HH Sir Godfrey Gregg D.Div

And when he was come in, he saith unto them, Why make ye this ado, and weep? the damsel is not dead, but sleepeth.–Mark 5:39

It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this, thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.–Luke 15:32

Jesus Spoke of Death as Sleep

Dismissing that, then, we may advance a little if we remember Jesus’ favourite name for death. I think there can be little question that the familiar name of Christ for death was sleep. I do not insist on the raisings from the dead, though they at once suggest awaking out of sleep. I do not insist on that, though all these raisings at once suggest the thought of sleep to me. But I keep close to Christ’s recorded sayings, on two occasions when He confronted death, and on both of them, He spoke of death as sleep. Entering the darkened home of Jairus, He said, “The maiden is not dead, but sleepeth.” Learning the news that Lazarus was gone, He said at once, “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth.” And these expressions, springing from the heart, and of an authenticity that none can question, tell me that Jesus spoke of death as sleep.

He Did Not Speak of Death we Sleep Poetically

But now it will occur to you at once that this is a thought common to all poetry. I know indeed no literature in the world where death is not spoken in terms of sleep. You will find it in the philosophy of Greece, and you will light on it in the poetry of Rome. The Jews were perfectly familiar with it, for they spoke of their dead as sleeping with their fathers. Dante accepts it as a commonplace; Chaucer speaks of the living and the sleeping, and Shakespeare tells us in words that are immortal how our little life is rounded with a sleep. Now the question I want to ask is this: was our Lord talking as a poet talks? Was He simply using a poetic figure when He said, “The maiden is not dead, but sleepeth”? I have been led to think, for reasons I shall give you, that Christ was not talking as a poet talks, but was using the language of intense reality. I certainly hold that Jesus was a poet. I think He was a poet to His fingertips. If poetry is simple, sensuous, and passionate, there never was speech more poetical than His. And yet, granting all that without reserve, I am constrained to think that when Christ spoke of death as sleep, men felt that He spoke, not in poetic figure, but in sober earnestness and truth. Let me suggest to you this one consideration, based on the passage at hand.

If I Were the One to Call Death Sleep

Suppose I were called, as I am often called, to a home that was under the shadow of bereavement. Suppose that a daughter of twelve years old was dead and that I went in gently to where the body lay. What words would rise more naturally to my lips, when I had drawn the napkin from the brow, than just the words “How peacefully she sleeps”! They have risen to my lips a score of times, and never once were they misunderstood. I have said them to fathers, to mothers, to brothers, and to sisters, and found I was only uttering what they felt. There is never a trace of misinterpretation there is always immediate and full response–when in the presence of the quiet dead we whisper that the little life is rounded with a sleep. But now suppose I turned to the sorrowing father, and said with a glowing eye, She is not dead! Suppose I turned to him, and with tremendous earnestness said, “I tell you she is not dead but sleeping.” First, he would look at me with incredulity; then it would flash on him I was beside myself, and then, in the frantic unsettlement of grief, the house would echo with derisive laughter.

Those Who Heard Him Knew He Meant What He Said about Death Being But Sleep

I want you to remember that that is exactly what happened to our Lord and that such conduct is utterly incredible if Christ was speaking as a poet speaks. The Jews were far more poetical than we are, and they loved metaphor and all poetic imagery, and they were perfectly familiar from their literature with the figure of death as the last sleep. And yet when Jesus stood beside the dead and said that all of us have said, “She sleepeth,” somehow they utterly misunderstood Him and heaped on Him the insult of derision. Others had come to Jairus’ house that morning, and had said gently, “How peacefully she sleeps.” And the father and mother, looking on their loved one, had understood at once that kindly sympathy. And then came Christ, and said, She is not dead–I tell you she is not dead, but sleeping–and Him they laughed to scorn. That scorn to me is utterly inexplicable if Christ was speaking in poetic metaphor. There must have been something in His eye and tone that challenged the plainest evidence of sense. They felt instinctive that in the mind of Christ their little daughter was not dead, but living, although her eyes were closed, and all her fingers motionless, and there was not a quiver of breath upon her lips. In other words, this was not death to Christ, and every hearer felt He meant it so. Whatever death was in the thought of Jesus, it was not this ceasing of the heart to beat. And that is why these lovers of all imagery, who would have understood us had we said she sleeps, poured upon Him their frenzy of derision.

For Christ, Spiritual Death Was More Real Than Physical Death. Hence the Latter He Called Sleep

And so am I gradually led to the conviction that this was not what Jesus meant by death at all. In the habitual thought of that supreme intelligence, death was something darker and more terrible. It was not death to Him when the silver cord was loosed, nor when the pitcher was broken at the fountain. It was not death to Him when the strong men bowed themselves, and when the daughters of music were brought low. All that was life, though it was life asleep, in the mighty arms of the eternal God, and death was something more terrible than that. The maiden is not dead, but sleepeth; but–this my son was dead and is alive again. The maiden is not dead, but sleepeth; but–let the dead bury their dead. The maiden is not dead, but sleepeth; but–he who believeth upon Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. Christ did not find the dead in Jairus’ house, nor in any sepulchre among the Galilean hills. He saw the dead where men and women were–in the synagogue and in the market and the home. And so Christ does not find the dead where the flowers are withering on the grave, but here where men are, and where women are, who have a name to live and yet are dead. If half the anguish of the open grave were felt for those who are living useless lives, if half the tears that fall upon the coffin fell upon hearts that are frivolous or obdurate, not only would we be nearer Christ in His deepest thought about humanity, but we should know more than we have ever known of the joy that cometh in the morning. For love and faith and prayer are powerless to bring again the dear one who is lost. No lifting heavenward of anguished hands will give us back again the one we loved. But “this my son was dead and is alive again”–and there are music and dancing in the home tonight, and there is joy in heaven, where the Father dwelleth, over one sinner that repenteth.

Author: Godfrey Gregg