The God of Rest

These posts are rough summaries of the Sunday messages.

Come to me, all who labour 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

Jesus was speaking into a universal problem when he addressed those who ‘labour and are heavy laden’. The relevance to us today is profound.

For one thing, we are all conscious of how challenging seasons of life can be, and how even in the good times we can experience the ongoing low-grade stress and tiredness of life. Why is this? The answer is surely that the world is broken. Everything that we experience that makes life difficult is described in the curse that God spoke over Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. As a result, relationships demand time and energy and are often a source of grief. Work is frustrating and often fruitless. Our bodies don’t operate at peak fitness all of the time (if ever). The very elements of nature seem to be set against us. It’s all there in Genesis 3.16-19. And while we could hardly pretend that life is more difficult in London than elsewhere, we can at least say that the strains of life are very obviously on view here.

Having said that, I would argue that the problem goes even deeper than our outward circumstances. It’s not just that relationships, or work, or our own bodies cause us to feel strained. The problem lies somewhere within, somewhere in the heart. Why?

We can think of it like this. In a sense, we are psychologically damaged. The word ‘psyche’ derives from a Greek word meaning ‘soul’, and that is the sense in which I am speaking. We are all soul-sick, if you like. We all have a deep soul-stress that is not necessarily connected with our circumstances, because it is deeper than our circumstances. Our souls are not at rest. 

The reason for this has to do with the same event we just mentioned in Genesis: the Fall. When God spoke the curse over Adam and Eve, along with all of the terrible consequences in their experience of life on this planet, the biggest problem was that they would be estranged from God. Suddenly, the love of God was not felt in the same way. Sin had separated them, and now us, from the Father, and as a result our souls are (without Christ) ‘heavy laden’ with this restlessness.

We see this in the countless ways that people make religious efforts to get right with God. Jesus is certainly addressing religious folk who knew what it was to feel ‘heavy laden’ on account of their religious efforts that were seemingly fruitless. But it’s not just religious people who feel this way. I would argue that the problem is clear in how we approach life in general; all around us we see people who are not at rest, not at peace, who ‘labour and are heavy laden’ because of this soul sickness.

What does it look like? It looks like a lack of peace. It looks like a drive for recognition (by whom? for what?). It looks like a general sense of failure or guilt all of the time. It looks like a longing for acceptance (again, from whom?). It looks like a striving, a searching, for who knows what.

And so, people seek to address this soul sickness in one of a few ways. Many people throw themselves into a whirlwind of activity and work to seek to attain what they think they need. Just this week I was reading about the current trend to outdo one another in how little sleep we get, and how early we rise. It’s common to hear of top executives getting up insanely early. Apparently, Tim Cook (chief at Apple) rises at 3.45am, but allowed himself a lie in after the Apple Watch was released, waking at 4.30am instead.

Others address this soul sickness by distracting themselves with friends, entertainment, diversions of all kinds. And others give in to despair and check out altogether. They just give up trying, and so instead of being burned out on over-work, they end up doing little with their lives. But, however this soul sickness comes out, the basic root problem is the same: a restlessness in the soul.

Now, against this backdrop of the problem of rest it is amazing to reread the Bible story and see how it speaks into this issue. It begins with God perfectly at rest, after creating the world (see Genesis 2.2-3). After the Fall, when humans lose this rest that was given to them by God, the story moves on until God calls a people to himself and commands them to rest (see Exodus 20.8-11). If we look at the end of the story, we see all of creation remade and God’s people in a permanent state of rest. (And, by the way, this does not mean inactivity. The rest we are speaking of is not doing nothing, it’s rather the opposite of the soul sickness; it’s rest and order and peace, even as we work.)

When we take a careful look at the passage in which God commands his people to rest, we learn a huge amount about the reasons for this command.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20.8-11)

Why is it so important to God? Why is this the fourth commandment (out of the Big Ten)? God is wanting to produce these seven results:

(1) Humility in rest. It says that ‘in six days the Lord made… and rested on the seventh’. It takes a special kind of pride to think that your work is more important to the smooth running of the world than God’s. If God can stop working, then he is teaching us not to see ourselves as so important that we can’t also stop.

(2) Dependence in rest. God commands them, ‘you shall not do any work’, and we can only imagine how difficult that must have been. Even today we experience a temptation (if we can put it like that) to work when we’re supposed to be resting. In our connected world, it’s hard to stop. But imagine how much harder it is to stop when you live hand-to-mouth. Stopping required a deep trust in God.

(3) Submission in rest. The command, ‘you shall not do any work’, was a matter of obedience. Why? Because God wanted his people to stand out among all the people on the earth as those who were marked by submission to him.

(4) Pattern of godliness in rest. Remember, the reason given for the command is that God himself rested after creating the world. And therefore, if we understand all of God’s commands as an effort to conform us to his image — to make us like him — then it follows that resting is godly. You literally become more like God when you copy his example.

(5) Worship in rest. The command was to ‘Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy’. When life is relentless, the first thing to give way is often our walk with God. Setting aside a Sabbath as holy was a means of recalibrating and restoring one's spirit in devotion to him.

(6) Blessing in rest. It says that ‘the Lord blessed the Sabbath day’, which means that the day itself was a blessing (as we’ve all experienced when we’ve enjoyed a day off work), but also, that God’s blessing flowed into their lives because they rested well.

(7) Shalom or peace in rest. It’s fascinating that the command is so totally thorough; every living thing was commanded to rest! Why? So that all of society would experience a peace in obedience.

If I could sum up all of these points, I believe the command to rest (which, we must recall, is right up there at number four in the Ten Commandments) was given in order that God’s people might enjoy and display something of God’s Kingdom. The rest that was lost at the Fall would be recovered in some small way each time Sabbath came around, anticipating the end when God’s rest would be restored universally.

This all brings us back around to the promise of Jesus when he called us to come to him. You see, despite the fact that God’s people had been living with the command to rest for centuries, it is clear that when Jesus looked at the crowd he saw people who were still soul-sick and troubled. Why? Well, part of the reason is that rest is not easy or simple. Even if we stop our work, we cannot so easily deal with the deeper problem that is caused by estrangement from God as Father.

Into this problem Jesus speaks, but he speaks in a slightly puzzling way. He seems to offer rest as a gift, for those who work (which, if you think about it, sounds contradictory). The condition for receiving his rest is that you take his yoke upon you, and as we know, a yoke is an instrument of labour, placed upon the shoulders of animals working the fields.

What does Jesus mean by all this? Later on Jesus criticises the religious elite in this way: ‘They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger’ (Matthew 23.4). When Jesus speaks to people who ‘labour and are heavy laden’, he is aware that all the answers that were on offer were not helping the situation — they were making it worse. When people turned for religious guidance to experience soul rest, they were left feeling even more weighed down and crushed.

But Jesus does not deal with us the same way the religious teachers dealt with the people then. Instead of laying burdens on us that we can’t bear, Jesus himself carried the burden in two ways. First, he carried the burden of the Law, by obeying it perfectly so that our measly efforts could never compare with his awesome competence and purity. And second, he carried the heavy wood of the cross when he went to die for our sins. So, when Jesus speaks of his yoke, he is not wanting us to see yet another job that we must do, yet another command we must fulfil. Instead, he wants us to pay attention to the fact that it’s his yoke, he is the one carrying it, and the invitation to come under his yoke is really an invitation to enjoy all the benefits of his work for free.

If you are weary, or depressed, or anxious, or guilty, or striving for something, Jesus is speaking to you. His one condition is that you ‘come’. It means that you have to stop your silly efforts to justify yourself and carry your own yoke, and instead accept that he has done it for you.

To become a Christian, and to walk in the good of being a Christian, is to experience a permanent Sabbath rest. All of the reasons God created the Sabbath are now blessings that we enjoy through Christ. Are you in need of this rest? Then come.