Rest for the Weary


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Matthew 11:25-30

Remember, now, in chapter 11 we have observed various responses made to Jesus and his ministry:  the confusion of John the Baptist and the rejection and indifference of the Galilean towns.  Now we are given to see those who respond in faith to Christ and to learn what he offers to them in return for their faith.  We are given to see these things first by Matthew’s recording for us a prayer that Jesus prayed in the hearing of his disciples.

v.25     The “at that time” connects these verses with what has gone before.  This is the Lord’s reply to his rejection by his countrymen.  The “wise and learned” are especially the religious leadership who should have recognized Jesus as the Messiah but were unwilling to do so.  On the other hand, the simple and insignificant among the population more often did respond in faith and understanding.  This was not the result of some natural law, as if simple people have fewer preconceptions and so are able to think more clearly about religious truth.  It was the will of the Father who revealed the truth to their hearts even as he hid it from the mind’s eye of the proud theologians.  The Father chose those the world would not have.  The Lord does not mean, of course, that no wise people are saved and no simple people are lost; only that it is not human wisdom that saves – it often gets in the way in fact; it makes people self-sufficient – it is simple trust in the Lord Jesus that saves and God must give that to us.  The clever find the truth in the same way the simple do, by the gift and the working of God within their minds and hearts.  No one just figures out who Jesus is or learns by his own investigation the way to salvation.  God must show us.  “The essential being of Jesus of Nazareth was not obvious to human observation.  Who could see in the carpenter from Nazareth the only Son of God?” [Morris, 294]

In the Gospel of Matthew it is customary for Jesus to address God as Father.  Only in the Gospel of John is “father” used for God more often.  But this father is also the Lord of heaven and earth.  The intimate address, which Jesus teaches us also to use, does not mean that we may forget God’s majesty and transcendence, or fail to fear him.

v.27     Once again the knowledge of God is not a natural right but a divine gift.  Here the Lord speaks of the intimate relationship that exists between the Father and the Son – an important verse for the formation of the doctrine of the Trinity.  The past tense of “all things have been committed suggests that the relationship between the two persons, as a relationship of father and son, predated the incarnation and describes their eternal relationship within the Trinity.  The Son chooses to allow others to enter into this relationship, for “knowing” in the Bible is much more than mere acquaintance.  It is intimacy and communion and love.  But, in any case, access to the knowledge of the Father is the gift and work of the Son.  All religions do not lead to God; there are not many paths to the divine.  Only one, Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, and the life.

v.28     All the burdened leaves out no one who is troubled.  The rest promised, as the next verse indicates, is not the rest of inactivity or idleness, but of refreshment in life and work.

v.29     The fact that Jesus is gentle and humble is the reason those who come to him will find rest.  They will find in him and learn from him the spirit of submission to God and trust in him that takes the heaviness out of life.

v.30     The “yoke,” – the harness by which two animals were hitched to a plow or wagon, was a common metaphor for the demands of the law in first century Judaism.  Later in this Gospel Jesus will speak of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law laying intolerable burdens on people’s backs.  The arbitrary demands of the legalism of that religious mind and the uncertainties of the ever-proliferating case law made for a situation that was delightful to the legal experts but a heavy burden to everyone else.    So Jesus is saying that his yoke is not the bondage and burden of the Jewish understanding of obedience but a new freedom to obey, a new spirit of love in obedience that made the law of God a burden only in the sense that wings are a burden to a bird.

In Luke 7:36-50 we read the story of the sinful woman who, at the home of a Pharisee, anointed the Lord’s feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and then poured perfume on them.  Jesus used the occasion to teach the Pharisee about the glory of God’s grace and forgiveness.  The man had looked down on this woman because of her sinful past and Jesus memorably reminded him that she loved much because she had been forgiven much.

Now what makes that incident all the more interesting is that in Luke it comes immediately after the material regarding John the Baptist and his doubts about Jesus’ ministry.  Here in Matthew 11 the material about John the Baptist is followed by this famous and beautiful invitation:  “Come to me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  That is, it is possible that this Gospel invitation was uttered soon after the disciples of John had come to Jesus.

It has long been wondered if this sinful woman was present when Jesus issued that invitation and if she was one whose heart responded to it and if her hearing of these words was not the dawning of light in her soul. She seems to be precisely the sort of person Jesus is talking about.  She could never meet the standards of the religious people of her day.  She could never keep all the regulations that were required of those who would be considered righteous.  She was burdened by her sense of guilt and her hopelessness.  And then she heard Jesus of Nazareth say that if she came to him, he would not only give her rest but a yoke that she could bear; that what she needed was humility and faith, not the hopeless effort to make herself good enough for God.

She was weary and burdened by life and she came to Jesus and found him gentle with her, forgiving, and she also found welling up from within her a new life, a new righteousness.  She had to obey the Lord, she knew that; but she wanted to obey and his commandments rested on her life as a pleasure, not a burden.

Only eternity will tell what untold multitudes of burdened sinners found life reading or hearing these words.  “Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”  The invitation is made to a specific group of people: the weary and the burdened.  If one is not weary he is unlikely to seek rest and if one does not feel himself burdened it is unlikely that he will seek relief.  As Joseph Hart has it in one of his hymns:

“What comfort can a Savior bring to those who never felt
their woe.”

Or as the Great Awakening preacher Daniel Rowland said,

“Men have need of storms in their hearts, before they will betake themselves to Christ for refuge.”  [Evans, Daniel Rowland, 36]

What Jesus is telling us here is that the salvation does not begin in comfort; it begins in dismay and that the kingdom of God is not for the well-meaning, but for the desperate.  The Lord’s first and greatest act in revealing God the Father to a person is to make him feel his great need for help and for deliverance.

I think again of a person like Eta Linnemann, the NT scholar, the Gospel scholar indeed, who was writing her learned books when I was in graduate school in the 1970s.  She was the first woman ever to reach the exalted position of professor in a divinity school of a German university.  She was a complete skeptic so far as the Bible was concerned and embraced and wrote about the Gospels from the common position of German unbelief.  The Gospels were religious documents to be sure, but human only, not divine; the story they told was a myth and hardly any of it could be believed by a modern mind.  It all required re-interpretation. But in those days also Prof. Linnemann was, by the grace and working of the Holy Spirit, growing weary and burdened.  She watched television most of the time when she was not at her office.  She was lonely and disaffected.  She drank too much.  For all her success, her life was unrewarding.  The longings of her heart were not being met.  And then she met some simple Christians who shared the Gospel with her and her life was transformed.  She burned her scholarly books, asked everyone else to burn them, and gave herself to the undoing of what she had done before.  Later she became a missionary teacher in Indonesia.  She was just as active as before, indeed more so; but the Lord’s yoke was so much lighter than the one she had borne before.  She rejoiced in her work and in the service of her Lord and Savior.  I don’t know if Matthew 11:28-30 had anything directly to do with that dear woman’s coming to faith, but I can very well imagine how those immortal words must have jumped off the page and into her heart when as a Christian she read them for the first time.  “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”  Christ is still saying that to people as he said it during the days of his ministry.

There is a great deal of weariness in this world, is there not and a great craving for the kind of rest the Savior speaks of here.

I mentioned at the Stewart Miller funeral a few weeks past an experience that I had not long ago.  A month or more ago in Colorado my brother and I and my two sons climbed Pikes Peak from our cabin.  The cabin lies in the mountains just south of the Peak, perhaps some seven or eight miles from the summit as the crow flies.  Now Pikes Peak’s summit is over 14,000 feet above sea level so it was a long uphill walk that day.  My sons didn’t seem particularly tired. Neither, I was disgusted to observe, did my brother.  He talked all the way up the Peak and all the way down.

In order to gain access to the mountain from our side we had called the caretaker of the reservoirs that are nestled on its southern shoulder.  He kindly gave us permission to walk through the watershed.  We drove up to the gate, parked our car, climbed over the gate, and started our long uphill walk.  Actually, the kind caretaker had also unlocked the gate so that we could drive our car as far as the road would allow and save ourselves several miles of hard walking in both directions.  Unfortunately, we didn’t discover that he had unlocked the gate for us until the end of our exhausting day when we got back to the gate and noticed that it was not locked.  There is an image of our Christians lives all too often!  Making things so much harder for ourselves than necessary because we don’t take full advantage of the Lord’s kindness to us.

Anyway, once we had climbed above timberline and were making our way up the steep slope, though I was glad to be sharing the experience with my brother and  my boys, it had ceased to be what I would call fun.  It was hard work.  My lungs were protesting the lack of air.  I would take several hundred steps with my head down and then look up and find that I had hardly made any progress at all.  The last 1000 feet of elevation was especially hard labor, made no easier for me by the fact that my brother and my boys were talking up a storm and taking side trips to check out various views.

But, let me tell you, I really enjoyed my rest at the top of the mountain.  We went into the store at the summit – [you may remember that Zebulon Pike, the army explorer, supposedly the first white American to see the mountain that now bears his name, predicted that it would never be climbed.  Now you can hike up on marked trails; or drive your car to the top; or take a cog train!] – We went into the store, ordered pizza and soft drinks, and relaxed.  That was REST.  Then we went outside and took in the marvelous view in every direction; looked down on the beautiful world spread out below us.  And, of course, I knew very well that long as the walk home would be, it was all downhill from there.  Is that not a picture of life as it is described in these immortal words.  The hard work of life that makes rest in Christ so wonderful and the yoke of Christ that is so easy to bear in comparison to what must otherwise be the burdens of life.

Now I have been a minister long enough to know that a long, uphill climb that seems never to end is a picture of life as many encounter it.  No matter the particular circumstances, they walk through this world heavy-laden.  They cannot seem to make life work for them, as they hoped it would and thought it would and think it should.  But I have also observed enough people before and after they became Christians to know that Christ wonderfully refreshes life and removes burdens and the tasks he gives to his people, though difficult in many ways, are so wonderfully different from the burdens of life without him that they can be called rest instead of work.

But I also know that not everyone feels the burden and weariness of life. Or, they feel burdens but not in the way the Lord speaks of here.  Life is hard in one way or another, but not hard in that way that sends a man or woman to Christ for rest and relief.  It is not a sense of failure to be good, not a sense of alienation from God, not a sense of guilt in the prospect of divine judgment, not a sense of weariness of life that comes from attempting and failing to meet the standards of one’s own conscience.  There are many people who are miserable and many who make others miserable but who never come to Christ to find rest.

I was last night at Christ Episcopal Church downtown to hear the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, one of the most celebrated choirs in the world.  And the music was achingly beautiful sung by that magnificent choir.  I suppose in that sanctuary, in the audience and in the choir of university students as much weariness and burden as in any other cross-section of the population.  But there was probably little of the weariness or burden such as Jesus was referring to.  Those who sang those glorious anthems of Christian faith, of the glory of God and his grace, of Christ’s easy yoke and those who listened to them by and large I fear, were like the wise and learned of Jesus’ day who read Moses and the prophet without understanding, correction or faith.  Mixing a text in from the Bhaghavad Gita was proof enough.  The choirs singing a Hindu text in Sanskrit was proof enough that in singing biblical and Christian texts the choir was not confessing its own faith.  And the audience’s pleasure in that fake anthem was proof enough that the choir, in singing Christian texts, was not confessing the audience’s faith either.  A veil lies over their hearts, so Paul says in 2 Cor. 3.  They hear the Savior’s words but they do not understand them, they make no sense to them.

Christians are made to think of this from time to time.  They look around the world and see so much woe, so much disappointment, so much heartbreak.  And here is the Lord offering rest and a way of life full of love, of gratitude, of hope and of high purpose, a life in which even the most heavy of burdens may be borne with heart-peace and confidence in wonderful things to come.  But even their misery does not make them look up; even the deep longings of their hearts for rest and peace do not turn them to Jesus Christ.

They remain utterly ignorant of the experience of vast multitudes of people in the world who have come to Christ and found rest.  They cannot imagine that such a thing exists.  They are utterly unwilling to surrender their lives to the Lord fearing that his burden will be heavier than that they already bear.

How can this be?  And the answer is that which the Lord himself gave.  The Lord has hidden these things from the wise and the learned and revealed them to little children.

There is a long tradition in Christian preaching that the teaching of sovereign grace and divine election – the Lord’s withholding his grace from some and granting it to others – should be largely reserved for the saints and not the world.  When the teaching of election, such as we have it so clearly and so emphatically here in vv. 25-27, is regularly introduced when the gospel is presented to the unsaved, it inevitably is understood as something that is designed to limit or to restrict the salvation of men and women.  This is because unsaved people do not at all understand or appreciate their spiritual situation.  They do not see themselves as slaves to sin, or as dead in sin.  They do not realize that they are utterly incapable by nature of responding to Christ’s call in their own strength.  They would not believe that their own hard hearts form an impenetrable barrier to the invitation of Christ, that they never will come or would come left to themselves.  They think of themselves as very much in charge of their lives, as masters not as slaves, as very much spiritually alive, not dead.  And so it offends them to hear that Christ must reveal the Father or he will never be known, and that he reveals the Father to those whom he chooses.

Typically in Holy Scripture, though, to be sure, not invariably, election is a doctrine taught to the saints, to those who have already received the grace of God, to teach them how and why they came to know the Lord and believe in him.  As the Greek English Reformer and martyr, John Bradford, once wrote:

“It ought not to be the business of the evangelist to teach God’s
decrees to the unconverted.”  And

“Let a man go to the grammar school of faith and repentance
before he goes to the university of election and predestination.”

But once a man or woman has come to faith, then the Lord does not hesitate to teach them that their knowledge of him, their understanding of salvation, their response to the Lord’s invitation, their salvation itself, was altogether his gift and his doing.  Election isn’t the limitation of salvation, it is the essential prerequisite of salvation; it isn’t the restriction of salvation to some, it is the only way any can be saved.

Charles Spurgeon, one of the most unapologetic preachers of sovereign grace and divine election, says of his own experience,

“When I was coming to Christ, I thought I was doing it all myself…

But when he learned better, he went on to say,

“I felt that I had grown on a sudden from a babe into a man – that I had made progress in spiritual knowledge, through having found, once for all, the clue to the truth of God.”

It is no accident, it is from the Holy Spirit that we have these two very different statements side by side in this paragraph.  The first in which the Lord speaks in prayer in the hearing of his disciples; the other in which he calls the unbelieving to himself and to eternal life.

The latter is the way of salvation, the former is the explanation of it.  The latter is the blessing of new life, the former is the source and the origin of it.  Come to Jesus, he alone can give the weary rest, eternal rest, and eternal life.  And you will come if God grants that you will.  It will be his love, his choice, his doing, his gift.  It must be!

No wonder the Son praises his father for his electing grace.

The English Puritans taught their people to think this way about their salvation.  To carry it all back to God and to his grace and power.  One of them wrote a prayer for new converts to pray.  The prayer begins

“I could never have sought my happiness in thy love, unless thou had’st first loved me.  Thy Spirit has encouraged me by grace to seek thee, has made known to me thy reconciliation in Jesus, has taught me to believe it, has helped me to take thee for my God and portion. …  Blessed forever be thy fatherly affection, which chose me to be one of thy children by faith in Jesus; I thank thee for giving me the desire to live as such…”  [Valley of Vision, 53]
The man or the woman who knows to pray that prayer from his or her heart, is the most favored of all people.  That knowledge is God-given.  Multitudes do not have it.  If you have that knowledge then you do what Jesus did and praise your heavenly Father that he has revealed himself to you.  Nothing is more extraordinary, nothing more wonderful, nothing so certain to bring you everlasting joy but that you knew in your weariness to come to Jesus to find rest.  And you never would have had Christ not made you and the Father not granted you the knowledge of himself.

Lie awake at night and ponder that single fact.  It will amaze you; humble you, elate you; it must break your heart and change your life.  And if you do not yet have that knowledge, you do what Jesus said: come to him!  You can worry about the ifs and hows later.  First, come to him.  I don’t care if you think you are doing it all yourself.  You’ll learn better in time.  For now, just come.