That the Works of God Might Be Displayed
Click here to listen to this sermon.
And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:2-3).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Seeing this man’s condition, the disciples ask the question we continue to ask in such cases: “Why?” They apparently believe that such a physical defect must have been caused by some particular sin. In this case, they ask: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” People often think that way to this day: “I’m suffering, it must be for some sin I committed.”
The question is difficult. If the man’s own sin caused his blindness, how could he have sinned so bad while in the womb? If his parents’ sin caused it, that seems unfair. Still, the disciples thought that one or the other was true. It was a commonly held belief, so they didn’t think of any other possibility. The rabbis had developed the principle that “There is no death without sin, and there is no suffering without iniquity.”
But Jesus plainly contradicts this theology. Although all sickness, suffering, and death are a result of living in a world suffering the curse and consequences of original sin, not every ailment is caused by specific sin. Some times there no reason, no cause to the effect—at least not that will be made known to you. In his case, the man is blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him. God’s purposes are to be served, and they will work to God’s glory and that man’s good.
Jesus spits to make mud, puts it on the man’s eyes, and sends him off to the pool of Siloam. When the man washes off his face, he can see. For the first time in his life, he is no longer in darkness. Now he walks in light. Jesus has set him free from blindness, free from darkness.
The neighbors and others who have seen him begging don’t know what to make of the man who now walks confidently with full sight. How could this be the same person? Some insist it isn’t the man, but only someone who looks like him. The man has to convince them by insisting over and over that he is the very man who has been blind all his life.
“Then how were your eyes opened?” they ask in wonder, and the man tells them without embellishment exactly what Jesus has done with the spit and mud and washing with the water and word. It is obviously a miracle of God, and so the people want to know where to find the miracle worker of God. Where is he?
Not able to come up with a satisfactory answer to their questions, the people lead the man to the Pharisees. No evil motive is suggested on their part, since it was normal for the people to call the matter to the Pharisees’ attention. As the religious leaders of the Jews, they need to know about this apparent miracle.
No sooner do they hear this man’s story than some of the Pharisees declare that Jesus could not have done this with God’s blessing because He did not observe the Sabbath, at least not according to their strict traditions. But others wonder how it is possible for a sinful man to work such signs as this—even while committing sin. They are divided; not able to come to a judgment in the case. Yet in their very division, they are being judged by their acceptance of the sign and Jesus’ Word.
Not satisfied with their own conclusions, they turn back to the man; after all, it is his eyes that have been opened. “What do you have to say about Him?” He believes Jesus is from God and speaks for God.
In their unbelief, the Pharisees do not learn from the sign but try to discredit the miracle. They rule out giving any credibility to Jesus, so they somehow have to discredit this man’s story. They assume it is a hoax, that the man never was blind. To get to “the truth” they call for the man’s parents. “Is this your son? Do you claim that he was born blind? If so, how do you explain that he can see now?”
The man’s parents answer briefly and evasively: “Yes, he is our son. He was born blind. But if you want to know how he came to see, ask him; he’s old enough to speak for himself.” The parents speak in fear. You can perhaps relate if you’ve ever been called into the principal’s office for discipline, or the boss’s office to be coached, or the district office to discuss a complaint lodged against you.
The Pharisees want Jesus out of their way, so they have spread the word that anyone who confesses Him as Christ will be thrown out of the synagogue. Not able to prevail against Jesus with reason or with God’s Word, they resort to scare tactics and implied threats. Jesus’ enemies realize that if details concerning this miracle are spread, Christ’s fame will grow and their prestige and influence will receive a severe jolt. They call the man again to convince him to change his story. In modern political terms we might call this “spin” or “damage control.” On the playground—bullying. In legal terms—extortion or witness tampering.
They intensify the pressure, charging the man to answer under oath. With a sanctimonious air they admonish him to give glory to God alone by telling the “actual truth” not this piece of fiction invented for the benefit of Jesus. He might as well ‘fess up. They know Jesus is a sinner (and therefore incapable of doing the miracle). What does this man have to say about that?
The once-blind witness does not fall for their trap. They call Jesus a sinner, but he has seen no evidence to that effect. He only knows one thing: “I was blind, now I see.”
The Jews badger the man: “What did He do to you? How did He open your eyes?”
The man’s faith is being tempered in the fire of cross-examination, and he begins to show some mettle. His answer comes back with a touch of sarcasm: “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?”
If only they truly wanted to truly discover the truth! If only they wanted to learn from and follow Jesus! But their anger boils over at the suggestion. “You are His disciple! We are disciples of Moses!” They claim Scripture is on their side. They know that God talked with Moses. But from where did Jesus come? What authority could He claim? Never mind that Jesus had already told them repeatedly who gave Him authority. Ironically, they claim as their authority Moses, the very one whose writings Jesus earlier said will condemn their unbelief (John 5:45).
The man does not wither under the insults of the Pharisees, but grows still bolder. “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” (John 9:30-33).
It all makes sense! If Jesus can perform such miracles, He must be from God. That is the right conclusion, one which completely vanquishes the Pharisees. This uneducated man can argue with much more exactness and power than they, with all of their theological training, can argue because he has truth on his side.
The frustrated Pharisees level their final insult and throw the man out of the synagogue. No doubt alluding to his blindness as evidence, they say he was born completely in the control of sin and has no business teaching them who “self-evidently” are not so sinful. The Pharisees touch on a universal truth but only apply it halfway. The words “born in utter sin” actually apply to everyone. This condition, like the man’s blindness, can be corrected only by Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t waste any time finding the man once the Pharisees are done with him, because He has important work to finish. Jesus has given him physical sight to set the stage for spiritual sight. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus asks, using the name He used to identify Himself as the promised Messiah.
“And who is He, sir, that I may believe in Him?” the man begs. He is ready to follow any suggestion from his benefactor. His heart is ready; he understands that the Son of Man is a well-recognized title for the Messiah; he wants to believe, but he has not yet actually seen Jesus as Messiah, his Savior from sins.
“You have seen Him, and it is He who is speaking to you,” Jesus replies. And with that powerful Word the man believes. The formerly blind man can now see Jesus, not just with his open eyes, but by faith. He confesses his faith in Jesus on the spot and bows down before Him in worship. In calling Him “Lord” and bowing down, the man gives Jesus the reverence due to God alone.
When asked why the man was born blind, Jesus explained: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” From the way it turns out, it’s easy to see the works of God on display: There is this unheard of miraculous healing and the greater miracle of the man coming to faith. His suffering is relieved and he receives the free gift of faith, forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life!
But what about all those who suffer and who are not healed in this life? After all, even in His earthly ministry Jesus didn’t heal everyone. Not every blind man or woman received his or her sight. Not every sickness was cured, not every dead person was brought back to life, not every sinner was brought to faith. Can the works of God still be on display in their life, too?
Allow me to share a personal story. Three years ago tomorrow my nephew and godson Justin passed away after lying unconscious for three weeks in a hospital bed, following a senseless beating at the hands of a complete stranger. I can honestly say that I’ve never prayed for anything more frequently and fervently than for God to heal Justin. But despite my prayers and the prayers of hundreds of others, Justin passed away just three days shy of his twenty-seventh birthday.
How could the works of God be displayed in a case like this?
I guess you could take comfort that in remaining unconscious Justin didn’t suffer greatly. But his loved ones sure did! Especially his Dad and Mom, brothers and sister, grandparents, cousins, closest friends, and a whole lot of others. Many of them still suffer, every day grieving the loss of his company, missing his infectious smile, and quiet, unassuming nature.
So, how could the works of God be displayed in a case like this?
Oh, you might find a number of ways if you look hard enough. Some might suggest that such times draw you closer to one another. Others will suggest your faith will grow and deepen. And these may all be positive results. God does promise that all things work to the good of those who love Him and have been called according to His purposes.
But with any tragedy, there is also a lot of garbage that lingers in its wake. It just doesn’t immediately go away. The death of a loved one changes people, and not always in ways that are good or beneficial. Rather than draw you closer to your loved ones, the stresses can pull you apart; they can lead you to become bitter, vengeful, or more withdrawn. As you wrestle with suffering you may feel abused by God or deprived. You might feel guilty that you were responsible through some sin you’ve committed—either knowingly or unconsciously. Or you might put on masks so that others do not know just how much you are really hurting.
That’s when you need to take your eyes off of the immediate emotions and/or circumstances and focus on the works of God being displayed. Only they give true comfort.
What works of God? Baptism, for one. Those who mourn his death can take comfort that Justin is a baptized child of God. In the water and Word, the triune God gave him His name and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ words opened Justin’s spiritual eyes and created saving faith in Him, the one whose suffering and death on the cross displayed the works of God most vividly.
In Baptism, Justin has been crucified and buried with Christ in His death, and raised again in His resurrection. My prayers, the prayers of us all, for healing did not go unanswered. The heavenly Father will bring healing to Justin according to His good and gracious will. It just was not His will to do so then and there, but on the Last Day, when He will raise all the dead, and take Justin and all of His children to be with Him forever with perfect bodies, minds, and souls.
What’s more, even though Justin has gone to be with the Lord, there is still one place on earth we can all gather together: at the Lord’s Table, where we Christians in churches from all around the world gather with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to receive Christ’s body and blood. This work of God brings us forgiveness and strengthens our faith.
Don’t torture yourself searching for answers that you’re not going to find; instead, acknowledge that you’re a sinner in a sinful world; that the wages of sin is death, that bad things are going to happen; and then, look to what is certain. Look to the cross, because you can be absolutely sure that Christ has become flesh and died on that cross to reverse the curse of sin for you. Jesus has delivered you from sin to eternal life; and while you await that final resurrection to glory, He will treasure you as His instrument so that the works of God might be displayed in you.
Many questions in this life about suffering will remain unanswered, but the Lord makes this answer perfectly clear: He declares that He has come into this world of darkness to shine the light of His grace upon you. He has gone to the cross to die for your sins, and He is risen again to deliver you to everlasting life. Indeed, in His means of grace, His Word and Sacraments, He is always with you, just as He promised. Do not seek answers that He does not promise to give, but instead cling to the truth that He makes clear above all others: you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.