The story of the blind man in John 9 is a study in guilt. What makes us guilty, and what’s the relation between guilt and our ability to obey and believe God?
Let’s do a quick run through. The chapter opens with a question: Was the man born blind because of his sins, or the sins of his parents? To us, it seems obvious he was not born blind because of neonatal sins. But to Jews who were taught God doesn’t punish children for the sins of their parents, the latter proposal is just as wrong. Jesus rejects this false dichotomy, announcing that he is blind so God’s works may be shown in him.
After his sight is recovered, the man is brought to the Pharisees, who did not give him a warm reception; they reject Jesus’ authority because he performed a miracle on a Saturday, and brand the healed man a sinner. When Jesus finds out what happened, he meets him, who then confessed, “Lord I believe.”
At this point, Jesus announces a dramatic reversal: the blind shall see and the seeing shall be blind! The blind man has spiritual insight into Jesus’ nature, and responds accordingly by worshiping. The Pharisees who should have recognized Jesus’ nature, refuse to acknowledge him. And here’s the lesson of the story: Jesus says to the Pharisees, If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” In other words, mere blindness or inability to acknowledge Jesus is not, in and of itself, sinful. But willful blindness is.
The Pharisees can recognize Jesus for who he is, or at least they claim they can see. Their own claim to see renders them guilty. Thus, God holds people responsible, neither for the sins of their parents (Ezek. 18), nor those sins of their own ignorance, but for their refusal to do what they can do. How does God judge them? He blinds them. Blinding is God’s way of punishing people for refusing to use the eyes he gave them.
This should shape our understanding of God. God doesn’t demand us to reap where he hasn’t sown. He doesn’t call us to seek him while wearing an invisibility cloak. (Isaiah 45:19). No. God is good. He “judges the world fairly.” (Psalm 9:8) Since we live, move, and exist by his power, “he is not far from any one of us.” (Acts 17:27-28). Thus, when God directs us to follow up, we may confidently say, for by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall.