Years ago, when I first started preaching, my mother came to hear me preach. She was notorious in our family for falling asleep in church, so I was proud when she didn’t fall asleep during my sermons. And then one day, it happened. I could see her from the pulpit, and I watched her fall asleep just as I was getting started. My own mother fell asleep while I was preaching! I teased her about that later: “Mom, either you have a totally clear conscience, or your conscience is so seared and so burnt that nothing can bother you.”
Rest in the Psalms
Rest is a good thing, though, and the Bible has a lot to say about it. Psalm 3 says,
Oh Lord, how my adversaries have increased! Many are rising up against me. Many are saying of my soul, there is no deliverance for him in God. But thou, Oh Lord, art a shield about me, my glory and the one who lifts up my head… I lay down and slept; I awoke, for the Lord sustains me. (Psalm 3:1-3, 5)
The Psalmist was surrounded by his enemies, and a glorious thing happened. He needed to rest, and his enemies didn’t kill him in his sleep. That’s why he says, “I awoke, for the Lord sustained me.”
When we die, we sleep in Christ
The Apostle Paul uses sleep numerous times in his letters to refer to the resurrection of the dead. Paul teaches that when we die, we sleep in Christ. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14) Paul doesn’t mean that those who have died in Christ are unconscious—I believe they have an active, conscious life. Their life in Christ is peaceful, restful, and restorative. They’re building their strength back up.
Death is the great enemy, the destroyer. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:26 that the last enemy to be defeated is death. But he also teaches that when the believer dies, he sleeps in Christ, and Christ heals him. Paul told the church at Philippi that to depart and be with Christ, as if death were a journey, is very much better. (Philippians 1:23) In 1 Thessalonians 5:9-11, Paul says that whether we’re alive in this life or asleep in the Lord, we grow into deeper intimacy with Christ.
Jesus and Jairus’ daughter
The idea that sleep refers to healing and resurrection is probably based on Jesus’ healing ministry. The Gospel of Mark tells the story of the synagogue official Jairus’ daughter. Jairus sent for Jesus, saying “My little daughter is at the point of death; please come and lay your hands on her, that she may get well and live.” (Mark 5:23) By the time Jesus got there, the little girl was dead. The mourners and the flute players were already there, and they begin to wail and mourn. Jesus told them, “The child has not died, but is asleep.” (Mark 5:39)
They laughed at him. He put them all outside and went in to the room where they already had the little girl laid out. Jesus spoke to the little girl in Aramaic: “Talitha, kum!”—“Little girl, I say to you, arise!” Jesus raised her from the dead.
The Israelites’ disobedience
The book of Hebrews says that when Joshua took the Israelites into the land of Canaan, he was not able to give God’s people rest. God had told them to rout out all the people groups in Canaan, but they disobeyed. They took it by half measures, and they lived side by side with the people they should have destroyed. There was constant strife and they had no rest from their labors—no rest from war.
It was in this context that the author of Hebrews quoted the Psalmist, saying, “There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” (Hebrews 4:9)
The promise of future rest
We’ve been promised a future rest. We need and want this rest, this ceasing of strife. Heaven is still in front of us; we have not yet fully arrived. Right now we’re laboring, and we’re not yet getting our full rest in the Lord. We are pilgrims who haven’t yet arrived. We’re marching, like the children of Israel, through the wilderness, and Jesus is our leader.
Don’t dare be like the children of Israel of old who didn’t trust the Lord. Be faithful, be diligent, and be obedient. He will grant you rest when the time is right.
Dr. Sloan is the president of Houston Baptist University.