Monday, November 04, 2013

Responding to Christ's Critics (John 9:13-18)

Those of us who grew up in what we might call “the Bible Belt” of the United States have had a truly unique experience compared to Christians in the rest of the world. Until very recently, at least, if you were a Christian in the Southeastern United States, you were part of the cultural “norm.” You would not likely be ostracized or persecuted for your faith. In fact, the opposite may have been true. It is not that a majority of people in this region were truly born again. That may or may not be true. It is, however, a result of a lingering cultural climate, what we might call “a hangover,” from generations of Christian influence. Over the last few decades, we have seen a cultural shift. Increasingly, being a truly devoted follower of Christ is becoming a countercultural thing. While we might bemoan these changes in our society, the fact is that we have yet to experience the harsh realities of the cost of Christian discipleship that Christians all over the world throughout history have experienced. In fact, when we look at the teachings of Scripture, we find that there is an expectation that the true followers of Jesus will experience hardship, ostracism, oppression, and even persecution in the world. The fact that we have not endured it to such a degree as the rest of our brothers and sisters in the world throughout history makes us an exception, not the norm. But if current trends continue, as we have reason to expect them to, then we should be well warned to prepare for coming days when following Jesus, even here in the Bible Belt, will be increasingly costly.

In Philippians 1:29, Paul said, “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” We see that opposition to our faith is not only a possibility, but a promise – even a gift. Why is it a gift? At least two reasons are given in Scripture. First, it is a gift because there are certain blessings that are attached to suffering hardship for the sake of the Lord Jesus. Jesus said in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5:10-13). Second, it is a gift because it gives us the opportunity to bear a clear and confident witness to the saving truth of Jesus Christ. As Peter writes in 1 Peter 3:13-15, if you suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed, and you should not be fearful or troubled, but rather, “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.” The hope we have in Christ becomes more evident to the world when adversity threatens us, and the world will want to know how we can hold onto our faith in the face of hardship. This opens a wide door for a confident Christian witness.

In our study of the Gospel According to John, we have seen an increasing amount of hostility directed at the Lord Jesus Himself. Now, in this passage, we begin to see that the followers of Jesus are targeted as well. The antagonists here are the religious leaders of Israel – the Pharisees. They were the religious elite of their day. In verses 28-29, they avow that they are disciples of Moses, and that they know that God has spoken to Moses. They were not godless pagans. But they were so entrenched in their own traditions that they could not detect a work of God, even if it happened in front of their own eyes. They had accepted the revealed Word of God (what we refer to as the Old Testament) as authoritative, but they made no distinction between the revealed Word of God and the man-made religious traditions that were developed apart from the Word of God. We see that on display here in this text. Remember that we are talking about a healing that takes place in verses 1-12. Jesus has healed a man who was born blind. In v14, where it says, “Now it was a Sabbath on the day when Jesus made the clay and opened his eyes,” I have written in the margin of my Bible this comment: “Uh-oh!” You have come to understand from the Gospels that anything that happens on a Sabbath is bound to cause a problem!

It is really interesting to read the opinions of the scholars on this passage and the lengths they often go to explain why Jesus had the authority to violate the Sabbath. This is entirely wrong-headed. Jesus never violated any Sabbath law that God Himself had revealed. He did, however, violate man-made traditions about the Sabbath, and He seemed to do so with reckless abandon! In the religious traditions of Judaism, the scribes had taken a very simple law – the Sabbath is to be a day of rest and worship, on which to abstain from one’s regular work – and made a labyrinth of rules and regulations which they considered to be equally or more binding on people than the law itself. There were 39 specific categories of work which were claimed to be forbidden on the Sabbath according to these traditions. Things that Jesus did here in healing the man born blind could be considered a violation of at least four of them: from spitting in the dirt, to making a paste of mud, to anointing the eyes, and healing a man who was not in a life or death situation.[1]

Now, because of the remarkable nature of this miracle – no one had ever before been completely healed of congenital blindness (v32) – the people who knew this man sought out a religious explanation of it. Their effort to involve the Pharisees in the situation in v13 is not unlike situations in our day when a plane crash happens and the National Transportation Safety Board is called in. The Pharisees were considered the religious experts, and it was only natural that they be consulted for an opinion on the situation. But what is remarkable is that, rather than giving glory to God for the miracle that occurred, they began to focus on the fact that it took place on the Sabbath. They sought to use this as an occasion to further discredit Jesus and to apply pressure to those who may be persuaded to follow Him.

The situation unfolds here in a series of interrogations by the Pharisees: first, the interrogation of the man, then of his parents, and then back to the man himself. These interrogations provide an excellent opportunity for a bold and clear witness to the person and power of Jesus Christ. In the same way, you and I are faced with these opportunities on a regular basis as we live for Jesus. Like this man who was healed, you and I will face oppression and opposition from a variety of sources. Christians in the first century faced it from pagan Rome and from the religious traditionalists of Israel. So you and I might face opposition from secularists, atheists, and other so-called “non-religious” people; but we will also face opposition from some who are very religious and would even call themselves Christians. Like the Pharisees of Israel, here in the American South, there are people who have a somewhat Christianized vocabulary – they may even be church leaders – but who cannot distinguish between man-made traditions and the word and work of God Himself. In some cases, though they may call themselves Christians and be involved in church, they are not true followers of Jesus. They are preservers of a tradition. And if God moves in some way that is counter to their traditions, like the Pharisees, they will object and protest. But whatever the source of oppression, it is in encounters like this, where our faith and personal experience with Jesus Christ is challenged, that we have a great opportunity to bear witness for Him and to give a reason for the hope that is in us. So, how do we respond to the critics of Christ, whoever they may be? In our text we see two examples of response: a negative example seen in the parents, and a positive example seen in the man who has been healed. So let’s examine these responses here in the text.

I. The Cowardly Response (vv18-22)
We do not know how much time elaspses over the course of this narrative, and to some degree it is irrelevant. But whether hours or days, we know that there has been sufficient time for the news of this man’s healing to circulate. People have been talking, and certainly the man himself has been talking. And it is not hard to imagine that after a lifetime of blindness, he would want to quickly share the news with his parents. They had along side of him from the time of his birth. We do not know how old he was at this point in his life. His parents’ statement, “he is of age,” indicates that he was at least 13 years old, for this was a legal age to give testimony for oneself. It is likely that he was much older, but the point is that this hardship has been a shared experience for many years. It is quite possible that he still lived with them. Certainly they were not far away when the Pharisees decided to summon them here in verse 18. And it is not hard to imagine that when he told them what had happened, he might have rehearsed the story the same way he did in verse 11. “The man who is called Jesus made clay, and anointed my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’; so I went away and washed, and I received sight.” The parents surely knew that their son had undergone a radical transformation, and they surely knew that Jesus was the One who made it happen.

The Pharisees were beginning to believe that the whole crowd had been hoodwinked. Verse 18 says that they “did not believe it of him, that he had been blind and had received sight.” It was, after all, unprecedented. Perhaps the man had been faking blindness before; or maybe it was as some of the neighbors had suggested in verse 9. Maybe it was just someone who looked like the man born blind trying to pass off a fake miracle. So, to get down to the bottom of it, they summon the parents to ask them three questions, in verse 19. First question, “Is this your son?” Second question, “Was he really born blind?” Third question, “How does he now see?”

They begin to respond in verse 20. Notice that they give a good answer to the first question: “We know that this is our son.” No doubt about it, he is the one. And they give a good answer to the second question: “We know … that he was born blind.” OK, so far, so good. But, now notice how they answer the third question: “How he sees, we do not know; or who opened his eyes, we do not know. Ask him; he is of age, he will speak for himself.” Now, let’s acknowledge for a moment that they may not have known exactly “how he sees.” There’s a lot going on here. There’s divine power at work, there’s spit and mud, and a fountain of water – I mean, who can explain all of that? But come on, now! When they say, “We do not know who opened his eyes,” can that really be possible? Everyone in town knew that Jesus was the One who did it! Surely they knew too.

So why did they answer this question this way? Verse 22 gives us the reason, and it wasn’t because they didn’t know. “His parents said this because they were afraid.” What were they afraid of? John says, “The Jews.” He doesn’t mean “all the Jews,” but “the Jewish leaders,” the religious authorities (the Pharisees). Why were they afraid of them? “For the Jews (that is, the Pharisees and other religious authorities) had already agreed that if anyone confessed Him (Jesus) to be the Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue.” The fear is that if they give credit to Jesus, they will be considered to be one of His followers, and that will result in them being ostracized from the synagogue. The synagogue was not only the place for local people to gather for worship and the study of the Torah. It was also the center of community life. To be removed from the synagogue was to become a social outcast.[2] So, the answer they gave was more of an attempt to save face and preserve their communal relations than anything else.

In essence, what we have here is nothing more than a case of spiritual bullying. If they tell what they know, they will lose their friends, their comforts and their security. So, what did they do? They cowered. They failed to take advantage of this grand opportunity to present a bold and courageous witness for Christ. Their own sense of security was more important to them than being faithful to Jesus. I wonder how often we are like them? An opportunity arises for us to present a bold and clear witness for Christ – someone asks us point blank about our faith – and we cower in fear and self-preservation? We dodge the question. We change the subject. We answer with vague and nebulous spiritual platitudes guaranteed to not offend. And the opportunity is lost. All because we were too cowardly to tell the truth about Christ. We valued our the preservation of our own comforts and earthly securities more than we valued either the soul of the person asking or the glory of the Lord Jesus. We are like the Samaritan lepers in 2 Kings 7 who had failed to bring the report of the enemies’ desertion to the King. They said, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news, but we are keeping silent” (2 Kings 7:9). 

The Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ came first to this nation from England. Today, the spiritual landscape of England is a virtual evangelical ghost-town. But it did not happen suddenly. In 1945, an Anglican report was published that mentioned that a contributing factor to the spiritual decline of England was a growing “shyness in speaking about the things of God.” As one British clergyman said, “I have got the biggest job I have ever tackled in my life. I am trying to open the mouths of the people in the pews.” The late Dr. John Stott reflected on this worsening condition and said, “If the gospel is the ‘good news’ it claims to be, and if it has been entrusted to us, we incur guilt if we do not pass it on.”[3] If present trends continue, what England is today, America will be tomorrow. If we care about that, if we are disturbed by it, if we long to do something to stem the tide, then we must overcome our guilty silence and repent of our cowardice and begin to give a courageous testimony for the Lord Jesus to the critics of the faith. To whom shall we look for an example? Not to this man’s parents! We have followed their example for far too long. Rather, we must follow the example of the man born blind whom Jesus healed.

II. The Courageous Response (vv15-17; 24-38)
When the Pharisees interrogated the healed man, he made no bones about the source of his healing. He had already identified the healer to the multitude in verse 11 as “the man who is called Jesus.” Here in verse 15, he merely reaffirms it when he is asked by the Pharisees. He gives the credit to Jesus. Of course, this doesn’t satisfy the Pharisees, and they begin to rail against Jesus. It is not that they can deny the power He displayed in healing the blind man; instead they focus on the fact that He did it on the Sabbath in violation of their man-made traditions. But notice the effect of this man’s simple testimony for Jesus in the face of oppression: In verse 16, we see a division of opinion developing even among the oppressors. Some of the Pharisees begin to say that Jesus must be a sinner because He has violated their regulations. Other Pharisees are saying that He can’t merely be a sinner, because He has done such a powerful thing. It is not like the man launched into a full scale philosophical debate with them. He simply opened his mouth and spoke a simple word for Christ. And as a result the opposition begins to be divided amongst themselves. Sometimes it takes nothing more than the simplest of testimonies pointing to Jesus Christ for the critics of the faith to begin to argue amongst themselves, exposing the weakness of their own positions.

In verse 17, they turn back to the man and ask him directly, “What do you say about Him, since He opened your eyes?” What a great opportunity! They asked him point-blank to give his opinion on the Lord Jesus! I pray that these kinds of questions come our way every day! And notice his response: “He is a prophet.” Now, we might want to criticize the man here and say that he has stopped short of the full truth. Surely Jesus is a prophet – He is the ultimate Prophet of all prophets! Even Muslims consider Jesus to be a prophet. But we know that He is much more than this! He is God-in-the-flesh! But let us not criticize this man for not going beyond identifying Jesus as a prophet. At this point in his new found knowledge of Christ, he is not yet aware of Christ’s full identity. In calling Him a “prophet,” the man is ascribing to Jesus the highest honor he could envision.[4] He spoke of Jesus with as bold a claim as he knew how to make. When we are faced with the question of who Jesus is, we must not short-sell Him! We must give a clear word about Jesus and ascribe to Him the highest and greatest glory that our tongues can employ! It is impossible to overstate the greatness of the Lord Jesus! This man did his best. We can do better. He had the revelation of a brief personal encounter; we have the revelation of the entire Word of God. We are able to say that He is a prophet, but more than a prophet: He is God incarnate!

Now, when they came back to the man in v24 after the interrogation of his parents, they begin to implore him more severely. “Give glory to God,” they say. This phrase was a Hebrew expression that means something like, “It’s time for you to come clean and tell the truth!”[5] But here, it could also be understood to mean something like, “Stop giving glory to Jesus and start giving glory to God instead!” After all, they say, “We know that this man (Jesus) is a sinner!” But the man will not fall into their trap. He says these wonderful words that became the basis of a line in one of the greatest hymns of our faith: “Whether He is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” Rather than getting drawn into a discussion about matters he knows not of, the man simply sticks to the story he knows. Jesus has changed his life. He used to be blind. Then he met Jesus. Now he can see. End of story. Sometimes we hold our tongues instead of witnessing for Christ out of fear that we will not know how to answer some person may ask us. But this man encourages us that we need not know all of the answers. Sometimes all we can do is tell the story of how Jesus has changed our lives! But let’s not fail to do it when we have the opportunity!
Now, as the conversation progresses and they ask him AGAIN to tell the story, notice his response. He says, “I told you already and you did not listen.” He is not afraid to be direct. That’s not to say that we should ever be rude or obnoxious, but we do need to realize when we are not being given a fair hearing. This man may not know much yet, but he already knows that it is futile to cast your pearls to swine (Matt 7:6). He isn’t going to engage in an endless debate just for debate’s sake. And that is a wise pointer for us as well. But notice that he is not willing to end the discussion without a direct challenge to his critics. He says, “Why do you want to hear it again? You do not want to become His disciples too, do you?” Now he has become the challenger. He is confronting them on their need to turn from their ways and follow Christ. So, we too need to be prepared to ask hard questions of those who challenge our faith. And the most important question we need to ask them is, “Are you willing to turn from sin and put your faith in Christ as your Lord and Savior?” Sometimes it takes a while to work our way to that question – notice it wasn’t the first line of response that this man gave. It may take a while – even weeks, months, perhaps years of encounters. But we must get to the point where we put the challenge to the other person and ask if they are willing to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved.

And the man here is willing to go even further than this, and sometimes we must as well. In verses 30-33, he begins to expose the flaws in their reasoning and provide an apologetic argumentation for the claims of Christ. He begins to use sound logic and scriptural principles to present a well reasoned defense of Christ. He shows them how, logically, Jesus cannot be who they say He is and still do the things that He has undeniably done. Even though they claim to be the experts on matters of religion, he says, “Well, here is an amazing thing, that you do not know where He is from, and yet He opened my eyes.” See, he is exposing the holes in their own worldview, and sometimes we have the opportunity to do this with others. But then he begins to demonstrate the folly of suggesting that Jesus could be a sinner and do what He did. He concludes in verse 33 by saying, “If this man were not from God, He could do nothing.”  One of the biggest criticisms leveled at Christians is that we are ignorant people who follow a myth by blind faith. This man demonstrates that faith in Jesus Christ is a reasonable, rational thing. And there will be opportunities for us to do the same with critics that we encounter. We never need to fear that the logic of unbelieving critics is more sound than that of the Christian faith. We need to be mentally and spiritually prepared to defend the faith when necessary, because the opportunities will only become more frequent in the days to come.

Now, at this point in the text, I am convinced that the man had done all he could do, and had in fact, succeeded in presenting a courageous witness. You might not think so to look at the text. After all, the Pharisees did not repent and turn to Christ. He succeeded because he did his part. None of us have the power to make someone else believe. That is not our job. Our job is to tell the good news of Jesus, regardless of the response it produces. We can rest in the sovereignty of God for the outcome. Notice that they resorted to simply belittling the man and taking extreme measures against him. They said, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you teaching us?” Now, this is not a statement about his being born in a fallen, sinful state. That is true of everyone, according to God’s Word. But the Pharisees didn’t actually believe this.[6] Rather, they are talking about the fact that he was born blind. They believed that he was under God’s condemnation for some sin that he or his parents had committed. That was the prevailing view of suffering people. That is why the disciples asked Jesus in verse 2, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” But Jesus had already explained that his condition was not the direct or immediate result of a particular sin. Essentially, the Pharisees are here just resorting to belittling the man with verbal insults in order to escape the conversation. They realize that they are defeated in the battle of wits. And the last ditch effort is just to curse the man and walk away. But then they do something more. They did to him what his parents had feared they would do to them. They kicked him out of the community of the synagogue. That is what is meant by the words in v34, “So they put him out.” But this man’s confidence in Christ never wavered. He was already aware of the truth of words that Jesus spoke elsewhere – words he had never heard, but would readily affirm: “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28).

Now here the man is left alone. His parents have abandoned him. His religious leaders have abandoned him. He is cut off from his community. When you stand strong for Christ and give a bold witness for Him the same may happen to you. But notice that he is not alone for long. In verse 35, Jesus draws near. Having heard that the man had been put out of the synagogue, Jesus found him. The Psalmist said, “Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me” (Psa 27:10, NIV).

As the Lord draws near to him, He takes those seeds of embryonic faith already evident in the man and nurtures them to full blossom. He says, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man responds, “Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him?” This is not a question about the meaning of the phrase “Son of Man.” He knew what that meant. The Old Testament prophet Daniel had used this phrase to refer to a coming one who was fully man, and yet fully God, and who would be Lord of all nations (Dan 7:13-14).” He just didn’t know who the Son of Man was. And Jesus says to him, “You have both seen Him, and He is the one who is talking with you.” Don’t miss the amazing revelation here: to this man who not long ago had been completely blind had seen the Son of Man, and was seeing Him now standing right in front of his freshly opened eyes. And the man said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped the Lord Jesus Christ.

I hope you notice how this man’s knowledge and understanding of Jesus Christ progresses in this story. It begins back in verse 11, when he calls Him, “the man who is called Jesus.” Then in verse 17, he calls Him “a prophet.” Then in verse 27, he refers to Him as One who is worthy to have disciples, and he considers himself to be one of those disciples. Then in verse 33, he says that Jesus is one who has come “from God.” And now here in verse 38, he calls Him “Lord” and bows before Him in worship. With every telling of the story of his encounter with Jesus, his understanding of Jesus grew. And so it is for us. The more we contemplate and communicate the truth of Jesus Christ, the more we grow in our understanding of Him and our relationship with Him.

The world around you wants to know who this Jesus is. Some of them will be very antagonistic toward you. You can expect that. Others are just curious. Who do you say that He is? Have you come to know Him and worship Him as Lord? If you have, then how will you respond when your faith is challenged? Will you respond in a cowardly way, as this man’s parents did? Or will you respond in a courageous way, giving a reason for the hope that is in you, pointing to Jesus as the One who has changed your life, and the One who can change their lives as well? Do not fear what you might lose in standing strong for Jesus. He has promised us, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel's sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30). He has said, “Everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven” (Matt 10:32-33). So let us be not cowards. Let us be courageous and unashamed of the Gospel and say with the Apostle Paul, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16).

[1] See Alfred Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1993), 1052; et al.
[2] Andreas Kostenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 288.
[3] John R. W. Stott, Our Guilty Silence (Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1967), 9.
[4] Robert Mounce, John (Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Revised Edition], Volume 10; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 498.
[5] Joshua 7:19; Jeremiah 13:16
[6] See Kostenberger, 293.