Jesus’ Invitation for Rest and Discipleship – Part 1
Jesus’ invitation to come to Him for rest and discipleship in Matthew 11:28-30 is one of the most comforting and memorable passages in the Bible. In a world of rising expectations and stresses it beckons those who are spiritually famished and thirsty: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Jesus can refresh us, teach us His ways, and give us purpose. It is a passage worth memorizing.
The beauty of the passage is magnified by an understanding of its context. One of the risks in the isolated use of popular and beautiful passages like this is that they are frequently lifted out of their immediate contexts. These contexts can provide insights into the world around the passages and thus supply stronger and clearer understandings of their meaning.
The purpose of this article is to examine Jesus’ wonderful invitation in its context and see how understanding this context can give us a firmer grasp of the beauty and power of the passage. It can also help us make Jesus’ invitation real to others who need to hear it.
The events of Matthew 11 and 12 that surround our passage occur during Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Jesus has been “going about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the gospel of their kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness” (9:35b). He feels compassion for the multitudes and tells His disciples to pray for “the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest” (9:38b). This is clearly a context of evangelism, spreading the good news, that is born of God’s love and compassion.
Jesus’ True IdentityA close look at the context also reveals that the question of Jesus’ identity is a major theme for Matthew here. In chapter 11, Matthew records a series of exchanges between Jesus and: 1) His disciples and their cities (11:1); 2) John’s disciples (11:2-6); 3) the multitudes, (11: 7 - 15); 4) the cynical of “this generation” (11: 16-19); 5) Chorazin , Bethsaida and Capernaum, unrepentant cities on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee (11:20-24) ; 6) God His Father (11:25-27); and 7) those who will humble themselves and come to Him (11:28-30). The exchanges with John’s disciples, the multitudes and the unrepentant cities each involve some clarification about Jesus’ identity. His invitation also tells us about His character. We see John’s keen interest in who Jesus is. Hearing “of the woks the Christ (the Messiah , or Anointed One),” John wants to know if the Jesus is the “Coming One” (11: 2-3) . In reply, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 35:5 and 61:1, clearly identifying himself with God’s concern for the down-trodden and His promise to restore His people. He has come with good news. Jesus goes on to tell the crowds that John is the messenger who would prepare the way for the Messiah. He refers to Himself as the Son of Man. He pronounces woe on Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum because they did not recognize him by His miracles and repent. In chapter 12 Matthew continues to look at the issue of Jesus’ identity in a series of His exchanges with the legalistic Pharisees, the Scribes and the multitudes. None of the three groups is clear about who He really is. To help clear up the uncertainty, Jesus advances His identity as “something greater than the temple” (12:6), “the Son of Man” (12:8-32) “Lord of the Sabbath” (12:8), and “something greater than Jonah”(12-41). In quoting Isaiah 42:1-3, Matthew identifies Jesus as the Lord’s Servant in whose name the Gentiles will hope (12:18-20). Here again the emphasis is on the proclamation of Jesus’ identify in the context of sharing the good news of God’s offer of salvation. Matthew placed Jesus’ invitation in the context of these verses, with questions about His identity, to make the good news and invitation of Jesus appealing to those who need to respond to him. In concluding His assertions about Himself, Jesus offers the Pharisees the sign of Jonah: the gospel (good news) of His death, burial, and resurrection (12: 39-41). Jesus died for us, taking upon Himself punishment for sin so we do not have to do it ourselves. Jesus identifies Himself with whoever would “do the will of My Father who is in heaven.” He calls them “My brother and sister and mother” (12:50b). There are two contrasting moods in these chapters. The first and last from 11:1-24 and 12;1-50 are serious, containing references from the prophets. The words Jesus uses to pronounce woes on the unrepentant cities are prophetic (11:20-24). The mood of the last six verses of Matthew 11 is increasingly uplifting, inspiring, and tranquil. Jesus draws a sharp contrast between those who are condemned (the unrepentant cities), and those who are accepted because of: 1) the revelation of the Father, 2) the agency of the Son and 3) the Son’s gentle invitation. We also receive the bonus of a short but very beautiful and meaningful glimpse of Jesus’ character. He describes Himself as “meek and humble in heart.” This is the meekness of power under control for the service of God and others. He humbly submits His life entirely into God’s care, accepting the purpose and provision of His Father.
God’s RestMatthew’s account of this invitation of Jesus is unique, one of a kind. There are no direct parallels for it in the other gospels, though there are parallels for the other passages around it. It is highly likely that Matthew has a reason for placing Jesus’ invitation to rest and discipleship as the mid-point and focus of these chapters. There is a definite movement and tension in the exchanges with various sets of characters leading up to, and following from, Jesus’ invitation. In contrast to this tension, Jesus offers rest. This word “rest” comes from two others, “stop” and “again.” The tension and weariness stop when Jesus refreshes us. It prepares us to learn and work with Him. In His gracious invitation, Jesus quotes words from the fourth line of Jeremiah 6:16, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, Where the way is, and walk in it; And you shall find rest for your souls.” In Jeremiah 6:17, “But they said, “‘We will not walk in it.’” Centuries before Jesus came to earth, Jeremiah associated rest with walking in God’s ways, being His disciple. God the Father and Jesus set the agenda; the work and methods are theirs. As we act on His instructions and follow His teachings, we find the rest He promises.
His YokeJesus’ invitation follows His thanksgiving to God for the revealing these things to little children, to those who are spiritually open to Him (11:25-27). It is an invitation in keeping with the good news of Jesus’ death for our forgiveness. It is about responding to God and coming to know the Father and the Son. It calls for action on our part. Jesus invites us to become his disciples. Jesus’ command to come is followed by two more: 1) to take His yoke, 2) to learn. His rest is not the rest of idleness, but the fruit of a disciplined life of following His teachings. A yoke is an instrument of labour and service, one that equalises the load between two or more efforts. It optimises the exertion of the pull so that it is most effective and shared. We learn of Jesus not just through information sharing, but by working with Him. Paul Birston