The Sleep of Death
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These things He said, and after that He said to them, "Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up." Then His disciples said, "Lord, if he sleeps he will get well." However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus said to them plainly, "Lazarus is dead." (Jn. 11:11-14).
When He came in, He said to them, "Why make this commotion and weep? The child is not dead, but sleeping." (Mk. 5:39)
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The Bible often uses sleep as a metaphor for sloth or laziness (Prov. 19:5; Rom. 13:11; 1 Cor. 11:30; Eph. 5:14; 1 Thess. 5:6). Just as we speak of someone who is slack in his work as "sleeping on the job," this figure of speech is a apt description of a state of inaction.
The ultimate state of inaction, of course, is death. The prophet Jeremiah called death "a perpetual sleep" (Jer. 51:39, 57). When Jesus used the word "sleep" to describe the condition of Lazarus and the daughter of Jairus, He was drawing a deliberate parallel between the two experiences. In some way, death is like sleep.
Training ourselves to think of death as a long slumber teaches us some important lessons about life beyond the grave and how to approach it.
First, death is a condition of rest. "The sleep of a laboring man is sweet" (Eccl. 5:12), because it gives him a reprieve from the toils of the day. In the same manner, "blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. . . . that they may rest from their labors" (Rev. 14:13). For those whose lives are a ceaseless struggle with pain and affliction, death comes as a relief. That should be a comfort when we find ourselves in a terrible ordeal with no reprieve in sight.
Second, while death may be "perpetual" from a human perspective, from God's perspective it is temporary. We do not panic when we lie down in the evening to sleep, because we know we shall rise again in the morning. We must learn to view death the same way. The Old Testament speaks of a day when "those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Dan. 12:2). Paul's frequent references to death as a sleep are always in the context of the final resurrection (1 Cor. 15:51; 1 Thess. 4:14-15). The resurrection of Jesus gives us hope of awakening from our own sleep of death someday.
The classic children's bedtime prayer should be adapted for our own appointment with death:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep.
And in Your hands my spirit take,
For that great day when I awake.