"After saying these things, he 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, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”” (John 11:11–16, ESV)
“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” It is not as if Lazarus was worn out from his illness and was finally able to find some rest. It is not as it Lazarus had been so exhausted that he fell asleep. It is not as if Lazarus was asleep and now it was time to wake him up. It was not as if it were any of these things that we might commonly think of when we think of someone sleeping and having to be awakened. His disciples surely thought this is what Jesus was talking about, and to them if Lazarus had fallen asleep as a result of his illness then he surely would awaken and recover. There surely was no need for them to travel into certain danger just to wake Lazarus up. Let him get up when his time is right, and let us stay here where it is safe. After all he is just asleep.
But Jesus was not talking about sleep as we daily know it. He wasn’t even talking about a prolonged sleep as someone might do when recovering from a particularly draining illness. He was talking about something more. He went on to tell His disciples that Lazarus had died. This is what He meant by him having gone to sleep—he died! There are a number of euphamisms or terms used to describe death that may not be as offensive as the word “death” itself. One of those words is “sleep,” and for the believer it is probably a more accurate one because once a believer’s body is laid down the believer continues to live apart from that body in the presence of the Lord. From all outward appearances there is nothing going on but decay, and that is because at the moment of death believers are transferred from their earthly bodies into God’s eternal presence.
In Hebrews 9:27 we read, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,” (Hebrews 9:27, ESV) Death is a given, but after death there is more. Even for those who have not trusted Christ for eternal life have more, but their more results in eternal judgment and not life. Joshua and David recognized that it was through death that they would see God. They had to pass that “way” in order for this to be accomplished. Joshua as an old man said, “And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed.” (Joshua 23:14, ESV) He may not have died that day, but he knew that day this was the direction he was headed. King David said to his son Solomon near the end of his life, “I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, and show yourself a man,” (1 Kings 2:1–2, ESV) They both knew that this was the way to eternal life. They had to pass through it.
In Luke 16:20-31 we see the account of the rich man and Lazarus who had both gone the way of death with one to life and the other to torment in Hades. For both of them death was the way to what awaited, but what awaited each was vastly different. Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 12:7, “and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7, ESV)
In 1 Corinthians 3:16 we read that as believers our bodies are temples in which His Spirit dwells. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16, ESV) Peter wrote, “since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me.” (2 Peter 1:14, ESV) The word “body” means tabernacle and is used not only to describe the dwelling place of one’s soul but also that of The Holy Spirit for those who believe. It is a place to house that which does not perish but that goes on after death.
Paul wrote to the believes at Corinth, “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” (2 Corinthians 5:1–4, ESV) Earlier in the same letter he wrote, “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8, ESV)
As we read these passages in Scripture we see death as that time when we put aside this temporary dwelling place for that which is eternal from God. And for men like Paul death was not an end, but a departure. He wrote to Timothy at the end of his life, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:6–8, ESV) For him that tension between remaining to serve and leaving to join was being resolved once and for all eternity. The time of his departure was at hand and it was going to be “far better” as he wrote in Philippians 1:23, “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” (Philippians 1:23, ESV)
But “Sleep” is far and away to most common euphemism used in the Bible. Aside from its standard usages, it is used in a figurative way to refer to those who have died, and like sleep which is followed by be awakened, death leads to resurrection whether that is to life or judgment. In either case there will be a resurrection. There are some things that “sleep” does not mean. It does not mean that our soul sleeps for a season as some teach. Paul told us that to be absent or away from the body was to be present or at home with the Lord. Jesus Himself said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:42).
Jesus had to set his disciples straight. Lazarus had died. But this was not the end of the story. He told His disciples that they indeed needed to continue on, and that He was glad that He was not there to keep Lazarus from dying because what he was going to demonstrate to them was going to shore up their faith in an incredible way—so that they may believe. Having heard this and them knowing what they thought to be their likely fate in returning to Judea, Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas may have envisioned their trip as being futile, with the end not only resulting in Lazarus’ death but all of their as well. But his statement also demonstrates his loyalty to following after Christ, knowing that even doing so might lead to his own death. He looked at the cost and decided, even if thinking it not best himself, that he had to stay with His master, teacher, rabbi, and Lord.