[K:NWTS 1/2 (Sep 1986) 27-36]
You and I are able to look around today and see many things. We are able to do this because there is light in this room. But do you remember when there wasn't any light at all, anywhere? When you simply could not find a star in the sky? Nor the moon? When even the sun itself was dark as coal-tar? Of course you wouldn't remember having actually been there. But you might remember having read about it in the first chapter of Genesis. There we read that the earth was "formless and void" and darkness was everywhere. Now do you remember?
Jeremiah remembered. In fact, this Genesis scene was being re-enacted before his very eyes. Re-enacted in a different sense, but re-enacted nonetheless. When Jeremiah considered the sorry state of Israel in the wake of God's wrath, he remembered Genesis. "I looked on the earth," he sighed. "I looked . . . and behold, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light" (Jer. 4:23).
This dark, foreboding parallel to Genesis was not the end of the matter though. Into the Genesis darkness, God spoke light into being. Here too, in the sin-raped world of Jeremiah's lament, God was about to bring forth light. He was about to send light through the knarled, twisted shadows cast by men's hearts.
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness will cover the earth,
And deep darkness the peoples;
But the Lord will rise upon you,
And His glory will appear upon you. (Isa. 60:1,2)
In time, the Lord brought what he had promised from the lips of the prophets. And the appearance of the light from on High is precisely what is on John's mind as he presents the gospel to us. Near the beginning of his gospel, John tells us that life was in Christ Jesus (1:4); that this life was the light of men (also 1:4); and that this light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend (or "overpower") the light (1:5).
John 9, then, is about this light. It is about Jesus–light sent from the Father. It is about Jesus whose life is the light of men. And I suppose John 9 is about darkness too. At least in so far as the failure of the darkness is concerned. The failure of the darkness to comprehend (or "overpower") the light.
Now obviously, John did not write chapter 9 all by itself. Instead, it goes right along with the other twenty chapters he wrote. So this chapter fits into the purpose of the gospel as a whole. That purpose: "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31).
The images, the events, the conversations–everything–John puts together in such a way that his reader will be moved to a living response with Jesus. John's gospel is not a newscast or a history text. He presents what actually happened but in language intended to convey its meaning. He interprets what happened, as God himself interprets it, so that we will know what to make of it all. And we are expected to respond accordingly, of course.
The image of light and darkness is not meant to draw us away from real-life into a sort of religious, make-believe world. It is an image drawn from common experience to explain the mystery of what has happened. Surely you have stumbled in a darkened room, unable to strain enough light from it with which to see. Surely you have experienced the stark difference it makes to turn on a light in just such a darkened room. It is precisely this common experience that John makes use of to get across the meaning of Jesus' coming to us. Jesus is something like a light in the darkness (or maybe I should say a light is something like Jesus).
In any case, we can find several common images in John's gospel: bread, shepherds and others. Images which offer tangible illustrations of what is at stake in the gospel message. And so it is that John uses the image, the common experience, of light and darkness to show us Jesus. John tells us of the miraculous healing of a man born blind and of its impact on the religious leaders of the day. The light shines in the darkness . . . .
Jesus came to his own people but by and large, they rejected him. On the other hand, those that did believe in his name were given power to become children of God (John 1:11,12). For while Jesus did not come to judge the world–that he will do soon enough–there is a sort of judgment that takes place; a separation of the light from the darkness. Those who do not believe on Christ are judged already in that the light came into this world but men loved the darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil. In this sense a judgment does take place, even as I speak (John 3:16-21). "For judgment I came into this world," says Jesus, "that those who do not see may see; and that those who do see may become blind" (John 9:39). A man born blind comes to see. Men born sighted become blind. A man born in darkness comes to the light. Men born in the light seek out darkness.The Light to the Nations
To begin, let us look back in time. Let us go back so that the day on which this incident takes place is "today" in our minds. And let us go from where we sit, to Jerusalem. Let us so move in our minds that the setting of John 9 is "here" in our imaginations. In this way, let us together go into John, chapter 9.
Today is not very different than yesterday. True, today is a sabbath. And true, today comes in the midst of probably the most crowded day in Jerusalem: "the feast of Yahweh" (Lev. 23:29). Last night, there were men bearing torches as they danced about. And on their lips could be heard sayings like: "The man who has never seen the joy of the night of this feast has never seen real joy in all his life." Words not meant to taunt, but who else hears them than a man born blind? A man who has never seen anything?
No, today is not very different than yesterday. For today, like yesterday (like so many yesterdays), will pass as it came. A beggar sitting near the temple; sitting and begging; sitting and hoping for a little mercy from those who pass by. Today, like yesterday, a beggar sits in the dust. A man born blind, withered in spirit–as good as dead to those who pass by. The dirt lies matted where he sits. His back to a wall and his face . . . his face to the darkness.
I hope for light, but behold, darkness;
for brightness, but I walk in gloom.
As you stumble in the night
so I stumble at high noon. (from Isa. 59:9-12)
But why should I try and make you feel for this man born blind? How could I possibly describe what life is like for this man? It will do little good to try and imagine what it must be like to have been without sight, always. Cover your eyes. Go ahead, cover your eyes. It's just not the same, is it? You would have to forget all that your eyes have ever shown you.
Forget soft wisps rising from morning coffee. Forget fresh-fallen snow, amber coals as night surrounds your campfire; forget aspen stands in the fall. Forget the first glimpse of a loved-one across an airport terminal. More easily could a woman forget her nursing child than for you to forget, really forget, your sight.
On second thought though, don't you suppose John knows this? Of course he does. John has something else in mind in telling us about this miracle. We shouldn't waste time trying to imagine ourselves blind in order to have a stake in John's message. Empathy is not John's point here. Jesus is the point. This man is blind in order that the works of God may be displayed for all to see. He is blind so that we might be drawn to Jesus, light from on high.To Open Blind Eyes
John begins: Jesus and his disciples come upon a man born blind. (You know him by now, don't you? This man born in darkness.) The disciples wonder, 'what evil is God punishing this man for?' After all, "who made man's mouth? Or who makes him dumb or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord" (Ex. 4:11)? But in fact, that God has something to do with this man's blindness is not debated here–either by the disciples or by Jesus. Our Lord simply replies that we do not see evidence of God's anger here, but of his mercy. This man is a showcase for the works of God's grace, not his wrath. He is evidence of what God is doing among men. And specifically, what Jesus was sent by the Father to do. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16).
"While I am in this world;" says Jesus, "I am the light of the world" (John 9:5). To illustrate this fact, he spits on the ground. Then he makes some mud out of the spittle and puts it in the blind man's eyes. "Go and wash in the pool of Siloam," he directs. Off goes the man, probably led there by someone nearby. Once there, he washes years of mud from his eyes. Colors, textures, shapes, depth-of-field–after all these years in darkness the man born blind can see. "I am like this," Jesus had said. "I am light coming into darkened eyes. Do you see me?"To Bring Out Those Who Dwell in Darkness
From this point on, nearly to the end of the chapter, Jesus seems to disappear from the scene. I say "seems to disappear" because, as far as John is concerned, Jesus is still right here. He is here because he is the light of the world. He is the life which is the light of men. And so, even though Jesus is not present in body, he is still the main subject of what follows. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend (or "overpower") the light.
Eyes widen as someone nearby recognizes the man born blind. (Only now he isn't blind at all.) "Isn't this . . . ?" "No, it can't be!" "It's him, alright." "Naw, it's only someone who looks like him." But the man himself kept insisting, "It's me! It's really me!" "Oh ya? Then how is it you can see after all these years?" What is his answer? "It was a man called Jesus that healed me." [A man called Jesus! Is that all he is? A man called Jesus? Ah, but there is more to come. His eyes are simply not accustomed to the light yet.]
Enter: the darkness. Enter: the Pharisees, those renowned for their keen sight into the things of God. Those who claim to walk in the light. Do they see this as a work of God? Do they see the light of the world? Well, I'm afraid not. At best, they are confused. [And sadly, there is more to come. They squint in the light now. Soon they will close their eyes altogether.]
On the one hand, Jesus doesn't keep the sabbath like they do–how could he be of God? Still, how could he perform such miracles if he is a sinner? [A point the man born blind will bring up later too.] "Well, what do you say about him?" their breath heavy with disinterest.
A man called Jesus? No, the man born blind rubs his eyes and sees a little more clearly now. "Maybe he is a prophet?" The light begins to shine brighter. And the Pharisees recoil, looking into their hearts for something with which to shadow their eyes. The light is getting too bright. "What do you know!? Maybe you were never really blind after all." And they call for the man's parents. The parents, it turns out, are quite afraid of the Pharisees. Still, they do back up their son's story–at least that he is their son and that he was born blind. Still they search for some dark thing with which to cover their eyes.
"Alright! Admit that this Jesus fellow is a fraud. Admit that he is a sinner and not from God." The darkness struggles to overcome the light. The man simply shrugs. "I don't know about that. I do know that I was blind and now I see." Then one of the Pharisees nearby leans forward a bit, cocking his head a little to put forth a probing eye and a doubtful glare. "What did he do to you?" "I told you already, but you don't listen," objects the man. And then comes the last straw: "You don't want to become his disciples too, do you?" Necks stiffen, eyes ablaze–the Pharisees hiss out their taunt: "You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses! Na, na, na! We know God spoke to our master. But your master has no credentials" (wagging fingers giving rhythm to their chant).
The men famous for their sight into the things of God, show their blindness. No credentials! Isn't this man's sight a credential? What do they want? The man born blind is rather surprised too. "Well here is an amazing thing," he says, "that you do not know where he is from, and yet he opened my eyes. [In other words, 'how stupid can you be?'] We know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is God-fearing, and does his will, he hears him. Since the beginning of time it has not been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." The sheer uniqueness of this miracle should serve as a credential. No credentials! Are they blind?
Jesus came to his own and they received him not. The shadows of their own hearts hid them from the light. They loved the darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil. And yet they could not comprehend (or "overpower") the light. So they excommunicated the man born blind. He was cut off from them. The light is separated from the darkness.And I Will Lead the Blind
Jesus finds the man. "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" Is Jesus just a man? Is he just a prophet? No. The man born blind has come to see. And oh how he can see! God, in Christ, has reached into the darkness and drawn one of its children into the light. And he worships Jesus there. To all who receive Jesus, who believe in his name, he gives the right to become the children of God. John does not name the man born blind. And he does not tell us of his life as one who can see. For John is not so much concerned that we identify or identify with this man. Rather, he hopes we will look with this man toward Jesus. Again, John tells us of this man specifically to show us God working in his Son.
The man who could not see can see. For the Son has power to shine into even the most hopeless darkness. Men who could see, now cannot see. For the Son is the true light and all others cast shadows rather than brightness. The light has come into the world but men loved the darkness instead; for their plans, their hopes, their deeds were evil.
Please do not think that John presents "darkness" as an alley in the bad part of town; or a dimly lit prison cell; or the shadows just beyond the reach of a city park lamp. The darkness wears a three-piece suit. It stays home with the kids or paints the town. The darkness is eloquent or it slurs its speech in a bottle of cheap wine. It dresses well or it wears hand-me-downs. What John refers to with the image of darkness, is many things. The "darkness" is everything, everybody, that opposes God.
John does not intend to convey a grotesque cartoon figure to us by referring to "darkness." He is using this common, everyday image to indicate something of the character of the world's opposition to God. No one who walks in darkness really knows where he is going. No one who makes his home in the dark will ever see his home. And no one who lives in the darkness will ever see life. Dark things can be used like cosmetics to make us appear important, make us appear to have everything well in hand. But at noon these shadows will flee.These Are the Things I Will Do
In the beginning, God spoke light into being. And he separated the light from the darkness. What he did then in creation, he has done even more wonderfully now. To raise our anticipation, God spoke from the tongues of the prophets of what he was going to do. Isaiah had spoken of one whom the Lord appointed as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes and make darkness into light before them (Isa. 42).
Jesus has come. And his coming is like light shining in a dark night or sight in blind eyes. And, as in creation, the light is separated from the darkness. Those who love the darkness have no stake in the light. Those who love the light have no stake in the darkness.
If you have never heard John, he is laboring to convince you to believe in the name of Jesus–come to the light. For in him is life and his life is your light in this dark world (and in the world to come). If you have heard John before, do not yawn; please do not hear with sleepy ears and heart. Be revived in hearing the gospel again. Know that the shadows that sometimes hide your Lord from your eyes will flee at his impending arrival. And remember your identity as children of light. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot comprehend (or "overpower") the light. Hold on tightly to your hope so that you may have life eternal. For you have come to the city which has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it. Because the glory of God has illumined it and its lamp is the Lamb (Rev. 21:22-27).
(A revision of a message delivered at Westminster Theological Seminary, Escondido, California)