In the four Gospels, Jesus had come to the promised land which was still in spiritual exile. He had come to lead the meek and lowly to new creation. He had come to bring life to the dead, restoration to the broken, and forgiveness to the transgressors. The physical miracles were signs of God’s inbreaking kingdom. After thirty-eight long years, the invalid in John 5 encounters the Lord Jesus. Though physically lame, the invalid was a spiritual wanderer. By the pool of Bethesda he beheld the Lamb of God who had come to bring people to a greater inheritance—eternal life and new creation.
Jesus healed an invalid in John 5, and the setup to the miracle went like this: “Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years” (John 5:2–5).
That’s a very specific number of years. In the Gospels, we’re not normally told how many years someone has dealt with a particular malady. When John tells us this number, he doesn’t even round it to the nearest ten (“about forty years”). He says the man was an invalid for thirty-eight years.
Now maybe that number signifies nothing more than those years for that individual. But this number appears in the Gospel of John, which is known to use numbers in very careful ways. For instance: there are seven “I am” claims, there are seven miracles of Jesus before the cross, in 6:13 there were twelve baskets of bread fragments, and in 21:11 the disciples catch 153 fish (and I’ve argued elsewhere that the 153 fish is a number that means something).
John’s careful and symbolic employment of numbers should, at least, invite us to ask the question, “Does the thirty-eight years in John 5:5 have any discernible significance?” Since the other numbers—like seven or twelve or 153—have Old Testament background that illuminates them, we should consider whether “thirty-eight” has any Old Testament background that illuminates it.
The number “thirty-eight” is used three times in the Old Testament.
- 1 Kings 16:29: “In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab the son of Omri began to reign over Israel, and Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years.”
- 2 Kings 15:8: “In the thirty-eighth year of Azariah king of Judah, Zechariah the son of Jeroboam reigned over Israel in Samaria six months.”
- Deuteronomy 2:14: “And the time from our leaving Kadesh-barnea until we crossed the brook Zered was thirty-eight years, until the entire generation, that is, the men of war, had perished from the camp, as the LORD had sworn to them.”
The two occurrences of “thirty-eight” in 1-2 Kings are not about significant events in Israel’s history. On both occasions, the “thirty-eight” is referenced so that we can know how long one king of Judah had been reigning when another king came to power over Israel.
Deuteronomy 2:14, however, is very significant. The period of Israel’s wilderness punishment was thirty-eight years. When you add the months prior to the rebellion in Numbers 13–14, you get forty years from the exodus to the promised land. Nevertheless, the “thirty-eight years” is an important historical note. This number for the wilderness years appears in the Old Testament only in Deuteronomy 2:14.