As a pastor, one of the greatest honors is helping people understand the Bible. After a recent service at our church, an older saint came up to ask me a question. It was the anniversary of her father’s death and she wondered why the Bible referred to the death of a believer as “sleep”.
Her question was prompted by our year-long study of John’s gospel and Jesus’ words John 11:11-14, “…he [Jesus] said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died…”
Jesus was clear, that his friend Lazarus had “died” but chose instead to refer to it as “fallen asleep”. Why?
Jesus’ language is commonly used fourteen times throughout the New Testament as a metaphor for the death and resurrection of the saints of God (e.g. Matthew 9:24; Mark 5:39; Acts 7:60; I Thessalonians 4:1-3; I Corinthians 15:6). The Bible refers to the death of believers and unbelievers differently because they face different eternal fates.
You are a person in two parts. You are a physical material body. You are also a spiritual immaterial soul. Upon death, your body goes into the grave and your soul goes to be with the Lord. 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 says it this way, “We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord…and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” This is why, for the believer, the Apostle Paul says in Philippians 1:21, “to die is gain.” The worst thing is not to die, but rather to die without knowing Jesus. For the believer, this life is as close to hell as they will ever be. For the unbeliever, this life is as close to heaven as they will ever be.
For the Christian, the picture of death is that the body lies in the ground much like it is sleeping and the soul goes into the presence of God. Upon the final resurrection upon the return of the Lord Jesus, the soul re-enters the body and we live together with Jesus as a whole person on the New Earth never to experience sin or death again.
What do you think it will be like to live in a perfectly healthy resurrection body forever?