Spiritual blindness

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Those words of John Newton, penned in 1772, form part of one of the most well known and well loved of Christian hymns. They also serve as an introduction to an important biblical doctrine: that of spiritual blindness and its associated doctrine of spiritual deafness.

Jesus frequently said: 'He who has ears, let him hear (Mat 11:15)' and 'He who has ears to hear, let him hear (Mar 4:9).' What did he mean by that? He meant: 'Those to whom God has given the ability to hear and understand spiritual truth should pay attention to what I am saying.'

That instruction is so important, Jesus gave it to each of the seven churches in the Book of Revelation (Rev 2—3).

An unusual healing

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?'

'Neither this man nor his parents sinned,' said Jesus, 'but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no-one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.'

Having said this, he spat on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man's eyes. 'Go,' he told him, 'wash in the Pool of Siloam' (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing. (Joh 9:1–7)

The man whom Jesus met was blind, but we're not told the cause of his blindness. Perhaps there was something wrong with his eyes, or his optic nerves, or the section of his brain that controlled his sight. Whatever it was, a part of his body had not been formed correctly in the womb and, as a result, he'd been born blind.

Jesus usually healed people by speaking a word to them, but not on this occasion. Instead, he spat on the ground, made mud with the saliva and put it on the man's eyes. He then told him to wash it off in a pool and, when he did so, he could see.

Why did he do that? Wasn't his word powerful enough to heal him? Of course it was. Just a little while later Jesus spoke the word and Lazarus walked out of the tomb, every atom of his body restored to life (Joh 11:38–44). Jesus healed the man in that way to illustrate a spiritual truth.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. (Col 1:15–6)

Paul tells us that everything that exists was created by Jesus Christ and for Jesus Christ. That means that this man was standing in front of the creator of the universe. Think about that.

And, as Jesus originally formed man from the dust of the earth (Gen 2:7), so he made mud from the dust of the earth and placed it on his eyes. Jesus, the creator, completed the formation of his body.

Initially, when the disciples saw the man who had been blind from birth they asked Jesus who had sinned, himself or his parents. Jesus said that no one had sinned, but he had been born that way so that God's work could be demonstrated in his life—it's God who gives people physical sight and also spiritual sight.

Power in prayer

When the Pharisees heard that the man had been healed on the Sabbath they questioned him about it and, in reply, he said:

'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.' (Joh 9:30–3)

While answering their questions the man drew attention to a truth we need to remember: that God does not listen to sinners. That is as true for Christians as for anyone else. The psalmist wrote:

If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened; but God has surely listened and heard my voice in prayer (Psa 66:18–9).

James says that the prayer of a righteous man (a man who does what is right in the sight of God) is powerful and effective, and that is particularly so in the realm of healing (Jam 5:13–6).

Peter tells us that if a husband doesn't treat his wife correctly, his prayers will be hindered (1Pe 3:7). The Greek verb means to cut off, or to cut down [1]. Not treating our wives with consideration and respect (which is only one instance of sin) can cause our prayers to be ignored by God. Why? Because he doesn't listen to sinners.

If Christians want power in prayer they must make sure there's no sin in their lives, and that they are walking in obedience to God (1Jo 3:21–2).

Born blind and deaf

The man who had been healed said that no one had heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. That was perfectly true; no human being can do that. However, the healing had spiritual significance because everyone on the face of the earth is born spiritually blind and only God, our creator, can open our eyes so we can see.

The same is true with respect to spiritual deafness. All of us are born spiritually deaf—we lack the ability to hear and understand spiritual truth—and only God, our creator, can change that.

When John Newton said that once he had been blind but now he could see, he wasn't referring to physical blindness. John Newton had never been physically blind, he was referring to spiritual blindness: the inability to see and understand spiritual truth—especially the truth that he was a sinner, and that Jesus had died for his sins.

Jesus spoke about spiritual blindness after healing the man:

Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, 'Do you believe in the Son of Man?' 'Who is he, sir?' the man asked. 'Tell me so that I may believe in him.'

Jesus said, 'You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.' Then the man said, 'Lord, I believe,' and he worshipped him. (Joh 9:35–8)

By the grace of God this man could now see Jesus physically and spiritually. He understood who he was and worshipped him.

Jesus said, 'For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind. (Joh 9:39)

Was Jesus talking about physical blindness or spiritual blindness? He was talking about spiritual blindness because, even though he gave physical sight to many during his earthly ministry, he didn't remove physical sight from anyone.

Jesus came into the world to open the eyes of the spiritually blind, and to blind the eyes of those who thought they could see spiritually.

Spiritual pride

Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, 'What? Are we blind too?' Jesus said, 'If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.' (Joh 9:40–1)

This is a difficult passage to understand but let's look at it logically, bearing in mind that Jesus was talking about spiritual blindness.

Jesus is not saying that people who are physically blind are innocent of sin, as if God overlooks their sin because of their disability. The Bible teaches that everyone will be held accountable for their sin (Rom 3:9–19), and that includes blind people as well, who are as capable of sinning as anyone else.

Neither is he saying that spiritually blind people are innocent of sin. If that was the case, then the majority of people in the world would be innocent before God. Jesus was not speaking about sin in general but about the sin of spiritual pride. (He made similar statements in Joh 15:22–5, where he was referring to the sin of hating him.)

Those who were spiritually blind and did not claim to understand spiritual truth were not guilty of the sin of spiritual pride, but those who were spiritually blind and yet claimed to be spiritual leaders were guilty, and Jesus said that their guilt would remain.

Blind guides

Jesus directed most of his rebukes at the spiritual leaders of his day.

'Woe to you, blind guides! You say, "If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath." You blind fools! Which is greater, the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, "If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath." You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?' (Mat 23:16–9)

Those leaders were not physically blind, they were spiritually blind, and yet they claimed to be spiritual leaders in Israel.

Then the disciples came to him and asked, 'Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?'

He replied, 'Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.' (Mat 15:12–4)

That final statement is true physically and spiritually. The pit that spiritually blind people fall into is the pit (or abyss) of hell.

Man can only understand spiritual truth as the Holy Spirit gives him understanding (2Co 2:14), so any spiritual leader who is not born again (not indwelt by the Spirit of God) is a blind guide. If a spiritually blind man leads a spiritually blind man, both will fall into the pit.

God has deadened their hearts

So, who is to blame for man's spiritual blindness and deafness? Man is to blame, entirely. God created man to have fellowship with him. When man was created he had full and free communion with God, but when he sinned that relationship was broken. Since then man has only been able to hear the voice of God as God has enabled him to hear it.

The Bible says:

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2Co 4:4)

Paul states that Satan (the god of this age) blinds people's minds so they cannot understand the gospel. But look at what John's Gospel says:

Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfil the word of Isaiah the prophet: 'Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?' (Joh 12:37–8)

Even though Jesus did many outstanding miracles in the sight of the people, the majority would not believe in him. That had been predicted by Isaiah seven hundred years previously (Isa 53:1). But why did it happen? The next verses tell us:

For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: 'He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.' (Joh 12:39–40)

The people would not believe in Jesus because they couldn't believe in him. And the reason they couldn't believe in him was because someone had blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts. Who was that person?

The clue to this mystery is found in the meaning of the Greek word translated 'deadened'. The word is poroo which means to harden, or to make hard like a stone. So those verses could be translated as: He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts so they cannot turn and believe.

Paul speaks about the hardening of people's hearts in his letter to the Romans:

What then? What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did. The others were hardened [poroo], as it is written: 'God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes so that they could not see and ears so that they could not hear, to this very day.' (Rom 11:7–8)

Paul tells us that God hardened the hearts of his people and made them spiritually blind and spiritually deaf so they could not believe in his Son. But he didn't do it to the elect (those he had chosen to save).

God's sovereign choice

It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: 'I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.' Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. (Rom 9:16–8)

The Book of Exodus tells us that God hardened Pharaoh's heart so that his will for Pharaoh would come to pass—that his firstborn son would be killed (Exo 4:21–3) and that he would perish under his wrath (Exo 14:26–8). If you read the first fourteen chapters of Exodus you will find that Pharaoh could not resist God's will.

At one point he summoned Moses and Aaron and told them he had sinned against them, and against the Lord, by not letting the Israelites go. He asked for their forgiveness and told them to pray to the Lord for him so that the deadly plague would be removed.

Moses did so, but the Word says that the Lord again hardened Pharaoh's heart so that he would not let the people go (Exo 10:16–20). Pharaoh wanted to be saved from God's wrath but he couldn't because salvation does not depend upon man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy (Rom 9:16–7).

Unfortunately Pharaoh was not an object of God's mercy, prepared in advance for glory (Rom 9:23–4), but of his wrath, prepared for destruction (Rom 9:22). Moreover, he was a Gentile, which means that God hardens the hearts of both Jews and Gentiles in accordance with his will.

That has led some to ask: 'But if God hardens people's hearts so they cannot repent, then why does he blame us for our sin?' The answer is: 'But who are you, O man, to talk back to God (Rom 9:20)?'

Who are we to question God's dealings with mankind? The fact is that everyone is a sinner from birth and deserves nothing more than the flames of hell, but God has seen fit to save some through the sacrifice of his Son, and we should be grateful for that.

Not all mankind will perish in their sin, as Pharaoh did: some will come to eternal life. Even as Noah saved his family (small in number) from God's wrath through his righteousness (Gen 6:8–9), so shall the children of God (small in number – Mat 7:14) be saved from God's wrath through the righteousness of Christ.

The Bible teaches that Satan blinds the minds of unbelievers so they cannot understand the gospel, and God makes them spiritually blind and spiritually deaf so they cannot turn and believe.

And, as God is sovereign on earth and Satan is a created being who is subject to his will, God allows Satan to blind people's minds so that his purpose in election (his choice of those he saves) will be fulfilled (Rom 9:10–3).

Man's salvation is entirely in the hands of God. Only God can soften people's hearts and give them ears that hear and eyes that see so they can respond to the gospel of his Son. And that, as John Newton tells us, is a result of his grace.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Ears that hear and eyes that see—the Lord has made them both. (Pro 20:12)

Michael Graham
December 2005
Revised June 2020

[1] Strong, James The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, MacDonald Publishing Company. Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®. NIV ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.

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