Question: The girl Jesus “raised from the dead” in Matthew 9:18-26 was just “asleep,” according to Jesus, so was Jesus being deliberately deceptive for some reason, or was this not a miracle at all?
Two questions are before us here: 1) Was this girl really dead? 2) If she was dead, why did Jesus say she was only asleep?
First, this young lady had most certainly died well before Jesus arrived on the scene. Consider the following evidence.
Matthew 9:18 and following describes how the little girl’s father (Jairus, the synagogue Ruler, Mk. 5:21) had walked a good distance to find Jesus. The trip to the man’s house was slowed considerably by further ministry among the crowd that pressed in around Jesus. In fact, friends of the family had time to catch up with him:
Mark 5:35b “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher any more?”
When Jesus arrived at the home he found that funeral proceedings had already begun. Two “flute players” at a minimum were hired by even the poorest of families when someone died, along with at least one professional wailing woman, as required by Jewish custom of the day. Their job was to help family and friends accept the finality of death with mournful music and loud crying and wailing—hence, the “noisy crowd” (Matt. 9:23). Professional mourners were not called in until death was undeniably certain.
Second, Jesus used the term “asleep” because it was a common metaphor in His day for death. The Pharisees taught the doctrine of resurrection, and that death was not the end of existence. However, when Jesus used this common term for death in this situation, He did so in a very un-common way.
Before entering the dead girl’s room Jesus said to the hired mourners and the crowd they had stirred up, “Go away. The girl is not dead but asleep” (Matt. 9:24). In telling them to “go away” Jesus was about to demonstrate that He had the authority and power to bring a person back from the “sleep” of death. He was demonstrating here what He later declared (and proved) at Lazarus’ tomb:
Jn. 11:25 “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies…”
The majority of the Jewish people, trained under the Pharisees, had a fairly correct understanding of death—it did not mean a person ceased to exist. There would be a resurrection of the just and the unjust whose eternal existence would be determined at God’s Judgment. Until that time, existence in Sheol was not unlike being asleep.
In practical experience however, they—like most people today—saw death as final and irreversible. But for Jesus, raising someone from the dead was no more difficult than waking someone from sleep.
So Jesus defiled Himself by taking the dead girl’s hand in His own, while the professional mourners outside laughed at Him. Then, as Mark records in his Gospel, Jesus “said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). Immediately the girl stood up and walked around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished” (Mk. 5:41b-42).