Who Sinned That This Man Was Born Blind?

A biblical study of John 9:1-3

The question, “Why did this happen?” is often found on the lips of those who witness evil. Such was the case when Jesus and his disciples once encountered a man who had been born blind. The disciples asked whether it was the man’s sin or his parents’ sin that caused his blindness. Jesus said it was neither and healed the man—setting a beautiful example of never blaming the victim but taking action to help those who are hurting. Unfortunately, rather than blame the victim, some people still use this passage to blame God for the man’s blindness, and the way it reads in most versions does make it seem as if God made the man blind for the purpose of healing him. The NIV is typical:

John 9:1-3
(1) As he [Jesus] went along, he saw a man blind from birth.
(2) His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
(3) “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.

Could it be true that this man’s blindness was part of some master plan, and was “so that” the work of God may be manifest in his life? Why would God make someone blind for the better part of his life just to heal him someday? To prove that He could? So God can get glory? Surely God, who is love, could find a less injurious way to glorify Himself. Afflicting someone just to gain glory by stopping his or her affliction sounds more like the work of Satan than of God.

The Bible says that Jesus came to destroy the works of the Devil (1 John 3:8). His ministry was to heal those oppressed by Satan (Acts 10:38). Nowhere do the Gospels portray Jesus as healing those oppressed by God. Rather than God, it is Satan who is the source of evil. He is the one who has authority over all the kingdoms of the world (Luke 4:5 and 6), and it is Jesus’ job to crush his head (Gen. 3:15). The Lord did, and still does, wage war on the Devil’s kingdom by first “binding the strong man” and then “plundering his goods” (Mark 3:22-27). The strong man is the Devil, the god of this age (2 Cor. 4:4), who has the power of death (Heb. 2:14). Scripture says that the entire world lies under his demonic control (1 John 5:19), and what Jesus did and is still doing is to interrupt Satan’s evil agenda by healing and delivering as many people as will look to him for help. There is no room in this scenario for God to be blinding people, for that would be contradictory to His nature and character. To say God did this is to ignore the spiritual war portrayed throughout Scripture.

So why then does this verse seem to say that the man’s blindness was for the purpose of manifesting God’s work? Because it was translated that way from the Greek by modern translators. But, thankfully, it does not have to be translated that way. This traditional rendering stems from a theology dictating that God is in control of everything that happens on earth—whatever happens is His master plan unfolding as He always knew it would. Given that this view is fraught with unsolvable problems, biblically, practically, and emotionally, it is good to know that another valid translation exists. John 9:3 is better rendered, “But let the works of God be displayed in him.” So the whole passage would read as follows:

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus answered, “but let the works of God be displayed in him. We must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day…”

This translation makes good sense, biblically. Jesus shows us that the question to ask is not, “Who sinned?” but “What can we do to help the situation?” He does not leave us with some mysterious purpose for the man’s blindness, but fights for his healing, rejecting the disciples’ desire to point fingers at who is to blame. This also fits well with the context, as Jesus goes on to talk about the necessity of working the works of God while he can.

How did we get from “this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in him” to “let the work of God be displayed in him”? These two translations are very different, but by understanding the Greek grammar behind the phrase we can see why the latter is to be preferred. John 9:3 can be rendered as a command rather than an expression of why the man was born blind.

Purpose Clause or Command Clause?

Now don’t let the word “grammar” intimidate you; this is going to be easy. You know how we often use language to express our intentions or our purpose. For instance, the sentence, “I read the Bible to grow closer to God” states that my purpose for reading the Bible is to grow closer to God. Sometimes we use commands: “Read your Bible; grow closer to God!” The Greek language also has ways of expressing purpose and command, and one such way is by using the word hina—usually translated “that” or “so that”—along with a verb in the subjunctive mood. (Don’t worry if you do not know what the subjunctive mood is, all you need to know for this study is that it is just a particular way the verb looks). When the Greek uses hina with a subjunctive verb, it can express either purpose or command. [1] That is, it can express why something happened or it can express an order to make something happen. The same form was used to say both. It looks exactly the same, but the meaning is totally different. When hina with a subjunctive verb communicates purpose it is called a purpose clause, but when the same form expresses a command it is called a command clause. The reader must determine from the context whether purpose or a command is meant.

Let’s look at some examples from the Bible. Remember, a purpose clause indicates why something happened; it shows the intention behind the action. Here’s a hina + subjunctive purpose clause:

Matthew 19:13 (NRSV)
…children were being brought to him in order that [Greek=hina + subjunctive] he might lay his hands on them and pray.

These children were brought to Jesus with the purpose that he would lay his hands on them and pray, and that is expressed in Greek by the word hina (translated “in order that”) with the verb for “lay” in the subjunctive mood.

Now, here’s that same Greek form—hina with a subjunctive verb—in another verse also about laying on of hands, but this time it is translated as a command:

Mark 5:23b (NRSV)
…come and lay [Greek=hina + subjunctive] your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.

The hina + subjunctive clause was translated, “…lay your hands on her…,” which is a command. Since the form is the same, how did the translators know to render the first example as a purpose clause but the second as a command? The answer, as we said above, is the context. The translator’s understanding of how the passage fits into its context determines his opinion as to how the Greek is best brought into English, whether by a purpose or command clause.

Because the Greek form looks the same, there is sometimes disagreement among translators as to whether purpose or command is meant. This disagreement shows up in the varying translations of Mark 5:12, for instance, when the demons pleaded to go into the herd of swine. Some versions translate the second part of their plea as a purpose clause, “Send us into the pigs so that we may enter them” (cp. NASB; HCSB; KJV; ASV). But most modern versions translate it as a command: “Send us into the pigs. Let us enter them” (cp. ESV; NIV; NRSV; NET; NJB [2]).

Interestingly, we see the same split between the translations with regard to Titus 3:13. Speaking of sending out some saints on a journey, most modern versions read, “See that they lack nothing,” which is a command (cp. ESV; NIV; NRSV; NET; NJB); as opposed to “so that they lack nothing,” which expresses purpose (cp. NASB; HCSB; KJV; ASV). [3]

What about John 9:3?

We have now seen that when the Greek text has hina with a verb in the subjunctive mood, it could be giving us the purpose for why something happened, or it could be expressing a command. How does this help us understand the record about the man born blind?

Since the controversial phrase in John 9:3 has the hina + subjunctive form, it can be either a purpose or command clause. Most translations render it as a purpose clause. “[He was born blind] so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (NRSV). [4] But this translation has serious consequences to the meaning of the text. It makes the man’s blindness intentionally caused by God, such that he could not see for the better part of his life simply for the purpose of being healed. Such an interpretation goes against the teaching of Scripture, that God is love (1 John 4:16), has plans not to harm us (Jer. 29:11), and that it is Satan who is our enemy, the god of this age (2 Cor. 4:4) who has the power of death (Heb. 2:14). Realizing this, a number of scholars assert that John 9:3 is best read as a command clause, “But let the works of God be revealed in him.” [5] Greg Boyd, for instance, writes the following:

The verse should not be interpreted as suggesting that God’s will is behind this man’s blindness… The original verse does not say that “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed.” The Greek simply has hina with the aorist subjunctive passive of phaneroo (“to manifest”) and can readily be translated as, “But let the works of God be manifested.” [6]

Thus, the Greek is understood just like Ephesians 5:33, which has the same construction: “Let the wife see that [Gk=hina + subjunctive] she respects her husband.” [7]

Conclusion

The translation, “let the works of God be revealed in him,” fits best with the context of the verse, which is that Christ must heal people while his ministry is in operation (John 9:4 and 5). It also fits best with the entire scope of the Four Gospels, because while Jesus was performing his ministry, he was destroying the works of the Devil (1 John 3:8) and healing those oppressed by Satan (Acts 10:38). Therefore, rendering the verse as though the man’s blindness was the mysterious purpose of God is unfounded. Does blindness sound like God’s works? Was this man oppressed by God? May it never be! Seeing John 9:3 as a command clause exonerates God from the charge of blinding a child “for His glory.”

Jesus corrected any and all finger pointing as to who was to blame for the man’s blindness. He instructed the disciples as to the proper response when they saw such a man. He then modeled what he came to do—to destroy the work of the Devil and heal those oppressed by him. He said, “Let the works of God be manifest in him,” showing compassion for the man. Then he turned to his disciples and reminded them that they must work the works of God while it is day. Rather than painting a picture of a capricious God who makes a man blind for the purpose of healing his blindness, this passage reveals a loving God who sent His Son to manifest His works by healing a man oppressed by the Devil.

Endnotes

[1] Wallace, Daniel B., Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: an Exegetical syntax of the New Testament, (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1996), pp. 471 and 472, 476 and 477; see also the definition of hina in BDAG (1 for purpose, and 2.g for command); hina in Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, (1 for purpose, 4.b for command). Hina + subjunctive can also express result, purpose-result, substantival, epexegetical, and complementary clauses, which we will not cover here (See, Wallace, Greek Grammar, p. 471).
[2] Scripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission. Scripture quotations marked HCSB are been taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible, Copyright ©1999, 2000, 2002, 2003 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Holman Christian Standard Bible, Holman CSB, and HCSB are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers. Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™ © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations marked (NET) are taken from the THE NET BIBLE®, NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION COPYRIGHT © 1996 BY BIBLICAL STUDIES PRESS, L.L.C. NET Bible® IS A REGISTERED TRADEMARK THE NET BIBLE® LOGO, SERVICE MARK COPYRIGHT © 1997 BY BIBLICAL STUDIES PRESS, L.L.C. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Scripture quotations marked (NJB) are taken from the The New Jerusalem Bible. Biblical text copyright © 1985 by Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd and Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.
[3] Actually, it would express both purpose and result, and is what is known as a purpose-result clause. So the meaning would be, “Send them out [with the purpose of and the result that] they lack nothing.” For similar disagreements between translators, see also Mark 10:51 and Revelation 14:13.
[4] Versions that take this phrase as a purpose clause have to add words to the verse and thus make it an Ellipsis, as there are no corresponding Greek words for “He was born blind” (NRSV), or “this happened so that” (NIV). These phrases are added in the translation to fill in the words supposedly left out by the Ellipsis. If it is a command clause, however, there is no need to supply these words, for it simply reads, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but let the works of God be revealed in him.”
[5] Gregory Boyd, God at War (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), pp. 231-234; Boyd also notes M. Zerwick, Biblical Greek, trans. J. Smith (Rome: Pontificio Instituto Biblico, 1963), pp. 141 and 142; C.F.D. Moule, An Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 144 and 145; Nigel Turner, Grammatical Insights into the New Testament (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1965), pp. 145ff.
[6] Boyd, God at War, p. 233.
[7] For other command clauses see also: Matthew 20:33; Mark 5:23, 10:51, 12:19; 1 Corinthians 7:29, 16:16; 2 Corinthians 8:7; 1 John 3:11 and 23.

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9 comments

  1. This was a great article!!! can you give me some suggestions on where to order… how I could get references or translations that would be helpful in getting as close in understanding to the original Greek or Hebrew? thanks

  2. I appreciate you comments…they seem more in line with Gods character and Jesus ministry. I read an article discussing this same passage by hyper Calvinist John Piper and of course his view is that God caused this
    blindness so that he could later heal the blindness for his glory. He also uses Exodus 4:11..as proof that God causes these afflictions. How would you respond to Exodus 4:11. Thanks,

    1. It is my opinion God is speaking to Moses encouraging him that He (God) will help him and he is reminding Moses that it was God, as the creator, who gave man the ability to see, speak,a nd hear. It is not intended to indicate that God cause people to be blind or mute.

  3. Yes. Super excellent work here. An excellent and NECESSARY study.

    I have so many things to say, and even a few to add, but I won’t. ( :

  4. Thank you so much! This verse didnt make sense or sit right in my spirit. I knew the greek had more to it and something was lost or added in transalation. Thank you for posting. Glory to God!

  5. amen, great article

  6. Thank you. This helped me understand my study of John 9 this morning. I felt something was awry and searched for clarity on why. Knowing there are finer Greek translation elements to language is going help me grow closer to God.

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