John 9:41; 15:22-24
Last week, we examined the two levels, or aspects, of meaning for the sin word-group (hamartía, vb hamartánœ) in John 9. At the beginning of the episode (vv. 2-3), sin is referenced in the conventional ethical-religious sense, as wrongs or misdeeds that a person may commit. However, at the conclusion of the narrative (vv. 39-41), the meaning has shifted, to the distinctive Johannine theological understanding of sin as unbelief—a failure/refusal to trust in Jesus as the Son of God.
A similar kind of dual-meaning applies to the motif of seeing. At the beginning of the episode (vv. 6-7), the blind man receives sight in the ordinary, physical sense (of seeing with his eyes). But at the conclusion (vv. 35-38), he receives sight in the theological (and Christological) sense of trusting in Jesus. The same shift of meaning occurs, naturally enough, for the idea of blindness—i.e., a lack of sight. At the beginning, the blind man has a lack of sight in the ordinary sense, while, at the end of the episode, it is the opponents of Jesus who are shown to be blind, in that they refuse to trust in Jesus. This refusal to trust comes in the form of refusing to acknowledge or accept that the work performed by Jesus (i.e., the healing miracle) comes from God the Father, and thus demonstrates that he is the Son of God.
In the climactic declaration by Jesus (v. 41), there is a play on both aspects of meaning:
“Yeshua said to them [i.e. to his opponents]: If you were blind, you would not hold sin; but now, (since) you say that ‘We see’, your sin remains.”
In the first clause, the motif of sight/blindness occurs in the ordinary (phyiscal/optical) sense. Jesus is telling his opponents that, if they were simply blind in the way that the blind man had been, they would not have sin. This is an echo of Jesus’ earlier statement in verse 3, to the effect that the man’s (physical) blindness was not the result of any sin. There is no sin involved in simply being blind (in the ordinary sense).
The true blindness of his opponents, however, is quite different, and they do not even recognize that they are without sight, for they say “we see”. They think that they understand who Jesus is—namely, a sinful pretender who insults God by claiming to work healing miracles (that come from God). They are actually blind to Jesus’ true identity—the Son of God, sent from heaven by God the Father, who performs the works of the Father. And, because they are blind in this way, they do have sin (“your sin remains”)—indeed, they are guilty of the great sin of unbelief.
At the same time, it is also possible to see both aspects of the sin concept present here in verse 41. Because the opponents of Jesus commit the sin of unbelief, it is not possible for them to be set free from other sins (see 8:34-36, discussed in the earlier study). Trust in Jesus leads to the removal of sin (1:29; see also 1 Jn 1:7; 3:5); without this trust, the removal of sin is not possible, and a person’s sin(s) remain. Thus in a real sense, according to the logic of the Johannine theology, the presence/existence of all other sins is dependent upon the great sin of unbelief.
There is a parallel to 9:41 in 15:22-24 which we must consider, and which represents the next sin-reference to be found in the Gospel. These verses occur in the second half (15:18-16:4a) of the second Discourse-division (15:1-16:4a) of the Last Discourse. The principal theme of this Discourse-unit is the persecution of Jesus’ disciples (believers) by the world (or world-order, Greek kósmos). This theme is established in vv. 18-21, within the wider context of the stark juxtaposition contrasting believers and the world.
There is a strong dualistic orientation in the Gospel of John, which is also central to the Johannine theology, defining the very identity of a believer in Christ. A person either belongs to God, or belongs to the world. The noun kósmos in the Johannine writings has, for the most part, a decidedly negative meaning—referring to the domain of darkness and evil that is opposed to God. Human beings are trapped in this darkness, but the Son (Jesus) is sent to earth to bring light into the darkness. Those who belong to God come to the light (3:21), and trust in Jesus, and thus are set free—the light effectively dispelling the darkness.
This Christological significance of the light-motif is closely related to the sight/seeing-motif in chapter 9, as is clear from the declaration by Jesus in vv. 4-5. In terms of the Johannine dualism, the same significance applies to the parallel motifs of darkness and blindness—with the concept of sin (as unbelief) tied to both.
The “world” hates Jesus’ disciples (believers) because it hates him, the Son of God—being, as it is, fundamentally opposed to God. This is the main principle surrounding the persecution motif in 15:18ff. It is part of the wider theme, expressed throughout the Discourses (esp. in chapters 5-9), of the people’s opposition and hostility to Jesus. This hostility is rooted in a lack of knowledge, which, in chapter 9, is expressed by the idiom of blindness. In the Gospel of John, the concepts of seeing (vb eídœ, etc) and knowing (vb ginœ¡skœ) are interchangeable and virtually synonymous—both refer to trust in Jesus, a recognition of his identity as the Son of God. As the Son, Jesus reveals (i.e., makes visible) and makes known the Father; the believer who sees/knows the Son of God also sees/knows God the Father. This is an important thematic emphasis in the Last Discourse, and it very much relates to the world’s hostility toward believers:
“all these (thing)s they will do to you through [i.e. because of] my name, (in) that they have not seen [i.e. known] the (One hav)ing sent me.” (v. 21)
Those who belong to the world do not know God, and cannot see the truth. How this relates to the concept of sin is explained by Jesus in vv. 22-24:
“If I did not come and speak to them, they would not hold sin; but now they do not hold (any) forward showing around their sin.” (v. 22)
The first clause of v. 22 is similar to that of 9:41 (see above). If Jesus had not come (to earth) and spoken to the people (spec. his opponents), it would have been comparable to a condition where these people were simply blind (like the blind man)—and they would not hold (vb échœ) any sin. However, since the Son did come, the people are now in a position where they have to respond to him—either by trusting or by refusing to trust. By refusing to trust, the opponents, those belonging to the world, do now hold sin. And what is this sin which they did not hold before, but do hold now? The great sin of unbelief.
As discussed above, the presence of this fundamental sin means that all other sins are present as well—they remain, and are not removed. The contrast here in verse 22, is interesting. Before the coming of Jesus, the people of the world did not hold/have sin; now they do hold/have sin, but what they do not have is a “forward showing” around their sin. The noun próphasis literally means a “shining before”; the use of the preposition perí (“around”) suggests a shining light that surrounds someone (or something). For lack of any better option in English, I have translated this noun above as “forward showing”. Often próphasis connotes an outward show or pretense that is meant to cover one’s real intent.
A comparable idea is surely present here: that of a false “shining” that covers and masks the true darkness of a person. Almost certainly, there is an allusion to a kind of religious-ethical piety or ‘righteousness’ that masks a person’s unbelief. The religious opponents of Jesus may seem to be ‘shining’ with righteous devotion to God, but they are actually full of the darkness of sin (unbelief); by refusing to trust in God’s Son, they show their true nature—as people belonging to the world, and who are opposed to God. This is stated bluntly by Jesus in verse 23:
“The (one) hating me, also hates my Father.”
“If I did not do among them the works that no one other (has) done, they would not hold sin; but now they have both seen and hated both me and my Father.”
Here doing the works of God is parallel (in v. 22) with the idea of speaking the words of God—both represent the Son’s mission on earth, for which he was sent by the Father. In response to seeing and hearing this mission, one either trusts in Jesus as God’s Son or refuses to trust. Sin is defined primarily by this refusal to trust; it leads to expressions of hatred against both the Son (Jesus) and God the Father, and manifests other sins and evils that are characteristic of the darkness of the world.
Next week we will turn to the next sin-reference, which is embedded as part of the Paraclete-saying in 16:8-11. In a number of important ways, this references builds upon the earlier statements by Jesus regarding sin in 15:22-24.