This story takes place on three different levels. First, it is a story of physical healing and the power of God. There is no story of anyone anywhere giving sight to the blind in the Old Testament. The followers of Jesus, after he leaves the earth, never heal blind people. In the Old Testament, the giving of sight to the blind is associated with God himself (Ex. 4.11 and others); it is also a Messianic activity (Isa. 29.18 and others.) So Jesus sees a man in need, meets him at his point of need, and does something that declares he is God.
Secondly, it’s an illustration of the growing conflict between Jesus and his opponents. Jesus does good works in ways that glorify God, and they just get him deeper into trouble with those determined to make trouble for him.
Thirdly, the story is a parable. The man born blind is a living parable of the people Jesus has just has been talking to about his identity, and about faith. He is right in front of them, but they can’t see him and can’t understand a thing he is saying. They have eyes, but they can’t see. We are all born blind, so to speak, and until we let Jesus heal us, we can’t possibly see a thing.
Jesus comes upon this man who is “blind from birth” (both literally and spiritually symbolic). The disciples ask a discerning question: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” On the one level, they see his suffering, assume there is a cause, and ask about it: “Why should this guy be born blind? How is that fair?” It’s also a relevant question given that this is a parable about original sin: “Why should we pay because of someone else’s (Adam’s) disobedience? Why should we all suffer just because he was a loser? How is that fair? It’s like we’re guilty before we have a chance.”
Jesus answers on both levels. First, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Not all physical ailments come from spiritual sources. Sometimes physical ailments come from physical sources. Some of the suffering in the world is simply the result of physical cause and effect.
Look at his answer on the other level, though. “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” “We are all born dead in our sins and spiritually blind” is easily the cause of the effect of, “so that the work of God might be displayed in life.” It’s all about the work of the gospel (as was his treatise on the Bread of Life, the Living Water, being Born Again, etc.).
At the same time the man’s blindness creates another occasion for Jesus to show the world that he is God. As a sign of his deity he does what only God can do: heal a blind man. That he was blind from birth just amplifies the hopelessness and helplessness of the man’s situation, and that this healing was no slight of hand or some kind of magic, or even doctor work. This was God’s work, and only God could do it.
In verse 4, Jesus says, “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.” I think the best way to understand this is taking the meaning of the event as a parable. Jesus is still speaking of the work of the gospel. He is not talking about the blind man or his physical healing, but about the work of the gospel to eradicate original sin. Our time of life on earth is when the gospel needs to be applied, for when death comes, after that comes the judgment.
Then continuing, Jesus says, “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” This is good news for the man born blind, and good news for those born in sin. The solution is now right in front of you.
Then he heals the man, just as he is able to heal those burdened with a load of sin, for which there is no other remedy. One way or another, there is no reason to stay blind.