Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Greater Burden than We Could Imagine--Matthew 11:28

    “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28, ESV) This is one of the most beloved passages in all of Scripture.  This passage has seen its share of coffee mugs, bookmarks and Dayspring greeting cards.  It has been memorized, prayed and cherished and it has been used by the Lord to bring great comfort to a great many Christians.  The fact that Jesus gives rest to the weary is a fact that cannot be doubted, from the Scripture as a whole and as a peripheral truth found in this passage.  But there is a greater, more central truth in this Scripture that often we skim past and never even stop to rejoice in.  Christ does give rest to the world-weary, but this passage says so much more.

 “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”” (Matthew 11:28–30, ESV)

Jesus sends out a very specific and a very demanding invitation.  He says  “Come to me”.  Like most invitations from God, it is more of an imperative than a request.  Notice the commanding aspect of it. “Come to me.”  Not, “Please, won't you come to me?”  “Oh pretty, pretty please with gumdrops and cherubim on top.”  Nope, Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.  Even His invitations have authority.  Not only is His invitation authoritative, it is specific.   This is not an open call.  He is inviting, with authority, a specific type of person.  He says “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden(burdened)”.  Jesus is commanding those who labor, and thus are burdened by their labor, to come to Him. 

What is Jesus speaking of here?  Is He speaking generically of any type of burden, any type of hardship?  “Come to me all who have a disease”?  “Come to me all who are sick, sad, lonely”?  This is often how we see this passage, but those are not the people he is addressing here.  Jesus definitely calls all these types of people.  He definitely calls the sick to come to Him and be well.  He definitely calls the sad to come and find joy, the lonely to come and find fellowship.  But this is not who He is specifically calling in this passage.  He calls those who “labor” and are “heavy laden”.  This call is to those who are working and can no longer bear the load of their work. 

So is this the coffee mug passage?  The paperwork backs up, Jesus is calling you, you who are heavy laden.  The internet goes down, the welder breaks, the kids won't listen, the work truck won't start and the boss won't stop, just think of this verse about our daily labor and take it to Jesus?  While it is true that we bring all things to Jesus, we cast all our cares on Him because He cares for us and understands our hardships (1 Peter 5:7, Hebrews 4), this is not the burden Christ is addressing here.  The people He calls are specific, those who are laboring and heavy laden, and the labor He speaks of is specific. 

This labor Christ references is the labor of working towards God.  It is the mentality of his Jewish audience, and humans in general, to earn one’s place before God with righteous living.  The Jew specifically sought their rightful place through their bloodline and diligent obedience to the Mosaic Law.  Jesus is addressing a group of people who have been told since birth that they have to follow the Law or they will perish.  Which, in and of itself, is true.  But the Law, weakened by the flesh, cannot give life(Romans 8:3).  The mistake is not in the realization of what wicked rebellion will bring, but in the assumption that anyone CAN obey God.  Jesus calls all who labor, who seek to earn God's favor like a wage.  And this is all of us. 

Even if we are not religious, we think we can work our way to God.  We can do it by being nice, by giving to charity, by self-imposed asceticism.  If we are religious we feel we can work our way to God by obeying His commands as found in the Bible (like the 10 Commandments) or found in religious communities (like “Don't drink, cuss, smoke or chew or date the girls who do”).  All men, everywhere, apart from faith in Christ, base their right-standing on their own effort, their own labor. 

But the problem with laboring, working, exerting our own effort to reach God is that this really just leaves us burdened.  It leaves us burdened because, apart from Christ, all our efforts are revolting and filthy(Isaiah 64) and lead only to the wages we truly deserve, death.(Romans 6)  Jesus is calling out for people to come to Him.  He is calling to those who labor, and because of their labor, are burdened with their wages of death, to come to Him.  He promises to give rest from a labor that only leads to burden, from a labor that only leads to death.

Jesus promises to give rest, but the means by which He gives rest is, at first glance, a bit confusing.  He says he gives rest by letting us take his yoke because it is easy and His burden because it is light. This seems fine at first until we start thinking about how Jesus dealt with the burden of the Law.  The Law said don't murder but Jesus said that being angry with someone was as good as murder.(Matthew 5:21-26) The Law said “don't commit adultery” but Jesus said that if you entertain lustful thoughts then you have committed adultery.(Matthew 5:27-30)  To the man who felt He had kept the Law, Jesus told Him to sell all he had.(Mark 10) To the one who wanted to follow, Jesus promised homelessness, to the next He told to hate his parents and to the next Jesus said that the man was unworthy for the kingdom because of His double-mindedness.(Luke 9:57-62) He said to not just seek retribution but to love your enemy, to pray for them.(Luke 6)  He said all you really have to do is love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:25-28) Who is your neighbor?  Just think of the person you judge the most and like the least and this is the person that Christ said to love as much as you love yourself. (Luke 10:29-37) If people take advantage of you, give more.(Matthew 5:40) If people put you out, do more.(Matthew 5:41) If people hurt you, love more.(Luke 6:29)  All you really have to do is be perfect like God is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)

Easy, right?  What a light load!  Looking at how Jesus presents the requirements of righteousness, we are distraught by the fact that we can never, ever measure up to the criteria.  We can never stand before a perfect, holy God and puff out our chest and say, “Give me what I deserve, God.  Remember, 'Well done.'  That is what I deserve to hear.”  The truth of the terrible news that we can never merit God's favor does not seem like a “light” burden.  But it is!  The burden is a featherweight, it is non-existent. What once was a crushing, oppressive, death-filled burden is now a blessing of life because instead of us laboring under our own strength and power, the yoke is pulled by Christ Himself.  And we have rest--rest from labor that leaves us weary with doubt, fatigue and ultimately death.  Christ pulls the yoke of our salvation so that, for us, it is easy and there is no burden.  God has done what the Law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. Romans 8:1-8, which begins with one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture, says this:

 “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:1–8, ESV)

The law of Moses could only lead to a knowledge of sin and ultimately death because, as sinful people, we are incapable of keeping it to God's perfect standard.  We are not able to live a life of perfection, so a message of “Do this and live” is not good news, it is a burden.  But, “there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.”  His perfect obedience is counted towards those who believe and God seals them with His very own Spirit, the Spirit who sets us free.  Not free from obeying God, but free to obey Him.   Because of the finished work of Christ we have been freed from our labor, and our burden, and have been given the law of liberty (James 1:25) that we may obey God properly. 

Because of the efforts of Christ, His perfect life and His sacrificial death, God the Father looks at the believer and pronounces them “Not guilty” of sin.  The sentence has been borne by the only one who could bear it, Jesus Christ the sinless God-man.  But it is not just our justification that Christ accomplishes, but it is even Him who works out our sanctification.  It is the Gospel message and the Spirit of God that fuels our obedience. Because of what He has done we are free.  Free from the wages of sin and free from the power of sin so that we may love God and obey God.  We can do this because of what Christ has done: calling us, saving us, and sealing us with His residing Spirit.  We can obey God because it is, once again, Christ pulling this yoke.  It is Christ who is ultimately fueling and empowering the efforts of the believer, to the point of it being Christ Himself who is doing it in us. 

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Galatians 2:15–21, ESV)

Paul is addressing the heresy of the Judaizers in the letter to the Galatians, people who wanted to add works to the grace of God in justification.  Paul's point over and over is that it is through the merit of Christ: His efforts, His works; we are made righteous.  And it is through the power of Christ that we live a life of obedience.  As Spurgeon would say, “The Christian life is all of grace”.  Does this mean that we do not play a role in our active obedience?  Are we not responsible to obey God and to follow Him fully?  Certainly, but the one who has faith in Jesus is bound by a law of liberty, the Law of the Spirit.  We are not only commanded to obey, we are enabled to do it.  Apart from the finished work of Christ, the law says “Do this and live”.  This is a burden, because we do not start at neutral, we start in the grave. “Do this and live” ultimately culminates in “I can't do this” and death.  But, because of the perfection, obedience, humility and sacrifice of Christ, the law of liberty says, “Do this because you live and because He lives in you.”  This is freedom! Not freedom from obedience (may sin increase so that grace should abound?!?!), but freedom to obedience.

Efforts to reach God apart from Christ are futile and lead to death.  Christ knew this and called all those who would labor, all those who would work and work and, in doing it, would be earning a wage of death.  He invited them, He invites us, to lay down their yoke of slavery and take up His yoke because He would, and only He could, pull it.  And normally, as Christians, we get this.  We affirm with the Apostle that “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,” (Ephesians 2:8, ESV) but when it comes to the Christian life we struggle with how much of obedience we are responsible for (works/effort) and how much God is responsible for(grace).  But this is not an either/or situation, it is a yes/and.  God requires our obedience (works/effort) but He accomplishes what He requires (grace).  Truly, apart from Christ we can accomplish nothing.  But in Christ, we can do all things (Philippians 4:13).  So we praise God in Christ, for He is not just the author, but also the perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2) who wills and works to conform us to His own image (Rom 8:29).  The Gospel of God's grace is the power unto salvation, from the very beginning all the way to the end.