John 9 tells the story of the time when Jesus healed a man who had been blind from birth. In this story we encounter three forms of blindness: physcial blindness, spiritual blindness and sacramental blindness.
The physical blindness in this story is quite profound; the man had been blind from birth. To heal him, Jesus spits on the ground, makes some mud with the saliva, and puts the mud on the blind man’s eyes. Then he tells him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. The blind man goes and washes off the mud and comes back seeing. What a day that must have been for this man to be able to see for the first time in his life!
The spiritual blindness in this story is also quite profound. Although this miracle provides solid proof that Jesus is the Light of the World it caused a division among the Pharisees. Their confusion is summed up in verse 16: “Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?’ And there was a division among them.”
In the end the spiritually blind Pharisees reject the blind man because he insisted that Jesus was a prophet. Jesus found the blind man and then also bestowed on him spiritual sight:
Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.” He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. (verses 35-38)
The Pharisees, on the other hand, had physical sight but remained spiritually blind:
Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains. (verses 39-41)
The third kind of blindness that this story relates to is what I call sacramental blindness. It is basically the belief that physical things, even when they are joined to the almighty Word of God, cannot be used to do supernatural things. This leads to the denial of any spiritual blessings from God in the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.
Could Jesus have healed the blind man without using mud? Absolutely. He healed people in many different ways, often without any physical means other than his Word.
But the frequency and prevalence throughout Scripture of God combining his almighty Word with specific physical elements to do miraculous things is impossible to deny. Here is a list of examples where God does this:
The Word of God combined with a specific tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, was the main element in Adam and Eve’s tragic fall into sin. (Genesis 3:1-7)
God told Moses to take a specific staff and strike a specific rock to provide water for his people in the wilderness. (Exodus 17:1-7)
The Word of God combined with the bronze serpent that Moses made saved the people of Israel from poisonous snake bites. (Numbers 21:4-9)
Samson’s hair, not any other part of his body, was the source of his super-human strength because God’s Word said it would be. (Judges 16:17)
Naaman was cured of his leprosy when he washed seven times in the Jordan River as directed by God through the prophet Elisha. (2 Kings 5:1-14)
All these examples have three things in common: the Word of God, a visible element and some kind of miraculous outcome.
Which brings us back to the blind man’s mud.
It’s almost like Jesus is mocking those with sacramental blindness by using mud on the blind man’s eyes. It’s like he’s saying, “I can take any physical thing, even mud made from saliva, combine it with my Word, and produce miraculous results.”
Sacramental blindness first arose in the days of the Reformation 500 years ago. While there was much theological agreement between Martin Luther and other Reformation leaders, a definite split developed between the Lutherans and other Protestants on the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.
On one hand, Luther and his followers maintained that the spiritual blessings of rebirth, forgiveness, life, salvation and communion with Christ are truly bestowed through Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Yes, the water of Holy Baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion are just ordinary physical elements but, when combined with the almighty Word of God, these physical things conferred spiritual blessings.
Here is how Luther explains it in his Small Catechism:
How can water do such great things? Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this Word of God in the water. For without the God’s Word the water is plain water and no baptism. But with the Word of God it is a baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of new birth in the Holy Spirit as St. Paul says in Titus chapter three: He saved through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying.”
How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things? Certainly not just eating and drinking do these things, but the words written here: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” These words, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main things in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: “forgiveness of sins.”
On the other hand, non-Lutheran Protestant leaders denied this view of the sacraments. Instead they viewed them as symbolic acts or “ordinances” that believers do to show their obedience to God. Spiritual blessings cannot be present because spiritual blessings cannot be conveyed through physical elements.
And this sacramental blindness is still very common today. Go to the web site of any non-denominational church across the country and check out the link where they set forth their beliefs. They all consider Holy Baptism and Holy Communion as symbolic ordinances that believers do in obedience to God’s command not to receive spiritual blessings.
And in my experience in talking with those who have sacramental blindness it is a very deep-seated blindness. They can hardly ever be led to see the spiritual blessings that water, bread and wine can bring when combined with God’s Word in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.
But we serve a God who specializes in turning blindness into sight. As the story of the blind man from John 9 shows, Jesus can overcome all forms of blindness because he is the Light of the World.