It’s interesting how our perspective changes when we experience things that we never imagined could be a part of our lives. “I never thought this could happen to me” is probably something we will find ourselves saying at some point, unless we live very dull lives. Sometimes it’s tragedy, sometimes it’s victory. In both cases, something has come out of nowhere, blindsided us, become a part of our lives without our planning and without our permission.
This was true in Paul’s life as well. If you’ll allow me just a little big of artistic license, I’d like to discuss something that crept into Paul’s life without his permission. It was tragedy at the moment, but it became a victory.
The first blind man
Let’s take a flight of fancy for a moment into John 9, which features a healing miracle of Jesus. He sees a man who was born blind, a beggar beyond hope or help. Nothing great was in his future other than imposing upon the kindness of others, subsisting on handouts for his daily sustenance. Along comes Jesus: in a moment, with a splash of spit and a pinch of dirt, the man’s whole realm of possibilities changes. No longer is he helpless. He can see, he can participate in life in ways never before possible to him.
This seems lost on the Pharisees. Because Jesus healed on the Sabbath (something considered work and therefore forbidden by Jewish law), they immediately demystify and pare down the activity. The New Living Translation records them as saying, “This man Jesus is not from God, for he is working on the Sabbath.” Despite the fact that someone was made whole (as the Sabbath was created to do) they became more concerned with the day than the Way. A man whose whole life had been changed had to start this new way of life under strict interrogation. What a way to start. No party, no celebration. Just a bunch of angry religious leaders giving him the third degree.
At least, some of them. There’s a tiny little caveat in that text where some of the Pharisees seem to defend Jesus. What they said about Jesus was, “how could an ordinary sinner do such miraculous signs?” Maybe some of them did get the point. John says that the conversation caused “deep division of opinion among them.”
Here’s my flight of fancy: what if Paul was there?
What if Paul was in the “no healing on the Sabbath” camp? What if he saw this man healed, and started coming around to the idea of Jesus as divine?
Maybe he would have been on the other side. It certainly seems more likely. Paul was so entrenched in the law that he was willing to oversee executions of perpetrators, and this was a violation of the law that he loved so deeply. I picture Paul at the front of the line, shouting at the healed man, demanding answers. Questioning him again. Getting more angry. Finally, throwing the man out of the synagogue, completing the cycle of rejection.
The second blind man
The second blind man is a familiar story: it’s Paul (then Saul) himself. Trotting along the road to Damascus, looking for Christians to execute, Paul is stopped in his tracks. He comes face to face with the healer of the blind man of John 9, but this time the healer takes his vision away. There’s absolutely no scriptural connection between Paul and the man Jesus healed, but if Paul was present, I bet he’d think back to that man. Even if he wasn’t, there’s a good chance he heard about an iconoclastic preacher from Nazareth healing on the Sabbath, forcing Paul’s colleagues to hold an interrogation. If it caused a rift in the organization, there’s an even better chance that he heard about it. If he knew about the first blind man, I bet he thought about that guy during the time he was blind. He had no reason to believe he would ever see again, so maybe he felt deep empathy for what had been done to this other one.
The objectives in both stories are the same. For one man, blindness is removed and brings about his restoration. For another, blindness is given, bringing him in line with his Savior. I don’t think it was Ananias that brought the real healing to Paul, when the “scales fell from his eyes.” (Acts 9:18) I think the healing happened during the three days Paul was blind, where he had nothing in his mind but the actions of his past, the meeting on that road. The questioning of everything he had ever believed in the literal light of what he had just learned.
The third blind man
Acts 13 starts Paul’s missionary journey. Paul has had some time to spend among the apostles, he’s familiar with the community now. Barnabas has agreed to be his partner, and as soon as they’re out of the gates, they hit opposition. They are asked to come talk to a local official, so he can “hear the word of God.” This dignitary, called Sergius Paulus, seems to be a diligent seeker. He has his own in-house prophet, a man named Elymas. When Paul and Barnabas show up to talk about Jesus, Elymas stands in the way. It’s unclear exactly why, but it’s very clear that he doesn’t want Sergius hearing what they have to say.
A man of religious law. Standing in the way of the truth. Trying his best to miss the point. Seems familiar.
Paul responds by rebuking him… and striking him blind.
This is poignant. No other details are given, other than Paul’s statement that the blindness will be temporary (“You will not see the sunlight for some time,” v.11, NLT). How does Paul know? How can he make this statement? Because the infliction of blindness isn’t retribution. It’s redemption. It’s something he’s familiar with.
Elymas seems to be a mirror of Paul. Paul says, “Will you never stop perverting the true ways of the Lord?” (Acts 13:10, NLT) Could this be born of the words Paul would never forget, once spoken to him? “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting.” (Acts 9:5, NLT)
What Jesus said
We’ve really come full circle. When Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, even the disciples of Jesus were looking to put blame on the blind man. “Why is this man blind?” they asked. “Was it because of his sin or his parents?” Many of the day believed just that: blindness at birth was a curse, a result of sin. If the man himself didn’t sin, it was inflicted on him because his parents did. Jesus doesn’t allow that to stand. “This happened so the power of God could be seen in him.” (Interesting that he uses the phrase, “be seen.”) Where the first response according to popular belief was to condemn, Jesus brought healing to a blind man and a lesson to seeing crowds.
The same was true with Paul. Certainly, the blinding of Paul happened so that the power of God could be seen in him. Before becoming blind, Paul had law. After his blinding, Paul reflected that power.
How do we adjust our vision? How do we see as Jesus did, the way he brought those around him to see?
Sometimes it’s necessary for us to be broken ourselves. To understand mourning, sorrow comes to our lives. Would we ever understand the mourning of others, the deep saturation of sorrow, if we had never experienced it?
Or healing. If we had never walked through a dark night, would we know how to help another on that same journey? Would we have the same appreciation for the vibrance of day if we didn’t have the memory of darkness?
Where our understanding begins and ends, depends on who is blind. If it’s someone else, it’s easy to shrug it off, “not my problem.” But when it is us, when it happens in our own house, its face changes rapidly. Whether we live with something for a minute or a lifetime, we need those times to understand that the wound isn’t the point, it’s the lesson in the healing. Living in community gives us the perspective we need to help another find healing.