Last Sunday I preached on the story in Acts 20 of sleepy Eutychus falling out the window, as Paul had decided that the stroke of midnight was no reason to wrap up his sermon. For churchgoers, the moral of the story is obvious: long sermons can kill you. For pastors, the significance is also plain: stay awake during the sermon, or else.

During my preparation, I was very interested to see how John Calvin handled this fatal nap. Would he by sympathetic? Would he be full of chastisement?

Turns out, a little of both.

Calvin assumes Eutychus sat by the window because it was the only spot he could find. Otherwise it would have been “filthy licentiousness in despising the heavenly doctrine to depart aside into a window.” Likewise, Calvin has no patience for the person who comes to the word “loathsomely.” Among those “justly condemned for their drowsiness” are those “full of meat and wine” and those who “are vigilant enough in other matters,” but approach the hearing of God’s word with careless indifference.

On the gentler side, Calvin is prepared to give Eutychus the benefit of the doubt. He disagrees with those who sharply condemn the young boy and think God punished his drowsiness with death. What do you expect from a lad listening to preaching into the wee hours of the morning?

For what marvel is it, if, seeing the night was so far spent, having striven so long with sleep, he yielded at length? And whereas, against his will, and otherwise than he hoped for, he was taken and overcome with deep sleep, we may guess by this that he did not settle himself to sleep. To seek out a fit place wherein to sleep had been a sign of sluggishness, but to be overcome with sleep, sitting in a window, what other thing is it but fault to yield to nature?

So what would Calvin say to today’s parishoner who finds the pew a bit too comfortable? He’d probably say, “Look, nature is what nature is. You can’t stay awake forever. But if you are stuffing yourself with food and coming to church as an afterthought to the weekend’s festivities, don’t expect miracles every time your head bobs around during the sermon.”

And don’t sit by the window.

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18 thoughts on “John Calvin on Sleeping in Church”

  1. Faithworks says:

    If people are falling asleep in church maybe the pastor needs to get a little fire in his bones and help the people get right with God by preaching a little hell, fire and brimstone stuff they never preach about, rather then the lovey dovey fluff that puts you to zzzzZZZZZ.

  2. Lauren says:

    Husbands….my husband falls asleep in church. He does not over-indulge on Saturday. He falls asleep every time he sits down to watch TV or read a book. Falls asleep even during football games…his passion. He has fallen asleep at the dinner table. For many years my Sunday morning attention has been drawn away from the message because of my determination to keep him awake so that he can hear the message…therefore I don’t.

    He should have a conversation with an MD about this but won’t.

    I have lately realized that 1) my attitude in church as he’s nodding off is more about me than about him. My pride that everyone knows he’s sleeping…envy of other women whose husbands are furiously taking notes, and 2) I’m so preoccupied with him that I am missing the message (warfare?).

    I am working on my attitude. Trying to put off pride and envy and replace them with a quiet and grateful spirit and understanding that God will wake him up.

    Men falling asleep in church may seem humorous but the woman sitting next to him may be struggling.

  3. Steve says:

    Do not forget the spiritual aspect of this and not merely the naturalistic. We exist in a world under spiritual warfare and the schemes of the devil to prevent us from hearing God’s Word. I daresay that there are some falling asleep in church because the devil is shutting them down, having been under his influence.
    (Not all but some)

    I had a renowned NT scholar from a prestigious seminary say when he would share the gospel with some men, they would unexpectedly fall asleep. Twice that he mentioned were due to demoniac oppression. Upon being awakened, both men were under the influence of a demon and spoke differently. As disturbing as it may be or that we might like to dismiss this as poppycock, we are in a spiritual battle and the war is of another world. Eph 6 We need spiritual armor and discernment.

  4. George says:

    Eutychus, not Eutyches :-) Eutyches was a 5th century monk.

  5. Melody says:

    I don’t usually have a problem, but I think everyone comes to church drowsy once in a while.

  6. Jim says:

    I remember a Bible College professor pointing out verse 8 in the passage, “There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered.” Why this piece of information? Eutychus was not merely dozing due to lack of interest or the late hour. Lamps in the room take up oxygen. Eutychus probably made his way to the window to get some air, but it didn’t work. If there was any reason for Eutychus to be rebuked, he would have been left for dead.

    If ALL Scripture is inspired by God, then even statements like Acts 20:8 are there for a reason. Perhaps a lesson today is making sure we create the best environment we can for the preaching and teaching of the Gospel.

  7. Bill Hanley says:

    And ere the lamp of God went out in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was, and Samuel was laid down to sleep;
    -1 Samuel 3:3
    And he was ministering, not just attending a sermon.

  8. EricP says:

    Lauren,

    Does your husband snore? It sounds like he doesn’t get enough high quality sleep. It could be caused by sleep apnea.

  9. EricP says:

    I don’t envy a pastor’s job of trying to hit a audience of unbelievers, new believers, and old saints. I struggle staying awake because most sermons I’ve heard a dozen times before and could give myself at this point.

  10. Melody says:

    I switched to working the 9 am toddler room and have a horrible time staying awake during the 11 service.
    I can doze off while my pen is writing a word on the paper. I’ve decided to snack on skittles or M&Ms in the future like I do when I’m doing a long drive or when I was in college.
    The heart is willing but the body is weak. I’m not going to beat myself up over it because I could have stayed home, slept in like the rest of the unbelieving world.

  11. ForeBarcaLB says:

    A man once fell asleep while the pastor was preaching. Those of us in attendance were wondering what pastor Adam would do to this man who clearly was in the 9th orbit of slumber. The pastor then said, “Let him rest. He is in God’s presence. There is no greater place to rest than in church, and in God’s presence.” Pastor Adam then went on to give another excellent message.

    There used to be a time in my life when I went to church and fell asleep. This was a stressful time in my life. After my little naps, often during the sermon, I woke up bright eyed. I used to feel never more rested. That is, in asmuch as some of us come to church with full bellies, I also think that some of us need to be given license to rest in God’s presence.

  12. Hal says:

    I have men in my church who are always there, and they always fall asleep. They are faithful, even though they can’t ever stay awake. And I have others in my church who never fall asleep, when they are there, but they miss more than they attend. I admire and appreciate the guys who are faithful in spite of their narcolepsy.

  13. anaquaduck says:

    One friend of mine is a doctor & bit of a workaholic. In the afternoon service he would doze of at times, we are not machines but do require maintenance. Another man collapsed due to low blood pressure…Some women’s perfume or men’s aftershave can be pretty overpowering.

    Mr Bean does a pretty good take on doziness, maybe a greeter could provide match sticks for eye sockets. At times I feel like lying on the floor due to back pain but my wife is not in favour so I sit & manouevre a little, she is probably right.

    If there is a place for the sparrow then surely a weary body is also welcome.The preacher being Paul we can assume that the content was sufficient but this is not always the case.

  14. Darren Blair says:

    Between work, my family obligations, and my church obligations, it’s rare for me to be in bed before midnight most evenings.

    On top of this, I have a cat that typically wakes me up between 4 and 5 AM because he wants his breakfast.

    Mon – Thursday I can just go back to bed for a few more hours; my shift is in the afternoon on these days, and so I have time. But my work schedule on Friday is erratic, my (aging and so frequently in need of help) parents almost always have plans in place starting bright and early on Saturday, and church starts early on Sunday.

    So by the time I get into the pew, even *if* nothing abnormal has happened (such as one of the neighbors setting their lawnmower on fire again) I’m already dragging tail due to lack of sleep.

  15. When considering “best preacher” honorifics,
    Most would quite agree that St. Paul was terrific,
    But one guy makes a fuss:
    “‘Tisn’t so!” cries Eutychus,
    “for his sermons are a lethal soporific!”

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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