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The Eschatological Thrust of Matthew 11:28

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest"

One of my favorite statements from Jesus is found in Matt 11:28. For many Christians even, this verse is their favorite. The verse following has also been an influential one so much so that a book with 11:29 as its premise swept the Christian book market back in 2020. And yet, so many people (myself included) are prone to misunderstand Jesus' statements here.

The temptation is to see this word "rest" and think emotional or psychological comfort with respect to present troubles and trials. Certainly something like that is part of the meaning of it as well as of 11:29. And yet, this concept of rest, it would seem, has a greater story to tell than bare alleviation of discomfort. Or to state it another way, the rest that Jesus has in mind is a greater rest which assures us that he can indeed bring this lesser rest that we are often concerned with.

You see, throughout the Old Testament Scriptures there was a beckoning for rest. Again we are faced with a linguistic temptation. Very many assume that this rest to which the Israelites were journeying was something of a physical rest in the sense of an absence of labor. They were journeying unto a vacation, so many think. And yet, labor was a part of mankind's commission from the very beginning (Gen 1:28-29, cf. Gen 2:5). So to say that Israel was on their way to a labor-free vacation is demonstrative of a concept of rest which is removed from the Bible's telling of the term. They were not journeying into vacation but unto a new estate; an estate of rest.

This is how the writer of Hebrews understood it when exegetes Psalm 95 over and over again. He warns his audience against idleness and sin and that warning is to not forsake the rest to which God's people journey. He speaks of how the Lord brought his chastising warning, "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness... As I swore in my wrath, 'They shall not enter my rest.'". He reflects on this concept that there is indeed a rest into which God's people can enter. He mentions how if it were the case that rest in the ultimate sense lied in the promised land of Canaan, that God would not have then spoken of a further rest. He writes in Hebrews 4:8, "For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God".

That is to say, there is a greater rest that God is promising and a rest for which he used land of Canaan as a sign. That rest is the great eschatological rest of eternal life in glory. In fact, it is this great eschatological hope that runs through redemptive history almost as if it were in its bloodstream. Geerhardus Vos expounded as much when he wrote that the rest referred to in Gen 2:1-2, "stands for consummation of a work accomplished and the joy and satisfaction attendant upon this." Thus, all further (or perhaps we should say "lesser") rests presuppose the hope of this true and better rest; the hope of glory. It is indeed this true and better rest that were on the mind of God's people (who were in a comparatively sorry but forward-looking state at the coming of Jesus as we read in Ezra, Nehemiah, and their contemporaries). As Douglas Nykolaishen describes regarding the redemptive-historical situation of these books, "the comprehensive achievement of God’s plans for his people remains in the future".

Then Christ comes. Rest, in all its privileges and applications, is on the mind of those who are hearing Jesus' words as he comes preaching the kingdom of God. Christ then says these words as recorded in Matt 11:28, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." The true and better rest was not found in the land and it wasn't found in the burdens of the Pharisees. It was (and is) found in the person of Jesus Christ and in His mighty deeds. It is, in fact, no surprise that Jesus would follow these words soon after by declaring himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12:8). The rest that he offered (and offers us in the Gospel) is an eschatological one. Daniel Ragusa, reflecting on Vos, speaks eloquently on the nature of this eschatological rest. He writes, "True life is the enjoyment of the covenant communion bond in face-to-face fellowship with God in his holy kingdom."

Certainly Jesus is concerned with our current troubles and ailments. These very subjects are not outside the realm of his lordship and care. And yet, the life and rest that Christ offers in the Gospel is greater even than the removal of these concerns. It is an eternal life... an eternal rest... a communion bond with God.


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