Jesus having left the temple in company with his disciples, they went together in the direction of the house of Martha and Mary, which was situate at Bethany, on the other side of the top of the Mount of Olives. On the way, a blind man attracted the notice of the disciples -- probably sitting by the wayside begging. He appears to have been well-known. The disciples knew he had been blind from infancy, and that, in fact, he was born blind; and they put a question on the subject, which is supposed to favour the idea originating with the Egyptians, methodised by the Greeks, and generally disseminated throughout the world with the prevalence of the Greek language -- the existence of souls in a disembodied and pre-embodied state: "Who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Does this mean that the apostles thought the blind man lived before he was born? It looks a little like it, but it does not necessarily mean it. "This man" must have meant the man of flesh and blood who sat there without sight. Even in the language of the highest spiritualists, a so-called "spirit" out of a body is never called a man.
But it may be asked, how could the blind man in that sense have sinned before he was born? Of course, he could not do anything before he existed. The question before the minds of the disciples would not take this shape. They would assume that he might have sinned in a special manner after he was born, and that the consequences had been visited upon him in advance by that divine wisdom which sees all things beforehand. There is nothing in the question of the disciples to exclude this view of their meaning. But suppose it were otherwise -- supposing it were really a reflex of the current heathenish idea that men are eternal ghosts, travelling from body to body, and getting into the kind of body from time to time that their deserts call for, it would signify nothing in favour of its truth; for at this time the disciples were but poorly enlightened on many points, and liable to be infected with the traditions prevalent around them. We have found Jesus chiding them on more than one occasion for their childishness of apprehension; and it is expressly testified that "the Holy Spirit was not yet given" (John vii. 39). Hence, at this stage, it would be a mistake to attach to the unconfirmed words of the disciples that degree of authority which belonged to them when the Comforter came who was to guide them into all truth.
Whatever their idea may have been, Jesus gave it no countenance. The cause of the blindness was not in the man or his parents, "but that the works of God may be made manifest in him." His sight had been withheld that the power of God in Christ might be shown in its restoration. This furnishes the philosophy of the existence of evil generally, which perplexes natural thinkers. While evil is the punishment of sin, it is also the occasion of the manifestation of the power and goodness of God in its removal, but this must be taken in the widest application to see its force. "The end of the matter" must be kept in view. This end is exhibited in the revealed purpose of God to send Christ again to consummate the work of which the foundation has been laid. When death is removed from the earth, and evil is banished from the experience of its immortal inhabitants, the mission of evil will be clear to every understanding in the joy and thanksgiving of the population. Such a blessed appreciation of the revelation of goodness to the Creator's will and supremacy could not be reached without the sad story now being accomplished. The man who is not satisfied with this view of the matter will find no other, but must accept the darkness of agnosticism, which is a negation of many facts.
Jesus recognised in this man one of the appointed occasions of his "work." "I must work the works of Him that sent me while it is yet day." The man's blindness and his being in the way might seem accidental; but it was otherwise. May we not take from this some guidance for our own lives? The circumstances we are related to, though ever so casual, may always be to us God's opportunities -- God's tests -- with reference to our actions, in which our judgment will be decided. "The night cometh when no man can work." Mortal opportunity cannot last always. The earth is always here and the population, but not individual men. Our days have a fixed number; every sunrise and sunset takes away one and brings on the "night" when no man can work. If Jesus applied this to himself, how much more we may take the application to ourselves. It is the apostolic exhortation to "redeem the time."
Jesus then cures the blind man in the indirect way observed in the case of the blind man at Bethsaida. The remarks made in that case as to the indirectness of the miracle apply to this (see page 190), and need not be repeated. Returning from the pool of Siloam, he is in full possession of his sight. His neighbours, who had long known him as a blind way-side beggar, are struck at his now being able to see as well as any of them. They asked him how it came about, and he tells them. Where was this "man that is called Jesus" who had performed this wonderful cure? He did not know. The case is so extraordinary that his neighbours bring the man to the Pharisees. They also ask into the particulars, and receive the same information, with this addition, that the cure was performed by Jesus on the Sabbath day. Their shortsightedness was manifest in the comment they made: "This man is not of God because he keepeth not the Sabbath day." Some of the bystanders were more penetrating. They said, "How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles?" To do good on the Sabbath might not be sin: to perform a miracle was evidently divine. There was force in this, and a division of opinion was the result. The Pharisees were evidently in a quandary. They turned to the blind man himself who had been cured, and asked his opinion. "What sayest thou of him that hath opened thine eyes?" The man did not hesitate in the only verdict the facts admitted of: "He is a prophet." But the Pharisees would not have it: they were invincible in their bias against a man who had wounded their pride by condemning their ways. Yet they were in a dilemma.
The contention that a miracle was beyond the powers of a sinner had made its impression. They therefore affected to question the fact of the miracle. "They did not believe that the man had been blind and received his sight." The people of an opposite mind produced evidence. The parents of the man were called. Now, ye Pharisees, examine the witnesses. "Is this your son?" "Yes." "Was he blind?" "Yes, he was born blind." "How then doth he now see?" On this point the parents were non-committal. "The Jews had agreed already that if any man did confess that Jesus was the Christ, he should be put out of the Synagogue" -- a serious affair in days when membership of the Synagogue was the basis of civil rights among the Jews. The parents were afraid of such a consequence; therefore, though they believed in their hearts, as any parent would have done, on the testimony of his own son, that their son's sight had been restored by Jesus, they shielded themselves in their personal ignorance. "By what means he now seeth, we know not: or who hath opened his eyes, we know not. He is of age: ask him; he shall speak for himself." This did not help the case. The Pharisees had already questioned the man, and had received an unpalatable answer. They thought it no use asking him again. So, with an air of superiority, they decided to close the case with a paternal exhortation to the man: "Give God the praise: we know this man is a sinner:" cheap piety which we see so often exemplified in our own day, by which men with religious unction perform the most irreligious offences against the institutions, the Scriptures, and the servants of God. ("Praise God, but these men who serve him are evil: the Bible is to be taken with qualifications; the belief and obedience of the Gospel is an affair of bigotry.") The blind man had wit enough for the occasion: "Whether he be a sinner or no, I know not. One thing I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see."
This coming back upon a central fact is good when there is one to come back upon. It is the saving of many an important truth. In the matter of the Gospel, its divinity, its validity, its obligatoriness, its value -- the central fact is the resurrection of Christ. Critics may gloss over a good deal; they cannot get rid of this. The evidence (and who in affairs of moment disregards the evidence?) -- the evidence is such as to justify simple-minded, discerning men in saying, "One thing I know, if evidence proves anything, Christ rose from the dead, and this settles his case against all rival claims under the sun."
The logic of the blind man's remark was powerful, though indirect. It left the Pharisees no reasonable ground for rejoinder. So their temper broke, as always happens with their class in like circumstances. "They reviled him." Their vilification was mixed with just a trace of reasonable boast: "We are Moses' disciples: we know that God spake by Moses." So far, so good: God did speak by Moses; that is one of the inexpungable facts of history, which all the polished criticism of the 18th and 19th centuries have left unscathed in the convictions of such as have acquainted themselves with the facts at first hand. But the Pharisees made a mistake in placing this fact against Christ. If they could but have seen it, the case stood the other way. The fact of God having spoken by Moses necessitated the wonderful fact foreshadowed by Moses, and now exhibited before their eyes, that God would place His words in the mouth of a man raised up among them "from their midst." But they did not see. They did not want to see. They were outwardly righteous before men, but were inwardly actuated by the basest motives; and towards Christ could feel nothing but the deadliest animosity, because of his exposure of their iniquity. They shut their eyes to the plainest indication of facts. "As for this fellow, we know not whence he is."
In this they laid themselves open to the crushing rejoinder with which an illiterate blind man possessed of common sense was able to overwhelm them. "Why, herein is a marvellous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes! Now, we know that God heareth not sinners, but if any man be a worshipper of God and doeth His will, him He heareth. Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind. If this man were not of God, he could do nothing." A vigorous and irresistible sally like this, from the mouth of one of the common people, and the least gifted of them, was probably prompted by a higher impulse than the cured blind man was conscious of. It may have been of the order referred to by the Spirit in David in the words: "Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings Thou hast perfected praise." The thought is warranted by the fact that it was Christ that was in question, and that the husbandmen of Israel's vineyard were in rebuke. God, who rebuked the madness of a prophet by the mouth of a dumb ass, would be likely to use in defence of His son the mouth of a man who had been cured by Christ. Such boldness and incisiveness were very unlikely to characterise a beggar's thoughts. At all events, it was too much for the lofty hypocrites; nothing but flouts and excommunications remained. "Thou wast altogether born in sins, and dost thou teach us? And they cast him out."
The blind man does not himself appear to have understood who his benefactor was. He was not long left in ignorance. Jesus took early occasion to introduce himself to his notice. "Dost thou believe on the Son of God?" The man answered, "Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him?" The use of the term "Lord" on his part would merely be in courtesy, as when in our day we say "Master" or "Sir." Jesus avowed himself in that gentleness and majesty of style which was foreshadowed in the words of the Psalm: "Grace is poured into thy lips;" "Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee." The man's state of mind prepared him for the right reception of this revelation.
Some people do at once see and surrender to the claims of truth. Most people have reservations and endless dimnesses. They say "I cannot see that," and it is true. This man was of the lucid order of mind which sees with the clearness and accepts with the docility of childhood. "Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him." "Worshipped him!" Yes, why not? It is written, "Let all the angels of God worship him;" and John beheld them in vision comply. He "heard the voice of many angels round about the throne, saying with a loud voice, worthy is the Lamb that was slain." Shall we, with the puny, frost-bitten Unitarian ideas of this nineteenth century of darkness, refuse to bend the knee where angels spend themselves in celestial raptures? Nay, verily: "To Him every knee shall bow and every tongue confess to the glory of God the Father."
Christ accepted the worship, and spoke confidentially to the man as to the purpose for which he had come into the world at that time. His words were apparently mystical, yet literally true when understood. Their vagueness was due to the situation and the topic. "For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see, and that they which see might be made blind." "They which see not" was an allusion, in the first place, to what Christ had done to the blind man, but happily defined the larger class of blindness which is universal in the world, and for whose cure he sent an apostle forth in these words: "To whom (the Gentiles) now I send thee that thou mightest open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light."
"They which see" was a reference to the ruling class in Israel who had such a high opinion of their own discernment and enlightenment. The effect of Christ's mission upon them was to bring about a retribution in a most curious and interesting way. They were blind self-seekers, but they posed before the nation as the very guides of the blind and children of light, as the hierarchical class does to the present day. But how was this to be made apparent? Not by merely proclaiming the fact, but by bringing them into contact with the very light of heaven which they pretended to follow -- by showing them this light in its very nakedness -- by bringing into their presence him who could truthfully say, "I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness." If they were of the light they would come to this light and rejoice in it. Did they? The reverse. They shrank from it, as it is written, "Light is come into the world, but men loved darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil."
The men therefore who said they saw, were convicted of blindness in their rejection of him who was the light, so that Jesus became a darkener of their eyes or a manifestor of their real state of blindness. It was part of his mission "that they which see might be made blind." He thus became a stumbling stone and rock of offence. The disobedient stumbled at him and over him, and were broken. It was the most consummate exposure of spiritual sham that could have been devised, that by the highest manifestation of light the world has ever seen, the hypocritical professors of light should, by their own rejection of it, have become manifest as the children of darkness. Who knows by what similar test the clerical leaders of the present age may yet be manifested in their true character, when the time comes to say to Israel, "Arise, shine, for thy light is come?"
The Pharisees seem to have been in the neighbourhood of Christ and the cured blind man, when the short but pregnant conversation above recorded took place. "Some of the Pharisees," we are told, heard these words." They supposed Christ was referring to them and said, "Are we blind also?" The answer of Christ has important bearings beyond its application to the Pharisees: bearings, too it may be remarked, for which popular theology has no place. "If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, we see: therefore your sin remaineth." What is this but the affirmation of the principle that people are not responsible where they are in a state of ignorance? It may be said that popular theology does recognise this. It recognises it in the only way that its fundamental dogma of human immortality admits of, and that is a way that results in the nullification of another, and, if possible, more important scriptural principle. It says that those who are in a state of darkness -- such as the uncivilised "heathen," the idiotic, the insane, or children dying in infancy having no sin, according to the words of Christ -- are heirs of salvation and "go to heaven."
This idea makes salvation come through the operation of darkness. It overthrows the doctrine that darkness excludes a man from the possibility of salvation. This doctrine is one of the most plainly enunciated in the Bible. Paul, speaking of "the Gentiles," who "walk in the vanity of their mind," says (Eph. iv. 18) they "have the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart." David says that "the man that understandeth not is like the beasts that perish" (Psa. xlix. 20); and Solomon that "the man who wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain in the congregation of the dead" (Prov. xxi. 16). With this agree the words in which Christ sent forth Paul to his gospel work: -- "... the Gentiles to whom now I send thee, to open their eyes, to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive the forgiveness of their sins and inheritance among all them that are sanctified through the faith that is in me" (Acts xxvi. 17-18).
There must be some grave flaw in a theory of things that necessitates a view so expressly in opposition to the first principles of Bible teaching -- and not only so, but so self-manifestly absurd, and so demoralising; for if ignorance makes salvation certain, we have a new view of the moral universe and a new kind of incentive brought into action. Ignorance then becomes a desirable condition, and the true reforming effort would be to keep men undisturbed in their ignorance, and to keep knowledge at a distance as the most dangerous thing. Where is the flaw? It lies where few orthodox believers suspect it. It lies in the doctrine of the nature of man, which is the Greek doctrine -- the pagan doctrine -- not the Bible doctrine: the doctrine that man is an immortal being, and must sustain some relation of being everlasting.
This doctrine compels the other: for if a man must go to a hell of endless torment unless he attain a place among the blessed, every moral instinct revolts against the idea of sending the helplessly blind to that hell, and eagerly clutches at the relief suggested by the words of Christ, that the blind are not responsible. What is the escape from the difficulty? It lies in the fact that man is not an immortal being, but a mortal being -- who, when he dies, must be the subject of resurrection if he is to live again. That there shall be such a resurrection is the characteristic doctrine of the Christian system, as affirmed by Christ (Jno. v. 28, 29), illustrated in his own case (1 Cor. xv. 20), and categorically proclaimed by Paul before the tribunal of Festus: "There shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and of the unjust" (Acts xxiv. 15).
That this resurrection is regulated by the principles of justice is what we should expect since "God is not unrighteous" (Heb. vi. 10), but "just and true in all His ways" (Rev. xv. 3). It is what is declared: that the dead shall be "judged according to their works" (Rev. xx. 12); that to whom much has been given, of them will much be required, and that things worthy of many stripes will be visited with many stripes, and things only calling for few stripes, with few stripes (Luke xii. 48). In the operation of such principles of justice, there is no room for the arraignment of the class spoken of by Christ. While sinners, as all men are, they "have no sin" for which they are answerable: their circumstances preclude responsibility. Therefore, there is no resurrection. This, which would follow, is expressly declared, "They shall never see light" (Psa. xlix. 19). "They are dead, they shall not live: deceased, they shall not rise" (Is. xxvi. 14). They are as though they had not been (Obad. 16).
There can be no demur to such a conclusion, except on the score of human feeling. It seems to be assumed that the fact of a man having lived establishes a right to live again. This has only to be examined to be found without any warrant, either from reason or scripture. Why should the right be limited to those who have lived? Why not extend it to those who would have lived if accident had not barred the way, as in the case of the children who would have been born if young emigrant fathers and mothers, say had not been drowned through shipwreck? As for the scriptures, they are very explicit -- that man has no rights at all, and can work out none, apart from the interposition of God's own favour in the gospel: that all have sinned and come short of His glory (Rom. iii. 23); that death has passed on all men (Rom. v. 12); that all are by nature children of wrath, and without hope (Eph. ii. 2-12); that it is of the Lord's mercy we are not consumed (Lam. iii. 22). Resurrection at all is a favour -- not a tight, except God's right that the responsible may be brought to account. It is the divine point of view that settles this question. So long as men only look from the stand-point of human feeling, they must flounder in the mire. Let them realise that man is but a permitted form of the power of God (a power that assumes such endless forms throughout the universe), and they will cease to make human feeling a standard for the determination of questions in which eternal principles and the purpose of God are involved. They will see the perfect justice and the entire beneficence of the principles laid down by Christ -- that where men are in a condition of helpless ignorance, though sinners and under the power of death, they are not held accountable for their sin as regards the punishment waiting responsible sinners at the resurrection, but pass away out of being. It is fitting that the unfit for being should cease to be, and that they should not be held responsible for helpless misfortune.
"But now ye (Pharisees) say, we see. Therefore your sin remaineth." The Pharisees were in reputation for divine enlightenment because they made much profession in this direction. In reality also they were much related to the light, though not personally controlled by it. They were the descendants of Levi, and members of the tribe to which had been assigned the function of ministering the law of the Lord to the body of the nation (Mal. ii. 7). They had the law in their hands and devoted much time to a certain kind of acquaintance with it. In fact, as Jesus said on another occasion, they "sat in Moses' seat," and taught what was right "to observe and do," though giving no example that could be safely followed. Under all these circumstances, though blind as men are blind who are blinded by their own interests, Jesus affirmed they were responsible, and would one day be face to face with their responsibility under fearful circumstances: There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth when "ye shall see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and ye yourselves thrust out" (Luke xiii. 28).