Was Blind But Now I See: John 9 as a Type of Salvation

By Doug Ponder    |    June 19, 2023


John the Apostle is the sort of author who not only thought about what to include in his account of the life of Jesus but also what to leave out. He straightforwardly tells us, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written this book” (John 20:30). Again, he says, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

One wonders: If John deliberately left much out of his Gospel, what might that tell us about all that he deliberately kept in? At the very least, this suggests that John’s Gospel is a carefully crafted story, one packed with enough meaning to warrant many close readings. When we return to familiar passages, therefore, we should not be surprised to discover a depth of profundity and richness that speaks to multiple facets of God, his world, and our place within it.

That is certainly the case with John 9, which records one of the most well-known miracles from the life of Jesus. The story features a man born blind, a fierce debate, a miraculous cure, and a particular pool that is worth a closer inspection. Indeed, these details are intended to carry the narrative forward so that we can see ourselves in it and respond to Jesus rightly.

The Man Born Blind

By not giving us the name of the man Jesus healed, John has ensured that the “man born blind” will forever be known as only that (or as the similarly phrased, “man blind from birth”). This is almost certainly not an accident. Indeed, on closer inspection, we see that—unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke (cf. Matt. 8:14; Mark 5:21–22; 10:46; Luke 8:2, 40–41)—John never tells us the names of anyone who benefitted from Jesus’s miracles, except in the case of Lazarus (John 11). This is all the more striking when we consider that John, unlike Luke, was an actual eyewitness to all that he records (cf. Luke 1:1–4; John 21:20–24).

One of the effects of this omission is that we are enabled, even encouraged, to see ourselves in the story. To be sure, this is something we can do even with the named figures of Scripture. For they are frequently held out to us as examples of what to emulate (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 11:1; Heb. 11:4ff) and what to avoid (1 Cor. 10:6–11; 1 John 3:12). However, the anonymity of the character would seem to add an elevated sense in which the man born blind could be anyone. And, in a sense, he is everyone. Or better still: everyone is him. That is, we are the man—the ἄνθρωπος—born blind, shrouded in the darkness of sin (Eph. 4:18), and oppressed by the blinding work of the enemy of God (2 Cor. 4:4).

We call this natural condition “spiritual blindness,” essentially our inability to see the truth clearly, understand it fully, evaluate it fairly, and live before it rightly. This fact alone is nearly sufficient to explain much of the confusion and irrationality that underlies so much of human history. We are born in blindness, and we remain that way apart from Jesus’s intervention.

The Blindness of Those Who Claim to See

In this case of physical blindness, Jesus is clear that neither the man nor his parents were to blame (John 9:3). That is not so with spiritual blindness, however. As Jesus goes on to say, “Because you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains” (John 9:41). There is culpability for spiritual blindness, in other words, and it is partly tied to our insistence that we can discover what is true and do what is good on our own. But the apostle Paul explains why this doesn’t work: “Claiming to be wise they become fools” (Rom. 1:22) and “their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21).1

For all who desire to flee the tidal waves of judgment that will one day cleanse the world of sin, there remains a gracious invitation.”

—Doug Ponder

Jesus frames his own Messianic work as a divine reversal of this condition, saying, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind” (John 9:40). This is not a reference to some system of punishment and reward for good deeds but a reference to the gracious opposite of any such system. Those who confess their spiritual blindness, moral guilt, and inability to do anything about their condition are able to receive the One who is “the light and life and men” (John 1:4). Meanwhile, those who trust in their own ability to see things clearly and live life rightly remain in a state of utter darkness—all because they “do not come to the light,” as John has already told us (cf. John 3:19–21).

The contrast couldn’t be starker: If we come to the One who is the light of the world and confess our inability to make things right, then our eyes will become clear (Matt. 6:22–23), and we ourselves will become reflections of his life-giving light (Matt. 5:14–16). But if we keep insisting that we see things clearly and live life rightly on our own, we will become as blind and lifeless as whatever it is that we are ultimately living for (Psalm 115:8).

The One Who Restores Our Sight

Right after identifying himself as “the light of the world” (John 9:5), Jesus spit on the ground and made mud from the saliva (John 9:6). Much has been made of Jesus’s use of spit, both here and elsewhere (cf. Mark 7:33; 8:23). In this case it seems that the focus is more on the mud than the spit itself. Most significantly, Jesus could not have made the mud without stooping to form it from the dust of the ground with what he had expelled from his mouth.

The echoes of creation are strong here, as commentators have noted for centuries. Irenaeus says, “The Lord bestowed sight on the one who was blind from birth—not by a word, but by an outward action. He did this neither casually nor simply because this was how it happened. He did it this way in order to show it was the same hand of God here that had also formed man at the beginning.”2

This tracks with much of John’s Gospel, which reads like a commentary on the book of Genesis. It even begins by introducing us to the One who comes to make creation new again (cf. John 2:1–11; Rev. 21:1–5). This is one reason why John begins his Gospel with the same words that open the Scriptures: “In the beginning . . .” (cf. Gen. 1:1; John 1:1).3 Even Jesus’s opponents can’t help making the connection between Christ and creation in the light of his miracle: “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind” (John 9:32).

They were right, albeit without realizing the implications of their own words. Had they understood what they were saying, they would have dropped their skepticism and fallen to the ground rejoicing that they stood in the presence of the One who came to reveal what we cannot see and to heal what we could never mend, namely, the very God who made us for himself in the first place.

The Waters of Siloam

The last detail of this miracle is the name of the pool where Jesus sends the man born blind to wash away the mud from his eyes. In Greek, it is Siloam, and in Hebrew, Shiloah. The first mention of this pool is found in Isaiah 7 and 8, where Ahaz, the king of Judah, is summoned to courageous faith in the Lord, who was promising to halt the advance of Judah’s enemies (Isaiah 7:3–9). What’s more, Ahaz is graciously permitted to ask for a sign that all this will come to pass, but Ahaz faithlessly refuses (Isa. 7:10–12). Isaiah then announces that the Lord himself will give Israel a sign: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14).

Later we are told what will become of Ahaz and Judah for their lack of faith. The Lord says, “Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently . . . therefore, behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the River, mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory. And it will rise over all its channels and go over the banks, and it will sweep on into Judah” (Isa. 8:5–-8). For the Lord will become “stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken” (Isa. 8:14–15).

In light of the Shiloah-Siloam connection, John 9 resonates as something of a reenactment of what happened in Isaiah’s day: the Pharisees refuse to trust in the Lord near the same place where Ahaz had failed to do the same. Similarly, the result of their rejection was that they became like Judah of old, meeting destruction at the hands of a foreign power—not Assyria, but Rome (in AD 70).

This repetition of Israel’s destruction is, of course, a type. It is a pattern of God’s way of working in the world, pointing to that day when the rejection of Jesus as Lord will bring an even worse sort of destruction under an even more deadly flood (cf. Rev. 11:15–9; 14:10–12, 20). Yet for all who desire to flee the tidal waves of judgment that will one day cleanse the world of sin, there remains a gracious invitation: Come to the gently flowing waters of Siloam (Acts 22:16), fall to your knees in worship (John 9:38), and join the chorus of those who sing, “I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.”

  1. In context, Paul’s words are in reference to what happens in the case of idolatry, when men have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25). Yet we should not overlook the fact that John seems to illustrate what Paul expounds. That is to say, the Pharisees are not merely guilty of ignorance but of gross idolatry. They have mouths, but do not speak truly; they have eyes, but do not see clearly; they have feet, but do not walk rightly. They have become like the idols that they worship (cf. Psalm 115:4–8). Let us therefore banish once and for all the notion that the Pharisees’ problem was only one of slight difference regarding badges of covenant membership or the place of the law in the covenant of grace, as some modern scholars have maintained. Rather, John makes it plain that their blindness was of a spiritual nature akin the very sort of idolatry that the prophets repeatedly warned against. That is why Jesus does not simply rebuke them for their ignorance; he condemns them for their false worship.
  2. Irenaeus, “Against Heresies” 5.15.2 in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament IV: John 1-10, ed. Joel C. Elowsky (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), p. 324.
  3. The parallels do not end here. Indeed, the opening verses of Genesis 1 and John 1 contain Trinitarian elements (Gen. 1:2, John 1:1), focus on speech/word (Gen. 1:3; John 1:1) and prominently feature light (Gen. 1:3; John 1:4–5).
Doug Ponder

Doug Ponder is professor of biblical studies at Grimké Seminary and is a teaching pastor at Remnant Church in Richmond, Va.

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