Experiencing God’s Rest

Please turn with me in your bibles again to Matthew chapter 11. Matthew Chapter 11.

Two weeks ago I preached from this text I did a high-level overview of the restless condition in which man has existed ever since the entrance of sin into this world.

Sin, as we saw from Genesis 3, has brought with it several aspects of the curse that plague mankind in every aspect of our lives. There is unrest in our work, unrest in our relationships, unrest in our souls because of enmity with God, unrest in our physical bodies.

And it is within that context that I argued that Jesus’s promise of rest in Matthew 11 is given. And that promise of rest is finally and fully given to us in heaven, which is pictured in scripture as a place of rest.

But several conversations this week left me with the impression that I need to press the subject a little more fully. The previous sermon could leave us with a misleading impression.

Everyone agreed that restlessness dominates the world and the majority of our Christian experience in this age. But, does that mean that we are doomed to experience nothing but restlessness of soul until we meet the Lord? Is there any hope of experiencing rest in this age?

Or to put it more pointedly, is the rest that Jesus offers to us only to be experienced in heaven? Or is he offering to us something that we can and should experience now, as believers living out the remainder of their days in this sinful, fallen world?

That’s a great question, that I’d like to look at tonight. Let’s begin by reading our text in Matthew chapter 11, verses 25-30 again, and from there we will be pulling in relevant texts from all across the bible. Matthew 11:25:

25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children;26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 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.30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

In this sermon I’d like to show us from scripture that God means for us to experience real, genuine, although incomplete, rest in this age. Even with the presence of sin and the curse in this age, God has given us several graces to help us experience this rest that Jesus promises us in Matthew 11.

And those graces, or at least the ones I am going to cover tonight, are: sleep, sabbath, food, and friends. Sleep, sabbath, food, and friends. I’ve been helped by the work of Christopher Ash in this area, a British theologian, so I’d encourage you to get his book on burnout if you’d like to read more deeply on the subject.[1] But let’s begin by thinking about sleep.

It may seem like a no brainer, but if you want to experience the fullness of rest that God would have for you in this age, then you need to think about what the Bible says about sleep.

It’s remarkable to me the number of people that I have talked to, that I have counseled through exhaustion and burnout and depression, who have a woefully deficient view of their own creaturely-ness. Of their own finitude.

Now I’m not talking about when God’s providence requires you to endure a season of lack of sleep, like when a newborn is in the house. I’m talking about people that fail to experience a sense of rest in their souls because of their own neglect of physical rest, namely sleep.

For example, when I was in seminary, I remember talking with a young man who was struggling with exhaustion and depression. He was recounting to me how he never seems to have enough time to do everything he needs to do, and that he feels tired all the time. He wasn’t able to ever get enough sleep.

Now he was a young man, pretty fit, and looked pretty healthy. But as I questioned him about his habits, it became clear that he wasn’t operating in a sustainable pattern. His diet consisted of nearly exclusively drinking coffee and energy drinks. And he didn’t see any problem with that, and then he was shocked when he had trouble getting to sleep at night.

Sleeping is one of the patterns that God has created for us to operate in, and for us to willfully neglect that pattern, is usually rooted in sin in on our part.

Some people neglect sleep because of pridefully inflated view of their own importance. They may think to themselves, if I don’t get ahead on work, if I don’t get it done, then who else will do it? And so they work and work and work because they can have a bit of a messiah complex. I have to do it, because nobody else will.

Others neglect sleep because they have a fear of man. They are afraid of disappointing people, of not measuring up, so they say yes to too many things. They overfill their schedules to the point that they can’t even get enough sleep.

Others neglect sleep because they have a flawed view of their own makeup, of their being made of dust. These people, often younger people, think that they can rest when they are dead, or maybe just rest when they are older. They forget that they are dust, they are finite, they are necessarily limited in their capacities, and they neglect their sleep out of foolishness.

Some might neglect sleep because they are sinfully anxious. In the words of Psalm 127, they are eating the bread of anxious toil. They let their mind linger on things that are unhelpful, and don’t offer that care up to God in prayer.

Others might neglect sleep because they are sinfully comparing themselves to others. They look around and see other people with greater output, greater ability to produce fruitful work, and they think that they have to keep up.

They inwardly disdain the fact that God might have given other people greater gifts and capacities for work, and they try in their own strength to keep up, neglecting sleep, to their own detriment.

Whatever the reason behind it willfully and pridefully neglecting sleep is both unwise and sinful. It’s unwise because, as we have all experienced, because when we are tired, we’re more prone to succumb to temptation.

You know this from your experience too. When you are tired, you’re less likely to be patient. More prone to be irritated and angry. You’re more prone to depression and anxiety.

Further, willfully and habitually neglecting sleep is a form of self-harm, which is a species of sin underneath the sixth commandment, you shall not murder. When you willfully and persistently neglect sleep, you’re not merely exposing yourself to greater temptation to sin, you are also harming your body.

Sustained neglect of sleep messes with your hormone levels, your appetite, and your overall physical well-being. It can lead to premature ageing, poor eating habits, decreased ability to regulate your emotional health, and all manner of problems.

But let’s step back for a moment and ask ourselves a question: why would God design us this way? Why would he make sleep so central to our proper function and spiritual health? Or we could even frame the question more theologically: is it sleep that makes me more holy? Or is it the holy spirit?

I seem to be more holy when I am well rested, so it my holiness the result of my sleeping patterns or is it the result of the Spirit’s work within me?

The think the answer to that question is yes. It’s both. In God’s design, he’s intended for us to spend 1/3 of our lives in an unconscious state of sleep. And he’s done that for our good, to remind us of our creature-liness, of our status as creatures.

The world keeps spinning, even when you are asleep. The kingdom keeps advancing, because Christ is building his church, not you. The crops in the field keep growing, not because of your strength, but because the Lord sustains them.

Our pridefully inflated view of our own importance, of our own status as crucial, leads us to think that we are like God, who never sleeps. And that tempts us to forget that we are creatures.

When God saved you, he wasn’t bringing you on his team to be a partner. He wasn’t looking to bring on another person just like him. He wasn’t making you another God like Him. No. He knows what you are, because he made you.

Psalm 103 says For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.

He doesn’t want you to try and be a messiah, making sure all the work gets done and never resting. He wants to you rest.

In fact, looking at the Psalms again, we see a glorious promise. Psalm 127 says that God gives to his beloved sleep, or rest.

God gives sleep to his beloved children. They don’t have to slave away all the time. They don’t have to worry that if they don’t get it all done, then it won’t get done. They don’t have to rush around and be in a hurry. They don’t have to sustain themselves on anxiety, eating the bread of anxious toil.

They can rest, because God has promised good to them. God has promised to sustain them. Just like he provided manna in the wilderness and water from the rock, he will sustain them along the journey to our heavenly promised land. And that means that we can rest. We can sleep.

It’s the Lord that watches over the us. He’s the watchman that never sleeps nor slumbers, the Psalmist says. He provides protection and security for us, so we can close our eyes and let our guard down. He’s the one that provides us the sleep that we need.

Sleep is not a liability. It is a necessity, and it is a blessed gift from Him so that we can experience a bit more rest for our souls.

But it is not the only gift. Another gift that aids us in experiencing rest for our souls, is sabbath. Sabbath rest.

Like we noted last week, the person that offers us rest in Matthew 11, is also the God who himself has rested in Genesis 2. He chose to create the world and everything in it in 6 days, but his creation week was not yet finished. He also took another day to rest, to stop, and thereby to set a pattern for us.

That pattern is 6 and 1. 6 days of work and one day of rest. Just like God intended us to spend 1/3 of our lives in unconscious sleep to remind us of our finitude and our status as dependent creatures, so too has God intended for us to spend our time in a way that reminds us of our status as creatures.

We don’t have to wonder what proportion of our time to give to work, and what to give to rest. He’s established the pattern for us. And in as much as we are made in the image of God himself, we ought to imitate our father in observing his ordained pattern.

He’s given us a sabbath day, 1/7 of our time, to remind us of several important lessons. For example, the weekly experience of sabbath is a blessing to us because it reminds us that work is a great gift, but a terrible idol. Work is a great gift, but a terrible idol.

In this fallen world, we’re prone to imbalance. We either fail to work faithfully in the six days, and act like the sluggard in proverbs, or we’re prone to be workaholics, slaving away for all seven days a week. Never turning off. Never shutting down. Never taking a break.

But God has provided a better way, in the gift of the sabbath. We don’t have to be enslaved to the idol of workaholism. The weekly Sabbath reminds believers that they are not the true source of their own blessings and provision; their own industriousness is not the means of their survival. God is the one that created everything, and he sustains it.

God is the one that secured the exodus from Egypt, that great image of our salvation. God is the one who provided rest for us in Christ, and so we can truly and finally rest. We can take a day off.

We don’t have to bow down to the idol of greed that says I have to keep working and working and working to make another dollar, to prepare for tomorrow. When we do that, we are like the Hebrews in Egypt, trying to make bricks without straw for days and days on end. Bowing to the idol of a cruel taskmaster.

The weekly sabbath also reminds us that we are actually creatures who are dependent upon God for everything. Observing the weekly sabbath day points us back to creation, and reminds us that God is the provider and sustainer of his creation, not us.

It also points us back to redemption. When combined with the corporate means of grace like preaching and prayer, weekly sabbath reminds us that we weren’t merely made for the 6 days. We weren’t merely made to grind it out in this life. We were made for something more. We were made for rest and refreshment, for communion with God. And observing the sabbath helps us keep that in the forefront of our minds.

More could be said about that, and I have said it elsewhere at length, but let us not neglect to observe the weekly sabbath rest, which God has given to us to be a blessing, to be called a delight, and to remind us of the genuine rest for our souls that Christ offers us through is faithful working in our place.

Christ endured the misery of thankless work. He experienced exhaustion on the cross. He carried the full weight of our sin and secured the redemption and rest that our souls so desperately crave in this age. And the weekly sabbath is a sweet blessing that we can experience, which sustains us along the journey, and gives us a taste of that final rest that awaits us in the age to come.

But it is not merely sleep and sabbath that help us experience rest in this age. God has given us a third grace, and that is food. Food is a third grace of the Lord that helps us experience God’s rest more fully in this sinful world.

To illustrate this point very clearly, remember with me the story of the prophet Elijah from 1 Kings 18 and 19. In chapter 18 of 1 Kings, Elijah has this incredible experience of defeating the prophets of Baal.

They built an altar and prepared an offering and he dared the prophets of Baal to call to their God to send fire and consume the offering. And those prophets danced around and prayed to their false God all morning, but no answer.

And Elijah then rebuilt the altar of the Lord, which had been thrown down, and put wood and the meat on the altar, and had them douse the whole thing with jars and jars of water, three separate times, until there was water filling the trench around the altar.

And he prayed to God, and God sent down fire from heaven, and consumed the burn offering and the wood and the water from the trench. And then he had them seize the false prophets of Baal and had them killed. And incredible story, and an incredible day.

But the very next chapter has an interesting story. Even though Elijah had this incredible experience of seeing God work, he hears about Jezebel, the wife of the King, and how she wants him dead, and he runs away. He went a day’s journey into the wilderness, sat down under a tree, and says to God “It is enough, o Lord, take away my life.”

He’s exhausted and weary in body and soul. He’s anxious and afraid. And he wants to die. Right after this mountain top experience in chapter 18 and seeing fire from heaven, now he is depressed and wants to die.

And what does God do for him? He doesn’t there remind him of the previous day and what he had just seen. He doesn’t rebuke him for a lack of faith, although he certainly would have been within his rights to do it.

No. God gives him what he needed, which was a nap and a snack. He lets him sleep under that broom tree, and then sent his angels to bake him some bread. And once he had slept and eaten, the text says he was able to get up and go in the strength of that food.

Food is a gift of the Lord, it is a grace, not merely to sustain us. It doesn’t merely function like gasoline in your car, refueling you to get back to work. It does more than that.

It’s meant to be a blessing that strengthens our spiritual condition. He was depressed, depressed to the point that he wanted to die. And God’s antidote was some rest and have some food.

If you have children you’ve experienced the same thing. A toddler is fussy and inconsolable, screaming and a total mess. But then you give them a snack, and everything is fine. Their world goes from caving in around them, to totally wonderful, simply by the addition of some crackers.

And we would be fools to think that such a dynamic magically leaves us when we get older. God designed for us to eat, and not merely to be refueled, but to experience more of his blessed rest.

God has designed a satisfaction of the appetite that enables us to do more than merely recharge our body, but to recharge our souls. And I think that’s part of why Heaven is pictured in part as a marriage Feast at the end of Revelation. There’s a joy of soul, a satisfaction, a rest, that comes through proper eating, that if we neglect, we neglect to our own detriment.

But we also need to remember that, just like rest, our enjoyment of food can easily get imbalanced in this sinful world. We can certainly overdo it, and indulge ourselves to the point that our bodies are harmed through improper diet, and maybe that’s another sermon one day.

I’m focusing here the other extreme, of failing to experience the rest and satisfaction that God would have for us because of a willful neglect of proper eating. Yes, there are seasons of fasting, but the normal pattern is for us to receive with thanksgiving the daily bread that God provides.

And when we fail to do that, we fail to acknowledge the gift of grace that God has given. We tempt ourselves toward discontentment, or depression like Elijah. We put our spiritual experience in danger and tempt ourselves to feel anxious and depressed, rather than restful and contented.

Don’t neglect the good gift that is food. Keeping it in proper balance is crucial for a healthy spiritual life, and for an experiencing of God’s rest for us in this age.

Lastly, a final grace that God has given to us to experience rest in this age is friends. Godly friends.

Godly friends are an aid to us experiencing God’s rest in this fallen world. Let’s survey for a moment how that is the case by seeing what Proverbs tells us about good friends.

Proverbs 18:24 tells us that “A man of many companions comes to ruin, but there is a friend that sticks closer to a brother.” That means that a good friend is loyal. He’s loyal. He sticks closer to you than even a blood relative.

That’s important, as it relates to our experience of rest, because it means we can have a sense of companionship, and a sense of security knowing that he’s got my best interests at heart. He’s loyal.

And even more than that, a Godly friend helps us experience rest because we know that he’s not a fair-weathered friend. Proverbs 17:17 says, “a friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” A godly friend will stick with you through times of thick and thin. He won’t abandon you when times get tough.

But this kind of friend also aids our rest because we know he’s not merely a cheerleader or a flatterer. True and godly friends are willing to speak hard truths to us. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but profuse are the kisses of an enemy,” Proverbs 27:6.

A flatterer, or someone who will only puff you up, might feel good at first, but he actually is hateful to you. He won’t warn you of blind spots. He leaves you open to vulnerabilities. He isn’t concerned with your well-being, but rather his own advancement.

But a godly friend will warn you about danger. He will tell you when you’re off the mark. He actually helps you experience rest in this age, because he helps you see where you are weak, where you need strengthening, where you need to be straightened out, and then he loves you enough to point those things out, and to help you when you stumble.

We all need these kinds of friends. Think of King David, a man that scripture says was a man after God’s own heart, he still needed this kind of friend, and he had it in Jonathan. Being really Godly and holy doesn’t mean you need your friends less and less.

It means that we embrace with gratitude the godly friends that the Lord provides, and we seek to be that same kind of godly friend in return.

When we are godly friends to one another, we are actually vessels of God grace. We are bringers of God’s sense of rest to the souls of our brothers and sisters around us.

When we speak words of encouragement in the church, we are helping others find rest for their souls in Christ.

When we lovingly rebuke those that have gone astray, we’re seeking to pull them back from sin, and back to the path of rest where God would have them.

When we serve one another in their moments of need, we helping them, both physically and spiritually, to experience the rest of Christ.

When we disciple our children, we’re trying to train them in the way of peace and rest, so that they will turn away from the restless paths of sin in this world.

And when we speak the gospel of rest to one another, we’re reminding them that no idol in this world, no amount of slavish effort, no amount of servile drudgery will ever provide the rest that their souls actually crave.

Being a good friend means being a bringer of rest to others, and we do that by bringing Christ to others, by reminding them of Christ’s promise of rest in the gospel.

And to bring this sermon to a close, I want to remind us that Christ is the perfect friend who speaks a word of rest for your soul.

He’s the perfect friend whose loyalty outlasts any situation in this age. He will not leave us or forsake us, no matter what mess and muck we find ourselves in. Lo’ I am with you always, until the end of the age, he promised us. Through thick and thin, he won’t leave us.

And he’s also the friend whose words of wounding are faithful to us. He cuts us, through the spirit and through the law, to reveal to us the remaining sin within us. He loves us too much, and he desires us to experience his rest, and so he’s faithful to show us the sin that clings so closely, and to help us repent and turn from it.

Sin always will undermine our experience of rest, and Christ is faithful to show us our sin, and to give us the strength we need to put it off, so that we can know his rest, not merely in the next age, but increasingly in this age. A rest in our souls.

And how does he do that? Through reminding us of his gospel of rest. He’s done everything needed for us. He’s stood in our place. He fulfilled every single bit of the law’s demands for us, which means that we stand as perfect and complete in the eyes of God. We’re lacking nothing.

We don’t have to work through the night to care for ourselves. We don’t have to slave away 7 days a week to make sure we’ve done enough. We don’t have to build his church. We don’t have to be the perfect friend.

Christ has done all of that, and done it in our place. He experienced the restlessness of judgment on the cross so that we can experience his blessed rest more and more in this age, as we grow in his likeness.

If this sounds like something you want, if your soul is craving rest and satisfaction, then I offer to you what our savior offers in Matthew 11. Come to him, all of you who are weary and weighed down, and He will give you rest for your soul.

And don’t skip over the universality of his offer. Come to me, ALL who are weary.

It doesn’t matter how bad your sin has been, come to him.

It doesn’t matter how dirty and restless you feel. Come to him.

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in church. Come to him.

It doesn’t matter how much bible you know, or how little you know, come to him.

He will provide rest for your soul.

[1] Christopher Ash, Zeal without Burnout: Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of Sustainable Sacrifice (Epsom, Surrey, England]: The Good Book Company, 2016).


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