Searching the text of Holy Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation, I find reference to the number thirty-eight only twice.
The first occurrence of “thirty-eight” is found in Deuteronomy, written by Moses as a swansong at the end of the wilderness wanderings. “The time we spent traveling from Kadesh-barnea until we crossed the Zered Valley was thirty-eight years until the entire generation of fighting men had perished from the camp, as the Lord had sworn to them” (Deuteronomy 2:14). The Lord had miraculously brought the emancipated slaves to Kadesh-barnea, where twelve spies had been sent into Canaan. Ten of the spies gave a faithless, wicked report, leading to a mass rebellion. For the next thirty-eight years, grave after grave dotted the desert landscape until the entire generation had fallen. Thirty-eight years!
The other occurrence of the number is in reference to a cripple, a paraplegic, “disabled for thirty-eight years” (John 5:5). Jesus found him by “a pool, called Bethesda” (John 5:2).
Here’s how John 5 begins: “After this, a Jewish festival took place, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. By the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there is a pool, called Bethesda in Aramaic, which has five colonnades. Within these lay a large number of the disabled—blind, lame, and paralyzed” (John 5:1–3). Most modern translations, including the Christian Standard Bible and the English Standard Version omit part of John 5:3 and all of John 5:4 but both include a foot note. Here’s the footnote in the CSB: “Some manuscripts include: waiting for the moving of the water, because an angel would go down into the pool from time to time and stir up the water. Then the first one who got in after the water was stirred up recovered from whatever ailment he had.”
Apparently, this large crowd of “the disabled—blind, lame, and paralyzed” believed that there were healing powers in the waters of Bethesda. They truly believed that an angel stirred the waters. The pool was spring-fed. Maybe it naturally gurgled periodically. How the healing happened, we can’t say. But it’s obvious that many believed.
What a sad sight. The five porches surrounding the pool were filled with broken humanity, sick, disabled, and dying. Into this scene stepped the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus. He stood in the shadows as He silently surveyed the landscape, until He providentially, sovereignly, chose one, a paralyzed man, pathetically laying on his dirty mat.
Like the Hebrews in the Sinai Desert, the man had been waiting to die for thirty-eight years. Now after years of waiting, he told Jesus, “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I’m coming, someone goes down ahead of me” (John 5:7). He was helpless and hopeless. Year after year, he’d hoped to be the first one to slip into the healing waters, but always someone beat him.
“ ‘Get up,’ Jesus told him, ‘pick up your mat and walk.’ Instantly the man got well, picked up his mat, and started to walk” (John 5:8-9).
Why didn’t Jesus heal the whole crowd? We don’t know. Did the man’s physical healing lead to his spiritual rebirth? Did he become a disciple and follower of Jesus? Again, we don’t know.
Why did Jesus choose this particular man? We can be certain of this… Jesus chose to heal the man after thirty-eight years of misery because of … grace! That’s it … grace!