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Who Sinned? – John 9

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March 2010

“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” (John 9:1-2)

It’s a natural question, isn’t it? 

When a disaster happens, we want to know why. We’ve asked that question many times about the earthquakes that struck Haiti and Chile.

Why Haiti and not Jamaica?
Why Chile and not Brazil?

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Sometimes we ask the question in very personal terms. Why did this man get cancer and his brother didn’t? Or why did they both get cancer and one survived while the other didn’t? We wonder why the drunk driver hit this car and not that one. Why did one person walk away from an accident while another person ends up paralyzed?

Yesterday we received an email from a friend in a distant state. She wrote to bring us up to date on friends in various places. She began with the good news from the church where she works: “Our little kids’ classes are very full. We have more infants than we know what to do with.” Four missionary couples are expecting or have had a baby recently. Then came the other side of the story:

A missionary with a malignant brain tumor.
A friend who had a devastating stroke.
A teenage girl in cancer treatment.
Another teenager with bone grafts.
A little boy with Down Syndrome and leukemia.

She added this sentence: “The list goes on and on of people who are ill or suffering.” And then, “The list of jobless also goes on and on."

“The list goes on and on of people who are ill or suffering.”

No question challenges us more deeply than the question “Why?"

Why me?
Why here?
Why now?
Why this?

It has often been remarked that if we understand the Bible, we will instead say, “Why not me?” Shortly before my friend Fred Hartman died of cancer, he told me that he had never asked the question “Why me?” “God has been so good to me and I have been so blessed. Why should I be exempt from suffering? So I say ‘Why not me?’ instead."

The question "Why did this happen?” challenges us to probe the connection between the goodness of God and human suffering. I think this is the # 1 objection many people have to the Christian faith and to the existence of God in general. One writer called the problem of suffering “God’s Problem” because the obvious pain we see all around us turns many people away from any sort of faith in God.

If God is good, why is there so much suffering in the world?

If God is good, why is there so much suffering in the world?
If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t he use his power to stop the suffering?

I. We Rarely Understand God’s Plan in Advance.

It’s good for us to meditate on these questions at all times, but there is no more appropriate moment than as we prepare to enter Holy Week. It happens that I am writing these words the day before Palm Sunday. We can lay out a simple chronology this way:

Sunday: Jesus enters Jerusalem.
Monday-Wednesday: He confronts the religious leaders.
Thursday: He meets with his disciples in the Upper Room.
Thursday night-Friday morning: Jesus is betrayed, arrested, tried and beaten.
Friday: Jesus is crucified, dies, and is buried.
Saturday: Jesus remains in the tomb.
Sunday: Jesus rises from the dead.

Now there are many things we can say about this, but for our purposes one observation will suffice. On the Saturday before Palm Sunday, no one could have predicted what was about to happen. Not even the closest of Jesus’ disciples really understood the gathering storm of hatred that would lead to the death of Jesus. This despite the fact that Jesus had revealed it to them on more than one occasion. He had said, “Men, I’m telling you this in advance so you won’t be surprised when it happens.”

But they were surprised.  Shocked.  Dismayed.  And shaken to the core.

On the Saturday before Palm Sunday, no one could have predicted what was about to happen.

It was only later, much later, that the disciples said to each other, “Everything he told us came true exactly the way he said it would,” and that fact strengthened their faith enormously. The horrific events of the crucifixion, the public humiliation of their Master, the rejection by the leaders, the howling mob, Pilate’s craven cowardice, the passersby who mocked him, the thief who believed and the one who didn’t, the spear in the side, the corpse taken down from the cross, the darkness of the garden tomb, the great stone rolled in front of the entrance, the long hours of death, the angels’ sudden appearance, the stone rolled away, the empty tomb, the confusion of the women, Peter and John running to the tomb, the strange rumors of a resurrection, his appearance to Mary Magdalene, his appearance to Peter, his appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, his encounter with Thomas, all of it, every part of it, even down to the tiniest details was planned by God before the foundation of the world.

Isaiah 53:10 comes to mind at this point. I know of no other verse that so clearly underscores both the mystery and majesty of God’s plan in the death and resurrection of his Son. The NLT translates it this way:

But it was the Lord’s good plan to crush him
      and cause him grief.
Yet when his life is made an offering for sin,
      he will have many descendants.
He will enjoy a long life,
      and the Lord’s good plan will prosper in his hands.

In the first part of the verse the prophet declares that the death of Christ was part of God’s “good plan.” Think about that for a moment.

God willed that his own Son be crushed.
God planned that his own Son should suffer grief.
God desired that his own Son be made an offering for sin.

I venture to say that if you had been there on that dark Friday when Jesus died in agony, it would not have seemed, at least to the detached observer, that anything divine was taking place. Who could have imagined at Calvary that God was working out his “good plan” through the brutal death of his Son who was made a sin offering for the world?

God willed that his own Son be crushed.

And the last half of Isaiah 53:10 would seem completely out of place on the day Christ died. But that too was part of God’s plan. That he would not only die but he would rise victorious from the grave, and that he would have “many descendants” who would follow him. He will live forever but he must die first, and in his death and resurrection he will give life to untold millions of people.

And that too was part of God’s “good plan” at Calvary. But you couldn’t see it clearly on that day. The disciples who were there couldn’t see what God intended.

We rarely understand God’s good plan in advance.

II. We Never Know When God Will Break Into Our Lives.

Against that backdrop we come to John 9 where the question is tightly focused. When the disciples saw a man born blind, they assumed that someone must have sinned. 

So was it his parents?
Or was it the man himself?

The disciples are half-right and mostly wrong in their thinking. It’s true that someone sinned, but that “someone” was Adam-not the man or his parents. It’s not that the blind man never sinned or his parents never sinned. Jesus means that the man’s blindness is not a judgment on any particular sin they committed. In the larger biblical perspective, it all goes back to Adam whose sin brought untold misery to the world and caused the whole creation to groan under a burden of judgment that started in Eden and continues to this day. Romans 5:12 tells us that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned." When Adam drove the bus of humanity off the cliff, we all went down with him.

It’s true that someone sinned, but that “someone” was Adam.

But they were half-right in this sense. Where there is no sin, there is no blindness. In heaven no one will be born blind and no one will become blind. Blindness belongs to this age where sin still reigns on planet earth. When sin is finally removed, all the baleful effects will be gone with it, including sickness, suffering, disease, and every medical malady known to man.

Jesus explained that this man was born blind in order that “the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3). This means that the man was born blind so that at the right moment Jesus could display his divine power by healing him. We can only see this truth in retrospect. Presumably the blind man didn’t have any premonition that he was about to receive his sight. When he woke up that morning, he awoke to the same darkness he had known all his life. Little did he know that his life was about to change forever.

This question leads us to a warning and to a reminder and then to a great encouragement. The warning is, don’t presume to know what only God can know. Speculating about why someone gets cancer or why someone dies or why an earthquake hits here and not there puts us on dangerous ground. Those things are part of the “secret providence” of God. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

The man was born blind so that at the right moment Jesus could display his divine power by healing him.

The reminder is, because we live in a sin-cursed world, we will never be free of suffering and death until sin itself has been decisively removed by God. That day will come when Jesus returns, but until then we can expect to deal with suffering in one way or another as long as we live.

The encouragement is, you never know when or how the Lord himself may break into your life with transforming power. I have several friends who at this moment need such a “breaking in” from the Lord. I feel no hesitation in praying for that to happen. Sovereign grace means God can do it any time he chooses, and because it is grace we’re talking about, we don’t have to deserve it, and in fact we won’t deserve it, and that’s what grace is all about.

III. We Discover Christ’s Power When We Dare to Trust Him.

One final note and we are done. Look at the way Jesus works a miracle here.

Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing (John 9:6-7).

Note that Jesus doesn’t promise the man a healing. The whole thing seems odd to us. The blind man wouldn’t have known what Jesus was doing until he felt the mud (made from the Savior’s spittle) being placed on his blind eyes. Then the command, “Go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.” That’s all. Mud on blind eyes and then a command to wash it off. We can imagine many reasons why the blind man might not have obeyed:

You never know when or how the Lord himself may break into your life with transforming power.

“I’ve been blind since birth and that will never change.”
“This is ridiculous.”
“I don’t know who this man is.”
“This will make me look foolish.”
“What if it doesn’t work?”

The last question was especially relevant because Jesus never promised a healing. So it only remained to be seen whether or not the blind man had the faith-and the courage-to obey the words of a man whom he had never met and whose identity he did not know.

Did he know for certain what would happen?
No, but he obeyed Jesus anyway.

Where does that sort of faith come from? I’m not sure I would have gone to the Pool of Siloam. Depending on my mood at the moment, I might have brushed the mud off, muttering under my breath about the foolishness of some people. And I would have gone away blind.

Did he know for certain what would happen?
No, but he obeyed Jesus anyway.

The blind man didn’t have much to go on, but on the other hand he didn’t have much to lose either. So he went and washed and came home seeing, thus illustrating that it doesn’t take deep faith or total understanding in order to be transformed. All it takes is faith that believes the words of Jesus even when you aren’t sure of anything else.

Acting on the Belief Part

People who survive great trials with their faith intact make a moment by moment choice to believe that God is who he said he is and that he will do what he said he will do. Faith is not about feelings or emotions or positive circumstances because very often we won’t “feel” like having faith in God and our circumstances may be all messed up.  

Faith is belief plus unbelief and acting on the belief part.

Faith is belief plus unbelief and acting on the belief part.

That’s what the blind man did. He “acted on the belief part” and received a miracle from our Lord. When J. C. Ryle wrote about this story, he said it is meant to teach us an “old truth” that we can never know too well:

Jesus the Saviour of sinners “has all power in heaven and earth.” Such mighty works could never have been done by one that was merely man. In the cure of this blind man we see nothing less than the finger of God.

And this is our ground of hope on the day before Palm Sunday. Tomorrow he enters the city. On Friday they crucify him. On Saturday he lies on the tomb. And a week from tomorrow, on Easter Sunday, he rises triumphant from the grave.

Why should we despair of salvation when we have such a Savior!
What spiritual disease can he not take away?

Ryle makes the point very plainly:

In the cure of this blind man we see nothing less than the finger of God.

Surely, if we are not saved, the fault will be all our own. There lives at God’s right hand One who can heal us if we apply to him.

If we ponder the cross long enough, we will see in it the highest wisdom of God. If we say that the death of Christ makes no sense, it is because we have not seen it from the other side of the empty tomb. What seemed like a monstrous injustice and a terrible mistake became a mighty fountain of grace flowing for our salvation. God knew what he was doing all along.

He Maketh No Mistake

Many years ago I heard Dr. Lee Roberson quote a poem called “He Maketh No Mistake.” A man named A. M. Overton wrote the poem when his wife died. Dr. Roberson became acquainted with it when he met the pastor who had officiated at the funeral for Mrs. Overton. It seems that while he was speaking, the pastor noticed Mr. Overton sitting in the pew writing something. Thinking that was a strange thing to do, he asked him about it after the service. He said he had been writing down a poem during the funeral service. “He Maketh No Mistake” has become very popular and has spread around the world.

If we say that the death of Christ makes no sense, it is because we have not seen it from the other side of the empty tomb.

Here’s a detail I hadn’t known before. When I gave this sermon at Harrisburg Baptist Church in Tupelo, an elderly woman came up and said that she had known A. M. Overton because he had been the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fulton, Mississippi when she attended there as a young girl. It happens that Fulton is only a few miles east of Tupelo. And that’s where A. M. Overton lived when he wrote this wonderful poem. Born out of deepest personal sorrow, it touches us with a profound statement of trust in God amid the sorrows of life.

My Father’s way may twist and turn,
My heart may throb and ache
But in my soul I’m glad I know,
He maketh no mistake.

God knew what he was doing all along.

My cherished plans may go astray,
My hopes may fade away,
But still I’ll trust my Lord to lead
For He doth know the way.                     

Tho’ night be dark and it may seem
That day will never break,
I’ll pin my faith, my all in Him,
He maketh no mistake.

There’s so much now I cannot see,
My eyesight’s far too dim;
But come what may, I’ll simply trust
And leave it all to Him.

For by and by the mist will lift
And plain it all He’ll make,
Through all the way, tho’ dark to me,
He made not one mistake.

Ponder the ways of God in your own spiritual journey.

In the end that will be the testimony of every child of God. No doubt the friends of the blind man felt that some mistake had been made somewhere, somehow. The disciples thought he was blind because of his sin. And those who watched Jesus die surely thought, “How can anything good come out of this?"

As we move from Palm Sunday through Good Friday and on to Easter Sunday, ponder the ways of God in your own spiritual journey. We see dimly now as we march on through the shadows of life. But the day will come when the sunlight of God’s love surrounds us as we stand in the presence of Jesus who loved us and gave himself for us. When we get to heaven, our eyes finally open to God’s good plan, we’ll look back over the pathway of life and see that through all the twists and turns and seeming detours that “He made not one mistake."

God of light, you see us even when we don’t see you. Help us to trust you even when the way forward seems filled with darkness. Thank you for using our trials as a means of showing forth your grace. Be glorified in us and through us this week, Amen.

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