What does Mark 5:39 mean?Jesus is at the home of Jairus, the synagogue leader, confronting the professional mourners. Jairus' daughter is dead. Her death was reported by a servant to Jairus moments before (Mark 5:35). Luke specifically states that when Jesus resurrects her, "her spirit returned" (Luke 8:55). So why does Jesus claim she is just sleeping?
Speakers in the New Testament often used the euphemism of sleep to represent the physical death of believers. Matthew uses it of the believers who come back to life at the crucifixion (Matthew 27:52). Jesus uses it of Lazarus before He raises him (John 11:11). Luke uses it when Stephen is stoned (Acts 7:60). And Paul uses it to describe the premature death of those who take communion unbiblically (1 Corinthians 11:30). But in all those cases, the Greek root word koimao is used.
The Greek root word used here for "asleep" is katheudo, and literally means to be asleep. It means "sleep" in several places in Matthew (Matthew 8:24; 13:25; 25:5; 26:40). And when used as a metaphor, it doesn't refer to death but to spiritual numbness (Ephesians 5:14; 1 Thessalonians 5:6–7).
Jesus is not lying, and cannot lie, so we need to understand this statement carefully. A special use infers a special meaning; the girl is dead, but Jesus intends her condition to be impermanent like sleep. As creator of the universe and performer of miracles that break the laws of nature, Jesus intends the girl to rise and therefore her condition is like that of sleep. He doesn't misrepresent reality, He changes it and uses language that reflects the new reality.
This is the story of the gospel. We are born enemies of God (Romans 5:10). Jesus, who defines spiritual reality, broke the laws of nature to call us first servants and then friends (John 15:15). God calls us His children and co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:15–17). God the Father and Jesus are able to speak these words because they change the reality.