John 9:18-41, Cast Out of the Fold

[September 25, 2011] This week we continue our consideration of the story that began last week. We pointed out, however, that this chapter and the following are one piece with chapters 7 and 8. The miracle of chapter 9 crowns chapters 7—8 which described the blindness with which we are all born. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5). The healing of the man born blind is a picture of a person coming to faith. This story continues in chapter 10 where Jesus compares the casting out of the man who was healed to a sheep being cast out of a fold to enter a flock. All of this is done in the setting of the Feast of Tabernacles, a festival about the Promised Land, looking back to Israel’s wandering and exile and forward to the fulfillment of the promises and to the Presence of God with Israel. The parallel story in chapter 5 also alludes to the Promised Land as the Sabbath rest of the people of God. Jesus reveals Himself as the fulfillment of the festivals of Sabbath and Tabernacles, though at the moment He is known as such only to the believer. As we saw in the Book of Numbers, the old generation of Israel would die in their sin because of their unbelief, all except for Joshua and Caleb; only the new generation would enter the Promised Land.

The Fear of Parents (John 9:18-23)

Speaking of the old and the new generations, in the next verses we meet the parents of the man who was born blind. At first the “Jews” could not believe that the miracle took place until the parents testified that the man was indeed their son and that he had been born blind. In the Gospel according to John and in much of the New Testament, the word “Jew” is not always used inclusively as we use it, referring both to ethnic and religious Jews. The word can also literally mean “Judean” (the people of Judea) and refer to the people of Jerusalem, Judea’s principle city. It can also mean the “Judaizer” as a zealot who has no tolerance for sinners (non-practicing Jews) and Gentiles, or the mixture of Jews with Gentiles. The word is thus often used in an exclusive sense, clearly not including the majority of those whom we would consider Jews. The “Jews” in these verses seem to be the same or of one mind with the Pharisees in the preceding verses (from verse 13 on). As it was pointed out, the Pharisees themselves were divided, some sounding like Nicodemus in 7:50-51, or Gamaliel in the scene in Acts 5:27-40, a leader in the school of Hillel, the others sounding like those in the school of Shammai, who were zealots. This latter school disagreed with the school of Hillel on the application of sabbatical laws (Hillel, like Jesus, saw that life was to be chosen over a blindly followed legalism that ignored life). The “Jews” in these verses are probably followers of Shammai, and probably Pharisees of that particular school.

The parents are afraid of them. What they say might be objectively true, but as parents they seem to display an astonishing lack of interest in their son. They refuse to “own” him or take any responsibility for him or commit to him in any but the most perfunctory way. Their son is on his own. If he gets in trouble, they had nothing to do with it.

Probably (one would think), they did know that a man called Jesus put clay on their son’s eyes and told him to wash and when he did he could suddenly see for the first time. But they would not admit to it. He now sees. This was undeniable even to Jesus’ enemies. They would admit to no more than this lest they be implicated by their son’s involvement with Jesus.

We hope parents, even parents of grown children, would take more interest in their children than this, and be willing to stand by their children even if they cannot agree with them or stand with them. How often children feel that their parents have emotionally abandoned them. Parents sometimes need to make their commitment to their children clear and explicit to them and not assume that their children somehow “know.” They often do not, and interpret their parents’ actions in that light.

In any case, these parents—like many parents—were more interested in themselves than in their son. “They feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone confessed [Jesus] to be the Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue.” Outside of the Gospel according to John, we do not know of synagogues officially casting out members who believed that Jesus was the Messiah until 75 AD/CE, five years after the destruction of the Temple. We see in the Acts of the Apostles how the churches were often forced to separate from the synagogues because of the opposition of the Judaizers (those who would not tolerate their indiscriminate fellowship with unconverted (uncircumcised) Gentiles in their messianic gatherings). However, this was not universal; there was no policy, and the Christians did not desire it. However, according to John, this situation already obtained in some synagogues in Jerusalem. The school of Shammai had a strong dislike for Jesus for their interpretations of the Torah were in contrast to each other. According to them, there was no way Jesus could be the Messiah (a title which carried royal, prophetic and priestly connotations for them, but not the divine implications that Christians give it). When Jesus was crucified, it all made sense to them. He was a false prophet, misleading the people. The school of Shammai also had a reputation for bullying tactics (later even murdering their opponents in the school of Hillel out of their religious zeal). It is not hard to understand why the parents were afraid of them.

The apostles never desired a break with the synagogue. Apparently some rabbis initiated the break (in 75 CE), though the Gentile churches in the following century began to welcome it. By the fourth and fifth centuries church leaders, men standing in the shoes of the apostles, demanded it, though the believers were often still resistant to it. It was still obvious to the believers, in a way that is no longer obvious, that Christianity is Jewish and inseparable from Judaism. Jewish Christians are still Jewish; Gentile Christians never were; yet even Gentile Christians believe in the God and the Messiah of the Jews. In the pagan environment of the Roman and Parthian Empires, this was obvious. Christianity did not spring up out of nowhere (or straight from heaven) the way the heretic Marcion believed.

The apostles apparently had hoped that the churches could exist alongside the synagogues, Christians attending both assemblies—Jews as Jews and Gentiles as “God-fearers.” What exacerbated the conflict was that the Christian God-fearer was required to give up idolatry. This made them illegal, which is probably the origin of the title “Christian” (Acts 11:26: the term is Latin; this is probably because it originally was used to give a legal distinction to the Gentile believers). The Jews’ position in Roman society was always precarious since they refused to honor any of the civic gods—they were granted toleration because their religion was so ancient, which mattered to the Romans. But for “atheistic” Gentiles to take advantage of this tolerance and attempt to come under the umbrella of Judaism without actually becoming Jews seemed antisocial to say the least. It brought the Jews’ exemption into danger, and therefore they were tempted to dissociate from “Christians.”

Perhaps I am reading too much into the behavior of the parents, but it seems to me that this distancing of the parents from the son is preparing us to appreciate the severity of the son’s ostracism when he was cast out of the synagogue. His parents stood with the synagogue. Historically, this has been frequently experienced.

This mention of the ban on believing Jews (later the ban included their Gentile compatriots) prepares us for what happens next.

Being Cast Out of the Synagogue (9:24-34)

They called the man who had been blind a second time.” Here we are speaking of the “Jews,” but that this is the second time that the man comes before them implies that those whom John is calling the “Jews” are the Pharisees of verses 13-17 (see above).

They want the man to acknowledge that Jesus is a sinner. At first he plays ignorant. Maybe he had not yet thought it through. The Pharisees are going to help him do so. He repeats what he knows: “One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

They want to reexamine him. Perhaps they can find fault with what Jesus did and point it out to the man—after all, they already know that Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath. The man refuses to go along with this pretense of justice. “I told you already and you did not hear.” He knows that they are not interested in learning anything; they just want to reinforce and enforce the position that they have already taken. He tells them, “You did not hear,” which is the same as Jesus had said to them. Jesus told them, “You do the things which you have heard from your father,” the devil; but, “Why do you not understand My speaking? It is because you cannot hear My word … He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not [born] of God” (8:38, 43, 47). The Pharisees did not “hear” the man’s testimony the first time because they are spiritually deaf. The meaning is the same when we shift the metaphor to sight. They could not “see” what was before their eyes because they are blind. The man’s response is sarcastic: “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become His disciples?”

They are used to being able to intimidate people, although they probably did not realize that that was what they did. They were men of learning and authority. They associated their own authority with that of Moses. They were used to people respecting them. This man had no respect for their airs. “They reviled him.” The man was insolent.

“You are His disciple; but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where He is from.” Since they identified their own interpretation of the Torah with Moses himself, and Jesus did not agree with their interpretation, then Moses and Jesus were at odds. If you are a disciple of Jesus you cannot be a disciple of Moses. This is, of course, a false distinction. Moses, and the Word of God, has been replaced by their interpretation of Moses. Of course, Christians have always done the same. We replace the Bible with our own interpretation of what it says. Often our interpretation reflects how little of the Bible’s contents we have actually paid attention to. We think we grasp something and we make that thing the whole, and then we adopt a method of interpretation that will enable us to bend everything else to our limited understanding. Obviously the fact that our grasp of the dogma is so limited means that it is already out of context and therefore distorted. Our own understanding might be “formally” correct but in fact it is false. The problem is not with the dogma of the revelation of Christ. The problem is with our lack of intellectual humility. It is my own problem; I describe it because I have gone this round over and over and realize it is a problem.

If the Pharisees say, “we do not know where [Jesus] is from,” it means he must be from somewhere different than Moses. The words are related to the discussion in chapters 7—8 about where Jesus is from. On the one hand, they thought they knew where He was from (7:27-28), namely from Nazareth in Galilee (7:41-42; see 7:52). They did not really know where He was from. “He who sent Me … I am from Him” and “I am going to Him” (7:28-29, 33; see also 8:14), that is, God the Father (8:16-18, 42). In 8:23 He also says, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.” The Pharisees were blind. God has spoken to Moses, but Jesus is from God. There is a difference. “God,  having spoken of old in many portions and in many ways to the fathers in the prophets, has at the last of these days spoken to us in [the person of] the Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2). John Nelson Darby has a footnote in his translation of this verse which reads:

Literally, ‘in Son.’ The absence of the Greek article here is important, though difficult to render in English; the result is, that God, speaking in the prophets, and using them as his mouth, is clearly distinct: ‘in Son’ is not exactly ‘as Son,’ because that would be the character of the speaking, yet is perhaps the nearest to an adequate expression. It is God himself who speaks; not by another; not as the Father nor in the person of the Father; not merely by the Holy Spirit using a person not divine, but as himself a divine person, and that person the Son.

The insolent man answered them, “Why here is an amazing thing: that you do not know where He is from, and yet He opened my eyes! We know that God does not hear sinners, but if anyone is God-fearing and does His will, He hears him. Since time began it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of one born blind. If this man were not from God, He could do nothing.” There are passages in the Old Testament which say that God does not hear sinners (such as Isaiah 1:15), though there are others that say otherwise (such as Psalm 107:13). God hears sinners when they turn and cry out to Him; God is deaf to the self-righteous sinner. Whether this was the first time “anyone opened the eyes of one born blind” I do not know. The man, however, as the Pharisees press him, becomes clear in his testimony to Jesus. Before he said of Jesus, “He is a prophet.” Again he makes it unmistakably clear to the Pharisees where he stands. The Pharisees did not know where Jesus is from. The man now tells them, no longer as an initial conclusion but as a conviction, “This man is from God.” That is where He is from.

Moreover, he perceives the uniqueness of Jesus as being “since time began.” The Pharisees spoke of Moses, and Moses of course is unique. Still, even Moses did not open the eyes of one born blind. Even Moses could not make the children of the devil become the children of God. “YHWH has not given you a heart to understand and eyes to see and ears to hear until this day” (Deuteronomy 29:2-4). Superficially what the man says implies nothing about Moses, but in terms of giving sight to those born spiritually blind, Jesus is superior to Moses as the One who gives us a new birth from above, so that we are born of God. The new birth comes with God giving us “eyes to see and ears to hear.”

The Pharisees equate the man’s physical blindness with his personal sin: “You were wholly born in sins, and you are teaching us?” They do not see that his physical blindness is a parable of the blindness of all human beings, blindness into which we are born as we emerge from our mother into the “world” as children of the devil.

“They cast him out.” These are important words, for to “cast out” is the same word that Jesus uses when He says in 10:4, “When he puts forth all his own,” that is, when the shepherd “throws” the sheep out of the fold so he can lead them out to pasture. Jesus’ words in chapter 10 follow on what happens here. There is no break at verse 1; Jesus just continues speaking after 9:41.

The man is cast out of the synagogue, and therefore out of the life of the Jewish community. Apparently this is the sheepfold of chapter 10. (We will come to that next week.) We think, however, that it is the Pharisees who cast him out. In reality, Jesus tells us, it is the Shepherd—that is, Himself—who cast him out. Obviously it was the Pharisees who cast him out. Jesus did nothing except instigate the ban in 9:22. Nevertheless, it was providential. God used the Pharisees to cast the man out. In chapter 10, Jesus identifies this action on the part of God’s providence with His own action as the Shepherd. Insofar as God “provided” for him to be cast out, it was the Shepherd casting him out—intentionally, with a purpose. The man thus obtained his freedom, as we shall see.

We see this elsewhere in the Gospel according to John and not least in the crucifixion. Human beings think they are in control and are orchestrating things as they happen. In reality, as the Gospel of John would have us see, it is Jesus Himself who is in control and who brings things these things about.

The fold of the Shammaite synagogue, since it refuses to accept anyone who confesses Jesus to be the Messiah, was not a good place for the man to be. In the same way, many Protestant churches are not good places for a Christian to be. If Jesus is not clearly confessed; if the teaching concerning Him does not accord with the revelation of Him in the Scriptures, then the Christian is in the wrong place. One might go further and question Protestant ecclesiology. Often, if there is a “theory” of the church, the church is no more than an organization of individual Christians. The church “service” is a service rendered to the Christian in the pew by the ministers and musicians which the Christian supports with his or her donations. Actually a “service” is the service of worship that the gathered believers render to God. Other times, the church is a social group that is organized to promote various social agendas. These (and others) are horrible folds from which the Christian needs to be “cast out” to find the flock of the Shepherd. On the other hand, we can pose a question to Catholic and Orthodox ecclesiology, whether they are truly being apostolic in the way that they makes the grace that forms the church dependent on a superfluity of sacerdotally-controlled sacraments. At least, though, their theology attempts to comprehend the mystical body of Christ which Protestant theologies rarely do. (Watchman Nee does.)

We need to take seriously that the “casting out” is the enactment of Jesus’ statement in verse 39, “For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who ‘see’ may become blind.”

The man is not just cast out into the abyss, into nothingness, as if God abandoned him. This is how a person might feel. The Shepherd cast him out of the fold in order to lead him in his flock.

The Shepherd Gathers His Sheep (9:35-38)

“Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and He found him.” Jesus finds us too when we have been cast out. In the providence of God, regardless of the outward appearance, it is the Shepherd who has cast us out. He casts us out because we have heard His voice while still in the fold. He calls His own sheep by name and leads them out. We follow Him (out) because we know His voice. The man whose eyes were opened, without realizing it, followed Jesus out of the fold. The fact that the Pharisees cast him out was merely the mechanism that the Shepherd used. It was also the Shepherd’s judgment of the Pharisees (like the stubbornness of Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus was God’s judgment on him).

When Jesus found the man and asked him, “Do you believe into the Son of God” or “Son of Man”? (the Byzantine textual tradition has “Son of God”; the Alexandrian has “Son of Man”—it does not have to concern us at the moment; in the Gospel according to John Jesus refers to Himself as both) He was the Shepherd gathering His sheep. The man’s response to Jesus shows that he was a sheep who recognized the Shepherd’s voice. The man may not have understood very much intellectually. His “confession” was pretty basic. But he knew the truth intuitively when he saw it. “Lord, I believe”; and he worshiped Him.

This was also the first time the man actually saw Jesus. He was still blind when he left Jesus to wash his eyes in the Pool of Siloam. When Jesus finds him, the man recognizes Jesus’ voice at the same time that he sees Him for the first time. In the story, physical hearing coincides with spiritual hearing, and physical sight with spiritual. It is the opposite for the Pharisees. They hear but do not hear; they see but do not see.

In his epistle, John writes, “I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it and because no lie is of the truth … the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone teach you; but as His anointing teaches you concerning all things and is true and is not a lie, and even as it has taught you, abide in Him” (1 John 2:21, 27). Jesus anointed the man’s eyes with the “mud” of His incarnate Word (the Gospel) and the man washed his eyes with the water of the Pool of Siloam (which means, “the Sent One”), the same water to which Jesus alluded when He spoke of the Holy Spirit “whom those who believed into Him were about to receive” (7:37-39). This is the anointing which abides in us. The Holy Spirit abiding in us causes us to recognize Jesus and to discern between the truth and the lie. This is what happens here.

It is also how people find their way into the Shepherd’s flock, the church. Believers are in the church because of this anointing. It is that which abides in them which makes them the church.

The Irony (9:39-41)

The irony is that those who think they see spiritually are really blind and those who really see (spiritually) realize that they have been blind. (Soulically, they still are blind.) The presence of Jesus in the Gospel creates a crisis in which a judgment takes place. As people react to Jesus they reveal themselves. We are all born blind though we think we can see. If when we are confronted by the Gospel we reject Jesus, we who think we can see become blind to Jesus. If when we are confronted by the Gospel we “see” Jesus, we who were blind before now see.

The Pharisees understand His meaning enough to ask, “We are not blind also, are we?” Jesus says, “if only you were blind, you would not have sin.” Either this means, if this crisis never came to you, your sin would never have been exposed, or, if only you had the humility to realize that you might in fact be blind, you might even now see the truth. In either case, “Now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

It is better to assume that we cannot see than to suffer the delusion that we do when we do not. We think we see spiritual reality when we are only looking with our soul. When we do see with our spirit, however, often our soul can barely put it into words (and will suffer as a result). The soul is to be like the film in a camera. It is supposed to “capture” the light that comes in through the lens. This lens is like the spirit. That which radiates or reflects the light in front of the camera is reality (the truth). When the soul generates its own images, as ours is quite capable of doing, which it does within the matrix of the world, these images do not necessarily reflect any reality outside of itself and the field of the world of which it is a part. Unless the spirit is awakened and the soul becomes responsive to the spirit, the soul remains in its artificial world which it shares with other minds but which also isolates it from the others as persons.

The Gospel through the Holy Spirit gives us light, the light of Christ, and in His light we see light. He who is the light of the world is the light of life, and that light opens our eyes to see reality, the reality of the three-personed God, the reality of the divine, the reality of creation, and the reality of our own falseness (the falseness in our souls) and the falseness of the world.

Where are we? Can we yet see? Or do we think we see and refuse to open our eyes. Come to Jesus and learn of Him.

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