I’ll be looking into John 5 tomorrow with my NT class. It’s a great passage, showing how Jesus is the judge, who says ‘rise,’ and the dead rise! That’s illustrated in the man who had been unable to get into the water. Jesus tells him to ‘rise,’ and he gets up and enters the temple – where Jesus warns him not to sin. There are so many little details that are worth dwelling on in that story.
Here is one: the 38 years.
Why did John think it was worth noting the specific detail that the man had been an invalid for 38 years? Normally when the New Testament writers are speaking about that sort of number, they round it to ‘about 40 years.’ So why point out this specific amount of time? Perhaps because it reminded John of something – a reminder that he wanted to pass on to his readers. In Deuteronomy 2:14, it says that the wilderness generation of the Israelites wandered around and died in the wilderness over the course of 38 years, before finally, God’s servant Joshua led Israel through the water into the Promised Land.
So in the Greek version of the Old Testament, we read that Israel pined and declined in the wilderness for 38 years, before Iesous came and brought them through the water to the Promised Land. Is that what John is remembering? He points out to us that once again Israel is strewn with blind, lame, and paralysed people, longing for deliverance through the water. He focuses on one invalid who has been there for 38 years, and he is about to show us Iesous – Jesus – coming to save. Perhaps that’s in the background as John notices this event, and draws it to our attention.
It would fit with what he has been doing in the previous chapters: in chapter 2, John showed us that Jesus surpasses the temple; in chapter 3, he showed us that Jesus surpasses the teachers of Israel like Nicodemus; in chapter 4, he showed us that Jesus was able to give water that surpasses the well of the great Patriarch of Israel, Jacob. Could it be that in chapter 5, John is hinting that Jesus is going to surpass the salvation that was brought about by God in the time of Joshua?