The Word became flesh and slept among us.
God himself in full humanity — body, heart, mind, and will — closed his eyes and went to sleep. And not once or twice, but every day.
Of his thirty-plus years dwelling here bodily, God himself spent roughly one-third of that time asleep. He not only ate, drank, cried, and celebrated, like every other human, but he also became tired, “wearied as he was from his journey” (John 4:6), just as we become tired and weary. And it was no sin, fault, or failing in the God-man that he became tired. It was human.
Yet it’s one thing to sleep, and quite another to sleep through a “great storm.” Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story of Jesus asleep in the boat. “A great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion” (Mark 4:37–38). Waves breaking into the boat. Not only is this a testimony to how tired he must have been, but also how trusting. What serenity of soul, what rest in his Father, that he slept in the storm.
We might even say, “No one ever slept like this man!”
Trusting God, Not Self
God made us to spend a third of our lives like this. Unconscious. Inactive. Exposed. Dependent. It’s a nightly reminder of our frailty and limitations. We are creatures, not the Creator. Sleep is telling us something profound. And it does so every night.
Sleep invites an exercise of faith. When we lie down, close our eyes, and give ourselves over to sleep, we make ourselves vulnerable — like Saul before David, and Samson before Delilah. Jesus not only trusted his disciples, to fall asleep in their presence, but he also entrusted himself to his faithful Father, to care for him and meet every essential need. “In peace I will both lie down and sleep,” said God’s anointed, “for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).
What does it say for the sanctity of our own sleep, that the God-man himself slept? Yes, God “will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4) — that is, until he becomes human. Then he will sanctify our sleep. And what does it say for the peace in Jesus’s own soul that he could sleep, even in the storm?
Jesus Sanctified Our Sleep
Perhaps the Bible’s signature statement on sleep comes from Solomon in Psalm 127:2:
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.
God gives sleep as an expression of his love. As much as it may seem like a horrible inconvenience and waste of time to those toiling under the sway of a productivity idol — eight hours lost every day! — sleep is a divine gift.
Life has its ups and downs, no doubt. For everything there is a season — a day to rise early, a day to go to bed late — but God didn’t design us to burn the candle at both ends. He doesn’t mean for us to always be “on,” to always feel productive. But he does mean for us to recognize the glorious constraints of creatureliness, embrace the limits of our humanity, and own the humility of coming to the end of ourselves every day — laying down, closing our eyes, and leaving not just the whole world, but also our own worlds, to him.
Bedtime is rehearsal that he is sovereign and I am not. Every night is an opportunity to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
Awake All Night
But the sanctity of sleep is not the only lesson we glean from Jesus. Don’t go away yet and miss what makes it Christian. Sleep is not only a divine gift to be received and appreciated, but also a good to be sacrificed, when necessary, in the cause of love. Jesus not only embraced the limits of his humanity and slept, but he was willing to deny himself sleep, at the right time, to gain something greater.
We have two clear instances of Jesus forgoing sleeping, denying himself this natural desire, when something more pressing was at hand. The first came in choosing his apostles:
He went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles. (Luke 6:12–13)
A huge decision lay before him: Which twelve men would receive the lion’s share of the God-man’s investment of his earthly life? Who would “be with him” (Mark 3:14) and go out to represent him? Which of these “uneducated, common men” would one day astonish the rulers as “they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13)? And what men would we still be reading two thousand years later as the inspired spokesmen of Christ himself in his new covenant? This was a significant decision, and faith in his Father led him, in this instance, not to sleep but to all-night prayer.
Second, then, came as his defining hour approached, late night in the garden of Gethsemane. Doubtless Jesus and his men were wiped. As much as he encouraged them to stay awake and prepare themselves in prayer, and as much as their spirits may have been willing, their flesh was weak (Matthew 26:41). But Jesus himself, knowing what lay before him, did not give himself to sleep, but steadied and readied his soul in prayer.
“My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matthew 26:42).
Jesus Sacrificed His Sleep
It echoes today in the lives of those who benefit from his person and work. Jesus not only sanctified our sleep, but also he sacrificed his sleep. When the time came, he was willing to deny himself God’s good gift in pursuit of something greater. Sleep wasn’t his God. He did not bow his knee to sleep but to his Father — which meant not only a normal pattern of sleeping, as an act of faith, but when necessary, denying himself sleep, as an act of faith, in dependence on God and in the service of love.
So also today, most evenings, he says to us, by his Spirit, “Come away . . . and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). But that’s not all he says. At times, and in seasons, he comes by his Spirit and says, in the service of love, “Sleep and take your rest later on” (Matthew 26:45). There are times to receive God’s gift and enjoy our sleep, and times to deny ourselves our natural desire in view of something more important, whether it’s a hungry newborn, sick child, or neighbor in need.
Walking by faith leads Christians to be both sleep-embracers by default and sleep-deniers when needed.
I Am Not God, Neither Is My Sleep
So our mini-theology of sleep from the life of Christ cuts both ways: sanctify your sleep per normal and sacrifice your sleep when love calls. In Jesus, God means for us to walk in faith that rests in him, relinquishes control, closes our eyes, and goes to bed. And he means for us to walk in faith that rises to meet others’ needs, when loves beckons, and forgoes his good gift of sleep.
Sleeping to the glory of God is not simply maximizing it or minimizing it. Walking by faith in a fallen world requires us to read the situation and follow the leading of the Spirit. Typically that means “turning in” on time, turning off the TV, putting away the smartphone, and saying, “Father, now I give myself to you in sleep. You are sovereign. I am not. You don’t need me to run the universe. Now I rest in your care and ask for your gift of sleep.” How much better might we sleep if we consciously rolled our burdens onto Jesus’s broad shoulders before hitting the pillow?
And walking by faith, at times, will mean trusting God, when we’d much rather be comfortably tucked into bed, to stay up late, or get up inconveniently, for the sake of someone else’s good. This is called love. Such rising by faith can turn an otherwise “ungodly hour” into an opportunity for godly love.