It’s 7:03 a.m., and I’ve already hit snooze twice. The alarm buzzes again. As I try to rouse myself after another late night, the day’s tasks pour into my mind. My wife and I gear up to make breakfast for four hungry kids—one’s hollering from behind a closed door to be let out.
We’ve been in diapers for six years running at our house. Needless to say, sleep is a luxury. So why is it that I often wake up feeling guilty for sleeping? Maybe you’re not like me, but so often I feel like I should have redeemed the time I spent passed out in bed. I could have read something, answered emails, or ticked something off the infinite house chore list.
Our culture would appear to be brimming with people who survive on coffee alone, squeezing every ounce of productivity from the day. Shouldn’t I be one of them? Less sleep is more, I tell my weary bones morning after morning.
This Easter I pray that’s going to begin to change. This Easter, may Christ change the way I sleep.
Sleeping in the Shadow of Death.
What has Easter to do with sleep? Cultures have recognized the close relationship between sleep and death for millennia. Nas quips in his track “NY State of Mind” (1994), “I never sleep, cuz sleep is the cousin of death.” Homer and Virgil call sleep (hypnos) and death (thanatos) brothers. In the Bible, sleep is often a euphemism for death. The psalmist writes, “Light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death” (Ps. 13:3 ESV). Jesus himself made use of the poetic connection when speaking of Lazarus: “He went on to tell them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up’... then he told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead’” (John 11:11, 14).
The world is in denial about the final state of man apart from the Cross, so naturally it also resents death’s cousin. Congregationalist Horace Bushnell (1802–1876) commented, “It is even one of the saddest known facts of the world, that it sleeps badly…gnawed by care, racked by ambition, bittered by the gall of envy, sensual, selfish, fearful, hateful.” Perhaps this is one of the reasons pop culture tells us to party all night. No one wants to sleep when it means being left alone for eight restless hours in the claustrophobia of his or her sinful mind.
Moreover, the need for sleep is seen as a sign of weakness. Even Jesus pointed this out to his disciples in Gethsemane: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38, emphasis added). There was an urban legend while I was at Southern Seminary that our president Albert Mohler only slept four hours a night. Was it true? No matter; it was whispered from student to student with an air of aspirational zeal. If only we could all power through our own weak propensity for sleep, we too could accomplish more. And so, morning by morning, we woke feeling guilty for the few winks we’d stolen against our better judgment.
All of this baggage we bring to the Passion narrative as it begins on a sleepy Thursday night. We follow 12 shadows under a full moon as they bob slowly up the well-worn path to the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus and his disciples are headed to their favorite spot for late night prayer.
Literarily speaking, Gethsemane is the true climax of the Passion narrative in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. For a brief moment, we see the Incarnate Son alone with his Father. He prostrates himself begging, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). The stress drips through the text: “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44).
Once the decision is made to do the Father’s will, the plot is set. In the Synoptics, everything from the arrest to the Crucifixion to the Resurrection rolls downhill from the Mount of Olives. However, as the narrative reaches the moment of greatest tension, we can hear the disciples’ audible snores from a mere stone’s throw away.
Who sleeps through the most nerve-wracking part of the story? Admittedly, I wouldn’t have done much better. Let’s just say if you see my house on fire in the middle of the night, tell the firemen just to carry me out asleep. Matthew, Mark, and Luke prefer to present us with sleep in the Garden before the cross. In the darkness, a snoozing pile of disciples shows us the state of humanity in desperate need of a Savior.
The scene in the Garden of Gethsemane is more than ironic—it’s symbolic. Jesus finds his disciples lying deathly still in the dark night. An old hymn captures the moment: “Brethren, see poor sinners round you, slumb’ring on the brink of woe!” As Jesus journeys through the Gospels from the manger to the cross, he tiptoes among a sleeping humanity—men and women sprawled out in the dark shadow of death. In the Garden just hours before the cross, sleep only foreshadows death.
So many of us lay down at the end of the day to get Gethsemane slumber. It feels like a guilt-ridden death practice. We are ashamed of our weakness, ashamed of our prayerlessness, ashamed that we’ve done nothing of substance in the day. As we look upon the disciples and see ourselves, it’s important to realize that those who sleep in Gethsemane are in need of redemption.
Sleeping in the Shadow of the Cross.
The fourth Gospel skips the Gethsemane slumber party altogether. John’s garden sleeper is found instead at the other end of the Passion narrative. After his crucifixion, the Son of Man joins humanity in its deathly repose. However, John frames the scene with details that foreshadow hopeful—restful—sleep in the garden.
Only John’s gospel includes these last words of Jesus: “It is finished” (John 19:30). His work is complete. John makes particular mention that the Sabbath is arriving (v. 31); it’s as though Jesus is entering into hard-earned rest. However, John provides one last well-placed image: “One of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.” (v. 34). With his side gaping open, the heavy body of Jesus finally finds rest in the most appropriate of places: “At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. … They laid Jesus there.” (vv. 41, 42, emphasis added).
There he lies, prone with his ribs exposed in a garden. Like Adam, God causes a deep sleep to fall upon Jesus the Second Adam, the deepest sleep possible—death itself. Motionless, his gaping side bleeds forth hope. Surely this Adam will be raised from his sleep like the first. What will his eyes behold when he awakes? Augustine interprets the scene’s hopeful tone: “This second Adam bowed his head and fell asleep on the cross, that a spouse might be formed for him from that which flowed from the sleeper’s side.”
When so many of us experience the guilty, fearful, worrisome sleep of Gethsemane, how do we find this kind of hopeful sleep? The author of Hebrews writes, “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God. … Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest” (Heb. 4:9, 11). John seems to encourage us to find this sleep in the finished work of Christ. In the shadow of the cross, there is true Sabbath rest.
As Christ joins his disciples in garden sleep, we reflect back on Gethsemane and realize that Jesus’s gentle chiding was not condemnation but compassion: “The flesh is weak.” The disciples abandoned Jesus that Thursday night as their own human weakness overcame them. But this was the way it had to be. The work of salvation is accomplished for sleeping disciples by Jesus Christ alone. As Jesus nods his head in death, it’s as though he climbs into a sleeping bag next to his disciples, gently whispering over their docile faces: “It’s finished. My work is done—and it’s all for you.”
Waiting for the eternal Sabbath.
Before the Cross, sleep only pointed to our impending death. However, this side of the Cross, sleep is a hopeful treasure. It is a foretaste of the eternal rest we will one day enjoy with Jesus Christ. This hope awakens on the first day of the week, as the Second Adam opens his eyes to find a predictable surprise in the garden:
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). (John 20:15–16, emphasis added)
Here we behold a foretaste of the eternal Sabbath Rest: the Gardener and his Bride united in the Garden forever. Charles Spurgeon writes, “Behold, the church is Christ’s Eden, watered by the river of life, and so fertilized that all manner of fruits are brought forth unto God; and he, our second Adam, walks in this spiritual Eden to dress it and to keep it.” Every night, we go to sleep with the expectation of waking to new communion with Christ—one day to be fully realized.
Jesus died for a lot of things, and one of those was a good night’s rest. This Easter, let yourself enjoy sleep for a change. The world may be a city that never sleeps, but the church reaches day’s end with thankful hope. One day, we will awake to the return of our Gardener. Until then, we receive sleep as weak vessels resting in the finished work of Christ for us.
Fight the temptation to allow smartphones screens, late night Netflix binges, or anxiety about tomorrow to intrude on the good gift won for us at Easter. Join me in fighting the temptation to wear sleeplessness as a badge of honor. Bushnell encourages us, “When a man’s capacity, full spent in good, comes to its limit, and conscience audits the reckoning of its hours, to fall back into God’s sole keeping, and be recruited by unconscious rest in his bosom, is the true Christly sleep, at once a natural bestowment, and a supernatural gift.”
Chad Ashby is a pastor at College Street Baptist Church in Newberry, South Carolina, and writes regularly at After+Math. He is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Grove City College.