“How to Take a Real Rest”

Matthew 11:20-30

Up to this point in our reading of the Gospel of Matthew we have seen Jesus come on to the scene, announcing the Kingdom. We have seen the gracious Jesus who invites all to join Him. We have seen the compassionate Jesus who reaches out to the sick and the hurting. 

We like this Jesus! 

He cares about the little guy and sticks up for those who have been mistreated. Now, in today’s Scripture we read about an intense Jesus, who almost seems mean. 

Wow! What happened? 

There are a myriad of reactions that could occur at this point. Someone could think, well, Jesus is the Son of God, He can say and do anything He wants. 

Others may be thinking, what is this, “bait and switch”? First Jesus is nice to everyone and now He’s condemning people? And then there could be many thoughts in between. 

What is Jesus doing here? 

Is it as long as you accept Jesus, He is nice, but if you reject Him, He becomes mean? 

Does Jesus get angry because people were rejecting Him, so it’s off to hell with you? 

In chapters 11-12, Matthew has put together a group of stories about how people have been responding to what Jesus has been doing in His ministry. In today’s Scripture we read how some people totally rejected Jesus. So much so that Jesus has placed a prophetic doom on three towns or villages that have rejected His offer of the Kingdom of God. 

This passage marks a change in Jesus’ proclamations. 

Up to this point Jesus has been addressing the poor, healing people, proclaiming hope and peace. Now we read how He assigned whole towns to go to death or the grave. Jesus has taken on the role of a Hebrew prophet and in doing so He has proclaimed a warning of impending doom. His warnings demonstrate how serious Jesus was and how He fully comprehended the political situation of Roman occupation in the first century. 

This story still has the ability to impact us today. But before we take our 21st century mindset and use it to understand the 1st century, I think it is important for us to step out of our own thinking and try to place ourselves back in the day and time of Jesus. This is the first mention of judgment we have read in the book of Matthew. 

And in order to place this judgment correctly in our century, we need to comprehend what was happening in the first century. In order to help us with this task, I would like to approach this story from two perspectives. 

First, from the perspective of a French author and the second from the perspective of an ancient Hebrew prophet. 

First, let’s reflect on the story of a French author, Victor Hugo and his story, “Les Miserables.” Does anyone recall this story? I will summarize it briefly. The main character, Jean Valjean, started out as a simple and decent man but ends up in prison for stealing bread in order to survive. He was then given a longer sentence because he tried to escape. Eventually he served his time and was able to leave prison but his countenance has hardened. 

As an ex-con he was unable to find a job or a place to stay, until he met the Christian Bishop Myriel who was kind and compassionate. The Bishop takes Jean in and gives him a meal and a place to stay. As Jean was eating dinner in an ornate dining room, he couldn’t help but look around and notice all the expensive silverware. At this point, as a hardened criminal, he was thinking “opportunity.”  So, that evening he leaves his bedroom, bags up all the silverware and off he goes. The police see him leave the house with the bag on his back and immediately catch him. They bring him back to the house, wake up the Bishop, who unexpectedly responds with, “But Jean, how silly of you, you forgot the silver candlesticks.” He hands Jean Valjean the candlesticks and the police go away. What happens next is an internal struggle for Jean Valjean. In the movie, it is not captured as well as it is in the book. 

In the book, the story stops and you read this long internal dialogue that Jean Valjean has within himself. He’s not leaping for joy that he has been forgiven. In fact, he becomes deeply scandalized by the gift of grace. A colosial struggle was generated between Jean’s viciousness and the graciousness of the Bishop. He was this hardened man because of the difficult life he has had to endure and his faith in human goodness was at an all time low. Then, out of the blue this amazing gift of grace and generosity was given him, that he didn’t deserve. He struggles with this gift, because he recognizes if he chooses to do what comes naturally to survive, save his skin and take the silver, he will remain unchanged. This thought terrifies him because he knows, if he doesn’t change, it is going to cement him in his stubbornness and evil. But at the same time, he was terrified to accept the act of grace because he recognizes he would have to absolutely change forever. 

Yes, he has been forgiven, but at the same time he will be eternally in debt to this priest if he accepts it, which becomes a scandal of grace. So, this offer of grace forces Jean Valjean to make a decision about what kind of human he is going to become. Is he going to accept grace, or do what comes naturally and reject it and remain hardened and evil.

Seems to me, in today’s Scripture story, Jesus sees himself like the character of the Bishop. Jesus has been offering the Kingdom. Which is an offering of grace to Israel, a new way of being the covenant people of God. Many will accept that offer and many will reject Him. So the emotion that Jesus shows here is an emotion of extreme compassion and grief. 

Victor Hugo gives us a contemporary means of understanding why Jesus was feeling and saying what we have read. 

Now I would like to give a view from Isaiah, the Hebrew prophet because Jesus’ proclamations of woes on these villages was precisely something that Isaiah had done centuries before. When we look at what Jesus was saying from a prophetic viewpoint we begin to understand His words like those who heard it when Jesus said it. Initially, when we first read this passage it may sound like Jesus was condemning these villages to hell. But that is not what was happening. 

When we look at verse 23, 

And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.

Where is Hades? Hades is a Greek word, which does not mean “hell” but is a word for the grave, or a place where you put the dead. 

Who is Jesus addressing? 

Three towns, Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum.

This may sound funny to us, because we don’t go around addressing towns. Basically the towns didn’t repent. Which in the Bible, the word repent, means turn around, take a different path in life. Jesus has a great deal of caring emotion, because He looks at these towns and He realizes they have made the decision not to repent. He has been appealing to these towns to go towards the Kingdom because the path they were remaining on leads straight to the grave. Like the Bishop offered Jean Valjean a different way to change the course of his life, Jesus was offering these towns to come to a different kind of kingdom.   

Where does Isaiah the prophet fit in? 

It begins back where God rescued the Israelites out of Egypt, and took them to Mt. Sinai and gave them the Ten Commandments, along with 603 more. These were to help the Israelites become a people of extreme generosity and holiness, set apart from the other nations, a light on the hill. As we read in our study of the Old Testament, the Israelites didn’t do a very good job at that task. They kept failing everywhere they turned. That is why there are fifteen books of prophets in our Old Testament. God sent prophets to His people to warn them and guide them to walk towards God. This is where Isaiah comes in. As a prophet, Isaiah was called to be a watchdog for the covenant relationship the chosen people were to have with God. 

If you recall our study of the Book of Isaiah you would remember that the majority of the time Isaiah was telling the Israelites to repent, turn from their wicked ways, because he could see where they were heading. 

At a certain point Isaiah realized most people were not listening to him and the leaders of Israel were rejecting his message. Isaiah 5:11-13

Woe to those who rise early in the morning

    to run after their drinks,

who stay up late at night

    till they are inflamed with wine.

They have harps and lyres at their banquets,

    pipes and timbrels and wine,

but they have no regard for the deeds of the Lord,

    no respect for the work of his hands.

Therefore my people will go into exile

Isaiah can see a hundred years down the line. The Babylonians will capture them and it will look like this, 

verse 14, 

Therefore Death expands its jaws,

    opening wide its mouth;

into it will descend their nobles and masses

    with all their brawlers and revelers.

Powerful poetry.


Israelites are taken off to Babylon, for hundreds of years and there is just silence. Eventually some of them come back to Israel, we read about this in Ezra and Nehemiah. They return to the Promised Land and establish the temple. However, for the rest of Israel’s history, they are under the authority of other nations, with military occupation. It begins with the Persians and changes over time until we get to Jesus’ day when the Roman Empire has control. 

Day to day, Roman soldiers were everywhere with random violence and heavy taxation in order to keep things under control. This is the world Jesus grew up in. There were a variety of different responses from the Israelites to the Roman occupation. There were those like Matthew who decided if you can ‘t beat ‘um, join ‘um. Until Jesus approaches Matthew and explains a better way to be a human being and he repents and follows Jesus. There was another type of response, one of militant rebellion. Israelite freedom fighters, who thought they would create the kingdom of God through Roman blood. Jesus also recruited one of these men, Simon the Zealot. 

Whatever Jesus thought He was doing when He was offering the Kingdom, He was convinced Israel was repeating this story all over again. He sees Himself in the role of the prophet, warning Israel not to go down the wrong road and again it’s not going to end well. 

Jesus offers the way of the Kingdom as the new way for the people of Israel to be in covenant with God. Jesus was also aware that the Kingdom’s way went against all of their natural instincts. For example, Roman soldiers would come through and pillage their town, take advantage of their women, burn some buildings, have a drunken riot and then they would move on. 

What would be your natural response to this? 

What do you want to do with those Roman soldiers? 

You’d want to kill them. 

Stop and think how, if you were there, you would hear the prophet Jesus. Think about the Sermon on the Mount. Why do you think Jesus talked so much about revenge and retaliation and not responding to evil with evil and abandoning violence? You remember, love your enemy. Because that is precisely where these people were at, on a daily basis. 

Jesus saw Himself as a prophet and He was calling Israel to repent and to also embrace a different way in being the covenant people with God. As He begins to see people in these towns rejecting Him and His message He knows where this leads. He’s seen it play itself out in Israel’s history before. So He uses the language of the prophet Isaiah and tells people, this is not going to end well, it is going to end in the grave. 

Why these three towns?

Jesus has chosen these three towns on purpose to give this message. These three fishing villages were at the base of the hills where the zealots had their headquarters. The major vigilante group used these three cities as recruiting centers to rile up their base for fighting the enemy, the Roman soldiers. Jesus knew this was happening and He also knew that because of this, people were rejecting His message. Consider the contrast Jesus was presenting. 

The Roman soldiers just pillaged your town and instead of saying let’s go out and kill them, Jesus was saying, no, let’s hold a prayer meeting for them. Let’s meet their violence and evil with acts of goodness and kindness. 

The people looked at Jesus and thought, “You’re crazy!” 

What good would that do? You think the Roman soldiers are going to respond differently because I am nice? 

You are out of your mind Jesus!

But for Jesus, He sees it as a turning point. Because if you reject Jesus’  message, it means you choose to do what comes naturally and what comes naturally leads to the grave. 

Putting this all together, you would think that Jesus would be devastated by people rejecting Him. 

However, He wasn’t. 

He does have strong emotions but as we continue on in the Scripture, Jesus finds a strange comfort, look at verses 25-26,

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

Again, a vision of the upside-down Kingdom. Jesus has praise for the Father as those who were in power were blind to God’s message, but the lower people, hear and follow, and Jesus refers to them as little children. Here we are given a paradox, where the leaders should be able to discern the Messiah, but they were clueless. But the no-name fisherman, and sick people and tax collectors, and the unimportant people were the ones who made up the growing movement of Jesus. 

They were the ones who got it. They have turned. They have embraced a new way of being human beings. 

The idea of an upside down kingdom doesn’t begin with the Sermon on the Mount. It has been God’s theme since the beginning. 

Look back at how Israel began, with an eighty year old couple who weren’t able to have children. 


Then God wants to rescue the whole nation of Egypt, oh, let’s use a snotty nosed punk teenage Israelite whose brothers hate him and sell him into slavery into Egypt. 


We need a king for Israel? How about the runt of the litter, David, he was not even in the line up. This has been how the God of Israel works. The God of Israel continually “opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Proverbs 3:34.

Think about it. Israel’s leaders have everything to lose if they follow Jesus. They would have to admit they were dead wrong. But the little children, what do they have to lose? They are already nobodies. They just need to recognize their neediness which is already clear to everyone else around them. 

How do we come to recognize Jesus for who He really is?

Think back to the story of the Bishop. It happens when we respond to the offer of grace. We can intellectually put all of the information Jesus provides and rearrange it in our head, but until we put this knowledge into action, it’s just knowledge. But when we actually step out and follow Jesus, we begin to see Him for who He really is. I have spent most of my life trying to wrap my head around the truth about Jesus and the truth of the Bible and where it all came from. 

Those questions keep coming up and they are crucially important but Jesus becomes real to me, not when I have ideas all organized in my head correctly, it’s when I reject my natural human responses and I make decisions that seem crazy to me, but they are decisions that are following the way of Jesus. That is when Jesus is not an idea but a presence and a reality. That is the presence of the living God. Those who try to make sense of it from their own perspective will not be able to see it. 

Jesus knows this is going to be hard. Look at how He ends this passage, verses 28-30,

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus acknowledges that what He is inviting people to come and be a part in, is difficult. 

But the decision He puts in front of us is what is actually more difficult?

What you can do is keep going the way you are going in your life, using your natural instincts, and Jesus tells us where that story ends up, in the grave. 

But if we follow the way of Jesus, in verses 28 and 29, Jesus tells us, we will find rest. But notice we don’t escape our burdens. He doesn’t say, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and you won’t have any more burdens.” Actually, He says I have a small burden to put on you, it’s called my yoke. His yoke is used as a metaphor for His teaching and His way of life. 

Turning, repenting is very difficult. Life is hard. There are so many complex situations. 

Think about it, you were living in one of the three cities Jesus spoke about and you’re listening to how Jesus was telling you to respond to the Romans, and then you have Simone the Zealot and he was telling you how to respond to the Romans, then there is Matthew the tax collector, he offers another way, talk about complex. 

How are you supposed to make decisions? 

How do you know what is the right thing to do?

It’s the burden we have in living in such a broken and compromised world. It’s very difficult, and Jesus knows that. Following Jesus doesn’t mean escaping all of that complexity and all our burdens. But it does transform how we carry them. 

Let’s say you have a 50 pound backpack on your back. You are carrying it around and after a few hours it begins to feel like 75 pounds. 

What Jesus was saying was you don’t get to escape your burdens. Instead you take your burdens and put them in this wagon and attach the wagon to His yoke, the way of Jesus. You are still pulling all of the weight except the yoke is distributing the weight. Now you are pulling 50 pounds, but it feels like 35 pounds, because its design decreases the burden. You carry it in a way that doesn’t crush you. This new way transforms your experience of the burden. Love instead of hate. No more fighting. Focus on peace. Think Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. Not easy but definitely a way of rest. 

Jesus was making an offer that He knows is difficult. If we look at the Sermon on the Mount we see that it wasn’t just violence that was difficult. Jesus talked about money, relationships and sex and if you plop them into the 21st century, they seem as crazy to us as peacemaking did to them. It’s difficult to follow Jesus and He knows that. 

But if we follow our instincts and what comes natural as a human being, where does that lead? Where did it leave these towns? Jesus offers a new way that paradoxically becomes a way of rest. As we carry our burdens, we find a way of rest when we carry the yoke of Jesus. 

What does this mean to us? 

Basically, following Jesus is as counterintuitive for us as it was for those in the first century. So what I would suggest, right now as we close our worship time, is we ask Jesus to bring insight into our lives. We all have complex situations that we are in, whether it’s in your workplace, where there are decisions in front of you and what’s the ethical thing to do. There are some relationships in our lives that are in tension, did you do it first or did they do it first? And who is supposed to be the one to forgive the other? There are all these areas, with money, sex, relationships, and it is so hard to follow Jesus. I suggest we ask Jesus, He knows what’s going on. Let’s ask Jesus for wisdom. What is the way of rest? How can I find rest in the middle of this situation? What is the way of following Jesus in our situations? Ask Jesus to guide you.

By turning to Jesus, seeking His kingdom answer to the struggles we have, we begin to experience Jesus in ways we may have never imagined. 

It’s where we can find real rest from our burdens. 


Let’s pray.