Israel languished in the wilderness for 38 years as the last of the unfaithful generation died off. Crippled as they were, after almost four decades, they were finally rid of their malady. God’s chosen people got up and followed Joshua into the land of their inheritance – the Promised Land. This narrative of Israel’s unfaithfulness, invalid status in the desert and eventual rising up to enter the Holy Land, has an important part to play in our understanding of John 5. Read on…
Read Deuteronomy 1:19-46 2:14-15 – A 38 Year Sentence
While we don’t know for certain which feast is referred to in John 5, most scholars believe it is the Feast of Pentecost.
A Look at Pentecost
Acts 2 records the first Christian Pentecost which signifies the birth of the Church. The Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles and the 120 in the Upper Room. However, the Pentecost of the Jews was a feast celebrating the grain harvest in the spring. Pentecost also celebrated the giving of the Law to Moses and Israel on Mount Sinai. There are multiple levels of significance.
Pentecost occurred 50 days after Passover, which was a feast of unleavened bread lasting for seven days? In 50 days there are seven weeks. Seven weeks is one seventh of the year. Seven was an extremely important number for the Jews. It was the number of covenant completion and perfection. Pentecost, the 50th day, after 7 weeks and the 7 days of Passover sounds a lot like a miniature Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-22)! It was decreed that every seven years a Sabbath Year was to be celebrated. The land was to lay fallow, and debts were forgiven. But, every seven times seven years, on the fiftieth year, the debts were to be forgiven, the land was to lie fallow, and the Law of this Jubilee decreed that one went back to where his family had been given land, their ancestral inheritance when Israel first entered the Promised land.
In this scene with the blind man, we will see that the concept of restoration (a Sabbath and Jubilee concept) is front and center as we see healing on the Sabbath. Pentecost is the Sabbath of the Sabbath!
John 5:1-2 – Passing the Pool
As Jesus enters the Holy City for the Feast of Pentecost, he walked by the pool of Bethesda. Bethesda means – “the house of flowing.” Archeologists have found this pool and its five porticos. Some theologians point to the five colonnades as symbolic of the Pentateuch – the five books of the Law. If this is true, this would suggest another connection to the feast of Pentecost when the Law, given to Moses, was celebrated.
John 5:3-6 – Paralyzed at the Pool
What’s strange about the length of the paralytic man’s condition? Why not say he was there for “decades” or “most of his life”, or perhaps the years could be rounded up to 40. Why does John tell us he was there for precisely “38 years”? Numbers are very important in John’s gospel. There is, no doubt, a reason for the inclusion of this detail.
In the book “The Genius of John” Peter Ellis writes, “The number thirty eight may be an allusion to the 40 years that the Jews spent in the desert according to Deuteronomy 2:14-15, and thus may symbolize Judaism’s incapacity to do anything without (the Lord).” But, wait a minute. We must admit, 38 is not quite 40, right? Look at verse 14…
Deuteronomy 2:14 Thirty-eight years passed from the time we left Kadesh Barnea until we crossed the Zered Valley. By then, that entire generation of fighting men had perished from the camp, as the LORD had sworn to them.
The incident at Kadesh Barnea is our Old Testament reading for today found in Deuteronomy 1:19-46. God saw the sinfulness of Israel. His judgment fell on them. They fashioned a golden calf, one of the gods of Egypt and worshiped it. They would wander in the wilderness because they had rebelled against God while Moses was on Mount Sinai.
After Moses had renewed the covenant with the Lord, he sent twelve spies into the Promised Land according to the Lord’s command. When the twelve spies returned, ten of them cried out in fear, “This is a trap, the Lord led us out of Egypt to get us slaughtered in Canaan.” But Joshua and Caleb, had faith. They declared, “The Lord will deliver our enemies into our hands.” Israel opted to follow the ten cowardly spies. Their decision revealed their hearts. They believed God had evil intentions toward them and actually wanted to murder them.
So, once again, God declares His judgement on the Children of Israel. Those who have stood opposed to Him and failed to trust Him shall never enter His Promised Land. Thirty-eight years passed before the covenant cripples perished, and a new generation emerged. Led by Joshua, they entered the Promised Land (the Greek for Joshua is Jesus). It took 38 years for the Israelites to be raised up again to be properly disposed toward God and to be renewed to spiritual health so that they could finally receive the land God intended for them.
Is it possible that the reason John mentions that the crippled man has been there for 38 years is a connection to Israel? Is it possible that Israel pre-figures the paralytic man? Much like the crippled man had waited 38 years to enter his healing, the Israelites were crippled in the desert waiting to enter their Promised Land?
John 5:6-7 – Do You Want to be Healed?
Jesus’ question to the man who has been crippled for 38 years seems rather strange! “Do you want to be healed?” Really! He has been trying for decades, but he can never quite get to the pool. This may seem odd, but there are times when we get used to and almost enjoy the pity party we throw for ourselves. It may also be true that we want what we know. This man had known his disability for so long that it may have become almost intimidating to think what might happen if he were he first to the water. Besides, he had no one to move him to the pool. Jesus says, “Do you want to be healed? ” This is a good question for us as well. Far too often we become accustomed to our ways. We become fond of our pet sins and our selfish proclivities. If Jesus is truly going to heal us, we must willfully repent and turn to him. That old sinful and unfaithful man within us must die off. Then, we must turn away from the old way and be raised up with Jesus to walk in a new life and a new man! This was true of the paralyzed man. It was also true of Israel.
If the paralyzed man symbolizes Israel, then this takes on a much deeper meaning and significance. It is as if Jesus is really standing before the paralyzed nation of Israel saying to them, “Your long wait for the real Messiah, the real Joshua, the one who is to deliver you into the real Promised Land is here…do you want to be healed spiritually?”
John 5:8-18 – Jubilee! Healed on the Sabbath!!
What an epic scene was playing out at he pool. Jesus tells the man to pick up his mat and walk. This is high drama! Surely everyone will be ecstatic that this one who has waited so long has been healed. But, the Jewish leaders didn’t see it that way. They were not concerned about the cure – they were consumed with criticism and legalism. The healed man had the audacity to carry his mat on the Sabbath. This was, according to the leaders, a violation of the law. Rightfully, the man says that the One who healed him instructed him to pick up his mat. Those religious elitists demanded to know who had given him this instruction. Presumably, they already knew and were simply trying to accuse Jesus, the trouble maker, of law breaking. Jesus, meanwhile, had slipped into the crowd.
Was Jesus violating the Sabbath and causing the healed man to do the same? Not in the least. Instead, Jesus is defining the Sabbath. Because of the fall of man, we lost our familial relationship with God. Only in Christ are we made sons in the son. This is not our work, it is the atoning, healing work of Christ. Therefore, we rest on the Sabbath to worship, remember, and to find repose in the Saving work of Christ. On the Sabbath, we cease from our labors precisely to show our dependence on God. We are reminded to cease from sinning, precisely because we have been healed by God. The Sabbath is a day of “Jubilee,” if you will. We rest, not from our healing, but because of it – to celebrate it and renew it!
Later, Jesus found the man he had healed and instructed him to stop sinning or something worse than physical disability would befall him. Far worse than being crippled was being condemned in your sin. This was true for him and for the Jewish people. It would be some 38 years later, in 70 A.D. that Jerusalem would come under God’s judgment. The Romans would lay siege to the Holy City and utterly destroy it and its temple. They did not stop sinning, and the result was tragic.
The man went to tell the leaders that it was Jesus who had healed him. From that point on, the religious leaders were bent on destroying Jesus. In the end, they would destroy themselves!
As we journey to Jerusalem on the Pathway to the Passion, may we reflect on our own healing. In futility does mankind attempt to heal himself. Only when Jesus passes by and we respond to his invitation will we find true healing. His healing calls us to holy living and away from sin. His calling will also lead us to be ridiculed by those who are Jesus’ enemies. May we stay on this straight and narrow path – a path that leads to the true instrument of healing – the cross.