Bible Study

Why is Jesus Asleep?

What will it take for me to relinquish every aspect of the pattern of self-sufficiency upon which I have constructed my life? by Dr. Bill Ury
Painting by Eugène Delacroix - Christ Asleep During the Tempest, Alamy Stock Photo
Painting by Eugène Delacroix – Christ Asleep During the Tempest, Alamy Stock Photo

Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four. His brevity demands that we must be looking for the insights that are dropped like theological grenades. A breathless pronouncement tells us this is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (1:1). But what should be clearly obvious and undeniable is not. At every point Jesus must dynamite our narrow perceptions of reality. We cannot conceive truth without His revelation. 

Perhaps the most explosive fact in the well-known story of Jesus traveling by boat with His disciples as a storm brews is what Jesus was doing in the midst of a conflagration: sleeping in the stern on a cushion (4:38)!

As evening came, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s cross to the other side of the lake.” So they took Jesus in the boat and started out, leaving the crowds behind (although other boats followed). But soon a fierce storm came up. High waves were breaking into the boat, and it began to fill with water.

Jesus was sleeping at the back of the boat with his head on a cushion. The disciples woke him up, shouting, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to drown?”

When Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Silence! Be still!” Suddenly the wind stopped, and there was a great calm. Then he asked them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4: 35-39)

Here is a violent storm and the disciples are desperate and in real need. Why is Jesus asleep? If you had been there, I wonder what you would have thought? Of course, the automatic response is that He slept because Jesus is God, He is the Son of God, eternally divine. We might think that God knows what is going to happen, so He allows us to struggle and then dives in to deliver us. While this is somewhat true, there is something else at play here. If we accept that this is God in the flesh who actually sleeps, then what do we make of the statements in scripture that God never slumbers or sleeps, especially in crisis? For example, Psalm 121:3-4 states: “He will not let you stumble; the one who watches over you will not slumber. Indeed, He who watches over Israel never slumbers or sleeps.”

Remember that interchange between Elijah and the prophets of Baal when they had a contest to see who the real God was? He says a lot of funny things, but he also says, “Is your god out somewhere taking a nap?” (I Kgs. 18:28). The God of Israel doesn’t take naps, especially when His people are in deep trouble. He is One who is engaged. That is the focus of all of Israel’s story, isn’t it? God acts in history as the true Father, showing unwavering fidelity to His people. That is what sets Him apart. He was always One who saw and met their needs. So I don’t think the answer is He was asleep because He was God.

The second logical explanation that we might come up with is that Jesus is asleep because He was truly man, the Son of Man, eternally incarnate. We know that before entering the boat, Jesus had just completed a full day of ministry. There are several indications that He is exhausted (4:35-36). But most of us would admit that, no matter the weariness, there is something about cold waves washing across your body that would tend to wake one up. Mark tells us that Jesus is in the bottom of the boat. He adds that the boat is already filling as these waves crash in. And He is asleep! Do you sense another eruption of truth in the midst of spiritual hard-heartedness? Either He is really fatigued, or something else is at work.

Could it be that Jesus is asleep because He was not needed? Jesus was asleep in the bottom of the boat with those who had been with Him, who had seen Him do miracles, who had heard Him teach. They were on the inside track on what Jesus was about in terms of intimate discipleship. The disciples were satisfied with being a religious clique. “We are Your people; we are special. We are the ones You ‘explain’ the parables—Your deepest ideas—to. They don’t understand, but we do. So, as Your favorites, let’s just hang around and talk some more.” 

Two Recurring Problems

Mark points to at least two heart problems that makes me an awful lot like the disciples. If Jesus is truly the Son of God, the Savior of the world—and of our hearts—then these two common areas of resistance must be imploded so that truly following Him becomes our life.

The first problem is this: they didn’t need Him because they were fishermen. They didn’t need Jesus because He was a landlubber, He was a carpenter’s son. From their perspective, He knew nothing about boats. He knew nothing about fishing or the sea, as far as they knew. There are many people who think about Jesus that way. In fact, I think it is easy for a theology professor to talk about God without ever talking to Him. Ministers can go through the motions of church activities without showing any fruit that comes from Christ’s resurrected presence.

The second problem is thinking that we can do any part of life without Him. Do we attempt marriage that way? Let’s be totally honest: we raise our kids that way, we go to work that way, we entertain ourselves that way—self-sufficiently.

For Jesus, that kind of relationship will never suffice. He knew that someday His disciples would not have physical access to Him. They had no idea how soon crises would press on their lives without Jesus being there bodily. As the supreme disciple-maker, Jesus uses this circumstance to convey a vital truth. He is clarifying the ultimate importance, the absolute necessity of His presence. Jesus will only lead true followers, not those seeking another fad. 

Jesus says, “I will not be redemptively active in the life of someone who is self-sufficient.” I find from reading the Bible that self-sufficiency is one of the foundational sins at the base of sinful acts. Think about the sins of rebellion, idolatry, sexual sin, in relation to the offered presence of Christ. All of them are our attempts to control the world ourselves. I’m not sure if you and I realize how often we say, “This relationship is on the rocks, but I will handle it.” Or, “I’ve got some a habit that I know is bad, but I can stop anytime I want!” 

I know exactly how that works. In church or retreats or camp meetings we preach and sing about Jesus acting redemptively in our lives, but we don’t experience it because we say, “I’ll handle that problem myself. I’ll do it in my own strength.” You know how difficult it is to find victory. We face the exact same dilemma that the disciples experienced in that boat. We try to make it through chaos after chaos in our self-sufficient strength.

I remember a person telling me “Bill, I have a really hot temper but I can handle it.” Every time I saw that person next to his spouse, I watched him explode outside and inside. I thought to myself, “No, you and I can’t handle our tempers, ever.” Only Jesus Christ can handle a temper. Only Jesus Christ can handle any sin or a propensity toward sin. You have never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ if you think you can “handle” any issue. If we dare to attempt to handle any relationship, any church, any situation, we have moved outside the bounds of Christianity and into the foundations of paganism. The question must be asked: What will it take for me to relinquish every aspect of the pattern of self-sufficiency upon which I have constructed my life?

Dr. Bill Ury is the National Ambassador of Holiness for The Salvation Army in the US. He completed his M.Phil. and Ph.D. in Theological and Religious Studies at Drew University. He was Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, MS, and pastored the Elizabeth City, NC Evangelical Methodist Church.

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