(A) Introduction. (Read the reference)

The key verse, the truth of which underlies the whole passage, is: "While I am in the world, I am the light of the world." v5. In chapter nine John tells the story of a man born blind who came into the light in more ways than one. He deals incidentally with those who were frightened of the light and exposes blind men who claimed to see but remained in darkness.

(B) The right and wrong responses to suffering.

Suffering does pose a big problem for all those who believe in a righteous God. The problem is not that suffering exists but that some suffer a lot more than others. Suffering in general can be attributed to the fall of man; it is the uneven distribution of pain and sorrow that creates difficulties. The disciples and the man born blind were all sinners so why had the blind man been singled out for this affliction and not the disciples? Under the headline, 'Euthanasia protester to starve to death' in the Daily Telegraph for Thursday, August 4th 2005 I read about the sad case of Kelly Taylor who has Eisenmenger Syndrome. She was born with the rare degenerative condition - a hole in the heart, which causes pressure in arteries in the lungs. Aged only 28 her life is a misery. She cannot walk more than a few steps without collapsing. She will never get better and her condition is slowly deteriorating. Mrs Taylor has decided to starve to death. Why should she have a short lifetime of suffering and I have 63 years of good health?

I will look first of all at some wrong responses to individual suffering:

(1) Ignore it.
I dare say that there were some folk in the time of Christ who ignored suffering. Perhaps, that priest going up from Jericho to Jerusalem chose not to see the man who fell foul of the thieves. There are successful, much loved Christians in rude good health who are unwillingly to recognise that terrible things happen to their brethren. Many, many years ago I taught a farmer's son who attended one of our Grace Baptist churches. He was a Christian. Unfortunately he suffered from depression and drowned himself in pig slurry. It is wrong to ignore the abject misery of this poor young man that resulted in his ignominious suicide.

Jesus did not overlook the beggar's blindness. As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. v1. In all likelihood Jesus stopped and watched the beggar. He saw the outstretched bowl and listened to his cry: "Help a man - blind from birth."

(2) Apportion blame.
This was the reaction of the disciples of Jesus and the Pharisees. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" v2. The disciples were prepared to believe that the man sinned in the womb to make his blindness a just punishment from God. The Pharisees revealed what a stigma a handicap was in the days of Jesus when they snapped at the man born blind: "You were steeped in sin at birth." v34.

It is very convenient to be able to blame someone for the situation they are in. It gives you an excuse for doing nothing. The Levite in Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan may have been travelling in hailing distance of a Roman patrol. He could have said to himself as he passed by on the other side, "Anyone travelling alone on this road is asking for trouble."

Job's comforters were no comfort because they blamed him for his predicament. Their view can be summarised in the words of Bildad: "The lamp of the wicked is snuffed out; the flame of his fire stops burning." Job18v5. Bildad argued that the righteous are rewarded and the unrighteous punished. Job's reaction to this was: "I have heard many things like these; miserable comforters are you all?" Job16v2. The calamities of Job were not a result of sinfulness but a consequence of his goodness!

Christians still think like the disciples of Jesus and the comforters of Job. After Hugh Bishop died at a relatively young age his old mother asked me: "What have I done to deserve that?" When I pointed out to a pastor friend of mine that depression and schizophrenia in no way improve the sufferer he replied, "People often bring those complaints upon themselves." This overlooks the fact that these illnesses are often hereditary!

Jesus replied unequivocally to his disciple's question: "Neither this man nor his parents sinned? The blind beggar's disability was not a punishment for sin. The uneven distribution of suffering cannot be explained in this way.

(c) Pretend that suffering inevitably brings benefits to the sufferer.
This is implied by what I consider a mistranslation of Jesus' words to his disciples in the NIV: "But this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." v3. If this is what Jesus said then the implication is that the beggar was born blind for his greater good. Jesus healed his blindness and by this means brought him to saving faith in the Son of God.

Now there can be no doubt that God does use suffering to prepare a man's heart for the gospel. It can also be used for the good of the Christian. The writer to the Hebrews writes: "Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." See my exposition on God's discipline. James writes: Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. James1v2to4. See my exposition on The joy of persevering.

There still remains suffering that cannot be explained in terms of God's discipline and that does not really test the faith of the sufferer. My father had severe Parkinson's disease at the end of his life, my Auntie Betty Alzheimer's disease and my Uncle Cliff a stroke that left him paralysed down one side and unable to speak or hear (he was deaf before the stroke). These terrible debilitating conditions brought absolutely no spiritual benefits to the sufferer. If the severe asthma of my childhood returned I doubt very much that it would bring any blessings to me. All the chronic asthmatic can think about is where the next breath is coming from.

Speculate in any way about the causes of suffering.
It rarely does any good to speculate about the cause of individual suffering. It can lead men and women to doubt God's love, justice or competence. Many accuse God of being merciless, capricious or incompetent. Job never lost his belief in God but at the end he did question his competence. Rabbi Harold Kushner who had a badly handicapped son shared Job's view. He asked: "Are we capable of forgiving and loving God despite his limitations?"

There is plenty of evidence that God is none of the things he is accused of. His commitment to justice is revealed in his law; his transcendent love confirmed by the gift of his Son; his competence evident in the wonderful variety and complexity of his creation. It is significant that when God at last answered Job he challenged him with the marvels of his creation.

Jesus shows the right response to suffering.

Jesus did not speculate about, or provide an explanation for, the beggar's blindness. He acted to help him.

I do not think the translation of Jesus' answer to his disciple's question in the NIV is very helpful. We need to go back to the more literal translation of the AV and change the punctuation. Jesus said: "Neither has this man sinned, nor his parents. But that the works of God should be made manifest in him I must work the works of him that sent me." v3and4. Jesus' subsequent comments indicate that he was thinking more about doing God's work than providing an explanation for suffering. "As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no-one can work." v3and4.

The handicapped man would not have been helped by an explanation of his blindness. It would have been very complicated and difficult to understand! I daresay my father's Parkinson's disease was caused by exposure to dangerous chemicals on the farm on which he worked. Many, many factors contributed to my father being on that farm. If God had changed just one link in the chain of causes and effects that led him to work on that farm life would have been radically different for all sorts of other people. Perhaps, my friend Peter Chaffey would never have heard the sermon my father preached in Brockley chapel that resulted in his conversion.

The blind beggar was helped by Jesus acting. The man who was left half dead on the Jericho to Jerusalem road was saved by the Good Samaritan acting. Rabbi Kushner, whose little boy suffered from premature aging and was three feet tall and bald, said: "We were sustained in Aaron's illness by people who made a point of showing that they cared - the man who made Aaron a scaled down tennis racket, the woman who gave him a small handmade violin, the children who overlooked his limitations to play games with him."

C.H.Spurgeon had a good illustration of the right response to suffering: "Father," said a boy, "the cows are in the corn. How did they get in?"

"Boy," said the father, "Never mind how they got in. Let us hurry to get them out."

The words of Peter to the crippled beggar sum up what our attitude to suffering should be: "But such as I have, give I thee." Acts3v6. AV.

There is a lot we can offer the sick and handicapped - sympathy, prayer and practical assistance. My father in his weakness always looked forward to the kisses he received when he attended Brockley chapel. His old friend Peter Chaffey would make a fuss of him, reminisce about the past and bring a trembling smile to his lips when he had little to smile about. It was a case of: "Such as I have give I thee."

(C) The opportunities suffering creates.

Jesus saw the beggar's blindness as an opportunity to do God's work. C.H. Spurgeon noted that a worker needs work space or a workroom. Human suffering provided Jesus space in which to work.

(1) Wherever a man or a woman is in need Jesus can find space to work. He only found space to work in Charles Colson's life after he was implicated in the Watergate scandal. Colson describes his life before that time in his book, 'Born Again': Of course I had not known God. How could I? I had been concerned with myself. I had done this and that, I had achieved, I had succeeded and I had given God none of the credit, never once thanking Him for any of His gifts to me.

Jesus finds it difficult to work in the lives of those who are content, self-confident, self-sufficient - rich, successful and loved. Jesus said: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners." Mk2v17. The people in Christ's parable who attended the great banquet were the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. Lk14v2. The numbers were finally made up with rural tramps and gypsies!

God's greatest work is not creation but redemption. Suffering plays a crucial if inexplicable part in the redemption process.

(2) Wherever a man or women is in distress we can find some space to do God's work. We are only able to offer a cup of cold water in Christ's name if someone is thirsty.

Voluntary organisations like Oxfam, Tear Fund and Christian Aid are trusted by, and acceptable to, poor countries because they provide help without any strings attached. Poverty, sickness and catastrophes give Christians access to countries and lives that would otherwise be closed to them.

Yesterday our visiting speaker, Mervyn Crawford, spoke of the large number of conversions that are occurring in British prisons. This is because there are a lot of needy people in prison! Christians engaged in prison ministries find more space to work than those witnessing to the moral majority!

In his book, 'Finding God In Unexpected Places', Philip Yancey has a chapter on Louise Adamson and her 'Jericho Road ministry' in downtown Atlanta. God provides her plenty of space in which to work. The phone rings. It is a mother she has been working with. Louise goes right over and finds the woman sitting in the middle of the floor with a face covered with bruises. Her husband has been beating her again. A big bottle of prescription medicine is beside her on the floor. Two kids are crying their lungs out in the next room. Louise has brought some groceries with her. She cooks dinner, calms the children down and spends a couple of hours cleaning the house with the mother. Before they have finished the two women are singing hymns together. Louise, like the Good Samaritan, like her blessed Lord, uses the opportunities suffering provides.

(D) Hindrances to belief.

The attitudes of the neighbours, the blind man's parents and the Pharisees illustrate what hinders belief in Jesus.

(1) The neighbours.
The blind man's neighbours, like Jesus brothers, (See exposition on on John5v16to30.) wanted the experts to pronounce on the miracle Jesus performed and validate it. They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. v13. The neighbours were not prepared to exercise judgment and make their own minds up about Jesus.

Today, far too many people allow themselves to be influenced by what others say about Jesus. They listen to their parents, friends, teachers and experts of different sorts. A common reaction whenever the subject of Jesus is broached is: "No-one believes that any more." The gospels are dismissed as the product of the fevered imagination of deluded believers in the first or second century after Christ. Very few people carefully study the New Testament before coming to a decision about Jesus. Their opinion is based on what they have picked up from their parents, peers and the media.

(2) The man's parents.
The blind man's mother and father were not prepared to say how their son came to see. They were frightened to give the credit to Jesus. Instead they said: "We know he is our son and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don't know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself." v20and21.

Why were the parents of the blind man so cautious? Why weren't they celebrating their son's miraculous cure? They seem strangely subdued about the wonderful thing that happened to their boy. John explains their reticence: His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews. v22.

It is rare that Church leaders or Christian politicians speak up for Jesus as they should. They keep quiet for fear of their critics. It was obvious that Tony Blair's right hand man, the odious Alistair Campbell, did not think it was politically correct to 'do God'. Why was Tony Blair so embarrassed when he was asked if he prayed with President Bush? Would that have been such a bad thing to admit to? Isn't that what Christians do - pray together? Why on earth should Christian politicians allow themselves to be intimidated and cowed by the militant, spiteful opponents of Jesus Christ? Why should any of us?

(c) The Pharisees.
We have to face up to the distressing truth that the harshest and most persistent critics of Jesus were the Bible believing, highly religious, fundamentalist Pharisees. They were unhappy that a blind man could see! The Pharisees preferred to discredit the miracle rather than accredit it to Jesus. In the end they said to the man born blind: "Give God the Glory. We know this man (Jesus) is a sinner." v24. The religious fundamentalists would not even call Jesus by his name such was their hatred of him.

What was it that hindered the Pharisees from believing in Jesus?

    (a) Their priorities were wrong. The Pharisees were so intent on defending their religious position that they were unable to rejoice in the miracle. Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath." v16. "We know this man is a sinner." v24. It was impossible to attribute a miracle to Jesus because he did not keep the Sabbath in line with the rules and regulations so beloved of the Pharisees.

    It is terrible that men like the elderly Isaac Watts were not able to give whole-hearted support to the evangelism of Wesley and Whitfield. Many in the reformed tradition took no pleasure in the great revival that accompanied the preaching of Charles Finney in the U.S.A.. There was no joy that souls were being saved! During the Billy Graham campaigns in Britain there were conservative evangelicals who boycotted the meetings because Graham was prepared to co-operate with Roman Catholics. The Holy Spirit was not as fussy as those Bible believing fundamentalists! Many people were saved as Billy Graham preached the gospel; or are his critics going to be like the Pharisees of old and deny that any genuine conversions took place!

    (b) They didn't want to change. The Pharisees would have to change their position if they agreed that Jesus performed miracles. They would, perforce, have to accept his authority. The Pharisees did not want to believe in the miraculous power of Jesus because they did not want to change. The Jews liked their religion as it was because it conferred status upon them. Their prestige as experts in the Law would be undermined if once they accepted the authority of Jesus. The high ranking Pharisees would have to start all over again. They would have to submit to a Galilean carpenter!

    It is possible to be religious without really changing. I am indebted to Alan Carr, the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Lenoir, North Carolina for this anecdote: The story is told about a man who claimed that he "got religion." An old crony who knew about his shameful past heard the news, called him on the phone, and said, "Joe, they tell me you've got religion."

    "I sure have," came the reply.

    His friend responded, "Then I suppose you'll be going to church every Sunday."

    "That's right," Joe affirmed, "I started 5 weeks ago and haven't missed a service since."

    "And I suppose you're going to quit smoking and drinking."

    "Already have," Joe replied. "In fact, I haven't smoked a cigarette or touched a drop of liquor since."

    His friend paused for a moment. Finally, remembering how much money Joe owed him, he said with an intended jab, "I suppose too, now that you've got religion, you're going to pay up all your old debts."

    At that point Joe exploded and exclaimed, "Now wait a minute! That's not religion you're talking about; that's business!"

    This is always the problem with religion it may change the outside, but it can never cure the problem of the heart.

    (c) They couldn't see the limitations of the Law of Moses. The Pharisees said proudly: "We are disciples of Moses, but as for this fellow, we don't even know where he comes from." v29.

    The writer to the Hebrews recognised the fundamental inadequacy of the Law when he wrote to apostatising Jewish Christians: The Law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming - not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Heb10v1and2. Later in the chapter the sacred author writes that Jesus offered for all time one sacrifice for sins. v12.

    The problem the Pharisees had is the problem that the devotees of all the great religions of the world have. They cannot see that Jesus Christ came to fulfil, bring to completion, all that is best in their religions. But they are not alone. Many Christian groups share the same attitude. They are unwillingly to concede that: any version of the Bible could improve on the Authorised Version; their doctrinal statement could be bettered; their form of worship should be modified.

    (d) Pride. The Pharisees finally said to the man born blind: "How dare you lecture us." v34. Jesus condemned them when he said: "If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains." v41.

    The Pharisees did not consider the possibility that they were wrong. They were blinded to the truth by the pride they took in their reputation as experts in Judaism.

    This sin remains much in evidence amongst Christians. The leading theologians of the different denominations are very reluctant to admit to error. It is pride that is responsible for the divisions that exist within the church.

    (E) How faith develops.

    The healing of the blind man and subsequent events illustrate how faith, a virtue rather than a gift, develops.

    (1) The stimulus of need.
    The blind man had a great need. He could not see. This cut him off from ordinary life. He had to bear the stigma of a handicap that religious people believed was a punishment for sin. He survived by begging - a humiliating practice that did nothing for his self-respect. The blind man wanted to see. He longed for his life to change.

    Need is invariably the stimulus for faith. Chronic toothache has helped many to demonstrate faith in their dentist. The necessity of getting specified qualifications encourages a pupil to exercise faith in his teacher.

    Unless men and women feel the need to change they are unlikely to put their faith in Jesus. I am a Christian because I know that I need saving. If you don't need saving you don't need a saviour.

    (2) The prime importance of obedience.
    The blind man did everything that Jesus told him. John records: So the man went and washed and came home seeing. v7. The characteristic shared by the heroes of faith in Hebrews is their obedience to God's word. Abraham demonstrated his faith when he obeyed God and prepared to sacrifice his son.

    Saving faith in Jesus cannot exist without obedience. If we make no effort to obey Christ's teaching on giving, anxiety, integrity, criticism, helping others and forgiveness we cannot claim to have faith in him.

    (3) The reinforcing effect of experience.
    The beggar was able to say to the Pharisees who interrogated him: "One thing I do know I was blind but now I see!" v25. No-one could gainsay the blind man's experience.

    I wonder what we can say from experience. What is the one thing we know? Do we know by the Holy Spirit that we are ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven. I can say with Paul: God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. Rom5v5. Paul also said: I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day. 2Tim1v12.

    (4) Witnessing builds faith.
    The blind man had a testimony to give. I think that is why Jesus anointed his eyes with mud and sent him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. He had a testimony to give and he gave it. He was not ashamed or fearful of saying what Jesus did for him. As he witnessed he gained confidence and his commitment to Jesus increased. When asked by the Pharisees his opinion of Jesus he said: "He is a prophet." v17. He was not intimidated by Christ's opponents. He even asked them sarcastically: "Do you want to become his disciples too." v27.

    Faith in Jesus is always strengthened when we witness for him. There are far too many church attendees who never speak a word for Jesus and it is difficult to know whether they have faith in him or not.

    (5) Speaking in defence of Jesus increases faith.
    The healed man spoke in Jesus' defence against his critics: "Now that is remarkable! You don't know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." vs31to33.

    The former beggar got his thoughts organised as he resisted the opposition to Jesus. He got clearer and clearer about the status of Jesus. His faith deepened.

    Whenever we defend the name above all names our faith becomes more and more robust. If we stand up for Jesus it will produce a healthy and virile faith.

    (6) The blessing of persecution.
    Then they hurled insults at him and said, "You are this fellow's disciple." v28. And they threw him out .... .

    The healed man was thrown out of the synagogue and became a religious outcast.

    Jesus sought out the man born blind when he learned that he had been excluded from the synagogue. Through suffering for Christ's sake he came to know the Master better. John's wonderful story ends with the words: "Lord I believe" and he worshipped him.

    Jesus has come to the persecuted church through the centuries with assurance and blessing. When Martin Luther King took on the leadership of the civil rights movement in the United States the threats from the Klan began. He was thrown into Montgomery city jail for a minor traffic offence. On his release he sat in his kitchen pondering his future over a cup of coffee when the phone rang. The caller threatened to blow out his brains and blow up his house. King bowed down over his cup of coffee and prayed a prayer. This is how he described his experience: "I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, 'Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think I'm right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now. I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage.'
    ...... And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, 'Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.' I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone."

    Jesus came in time of need and Martin Luther King's faith was revived. It is ever thus and that is why the persecuted church worships him.