In the prior studies, it was discussed how the Johannine view of sin involves two distinct levels, or aspects, of meaning. The first defines sin in conventional ethical-religious terms—that is, as misdeeds or wrongs done by people during the course of their daily life. The second defines sin in terms of the great sin of unbelief—of a failure or refusal to trust in Jesus as the Son of God. These two aspects give to the sin-terminology of the noun hamartía, and the related verb hamartánœ, a dual meaning.
Such dual-meaning is not at all uncommon in the Gospel of John; indeed, it is part of the Johannine style, and can be seen throughout both the Gospel Discourses and narrative passages. Many examples could be cited, such as the use of the common verb ménœ (“remain”) or the verb pair anabaínœ / katabaínœ (“step up / step down”). These verbs can be used in the ordinary sense, in a narrative context. For example, the disciples might “remain” with Jesus (1:39), in the sense of staying in the same dwelling-place, or Jesus may be said to “go up” (lit. “step up”) to Jerusalem, in the ordinary sense of journeying/traveling there (2:13, etc); but these verbs are also used in a special theological (and Christological) sense throughout the Gospel.
Another piece of thematic vocabulary with a dual-meaning is the sight/seeing motif, along with its opposite (privative) aspect of lack of sight (i.e., blindness). A person can see with the eyes, in the ordinary physical sense; but ‘seeing’ in the Gospel also refers to trust/belief in Jesus as the Son of God, with the knowledge of God (the Father) that this brings. Similarly, lack of sight, or a failure to see, can mean a failure to trust in Jesus. The light-darkness thematic pair functions the same way in the Johannine writings, with a comparable dual meaning.
Both the seeing/sight and light motifs feature in the chapter 9 episode of Jesus’ healing of the Blind Man, and both motifs have a dual-meaning within the narrative. Chapter 9 does not contain a Discourse, per se, but the narrative features a number of Discourse-elements. The dual-meaning of these motifs, along with the inability of the audience to understand the true and deeper meaning of them, are elements that feature prominently in the Johannine Discourses.
Sin is also a significant thematic and conceptual reference-point throughout the chapter 9 episode, and it involves both of the aspects/levels of meaning highlighted above. The conventional ethical-religious understanding of sin is emphasized at the beginning of the episode, as the disciples ask Jesus about the relation of the blind man’s disability to wrongs (i.e., sins) that may have been done:
“Rabbi, who sinned [h¢¡marten]—this (man) or his parents—that he should (have) come to be (born) blind?” (v. 2)
Jesus makes clear that, at least in this instance (compare 5:14), the man’s blindness was not the result of any particular wrongdoing (sin):
“This (man) did not sin [h¢¡marten], nor (did) his parents, but (it was so) that the works of God should be made to shine forth in him.” (v. 3)
In other words, as in the case of Lazarus’ illness (and death), the ailment was allowed to exist so that the power and glory of God would be manifest through the healing miracle (“work”) performed by Jesus (see 11:4). Through the miracle, it would be clear (to those who would believe) that Jesus is the Son of God who performs the works of God.
The sight/seeing motif is obviously present in the figure of the blind man himself, but the parallel light motif is introduced, also at the beginning of the episode, in the declaration by Jesus in verses 4-5:
“It is necessary for us to work the works of the (One hav)ing sent me as long as it is day, (for) night (soon) comes, when no one is able to work. When I should be in the world, I am (the) light [fœ¡s] of the world.”
Verse 5 is, of course, one of the famous “I am” (egœ eimi) sayings by Jesus in the Gospel of John. This vocabulary and syntax clearly reveals that sight/seeing motif—like the related light motif—has a special theological meaning that is not immediately apparent at the surface-level of the narrative. At the surface-level, Jesus heals the blind man, allowing him to see (vv. 6-7). This is the ordinary physical/optical sight of the eyes.
It is just at this point, as the people begin to react to the healing, that the sin motif starts to be developed within the narrative. At first, it is the neighbors who react to the blind man’s healing (vv. 8-12), but then the Pharisees, functioning (in the narrative) as a collective group of religious authorities, enter the scene (vv. 13ff). Their role is essentially identical with that of “the Jews” in the earlier healing episode in chapter 5 (vv. 1-17). In both episodes, the healing occurs on a Sabbath (5:9b; 9:14), and it is this fact that initially spurs the people’s hostility and opposition to Jesus’ healing work. The Johannine tradition corresponds generally with the Synoptic tradition in this regard (see my earlier articles on the Sabbath Controversy episodes, Parts 4–5 of the series “Jesus and the Law”).
The religious claim is made that Jesus’ healing work on the Sabbath is a violation of the Torah regulations prohibiting work on the Sabbath (Exod 20:10-11, etc). If such a claim were to be admitted as valid, it would be an example of religious wrongdoing (i.e., sin)—violating the Divine regulations of the Torah—and would make Jesus a sinner (hamartœlós), one who commits sin (hamartía). This, of course, would be sin as defined in the traditional and customary ethical-religious sense (see above). The Pharisees imply that Jesus is a sinner, as one who violates the Torah regulations. This, as other people in the audience recognize, would seem to be at odds with Jesus’ ability to work miracles:
“How is a sinful [hamartœlós] man able to do such signs?” (v. 16)
When the blind man himself is asked about this (“What do you say about him, [this man] that opened up your eyes?”), he responds that Jesus must be a prophet (v. 17). This is significant, in the context of the Johannine theology, since Jesus’ Messianic identity as an Anointed Prophet was established earlier in the Gospel (1:20-21ff; 4:19, 25, 29; 6:14; 7:40). In the Johannine writings, the titles “Anointed One” (Messiah) and “Son of God” go hand in hand; any true confession of faith will affirm Jesus’ identity as both the Messiah and Son of God (11:27; 20:31; 1 Jn 1:3; 2:22; 3:23; 5:20). However, according to the developed Johannine Christology, it is not enough to believe that Jesus is the Messiah; one must also trust that he is the eternal (and pre-existent) Son of God, sent from heaven to earth by God the Father.
At this juncture, about halfway through the narrative, the focus shifts from a conventional ethical-religious understanding of sin (aspect/level 1) to the distinctive Johannine theological/Christological understanding (aspect/level 2). This is expressed in a subtle way at the beginning of verse 18:
“The Jehudeans [i.e. Jews] then did not trust [ouk epísteusan] concerning him…”
In the immediate narrative context, this refers to an unwillingness to believe that the blind man had actually been blind. Yet this response actually reflects an unwillingness to believe in the miracle performed by Jesus, as a work of God, performed by the Son of God. Thus, there is implicit here a clear reference to a lack of trust in Jesus (in the Johannine theological sense). Their lack of trust is demonstrated further by the blunt declaration that Jesus is a sinner: “Give honor to God, for we have seen that this (man) is a sinner [hamartœlós]” (v. 24). Now apparently admitting the reality of the healing, the people (“the Jews”) recognize that God must be responsible for it. They thus essentially confess that the healing was a work of God, but that Jesus could not have been responsible, since he “is a sinner”.
The Johannine theology creates a profound irony here. In claiming that Jesus is a sinner, the people are actually showing themselves to be sinners, committing the great sin of unbelief. It is this theological aspect of sin that dominates the remainder of the narrative; at the same time, the true and deeper meaning of the sight/seeing motif also comes to the fore. True sight means trusting in Jesus as the Son of God; and true blindness (lack of sight) is the lack of such trust.
The climax of the narrative (vv. 35-41) demonstrates this Christological emphasis most vividly. Having been given sight in the ordinary physical sense, the man now begins to see in the true and deeper sense of trusting in Jesus. The question Jesus poses in verse 35 is:
“Do you trust in the Son of Man?”
sý pisteúeis eis tón huión toú anthrœ¡pou
Some manuscripts read “Son of God” rather than “Son of Man”, presumably because (quite rightly) “Son of God” is the more appropriate title for a confession of faith. However, two points must be kept in mind. First, in the Gospel tradition, the expression “son of man” often functions as a self-reference by Jesus, as a circumlocution for the pronoun “I”; thus, the question in verse 35 can be taken as essentially meaning “Do you trust in me?”. Secondly, in a number of the “Son of Man” sayings in the Gospel, Jesus is clearly identified (or identifies himself) with a heavenly being, who is sent to earth as a representative of God, to act in His name. In the Gospel of John, in particular, the title “Son of Man” refers specifically to Jesus’ heavenly origin, as the Son sent from heaven by God the Father (1:51; 3:13f; 5:27; 6:27, 53 [in light of vv. 33, 38, 41ff, 51], 62; 12:23; 13:31). In any case, the manuscript evidence overwhelmingly favors the reading “Son of Man” as original here in v. 35.
The true/deeper meaning of the sight-motif is made explicit in verse 37: “Indeed you have seen [heœ¡rakas] him…”. The man’s confession of faith comes in verse 38 (“I trust, Lord”), indicating that now he truly does see. By contrast, those who do not trust in Jesus are truly blind. They are also sinners since they commit the great sin of unbelief; and, indeed, they face judgment from God on the basis of this sin:
“(It is) unto [i.e. for] judgment (that) I came into this world: (so) that the (one)s not seeing should see, and (that) the (one)s seeing should become blind!” (v. 39)
The Pharisees, still thinking of blindness in the ordinary (physical) sense, respond with puzzlement to Jesus’ declaration, asking, “(Surely) we are not also blind?” (v. 40). The episode concludes with a final expository declaration by Jesus, in which he identifies the true meaning of both sin and blindness as being a refusal to trust in him (i.e., unbelief):
“If you were blind, you would not have sin; but (since) now you say that ‘we see’, your sin remains.” (v. 41)
This statement is a rich trove of wordplay, utilizing the Johannine theological vocabulary. Next week, we will examine verse 41 in more detail, along with 15:22-24, in which a similar message is expressed. This follow-up study will demonstrate the way in which the theological/Christological understanding of sin is emphasized in the second half of the Gospel.