Men Who Slept
The Man Christ Jesus
It is most fitting and I trust most profitable to conclude this series on Men Who Slept by considering the incident in which it is recorded that our Lord fell asleep in the hinder part of a boat. It is not without significance that the title refers to The Man Christ Jesus, because one of the most pertinent evidences that the Saviour of men was a true man and not a phantom being as the Docetists taught, is the fact that after a long spell of exacting service for men He was so tired that He fell asleep. Perhaps it is one of the most touching and fascinating pictures we have of our Lord, asleep soundly, exhausted and resting undisturbed while those around Him were panicking from fear of perishing in the storm.
So assiduously and unremittingly did He go about His Father’s business that He denied Himself sleep that He might have fellowship with His Father and find encouragement in His service amongst men. What an example He has left those of us who are inclined to indulge the encircling amplitude of warm blankets! We read of Him that after a busy day and presumably after a short refreshing sleep “in the morning rising up a great while before day, He went out into a solitary place, and there prayed” (Mark 1:35). On another occasion, when “every man went to his own house, Jesus went unto the Mount of Olives” (John 7:53-8:1) where He oft resorted to pray.
Some of His most worthy servants have followed His example and denied themselves sleep that they might spend time at the throne of grace, pleading for others. John Welsh of Ayr is such a one. At the time of the Reformation in Scotland he was appointed minister to the seaport town of Ayr, notorious for its godlessness which broke out in malicious brawls on the streets. There seemed to be no deterrent for the evil on-goings, until John Welsh’s preaching began to take effect in the lives of godless seamen. The secret of his power was the intensity of his prayers. When he retired for the night he kept by his bedside his woollen plaid in which to wrap himself. Often he would rouse himself from sleep, rise to his bedside, wrap himself in his plaid and kneel in prolonged prayer. When his wife would remonstrate with him lest he should catch a fatal cold, he would reply that he had the souls of the people of Ayr to account for in the day of reckoning. He was following His Master’s example. To our shame, it may be said that there are few who do.
Perhaps one of the reasons why our Lord loved to frequent the home at Bethany was that there He found quiet retirement and refreshing sleep in congenial surroundings which reinvigorated Him after days of service. There, too, He would find opportunity for preparation in the fullest sense of the word for further labours. On one occasion, when many were coming and going, He said to His disciples, “Come ye yourselves apart, and rest awhile,” and doubtless that resting included nights of quiet sleep. How aptly Shakespeare has summed up the benefits of refreshing sleep:
Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
We have every right to assume that our Lord as a true man succumbed, like others, to tiredness, for we read in the story of His encounter with the woman at Sychar’s well that “being wearied with the journey He sat by the well,” longing for the drink which would refresh and revive. It is not surprising, then, that we read the following from Mark’s Gospel:
“And the same day, when the evening was come, He saith unto them, Let us pass over unto the other side. And when they had sent away the multitude, they took Him even as He was in the boat, and there were also with Him other little boats. And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was now full. And He was in the stern of the boat, asleep on a pillow; and they awake Him, and say unto Him, Master, carest Thou not that we perish? And He arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And He said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith? And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” (4:35-41). That is a most revealing passage and is worthy of closer investigation.
How blessed was that sleep
The sinless Saviour knew!
In vain the storm-winds blew,
Till He awoke to others’ woes
And hushed the billows to repose.
The incident should be considered in the context of other events. Jesus had had a busy time visiting villages and cities, teaching, preaching, healing the sick and driving out demons. Such activities involved the expenditure of physical and mental energy. With little time for sleep there was not the opportunity for recuperation of vitality. Multitudes thronged Him, and such was their anxiety for His health that His mother and brothers sought Him to remonstrate with Him. When crowds gathered to Him by the sea, He sat in a boat and taught them the parables of the Kingdom. Such occupation must have been physically exhausting, and when evening was come He said to His disciples, “Let us cross to the other side.” The disciples took Him as He was on board the boat and pushed off into the sea. It was on board that boat that one of the most arresting of His miracles was performed. He fell asleep and when He was wakened He stilled a storm.
Mark calls the storm a great one. As Peter’s interpreter, he was repeating what he had heard from that fisherman disciple who had a vivid recollection of the unusual fury of that tempest. Winds blowing down from the hills come with such suddenness and ferocity that the placid waters are whipped into a menacing turmoil which lasts for a short time and then subsides. Four of the disciples on the tempest-tossed vessel were experienced fishermen who doubtless had weathered many a storm in the pursuit of their calling, although not one of such intensity. Other disciples, like Matthew and Nathaniel, were landsmen and those, one suspects, were the men who panicked, and in their fear awoke the Lord. Experience teaches many a lesson which others have not learnt. Some expositors have concluded from the ferocity of the storm which was filling the boat that the storm was the work of demons as the emissaries of Satan who was making one more attempt to destroy the Son of God. As from other incidents in which His Person was endangered our Lord emerged in triumph. The disciples seem to have been so concerned about Him after His strenuous day that they took Him as He was into the boat, and they allowed Him to pillow His head on the steerman’s bench. They must have looked upon Him as He lay with some measure of sympathy; but through it all they recognized in Him One who could help them in the moment of peril. That is why they woke Him. It was the winds He rebuked first, and not His terrified disciples. How gracious He was! He was calm and self-possessed, unruffled, although He had been rudely aroused from well-deserved slumber. When He spoke He addressed the wind and the waves as if they were rational beings, saying to the sea, “Peace, be still,” after He had rebuked the wind. The command, “be still,” has been translated, “be muzzled,” as if He were addressing a wild dog whose fury was a menace to others. The wind sank to rest, and there was a great calm. He was complete Master of the situation. When He entered the boat, trod its timbers, mingled with the others, lay down upon the steerman’s bench for a pillow and fell asleep, He was a true Man. When He rose, and stilled the storm with a voice of command, He was displaying that He was Lord of Creation, God manifest in flesh. His unhurried, dignified composure marks Him off from His terrified disciples.
How like ourselves those disciples were! They looked at the storm rather than at the Man they had seen drive out demons and overcome disease. Why should they have been afraid? They had no faith in His word. He had said, “Let us cross to the other side,” and they should have known that with Him the other side they would reach. If they had believed His word they would not have wakened Him; but when they did waken Him, such was His concern for them that He did not rebuke them until He had allayed their fears. Perish they would not, for
No water can swallow the ship where lies
The Master of ocean and earth and skies.
The reaction of the disciples was one of undisguised surprise: “What manner of man is this that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” They knew that He could perform astonishing miracles, but to them it seemed beyond the realm of possibility that anyone could control a furious storm at sea. Is there any wonder that they “feared exceedingly”? They had taken a further step in the understanding of the mystery of His Personality. The question they asked, “can easily be explained, not as expressing any ignorance or doubt as to the person of their master, but unfeigned astonishment at the new proof of his control, not only over demons and disease, but also over winds and waves, which they had seen, like human slaves, obey him at a word” (Alexander). As the disciples in wonderment exclaimed after they had seen Peter walking on the sea, and their Lord had stilled another tempest, “Of a truth, Thou art the Son of God” (Matthew 14:33), so we, too, bow in adoring worship and acknowledge Him with the same spirit of reverence.
We can close this meditation in no better way than by quoting some of Dean Alford’s appropriate verses:
My barque is wafted to the strand
By breath divine;
And on the helm there rests a hand
Other than mine.
One who in storms is known to sail
I have on board;
Above the raging of the gale
I hear my Lord.
Safe to the shore, safe to the land,
The end is this;
And then with Him go hand in hand,
Far into bliss.