Not Dead But Sleeping: The Creative Power of God’s Word

When Jesus came to the leader’s house, He saw the flute players and a crowd lamenting loudly. “Leave,” He said, “because the girl isn’t dead, but sleeping.” And they started laughing at Him. But when the crowd had been put outside, He went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And this news spread throughout that whole area. (Matthew 9:23-26)

When this story opens, Jesus is speaking with his disciples when an entourage arrives to plead for his help. They are led by a respected man named Jairus, a “leader of the synagogue.” His twelve-year-old daughter is on the verge of death, and he believes Jesus can help.

Much to Jairus’s relief, Jesus immediately gets up to go with him. But along the way, they are interrupted. A woman who has been bleeding for twelve years — outcast, unclean, unable to take part in synagogue or temple life — lurches out of the crowd and touches the hem of Jesus’ clothing.

She has been an outcast as long as Jairus’s daughter has been alive. She is convinced that if she can only touch Jesus (in total disregard of the laws of clean and unclean), she will be healed.

And she is. Jesus’ purity rebounds and cleanses her impurity, healing her body and restoring her to the people of God.

But for Jairus, the encounter with the woman only represents a delay. It’s a small delay — but long enough. By the time the journey resumes and they arrive at his house, the sound of weeping, wailing, and ceremonial music tells him that his deepest fear has come to pass.

His daughter is dead.

The Curse in All Its Horror

The ceremonies surrounding grief in the ancient world — and in many parts of the world today — may seem extreme to us.

Death was not greeted with calm resignation or platitudes. It was greeted with screams and sobs and wailing. People tore their clothes, and flute players took up a song of lament. All of this greeted Jesus and Jairus on their approach.

The crowd gathered at Jairus’s house did not hide their pain. Death, the greatest enemy of humanity, had claimed another victim — and this one a child.

The death of a child is the Genesis curse writ large.

They did not try to make this seem any less horrific than it is.

The Claim

But Jesus greets the mourners with a startling claim: “The girl isn’t dead, but sleeping.” In fact, he dismisses them. They can go home. There is no reason to lament.

Their response is to laugh at him.

The thing is … this girl is dead.

These people aren’t stupid. They can tell the difference between sleep and death. Jesus doesn’t look like a holy man in this moment. He looks like a fool.

But God has a long history of “calling things that are not as though they are” (Romans 4:17).

Creating Reality

“Abraham, you are the father of many nations.”

Paul says of Abraham:

He believed in God, who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist. He believed, hoping against hope, so that he became the father of many nations according to what had been spoken: So will your descendants be. He considered his own body to be already dead (since he was about 100 years old) and also considered the deadness of Sarah’s womb, without weakening in the faith. He did not waver in unbelief at God’s promise but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, because he was fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. (Romans 4:17-20)

Abraham wasn’t the only one.

Moses, you will deliver your people from Egypt.

Gideon, you are a mighty warrior.

David, shepherd boy running for your life from Saul, you are a king.

What God says, becomes. What he says, is.

The Creative Power of the Word of God

When God speaks, what he speaks becomes reality. This is because the word of God is creative. God spoke the world into being. His word is as solid and real as the ground beneath our feet. (The ground beneath our feet is made of the word of God.)

So when Jesus says this girl isn’t dead but only sleeping — his word becomes reality. He creates the truth by speaking it.

Jesus dismisses the crowds. He takes the child by the hand and restores life to her body.

She gets up.

Foreshadowing the Resurrection

As beautiful as this story is, and as deeply as we can empathize with Jairus’s rejoicing, this event also foreshadows our own ultimate hope. Just as death is the ultimate expression of the Genesis curse, resurrection is the ultimate expression of New Testament blessing.

Salvation is not only for “the soul,” as we tend to say. It is also for the body. The ultimate hope of the Christian people is not that we will escape material existence and live forever in a disembodied realm, but that we will be resurrected.

Resurrection day, yet to come, is the day when our salvation will be fully consummated. Paul refers to this as our “adoption”:

And not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as our firstfruits — we also groan within ourselves, eager waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:23)

In the two intertwined miracles of this passage, we see a full picture of salvation.

Jesus first heals a woman of impurity and disease, giving her his cleanness so that she can be set free and reconciled with God and with her community. In this we can see a picture of the forgiveness and reconciliation given us through the cross.

This, interestingly, creates a delay.

Only after the delay does Jesus raise a child from the dead, foreshadowing ultimate resurrection and eternal life.

Waiting for Resurrection

In our own interim period, we receive salvation as a gift … and then we wait.

Continuing the passage above, Paul says:

Now in this hope [of resurrection] we were saved, yet hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:24-25)

Our guarantor, as we wait, is the Word of God. God has spoken many things to us. He calls us his children. He calls us righteous. He calls us pure. He calls us saints (holy ones). He calls us saved, immortal, healed.

Many of these things (all of them?) we do not yet see … not in their fullness.

Yet what God says, becomes.

What he speaks, is.

It was true for the woman who bled for twelve years — and then was healed.

It was true for the child who was not sleeping, but dead — but then gripped Jesus’ hand and stood back up.

It is just as true for me and you. As we wait for the fullness of all God’s promises, as we wait for kingdom fully come, we live in the confidence that God’s promises cannot be empty, because he creates as he speaks.


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This is Part 128 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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