Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Great Invitation: Unforced Rhythms of Grace

Top 12 Scripture Texts: Number 7B
Matthew 11:28-30
Bob Rakestraw

Last time we began to look at one of the most remarkable passages in all of the Bible. I have called it “The Great Invitation.” These astounding words of Jesus are found in Matthew 11:28-30.

"Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke fits perfectly, and the burden I give you is light” (New Living Translation).

This scripture portion has been one of my top-twelve all-time favorites for over four decades, but it has become especially meaningful—even revolutionary—to me during the past few weeks. What has helped me so greatly in my practical, everyday life has been there all the time, looking out at me from the gospel of Matthew and even stored in my memory. I wrote about the new insight in my previous posting, so I will only briefly review it here.

In essence, I realized I had been denying the full truth of Matthew 11:30. I felt that the yoke of Christ was uncomfortable, and that his burden was heavy. I was resting in the knowledge of sins forgiven, eternal life, and the truth that he was working everything—even adversity—for my good. I was also looking to God daily for strength, patience, and love. But I found life hard. I came to see that I needed to make a major attitude adjustment, which I have begun to do during the past few weeks. While I still find external aspects of life difficult, especially because of my poor health, I am now viewing my life from a different perspective. I am focusing on the grace-full quality of Christ’s expectations for me (his “easy” yoke) and the true lightness of the burden he places on me daily.

Before I move on, I want to present Eugene H. Peterson’s paraphrase of our text in The Message:

"Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly" (Matthew 11:28-30).

Only in Matthew’s gospel do we find this remarkable invitation. It follows Jesus’ words of thankfulness to his Father, and his joy in the Spirit at the divine revelation of God’s secrets to “infants”—those who are not proud of their position or intellectual skills, but are simple, dependent, and eager to learn God’s teachings (Matthew 11:25-27; Luke 10:21).

The Order in Jesus Invitation

It is quite helpful to note the order in Jesus’ invitation. He first says, “Come to me.” In the original language this is not so much an imperative as an urging, “Come, come on,” Jesus says. You are so tired and worn out from the pressures of life and heaviness of your load, that you need to come to me. The pronoun “me” is emphatic; no one else will do. The invitation is to all: young, old, boys, girls, men, women, educated, unskilled, religious, non-religious, and whatever color or race you are. Literally: “Come on to me, all of you, you ones becoming weary and being burdened, and I (emphatic) will refresh you and rest you.” I am the one who is able and willing to help you—to teach you the things that are hidden from the proud and arrogant but are revealed to you who come to me as infants.

The second and third steps of Jesus’ invitation are imperatives, and are meant to be observed closely together: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” “Take” is “lift up, take up” my yoke—this symbol of your obligation, loyalty, submission, and discipleship to me. This is an act of the will, just as when we come to Jesus at first. We see Jesus holding out his yoke to us—an easy, gentle frame to help us pull or carry our burdens through life. Jesus is not saying that we will have no burdens, but that he will teach us to pull them and carry them in such a way—figuratively speaking—that does not jerk our bones or tear into our flesh. His yoke is gentle (literally kind, good, comfortable).

The yoke in biblical times was a wooden bar that connected two or more draft animals at their necks so that they might work effectively together, pulling a plow or load or working in other ways. This is the literal sense of the word. The Bible also uses the term metaphorically to refer to work or bondage (Genesis 27:40). Sometimes the yoke was placed on God’s people by foreign rulers and sometimes by Israel’s own kings (2 Chronicles 10:4-14). When a person carried a yoke, he or she would carry it on one’s shoulders as a sign of submission to the ruling power (Jeremiah 27:2-12). Jewish people spoke of carrying the yoke of God’s law and the yoke of his kingdom, which one accepted by acknowledging that God was one and by keeping his commandments. Our “Great Invitation” text immediately precedes a passage showing how the “yoke” of God’s law, as interpreted by the Jewish leaders, was a miserable, harsh, and legalistically weighty burden (Matthew 12:1-14). How refreshing Jesus’ words would have been to them!

The Ongoing Cycle

There is a continuing cycle in these verses, beginning with one’s initial coming to Christ at conversion. Jesus is saying, “Come on.” (I picture him with outstretched arms, perhaps on the cross, or maybe in a recliner chair.) We come to him and receive forgiveness of sins and a new relationship with God. This is called regeneration—the “new birth.” People who become weary enough, or burdened enough by their sin and other trials, come to Jesus for that initial rest he gives. Jesus then, knowing that we are made for work—knowing that fruitful, honest labor is good for us—offers us his yoke. We place his yoke on our shoulders and find that it is surprisingly comfortable. It fits well and feels good as we learn (become discipled by experience) from observing and serving with Jesus (learn “from me” is emphatic—we must learn ultimately from the Master himself). We learn because he is such a humble teacher, not arrogant or rough with us, and we learn that he is humble and willing to take the lower position, being humble in his heart.

It is when we become diverted from this God-ordained cycle that we find ourselves becoming weary, overloaded, and stressed-out again. Then we need to come to Jesus again, admitting that we have been trying to handle life in our own strength. He rests us again, offers to exchange his yoke for the painful one we somehow managed to pick up, and then we get back to plowing the fields—living life—and learning from our Master Teacher again. We find it so much easier that we wonder why we moved away from him. We seem to need to learn this lesson over and over in life, yet Jesus still stands there, arms outstretched, saying “C’mon, Come to me.”

Community and Commitment

There are two final thoughts that should be mentioned before we close this piece. First, in Matthew 11:28-29, from the exclamation, “Come on,” to the mention of rest for our souls, the language is plural. Jesus is addressing all of us, and saying that we all need to do this together. Of course, each person individually needs to come to Christ, but even here others usually need to help us come. And when we are his disciples, we need to learn from Jesus together. It is too difficult to serve God as lone-rangers. We simply will not do it well, and others will know we are not doing it well. Take Jesus’ yoke, learn and serve people together, and, as a group committed to Christ and to one another, you will find rest for your souls.

Second, already obvious from above, there is no distinction in the teachings of Jesus, or in the New Testament, between receiving Jesus as Savior and receiving Jesus as Lord. There is no use in asking whether The Great Invitation is Jesus’ appeal for “salvation” or for “discipleship.” Yes, the word for “disciple” (“learn”) is found in the middle of verse 29, but this is expressed as part of the one invitation: “Come…take my yoke…learn.” Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee of our lives and calls us to come—at whatever stage in life we are, and in whatever spiritual condition. The solution to our weary, restless, burned-out souls is the same: “Come to me.… Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me, and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (The Message).


Anonymous said...

Hello Bob!

Great to read your new post. Beautiful stuff, as usual! We've been thinking about you a lot these days. If you're up to it, Stevie and I would love to come and see you! I can't remember the best time to call and I don't want to be a bother. Would you call me?

Oceans of Love to You and Judy,

Anonymous said...

Bob, I love it so much when you exegete and then reflect upon reminds me of listening to Don doing that with students and others...

This is deep Truth, and so well expressed. You and Judy are in my prayers, as always.


Anonymous said...

Hi Bob;

Thank you for unwrapping grace and truth in this passage.

May God's unhurried rhythms of grace be yours today as you rest in his arms.


Rosemary said...

I am printing this segment out to reflect and dwell on over the next few days. It is so sweet and simple, the concept of resting. This world is weary and Jesus makes it so simple. Love you, Rosemary