Thoughts from Doug Knox.
A Foregone Conclusion
Background reading: John 9
Discipleship with Strings Attached
If you attend church, listen to Christian radio, or read Christian blogs, you probably have heard someone mention discipleship. Whether or not the term is familiar, it sounds intimidating. As in, “There are Christians, and then there are disciples. Guess what we want you to be?” Actually, that distinction is not true. The word is the Bible’s term for a follower of Jesus. In short, discipleship is what Christianity is all about. If I am a true Christian, I am a disciple. To be engaged in discipleship means to be committed to following Jesus and his commands.
This series on discipleship will look at an episode from Jesus’ life from the Gospel of John. John Chapter 9 tells the story of a man who met Jesus under unusual circumstances and became one of his disciples. The drama continues in John Chapter 10, where Jesus holds the man up for the world to see what true discipleship means.
Miracles in John’s Gospel
John writes about Jesus with a magnifying glass in hand. He is not content just to tell us about Jesus’ miracles. He chooses to stick around to watch how people react after the miracle. What he finds is revealing. Of course, some believe and follow Jesus. We would expect this. What comes as a surprise is the far greater number of people that reject Jesus. In some cases, they fail to understand his deeds. Sometimes their prior hatred of him rums so deeply that they become blind to the things that he does. This is the case in John 9-10. There, Jesus heals a blind man, and the man becomes a disciple. Then the whole religious establishment attacks him. John 9 records the act, while chapter 10 covers Jesus’ message preached to those who oppose the man. A blind man sees, while those with perfectly good eyesight become spiritually blind. Let’s look at the story.
The Usual Way of Thinking
Just prior to John 9, Jesus narrowly avoids a stoning by the religious leaders in the temple at Jerusalem (John 8:59). He and his disciples walk away from one incident into another. John 9 opens with these words. “As he [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi [the Jewish word for Teacher], who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ” (John 9:1-2) Stop and think about that statement for a moment. First, John’s wording, “As he passed by,” suggests a chance meeting with the man. Probably Jesus and his men were within a couple steps of him, and the sight must have stopped them in their tracks. Picture the scene. The disciples do not have time to think. They only have time to react, and they react out loud. So when they ask a moral question that treats the man like a laboratory specimen, they apparently think they are immune from detection. But the man can hear them. He is just as human as they are. I suspect he has heard this kind of language his entire life. Second, notice how the disciples phrase their question. They do not ask whether anyone has sinned to cause this man to be born blind. The disciples live in a morally simple universe. They know nothing about genetic or developmental defects. In their world, blindness and other maladies are results of someone’s sin. Their belief requires God to rewards the righteous and punished the evil with perfect efficiency. Since he must balance the divine books, some sin stands behind this man’s blindness. No other possibility exists.
A Much Brighter Alternative
Jesus presents a new alternative. “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).
In contrast to the disciples, Jesus offers possibilities. He has something else in mind. That something becomes evident a few sentences later. John writes, “Having said these things, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, ‘Go wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing” (John 9:6-7).
What Just Happened?
Have you ever noticed how unconcerned Jesus is about what people think of him? Really, spitting on the ground and then smearing it on a blind man’s eye sockets? Isn’t that a little exploitative? Obviously, Jesus doesn’t think so. And apparently, neither does the man. He just follows Jesus’ order. Then he discovers that for the first time in his life he can see. If we are careful readers, we have to ask some questions. First, why did the man obey Jesus (no pun intended) sight unseen? I suspect part of the reason lay in Jesus’ words, which may have been the first positive words the man had heard. He hears grace in Jesus, and the grace is irresistible. The second question is more involved. Why does Jesus send the man away? I think the answer lies in what he has created. He gave the man dignity with his words. His command to go and wash called the man to faith. And now the man’s faith has made a whole human being. Without sight, the man has “seen” Jesus.
The Unfolding Drama
The drama will continue to mount when the Pharisees discover the man, because the healing takes place on the Sabbath. The religious leaders become split in their opinions about Jesus. Some sense the greatness of the miracle, while others see only a broken Sabbath. In the midst of the controversy, the man will find himself caught in a religious inquisition. Meanwhile, Jesus remains out of sight and lets the man endure religious brutality. But he knows his own, and he knows the works of God will grow in him. The story is far from over.
Discipleship and Division
Background reading: John 9
Jesus and Division
Jesus divided men. His message continues to divide them. Therefore, we should not be surprised when we face the same reaction to Jesus’ words and deeds in our day. In the Apostle John’s account of the healing of the blind man, he opens the story abruptly. “As he [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And the disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ” (John 9:1-2) This is the language of division. The disciples could see only one reason for the man’s blindness, and it involves judgment from God, the ultimate form of division. Jesus’ answer to the disciples is designed to plant harmony into the disciples’ thinking. “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). John writes that Jesus spit on the ground and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. Then he told him to go to the Pool of Siloam and wash off the mud. When the man did, he could see. What could be more heartening after the disciples’ dismal interpretation of his circumstances? Jesus has brought indescribable joy to a man who never dreamed he would be able to do something as simple as watch a sunrise.
From a Crack to a Fissure
Even so, division follows the event as certainly as Saturday follows Friday. The crack begins with the neighbors.
The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar were saying, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”
Some said, “It is he.” Others said, “No, but he is like him.”
He kept saying, “I am the man.”
So they said to him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”
He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud and anointed my eyes and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed and received my sight.”
From a Fissure to a Chasm
Perhaps we need to give the people a break. After all, no one has given sight to a blind man. We cannot fault them if they have a hard time believing Jesus could do such a thing. But the miracle has religious overtones, and the people take the man to the religious experts, the Pharisees. The division grows. John writes,
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. So the Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight.
And he said to them, “He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.”
Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” And there was a division among them.
When the Pharisees reach an impasse among themselves, they turn to the man. “What do you say about him, since he has opened your eyes?” (John 9:17). The man’s answer could not have caused more fallout if it had been an atomic bomb. “He is a prophet.” These words come from one who has experienced Jesus and seen the truth. In the Jewish world, a prophet spoke to God and communicated his word with absolute authority. Since the days of Moses, the prophets had been God’s mouthpieces. Just before Moses the Prophet passed on his mantle to Joshua, he told the people what God had said concerning prophets and their authority. “And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him” (Deuteronomy 18:18-19). The Pharisees revered Moses and the prophets, because they all spoke God’s words. What the prophet said came from God. So when the man concludes that Jesus is a prophet, the message that goes to the Pharisees is, “You need to listen to him, because he speaks God’s words to you.”
The beginnings of Discipleship
Jesus steps in, and instead of judging, he says that the works of God are about to be displayed in him. And are they ever. Jesus speaks what is probably the first kind word in this man’s life. The man listens and obeys a command as strange as, “Go to Siloam and wash this mud off your eyes.” Disciples are not special people. The day before, everyone ignored the man. In the closed religious system of the day, he was walking judgment. Now that Jesus has touched him, he becomes unstoppable. The first mark of true discipleship is evidence that a man has seen Jesus.
Transformation and Discipleship
Background reading: John 9
Jesus had a way of doing things that split people’s opinions down the middle.
One of his habits was to perform great works on the Sabbath. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day did not just worship on the Sabbath. They practically worshiped the Sabbath itself. To their credit, they kept a very important command of God. The Sabbath was a sacred day that God had assigned as a memorial for Israel. It was to be a day of celebration and rest. But the super-religious had turned it into a day of forced inactivity. Their insistence on rigorous rules for the Sabbath had turned God’s holy day into something joyless. Jesus resisted this belief, and he did so by performing some of his greatest miracles on the Sabbath. When Jesus gave sight to the blind man on the Sabbath, he eliminated any middle ground. People had to choose to recognize him as a miracle worker or condemn him as a Sabbath breaker.
Raising the Stakes
When John records the miracle, the stakes become even higher than just performing a miracle on the Sabbath. At the beginning of John 9, John says that Jesus and the disciples came upon a man “blind from birth” (John 9:1), and the disciples ask Jesus the reason why he was “born blind” John 9:2). Obviously they have never seen the man, so how do they know his blindness has come from birth? What they may be witnessing is a condition now called anophthalmia, meaning “no eyes” (Wickipedia.org). The condition sometimes manifests itself with small, closed eyelids covering empty eye sockets. Some manifestations are more grotesque. We get hints that this is the case from the story. One of them comes from the complete confusion of the man’s acquaintances. Here is the dialogue again:
The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar were saying, “Is this the not man who used to sit and bet?”
Some said, “It is he.”
Others said, “No, but he is like him.”
He kept saying, “I am the man.”
When the people have to debate about whether the whole man standing before them is the once-blind beggar or someone else who is otherwise identical, the transformation is radical. Whatever his pre-miracle appearance was, he remains recognizable—except for eyes that see. John breathes a deeper life into the story in verse 6, when Jesus spits on the ground, makes mud, and smears it in his eye sockets. Think about this: What does the Bible say about the way God made man? He “formed the man out of the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7).
Jesus’ act of making mud and putting it on the man’s eye sockets appears to be an act of creation. Jesus did something that only God could do. He takes the dust of the ground and creates fully functioning eyes for the man.
The Jewish leaders enter the story at this point. They are unable to believe that Jesus the Sabbath breaker could do such a thing, so they try to argue theory instead of facts. They reason, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath” (John 9:16). Unfortunately for them, the man keeps muddying the water with the facts. “He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see” (John 9:15). When the facts begin to get in the way, the Jewish leaders resort to the next tactic. They call him a liar. “The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight, until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight” (John 9:18). The attempt to discredit the man’s testimony blows up in their faces. It also gives us a glimpse into a religion that has begun to strong-arm its adherents. The Jewish leaders ask the man’s parents,
“Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”
His parents answered, “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. But how he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”
(His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue.) Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
John is taking the story to a definite conclusion. The man’s support groups have vanished. His acquaintances are unable to make up their minds about who he is. His family backs down in the face of the religious bullying. Even Jesus sends him away so that the miracle of sight takes place when the man is alone. The man is going to have to stand on his own. In the next challenge, we will witness the stand that he takes. For now, though, we need to see the changes that have begun to take place in the man’s heart.
Men with Heart
Any man who is serious about being a man knows his own heart. He knows his likes and dislikes, as well as the values he upholds and the things he despises. We engage these values to define ourselves as men. When we strive to become better men, we hold these templates in our mind about what a better man is.
When God calls a man to become a disciple, he confronts him at the heart level. He reveals Jesus as the perfect man, the Son of God, and says, “Make me your most valuable quality.” True discipleship is more than a makeover. It is more than an eternal life insurance policy that we can cash in when we die. It is more than a date and signature scribbled in the front of your Bible. It is nothing less than a new way of seeing Jesus and then making a commitment to be a lifetime Christ follower. It is a visible display of God’s invisible work in the heart and manifests itself as a commitment to follow a greater ideal.
Men with Heart, and Hearts of Steel
Background reading: John 9
Men with Heart
In the previous installment, I mentioned that Jesus’s call to discipleship is a heart call. Those who have experienced the call can attest to what I mean. A heart call is a call to our deepest convictions. It is a call to recognize that Jesus is the most important person in the universe. It is a call to follow him and to allow him to guide our convictions. For the man in John 9, who has been born blind, the heart call comes when a rabbi named Jesus corrects his disciples’ assumption about his blindness and says that the works of God are to be done in him (John 9:3). These probably were the first positive words the man had heard in his life. Therefore, when the rabbi smears mud on his eye sockets and tells him to go to the Pool of Siloam to wash, he goes without hesitation. Whatever the works of God are, he is ready to receive them. In return, he comes away with eyes to see. Before long, however, the man realizes another truth about following Jesus. When we place him at the center of our convictions, there is a cost. First, his acquaintances doubt his story. Then they take him to the religious authorities, who already despise Jesus. Finally, when the man’s own parents cave under the religious leaders’ pressure, he realizes he must make his stand alone.
Heart of Steel
The narrative continues with another challenge from the religious leaders. This time, when they push, the man pushes back. Here is how the encounter begins.
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know that this man is a sinner.”
He answered, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”
And they reviled him, saying, “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 comes from.”
I love this part. The religious elite demand that the man give glory to God. All he has to do is agree with their educated conviction that Jesus is a sinner because he has broken the Sabbath rules. When the man stands on what he knows—“Though I was blind, now I see.”—the authorities turn to insult. “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.” The thought is clearly comparative. You are only a disciple of this Jesus. We follow Moses. Except that Jesus has made eyes for the man. Now the man sees their prejudice for what it is, and his heart solidifies into a heart of steel. The man’s final words to the religious leaders stand on conviction.
“Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
Stealing the Religious Territory
With this statement, the man seizes the religious leaders’ religious territory like a king sacking a city. First, he demolishes their intellectual defenses. “You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.” Then he takes over their spiritual turf like it is his from the beginning. “We know that God does not listen to sinners….” How does this one-time beggar take on the religious experts and beat them at their own game? An example will help. Several years ago, a blind man attended the church where my wife and I belonged. We became friends, and he began to share his life as a sightless individual in a seeing world. He taught me a great deal about perception that lay beyond mere sight. For example, most people assumed that since our friend couldn’t see them, he was unable to hear them. Like the characters in John’s account, they ignored his presemce. While they gossiped freely about the other people in the church, our friend became an invisible witness that took their stories in. That insight in turn helped me understand the blind man in John. I believe he listened to an endless series of rabbinical debates as he sat on the synagogue steps. This invisible student must have received a lifetime of theological training. When the teachers of the law apply the right pressure, Jesus’ work galvanizes into conviction, and he crushes them. All at once, the religious leaders find themselves on the defense, and they have to retreat. The only recourse they have is insult. “They answered him, ‘You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?’ And they cast him out” (John 9:34).
What it means to know the Truth
The story leads to two endings, one human and one spiritual. The human part of the story loops back to the original question. “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” Under human judgment, the man remains a statistic—once blind, always judged. John mentions that the authorities carry out their threat to cast the man out of the synagogue because he has become a Jesus follower (John 9:22, 34). In their eyes, then, his devotion to the man who has given him eyes simply proves the guilt he supposedly had from the beginning. The spiritual perspective is entirely different. Following Jesus involves a cost, but it brings a greater reward. Jesus has given him physical eyes to see, discernment to understand, and courage like steel. The man knows what it means to know. In short, true discipleship enables us to become men of conviction that the world can neither understand nor stop. In the next few verses, Jesus will introduce himself to the men he healed, and we will see what worship looks like.
True Discipleship, True Relationship
Background reading: John 9 & 10
One of the most interesting aspects regarding Jesus’ encounter with the blind man is that Jesus proves the man before he confirms him. Jesus offers the man no prayer for salvation, no date and signature on a document to mark his first spiritual birthday, and no assurance that regardless of what happens in the future all he has to do is remember this decision day and he can know that he is saved. Instead, he sends the man into battle, and the battle is brutal. His acquaintances objectify him, his family abandons him, and his religious leaders pronounce him unfit to belong to the synagogue. The whole series of events began with a kind word by Jesus and a command for the man to go to the pool to wash mud from his eyes. The man had no way of knowing what would happen. He just obeyed Jesus’ word, and then learned how to fight for the reality he experienced. Only a man who believes already would do such a thing.
Knowing the Truth and the Person
It is at this point that Jesus establishes contact with the man. Here is the Bible’s word on what happened.
Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”
Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.”
He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.
Why does Jesus ask this strange question? After all, knows the man believes. Further, we as readers know the man believes. What more proof do we need?
I believe the purpose for the question is to allow the man to confess his belief out loud to the one who has earned his trust. Jesus goes through the back door to introduce himself, but his backdoor approach accomplishes two tasks. First, it allows the man to complete his search for Jesus on his own. Then, when he finds Jesus, his worship grows out of a grateful heart. The man’s declaration, “Lord, I believe,” is one of the most affirmative statements in Scripture. Notice that the word believe occurs three times in these four verses. Obviously, they are significant to John as a writer. Ultimately, the word points to the summary verses in John 20:30-31. “Many other works [miracles] did Jesus do among his disciples. But these are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you might have life through his name.” When the man declares, “Lord, I believe,” he acknowledges who Jesus is. Believing is more than just intellectual assent. It involves a commitment to a whole new way of thinking and perceiving the world. Ultimately, belief involves a 180-degree change in our perspective of Jesus. Those who believe see the truth and benefit from it. Like the blind man, they are granted a form of sight that comes from the heart. Second, the man’s freely given statement stands as the permanent testimony to his salvation. Everything the man has said to defend Jesus prior to this point contains a small kernel of ignorance. Earlier, for example, the man told the Jewish leaders, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25). Jesus’ question, “Do you believe in the Son of Man,” completes the loop to salvation. This is the last that we see of the man. From this point on, John concentrates on Jesus’s discussion about the man’s belief.
Unknowing the Truth
At this point in the narrative, those who refuse to believe reject the truth and become blind. John writes,
Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”
Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.
Disbelief is never neutral. It involves rejection of Jesus and everything he stands for. It involves deliberate blindness toward the truth. One evangelist coined the term, “unknowing the truth.” Blindness from a spiritual perspective means that a person will not see. The religious leaders who denied what they had seen with their eyes proved the fact. When Jesus says, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt,” he means that a person who claims to have spiritual insight without Jesus’ benefit is actually lost. He has made himself blind to the truth. The man born blind demonstrates what true discipleship means. He has received both physical and spiritual sight from Jesus, and he shows the truth irrefutably.
The marks of a True Relationship with Jesus
John continues Jesus teaching through chapter 10, where Jesus pronounces himself to be the Good Shepherd. Here are some of the identifying marks of a genuine relationship between Jesus and his disciples.
- The shepherd enters by the door, and the sheep know him. He calls his sheep by name and leads them out (John 10:2-3).
- The sheep follow the shepherd because they know his voice (John 10:4).
- Whoever enters the sheepfold by Jesus will be saved. He will go out and find pasture (John 10:9).
- The good shepherd comes to give his sheep abundant life (John 10:10).
- The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, because they belong to him and he cares for them (John 10:11-12).
- The good shepherd knows his sheep and they in turn know him, just as he and the Father know each other (John 10:14-15).
- The good Shepherd voluntarily gives up his life for the sheep (John 10:17-18).
Did you notice how little requirement appears in this list? It has nothing to say about, “If you do this, then I will do that.” It involves an intimate and supernatural relationship with Jesus. It is about being rather than doing. Discipleship is far more than signing a card or reciting a prayer of belief. It is not even about our relationship with Jesus, because that emphasis places the burden on us. True discipleship is about his relationship with us