daily-bible-verses-of-jesus-healing-the-sickWhen it comes to theological interrogations, Jesus will not backed in a corner. This is true whether the questioners are antagonists with an agenda (cf. Matt 22:23-40), or His own disciples. John’s Gospel gives an example of the latter: “And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Rather than choosing between personal or genetic sin, Jesus presents a third option in v.3 concerning the man τυφλὸν ἐκ γενετῆς (blind from birth, v.1): that God’s power in Christ be shown in him. This miracle was then accomplished when Jesus re-created the man’s eyes (vv.6-7) and thus demonstrated in tangible form that He, in fact is, the very “Light of the world” (8:1;9:5).

Yet it is this particular episode that marks what some consider as both an exegetical and theological problem. Specifically, with Jesus’ (via John’s) use of the adversative conjunction, ἀλλ᾽ (but), the traditional punctuation of vv.3–4 are called into question. Basically, the question asked is this: When should verse 3 end and verse 4 begin? Or, more technically, should vv. 3-4 be repunctuated as to make v. 3 a single clause, with the remaining clauses continuing in v. 4 after being initiated by the conjunction, ἀλλ᾽? If so, this would convert the familiar adversative or contrasting function of “but” into an introductory conjunction initiating a whole new set of clauses. And if this be the case, then the traditional mainline versification found in most English New Testaments versions of  John 9:3-4 are misleading at best, and erroneous at worse. Yet some, in an attempt to escape Jesus’ stated purpose for the blind man’s handicap—as marked by the conjunction ἵνα (so that) in v.3—have in fact chosen this route.

Because of the theological implications of the Greek grammar—that God would actually allow a person to experience a life-long deformity for the sole purpose of His Son one day healing him and thus reveal the glory of God—some scholars have chosen to repunctuate these two verses in an attempt to get God “off the hook.” Yet by doing so, the problem is not solved in any real sense and only leaves more open ended questions.

It is the contention of this author that vv.3 and 4 of John 9 are in fact punctuated correctly in the majority of English translations, and that the purpose of the blind man’s congenital deformity was indeed ordained by God in order to one day glorify Himself through Christ’s healing of it.

The Problem

What did Jesus intend when He stated the word ἀλλ (but) in John 9:3? In 644 occurrences throughout the New Testament,[1] the logical function of this word dictates its dominate usage as a contrasting (or adversative) conjunction. That is, its main purpose is to highlight a contrast between opposing thoughts. As such, it can be translated but, rather, however. Although this conjunction can more broadly be considered a connective conjunctive, as it still connects one thought to another, Wallace observes the common function of this particular conjunction “suggests a contrast or opposing thought to the idea to which it is con­nected.”[2] Contextually, with the use of this contrasting conjunction in v.3[3], Jesus is setting up the purpose (or reason) for the man’s congenital blindness as marked by the immediately following word, the conjunction ἵνα (so that).

Yet, as mentioned above, there are some who believe this poses both an exegetical and theological problem. Exegetically, the problem can be stated like this: “Should v. 4 actually begin with ἀλλ᾽ (but)?” If so, that would cause this conjunction to serve an introductory use rather than adversative which violates its otherwise dominate usage. Theologically, if this conjunction should be repuncutated to introduce v.4, than the meaning of the text is altered substantially. By placing the conjunction ἀλλ᾽ introductorily in v.4, rather than its traditional placing in v.3, what would then be bypassed is the very reason (or purpose) for the man’s congenital blindness as marked by the subordinate conjunction, ἵνα: “so that the works of God [i.e., eye sight given] be displayed in him.”[4] Or in other words, by placing αλλα as introducing v.4, as in the examples below, God would not have purposed the man to be born blind in order that Jesus would one day heal him and thus glorify God in the miracle. If this view is to be accepted, then Jesus entirely ignored this implication of the “problem” by focusing solely on doing works for God. Thus, the verses would then read as follows:

 3Neither did this man sin nor his parents.4 But, so that the works of God may be displayed in him, we must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day.

Predispositions Guiding Exegesis 

There are several Johannine scholars who support the view that ἀλλ᾽ would be better placed as an introductory conjunction initiating v.4. The subordinate conjunction ἵνα (so that, that) would then serve to set up the purpose of Jesus and His disciples working good works to help the man born blind. Kruse states the issue this way:

Verses 3 and 4, punctuated as they are in the NIV (and most other English    versions and modern Greek texts), present an unattractive theodicy. They imply that God allowed the man to be blind so that  many years later God’s power could be shown in the restoration of his sight. However, it is not necessary to read the text this way.[5]

Kruse’s sentiments regarding this supposed problem is not new. In the 1940s while giving lectures on John’s Gospel at the Church of the Open Door in Los Angeles, as well as Westminster Chapel in London, noted British Bible scholar, G. Campbell Morgan, expressed his disdain for the traditional placing of ἀλλ᾽ (but) in v.3. Morgan contended, “If that punctuation is to be accepted, then Jesus meant that this man was not blind because of his own sin or his parents’, but in order to give God an opportunity to show what He could do with a blind man. I absolutely refuse to accept this interpretation …. I ventured to repunctuate it.”[6] Along with Kruse and Campbell, recent Johannine commentator, Gary Burge, likewise supports repuncuating vv. 3 and 4: “The ‘purpose clause’ of 3b … can just as well be applied to 9:4, and no doubt it should.”[7]

What should be noted regarding the above contentions is the common theme running through each of these scholars’ reasoning for rejecting the traditional view of vv. 3 & 4. That theme is not based on purely grammatical-historical grounds (exegesis), however, but rather theological bias. Instead of taking the grammar of the text at face value, each of the above scholars expose in their explanations of moving ἀλλ᾽ (but) to introduce v.4 as having scorn for the theological implications of the traditional placing. For instance:

Kruse: “Verses 3 and 4 punctuate as they are … present an unattractive theodicy.”[8] Morgan: “If that punctuation is to be accepted [i.e., the traditional placing] … I absolutely refuse to accept that interpretation …. Involved in [the better] answer [i.e., the altered placing], is a revelation that blindness from birth is not the will of God for any man.”[9] Burge: “While a sound theology cannot doubt God’s sovereignty to do as he pleases, thoughtful Christians may see this as a cruel fate in which God inflicts pain on people simply to glorify himself.”[10]

None of these men seem to consider that God could have sovereignly determined a man to be born with congenital blindness with the distinct purpose of one day glorifying Himself through it when His Son reveals His power by re-creating the man’s eyes—both physical and spiritual (cf. 9:38). Does it not seem plausible that a man healed of a handicap who was known by the community to be born with the condition—a man who had lived his entire life up through adulthood without sight—would serve to more powerfully highlight Jesus’ deity, than if the man had been healed of a more recent eye injury?  To witness the healing of an undeniable condition has the tendency to cause people to look outside the natural realm for answers. Indeed, this was not uncommon in Jesus’ ministry.  For example, an even more dramatic instance with a similar purpose and language is found just two chapters later with the death of Lazarus: “When Jesus heard it, He said, ‘This illness is not for death, but [ἀλλ᾽] on behalf of the glory of God, so that [ἵνα] the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4).[11] Whether Jesus’ healing involved a life-long deformity as in John 9, or a four-day old corpse as in John 11, it is the undeniability of the condition which sets up God’s glory to be magnified to the extreme.

Theological Presuppositions Guiding Exegesis

Besides each of the above scholars revealing their bias for boldly re-punctuating the Greek text—in order to escape the theological implication—each of them make an additional flaw in their bias: they equate blindness with evil. Indeed, this presupposition should itself be analyzed. In question form, it can be asked: Why is it necessary to consider blindness evil or even painful? What explicit Scriptural texts can serve to prove that if one is blind, the person is experiencing some sort of evil and suffering? [12] Granted, the Bible does not paint blindness in an overtly positive light, yet it equally does not present it as pure evil or suffering either. It seems to this author each of the above scholars’ attempt to change the traditionally held Greek construction of John 9:3-4 hold a purpose that was dead on arrival. Before one can dare change (re-punctuate) the Greek text—especially in order to fit a preferred theological assumption—that assumption better be proved at the outset.

While Burge tips his hat to God’s sovereignty in the last reference above, he immediately cancels it out in the second half of his sentence by pitting “thoughtful Christians” against those who would disagree with him. For whatever reason, he seems to have overlooked key texts explicitly declaring God’s sovereignty, even over blindness. He is not alone, as Morgan is probably the most dogmatic when he boldly asserted “blindness from birth is not the will of God for any man.” In stark contrast to this claim, Moses recorded God as saying: “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (Ex 4:11 ESV). Where in this explicit reference to God’s sovereignty over bodily handicaps does it even remotely imply that God would “never will a man to be born blind”? The Scripture record in fact testifies to the exact opposite. Additionally, where is it implied that blindness is a form of evil, pain, or suffering? In contrast, the Scripture record shows kindness to the blind as a judicial law that Israel was commanded to reflect: “You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD” (Lev 19:14 ESV; cf. Deut 27:18).

The Purpose for the Handicap Revealed

Is God absolutely sovereign over people’s handicaps? Yes. Even if that purpose was not for punishment or suffering? Yes. This is not unusual in the Gospels. As mentioned above, a few chapters subsequent to this episode, John gives his readers the explicit purpose for why Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus was ill: “But when Jesus heard [that Lazarus was ill], he said ‘this illness is not for death, but for the glory of God, so that [ἵνα] the Son of God may be glorified through it’” (John 11:4). Therefore, could God have purposed the man in John 9 to be born blind in order to one day reveal Himself to that particular man, and with him, to the world at large (as its recorded in the Bible for all to see)? Yes, and it is for this purpose that the man’s handicap was ordained by God. Taking in all the above considerations, it seems more appropriate to allow the text to speak for itself, even if it presents an uncomfortable situation. Thus, based on the exegesis above, MacArthur leaves us with the simplest, clearest option as to why this man was born blind: “God sovereignly chose to use this man’s affliction for His own glory.”[13] Therefore, it is worthwhile considering that a doxological purpose may stand behind every physical handicap—from birth to death.

Conclusion

The Greek is what it is, and any theological bias or presuppositions we may hold should not hinder its message, even when left with an uneasy conclusion. Yet, this particular episode and conclusion is far from hopeless. The above exegesis has demonstrated that God ordains and uses physical handicaps to serve His greater purposes, just as He did with this man τυφλὸν ἐκ γενετῆς (blind from birth). And, He is able to do so without a hint of committing evil (Rom 8:28; James 1:13). Therefore, the traditional placing of ἀλλ᾽ (but) in v.3, as reflected in the major English translations, is accurate and trustworthy. Its contrastive use helps set up the subjunctive conjunction ἵνα (so that) stating the actual purpose of the man’s blindness: that the works of God, as shown in Jesus’ miracle, would one day be displayed in him.

While not every believer may experience an immediate physical healing as the man in John 9 did, Christians can still learn from his example and rest assured they are called to glorify God through their obedience to Him, regardless of any personal discomfort. The NT seems to show that God holds a special place for those who are able to glorify Him through their personal suffering, whatever that suffering may entail. Indeed, the man born blind is a powerful testimony of for all Christians to emulate. In him, we see obedience and worship being key traits of correct Christian living (John 9:6-7, 38), even when living with a deformity. Therefore, to flesh out this ancient case study for modern day application, a simple principle has emerged: All physical handicaps are under the sovereign control of God, and even carry the grand purpose of magnifying God in Christ through them.


[1] Out of all the 644 occurrences in the NT, the full form ἀλλά is used 421xs while the elided ἀλλ᾽ (as in John 9:3) is used 223xs. There is no difference in meaning between the two.

[2]  Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 671.

[3]  It should be noted that according to Fredrick W. Danker, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 2001), s.v. “ἀλλά”:

“The use of ἀλλά in the Johannine literature is noteworthy, in that the parts contrasted are not always of equal standing grammatically.” However, the point being made here is that other than a few occasions (e.g., John 7:49; Rom 5:15; 8:37; Gal 2:3), the main NT usage of ἀλλά is not introductorily, i.e., to initiate its own independent clause, but rather is connective and contrastive.

[4] For the “purpose” or “telic” function of the subordinating conjunction ἵνα, see Wallace, 471-72. Additionally, Wallace has a noteworthy article regarding the usage of this conjunction at times being simultaneously “result-purpose” as there may have been no rigidly held distinction in the Semitic mind, cf. Ibid., 473-74. This helps further enforce the author’s point that the man’s blindness was ordained by God with the purpose of Jesus one day healing the man, while also carrying the intended result of glorifying (revealing) Him in the process.

[5] Colin G. Kruse, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 220.

[6] G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to John (New York, NY: Revel, 1951), 165.

[7] Gary M. Burge, NIV Application Commentary: John (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 272.

[8] Colin G. Kruse, The Gospel According to John, 220.

[9] G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to John (New York, NY: Revel, 1951) 164-65.

[10] Gary M. Burge, TNIV Application Commentary: John, 272.

[11] Unless noted, all translations are this author’s.

[12] It is worth noting that none the scholars mentioned consider this aspect. This further proves how much presuppositions really do play an interpretive role in scholarship—even in the brightest thinkers.

[13] John MacArthur, Macarthur New Testament Commentary: John 1—11 (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2006), 393.

Posted by CMarsh

Cory M. Marsh is Coordinator of Bible and Theology and Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Southern California Seminary, and holds memberships in the Evangelical Theological Society, Evangelical Philosophical Society, Society of Biblical Literature, & Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics. Cory is married to his high school sweetheart Shannnan, and they are both members of Mission Bible Church. They currently live with their cat Wednesday in Mission Viejo, CA.

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