special relationship that Jesus has with the earth, with the ground itself. It is the opposite of docetism, in which the earth and everything fleshy is evil. There is a hint here of its destiny. The goal of salvation is not just the rebirth of our spirits, or the salvation of our souls, or even the resurrection of our bodies. It is the glorification (read, divinization) of the entire creation—the water and the wine, the bread and the fish, and even the very soil at our feet (nothing will be unclean): the divine and the created without separation or division but also without confusion or change. The created will not disappear in the divine, overwhelmed and taken over as it were, but will be what it IS only transparent (without being invisible) with the divine glory.
We may react negatively to that—for yes, nothing created will be unclean—but that reveals more about us than about God. God does not share our squeamishness.
In any case, the reminder of Adam’s creation should make us realize that the parable of this man’s healing is about the new birth. When Jesus breathed into the disciples the Holy Spirit in 20:22, this referred to the same story in Genesis. The clay that was put in the man’s eyes is the clay of rebirth. It is the rebirth by the Holy Spirit that gives us our sight, which opens the eyes of our spirit. If the man were spiritually blind, it would be as if Jesus breathed into Him as He breathed into the disciples.
This is made clearer by what follows: “And He said to him, ‘Go and wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which is interpreted, Sent). He went therefore and washed and came away seeing.” Siloam means “sent” and Jesus just spoke of “Him who sent Me” (three verses earlier). He is the Sent One. The pool of Siloam thus (for the purpose of the gospel) refers to Himself, and the washing obviously alludes to baptism (“Unless one is born of water and the Spirit …”). Let us not miss the fact either that during the Feast of Tabernacles it was the water from the pool of Siloam that was being poured out upon the altar when Jesus said, during the ceremony, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes into Me, as the Scripture said, out of his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.” John tells us that He was speaking “concerning the Spirit, whom those who believed into Him were about to receive; for the Spirit was not yet, because Jesus had not yet been glorified” (7:37-39). To “go and wash in the pool of Siloam” is to go and wash in the “water” of the Holy Spirit, the water of rebirth. While it alludes to baptism, baptism is only the sign (I mean in this regard—baptism is more than this; it is also effectual, but in another regard) of regeneration (the new birth). Go and wash in the pool of Siloam refers to the miracle of the new birth itself which is brought about by the Word (not the mark of baptism) and gives rise to faith.
The new birth is the result of the Holy Spirit awakening our spirit so that we can see. The Holy Spirit is able to enter us because it bears the inoculating medication of the cross, and when it does, our spirit (which God in mercy did not take away, or we would be dead) was dead in relation to God. Our relationship to God was ruptured by our “birth” into the world, blinding us to the reality all around us. The entering of the Holy Spirit through the Word undoes this and our spirit becomes alive to God. We believe into Christ and discover that Christ lives in us (by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit). We can now see.
Granted, we see but we have double vision. We also see with the eyes of “flesh” (I do not mean our fleshy eyes but rather the eyes of the world) and do not see the splendor of reality clearly (although we may think we do). It takes spiritual development and maturity before we can clearly distinguish soul from spirit (Hebrews 4:12) as the thoughts and intentions of our heart become exposed. However, even in the beginning, we do see—something. It is often, hopefully, an overwhelming and powerful impression of Jesus that knocks us over and begins to overwhelm and convert our life. The “cure” for this upheaval is discipleship. “Discipleship is conversion therapy” (I credit this phrase to Professor Richard Norris, Jr.): the bringing into order the marvelous chaos that resulted from our conversion, our first “seeing” of Jesus.
The Beginnings of the New Birth (9:8-9)
Our neighbors, hopefully, notice a change in us. In our story the people of course notice that the blind man can now see. It is so amazing that they question whether it is really the same person. “Some said, ‘This is he.’ Others said, ‘No, but he is like him.” This is interesting. Because he was a blind beggar, no one really knew him very well, and of course he did not know them. So there is this confusion. If any of them had actually befriended him, they would not be discussing this among themselves; they would simply know.
When the man was blind (and insofar as he is a parable, he represents all of us), he was not close to anyone. He was objectified as “the one who used to sit and beg.” No one knew him and he did not know them. He was “faceless.”
Then we read, “He said, ‘I am.’” That is what it says in the original. We could understand it to mean, “I am he,” but before we jump to that, we should notice that other than this one occasion, the phrase in the original, egō eimi, only occurs on the lips of Jesus and always with reference to the divine “I AM.” In the other gospels, this is not the case. John however is very careful. It occurs seven times in the absolute sense and seven times with a predicate. This is undoubtedly deliberate. Are we to assume that this one instance is an exception? Only here does it have the ordinary sense. Perhaps.
Of course it does not mean in the mouth of this anonymous man the same thing as it does in the mouth of Jesus. Might there still be a connection, however? For when the man says, “I am,” he is asserting his presence as a person, someone with a face. When Jesus comes to us and reveals Himself, He is revealed as “I AM,” the “I” of God facing and confronting us as a “thou.” We can no longer be nameless or faceless in this encounter. We become a “thou” to Jesus, and the moment that happens, we are raised up from an anonymous member of the mass, almost an “it”—for others use and abuse us or otherwise treat us an “it”—to an “I” facing God in Christ as a “Thou.” Our spirit has been awakened and God is not longer a “He” or an “It” but a “Thou” to us. We are in a face-to-face relationship with God through Christ. In other words, we have become a person. Confronted by the Person of God has made us into a person (as opposed to an individuum). It is not that we were not a person before, but we were asleep as such. Our personhood was more or less dormant. It is what we are, so it was never completely absent. It manifests in true friendship, for example, and when a man and a woman actually love each other. But the Person of God makes it matter. The Personhood of God that faces us in Jesus brings out the image of God in us. We face God as a person.
And, as the man healed of his blindness shows, we become a person to others. “I am,” he says to them. While they may still evade him as a faceless nobody, he can no longer play that role for them. He can no longer be how others define him. In the world we are all individuals. We interact within institutional structures. We use or abuse or ignore each other. We “experience” each other. What we do not really do is face each other as persons. The man whose eyes are opened to reality and who begins to see the world for the lie that it is, for the delusion that is its essence, begins to recognize others as persons and her or himself as a person.
As the Father is a Person to the Son and vice versa, so the Triune God meets us as Persons and we are persons in Their singular presence. There can hardly be a more impressive statement of God’s personhood than the first-person, “I AM.” With our eyes open, we recognize ourselves and the others around us as persons. We become “I am” and they each become “Thou art.” The divine essence is captured in the space between the “I” and the “Thou” (thus God is Love), and we get a taste of the divine in that same space between humans. If a so-called church is impersonal, it is not yet a church. This is why the church (as such) cannot be institutional. The relation of believers with each other or with others cannot be one of impersonal “caring.” This defines the other in terms of their need. They become an “it.” Love sees the need, but if it only sees the need and not the person, it is not love.
Perhaps when the man said, “I am,” or when a believer says it, our own “I” is participating in the personhood (that space between the “I” and the “Thou”) of the Triune God. Here is where love begins.
The man is questioned and he immediately testifies to Jesus. He does not theorize or dogmatize (though there is a place for that). He simply testifies. This is what believers are called to do. “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes, and said, ‘Go to the pool of Siloam and wash.’ I went therefore and washed, and I received my sight.” This reminds us of the woman at the well in Sychar who left her waterpot and went away into the city, and said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me all that I have done. Is this not the Christ?” (4:28-29) In her case, we know, she met with a better result. The people “went out of the city and came to Him,” and later could testify to her, “It is no longer because of your speaking that we believe, for we ourselves have heard and know that this One is truly the Savior of the world” (4:30, 42). That is the goal of our testifying: that people would find out for themselves.
In this case, the man did not know where Jesus was, so he could not point them to him. This is analogous to the believer who does not know enough yet to give people clear directions on how to find Jesus for themselves (see 9:17). Nevertheless, they should testify. He will find them if they are looking for him (even if they do not know it), as He found the woman at the well and as he found this man. Both the woman at the well and the blind man (unlike the paralytic) were eager to believe when they discovered who Jesus was (see 9:35-38). As far as we know, the paralytic by the pool of Bethesda never did discover who Jesus was and never believed.
“They brought him who was once blind to the Pharisees.” We are in Jerusalem, so the Pharisees here represent the two schools of Hillel and Shammai. This was probably the division between them in verse 16. As we know from the Acts of the Apostles, the school of Hillel was very open—at least in the beginning—to Jesus and the early church. This is not surprising for Jesus agreed with them on almost all points of the Law. His contention was with the other main school of Pharisees, the school that also fueled the zealot movement that opposed the mission to the Gentiles.
In any case, when the man was examined by the “authorities,” he testified as he did to his neighbors. He said nothing that they could argue with him about. Their division concerned Jesus, whether it was right to heal on the Sabbath (not all the Pharisees thought the same on this issue).
Then they asked him, “What do you say about Him, in that He opened your eyes?” This must also be part of our testimony. What do we say about Him? Where do we stand? It is not enough to simply testify to the facts. We are personally implicated by the facts. What matters is not that this or that happened, but where do I stand with respect to this? We need to stand with Jesus, not just be an objective observer. We do not need to impose Jesus on anyone else, but we do need to confess Him before others. This is all part of saying, “I am.” Are you? Then confess Him, for the moment you are ashamed of Him, you deny your personhood before others. You have slipped back into the anonymous, faceless and impersonal world, the world that Christ renounces and judges and one day will bring to an end.
The man said, “He is a prophet.” That may not be adequate in view of the clarity that came to him later in verse 38, but it was a clear statement of where he stood with respect to Jesus. Unlike the equivocal discussion that was taking place in front of him, where the question of Jesus seemed rather academic, this man said in his own words, “I am with Him; I am on His side; I am committed to Him—whoever you may think He is.” This is what it means to confess Him. We may not know how to speak theologically but we can make our loyalties clear. This also is faith. Faith means fidelity, fealty and allegiance. Solving theological questions and being able to express an opinion about them is not faith (although by saying this I do not mean to disparage the importance of this in its appropriate context).
What do we say? Are we still an inquirer or can we take a stand with Jesus? Let us confess His name with our lips even if it means that we are “cast out” of the fold (whatever fold that may be).