Come to Me...and Find Rest Back to all sermons

Date: January 24, 2014

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Series: The Gospel of Matthew

Category: Gospel of Matthew

Scripture: Matthew 11:1–11:30

Tags: doubt, faith, unbelief, evidence and faith, trust, rest

Synopsis: When Jesus was on earth, people responded to him and to his claims in different ways. The same is true today. In Matthew 11, we see three different responses to Jesus portrayed, and how Jesus spoke to each one. You may see yourself in one of these portraits. Whatever your present (or past) reaction to Jesus, his invitation is open: Come to Me…and Find Rest.

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As Jesus walked the dusty roads of Galilee, passing from village to village, preaching, teaching and healing the sick, he gathered large crowds wherever he went. But Jesus was never fooled by the size of the crowds. He knew that in every crowd that gathered around him, there was a variety of responses to his claims and his ministry.

As we move through Matthew 11 and 12, we will see several of those reactions described. Just as there were different responses to Jesus when he was on earth, so today different people respond to Jesus and his message in different ways. In a gathering this size this morning, there are no doubt different reactions and responses. Maybe as we consider the reactions described in these chapters, you see yourself in one of them.

Matthew, in his gospel, is presenting a portrait of Jesus as the King of the Jews, their Messiah. He has already given us the details of his royal genealogy, his birth in the city of David, the announcement of his identity from heaven itself. We have also considered his teaching about the kingdom of heaven. In chapters 8-10 we have seen his credentials and his authority displayed in the miracles. Throughout, both directly himself and indirectly in chapter 10 through his disciples, he has been offering the kingdom of heaven to the nation of Israel. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

So just how did people respond to Jesus and his ministry. We are just looking at chapter 11 today. In this chapter, we see three distinct responses to Jesus.

The first response we see is one of Doubt. Amazingly, we find this reaction in a great and faithful servant of God; in John the Baptist himself. Let’s look at verse 2-3:

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

What was it that caused John to ask this question? What caused him to doubt and his faith to wobble? After all, he was the stalwart prophet, who proclaimed that Jesus was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He had baptized Jesus. He had seen the dove descending from heaven and heard the voice from heaven, saying about Jesus, “This is my beloved Son.” Yet now his faith is wobbling. “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

What caused his faith to wobble and doubt to creep in? We aren’t told but we can speculate. For one thing, he was in prison. That can cause anyone’s faith to erode. Tough circumstances, hardship, suffering. Where is God? Why hasn’t he delivered me? Should I look for help in another source?

Another possible cause for his doubt may have been unfulfilled expectations. John’s preaching ministry was not only announcing the coming of Messiah, but also a message of coming judgment against the unrepentant. In fact, John was in prison because he spoke out against the sin of Herod, the ruler. But judgment had not fallen. And what is more, he may have perceived that Jesus was not taking the same hard line against sin. After all, he heard reports that Jesus was sitting and eating with tax collectors and other unsavory characters. He had also heard that Jesus and his disciples did not follow the same strict regimen of fasting that he and his disciples did. What was going on? Was Jesus a compromiser? An imposter? When God doesn’t fulfill our expectations, when he doesn’t do what we expect him to do or act the way we think he should, our faith can be shaken.

In this brief account, we learn some valuable lessons about doubt. One is that doubt can arise in even the most faithful of God’s servants. John was a stalwart man of Old Testament faith. Jesus calls him “more than a prophet” and says that “among those born of women, there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” That is high praise indeed.  John was no “reed shaken by the wind” or “man dressed in soft clothing” used to an easy life. Yet this strong voice of God had doubts. Strong faith and times of doubt are not mutually exclusive in the life of God’s servants.

But here is another lesson we can learn from John. When doubts come, take them to the source. John did the right thing with his doubts. He sent to ask Jesus directly. He didn’t hide his doubts away. He didn’t stew over them. He didn’t seek out the company of other doubters or skeptics. He went (or sent) directly to Jesus and asked the question bluntly. “Are you the one? Or should we be looking for someone else?” I think that is the right way to handle doubts. You can do it directly in prayer. Pour your heart out directly to Jesus. Tell him why you are doubting, what has caused your faith to wobble. Ask him your questions. Put your unfulfilled expectations into words. God is not dismayed by our questions and he will never turn away an honest questioner. You can also address your questions and your doubts “second-hand” by consulting other people of faith. Find another follower of Christ whom you trust – and ask them your questions and what it is that has sustained their faith. And read. There is a great resource of Christian literature written by others who have doubted and come through their doubt to renewed faith.

In response to John’s question, Jesus points to the evidence of his words and deeds, and offers this word of blessing: Blessed is the one who is not offended by me. The word “offended” literally means to stumble or fall. It is a word of encouragement to John to not give in to his doubts. I once heard it expressed this way: It is OK to doubt your beliefs as long as you don’t believe your doubts. That is what happens when we “stumble”. We cross the line from doubting our beliefs to believing our doubts.

Just a quick note on some interpretive issues that arise from this part of the text. One is the role of John the Baptist as it relates to Old Testament prophecy. There were promises of a prophet, a voice in the wilderness sent to prepare the way of the Lord. He is even given the name: “Elijah.” Here Jesus clearly states that John the Baptist was the fulfillment of those prophecies. He is “more than a prophet” and “if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.”

Another interesting statement of Jesus in this text contrasts the privileges of new covenant believers with old covenant believers. In verse 11, after calling John the greatest person ever born of a woman, Jesus says, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” I am not totally sure what to make of this statement; greater in what sense? Certainly, we have greater knowledge, greater understanding of God’s plan, greater privileges, greater authority, and greater enabling in the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. It is truly a stunning statement.

Finally, before we leave this section of the chapter, I would simply admit my utter defeat in understanding what Jesus is saying in verse 12: From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force. I have read various explanations, but none of them satisfy. One of my seminary professors told us, “Study as hard as you can to discern the truth and be content to dwell with a few mysteries.” This passage remains on my “mysteries” list.

In the next section of the chapter, we see Jesus responding to another kind of response to his ministry. It is the response of Rejection or unbelief.

16 “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,

17 “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

Jesus is here describing the majority response of the Jews of his day, to whom both John and he had preached. The parable he uses is somewhat difficult to unravel. One interpretation is that Jesus is the flute player, while John the Baptist was the one who sang a dirge. The point he is making is that the Jews had a spirit of rejection. They refused to be satisfied. They rejected the asceticism and stern declarations of John the Baptist, accusing him of having a demon. Yet when Jesus took an alternative approach, entering into people’s lives and homes and sitting down at their tables, they rejected him as a compromiser. Rejection or unbelief is something that dwells in the heart, and has little to do with the evidence in front of us.

Jesus then goes on to pronounce judgment on the towns and villages where he did most of his preaching and performed many of his miracles. These verses are sobering. Once again, we see that faith has little to do with evidence. These villages had seen the evidence and yet they rejected Jesus as their king. We also see that the more evidence one has seen and the greater exposure to spiritual light and truth, the greater the level of accountability. There is a comparison made between these villages in Galilee with the Gentile towns to the north. There is also a comparison between Capernaum, Jesus’ base of operations for much of his ministry, and the town of Sodom which God destroyed for their corrupt life style. The greater the light, the greater the judgment awaits. This has sobering implications for those who have been raised in Christian homes and in church and in communities that are rich in gospel witness. What have we done with the light we have received?

Finally, Jesus turns and describes the response of Faith; faith in his deeds and in his words and above all, faith in his claims. He has a word to say about the nature of faith and where it comes from. We have already seen that faith is not always about the evidence. Now he also tells us that faith is not a factor of intellect or human wisdom.

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. (verse 25)

“Little children” here is both a reference to actual children, but also to those who are willing to accept Jesus and his words with the “faith of a little child”. A small child is trusting, believing, accepting – especially in the way they respond to a loving parent. If Daddy or Mommy say it, it’s true! This is the kind of trust and faith that God loves to see. It is his “gracious will”, it pleases him to reveal himself to those who exhibit that kind of faith and trust.

These verses also include some remarkable claims about Jesus and his relationship to the Father. The mystery of the Trinity and the unity of the Father and the Son are on display here. In the verse we just read, Jesus addresses God as “Father, Lord of heaven and earth.” He goes even further in the verse that follows: All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (v. 27) There is revelation here and there is mystery. There is the unity of Father and Son. There is the authority Jesus has been demonstrating so powerfully in his words and deeds – an authority that he claims has been given to him by the Father. He also claims to be the only true revealer of the Father – and claims a sovereign right to reveal the Father to “anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

This interface between the sovereignty of Christ in revelation and salvation and the response of faith in the believing heart is one that has puzzled theologians and Bible students for generations and still triggers heated debates today. This verse clearly states the sovereignty of the Son: No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

Yet, as so often in Scripture, such a clear statement of the sovereign choice of God in the bestowal of salvation is followed immediately by an open invitation:

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

This is the response of faith. Who is it to whom the Son chooses to reveal the Father? Is it the elect? I believe it is. But it is also the “little children” he talked about in verse 25. And these “little children” can be identified here with “all who labor and are heavy laden.” Those who have come to the end of their own resources; those who are tired of trying to please God in their own strength; those who recognize their own spiritual bankruptcy; those who mourn for their sin; those who have despaired of the limits of their own wisdom; those who are ready to come to Christ with the faith of the little child and become his follower. Those are the ones to whom the Son chooses to reveal the Father. And to such, the invitation is always open: Come to me…and I will give you rest.

Are you one of those? To you Jesus gives a command, followed by a promise: Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart (that should bring the beatitudes to mind) and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

This is one of Jesus’ paradoxes. It is a kind of oxymoron: a light burden, and easy yoke. We think of burdens as “burdensome”, not light. And a yoke is generally a negative image. The image of a yoke here is not that of an animal yoke, linking two oxen or horses together in labor, but rather that of a human yoke that lay across the shoulders for carrying two counterbalancing burdens. It was often used as an image of submission and servitude. They spoke of the “yoke of slavery.”

What does it mean in the context? Jesus is inviting us to join his school, accept his sovereignty and submit to his Lordship. To do this, we must bow our heads and say, “Not I, but Christ.” That much is clear. But I have been pondering all week about the promise that follows: you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. How is following Christ an easy yoke and a light burden?

Here is the image that came to my mind. It comes from one of the most famous slogans and trademarks in the history of American advertising. It is the slogan and trademark of Boys’ Town, and orphanage established during the Great Depression. The trademark image is that of a boy, maybe 12 or 13 years old. And he is carrying a smaller boy on his back. Under the image are these words in quotation marks: “He ain’t heavy. He’s my brother.”

In other words, the burden doesn’t feel heavy, because the one carrying it is motivated by love. And so it is with the yoke of Christ. It is a life of service motivated by love; our love for Christ, which we know has been created in us because he first loved us. When we serve out of love for Christ, our shoulders may grow weary, but our hearts will be light, and our souls will experience God’s rest.

This is Christ’s invitation and his promise. I believe that this is both a one time, “come to Jesus” moment, when we enlist as his followers and members of his kingdom and submit to him as the Lord of our lives.

It can also be a repeated, readjustment of our mind-set and resetting of our life compass – if we have drifted from the path or begun assuming responsibilities in life which Jesus does not intend for us to carry. Maybe, imperceptibly over time, we have begun to serve for reasons other than love for Christ; maybe it’s our own pride or sense of achievement; maybe it’s seeking for the approval of others; maybe it’s a misplaced fear that God is some strict task master in the sky just waiting to zap us if we mess up.

If you are weary and heavy laden this morning, come back to Jesus. He is gentle and humble in heart. That makes him approachable, ready to listen and ready to help. Come to him and learn from him – which will make you gentle and humble in heart. Then, having released back to Christ the responsibility for running the universe and all the other things we can’t control, we are free to take again upon our shoulders our rightful responsibility of loving service and obedience, one day at a time.

Discussion Questions

  1. Read Matthew 11 together.
  2. Put yourself in John’s place (prison). What do you think you might have been feeling and thinking? How might the reports of Jesus’ ministry have affected you?
  3. What was your experience with doubt or skepticism about Christ and Christianity before you became a follower of Christ? What has been your experience with doubt as a Christian? How are the two experiences the same? How are they different? What would you say to a fellow believer who was wrestling with doubt?
  4. “Greater light brings greater accountability.” Relate this principle and Jesus’ words in verses 20-24 to different contexts today. What are the implications for us?
  5. How can we reconcile the “exclusiveness” of Jesus’ words in verse 27 with the “open” invitation in verse 28?
  6. Discuss the image of a “yoke”. How can a yoke be easy and a burden be light? When does service for Christ not feel easy or light? What can we do when this happens to us?