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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #24: Is your soul at rest?

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. -Matthew 11:28-29

I am not sure that we know enough about what Jesus meant by rest—about the Sabbath for the soul that he promised. Many believers I meet are anxious that they are not doing enough; that they are not holy enough; that they are still falling short of the glory of God.

Jesus is inviting us to leave anxiety behind by coming to him. To recognize that no spiritual improvement program, no regulation of righteousness nor any Christian service guidelines will lay to rest the angst that we believers get when we check the pulse of our spiritual life.

But there are a lot of voices out there suggesting that those responsibilities are exactly what the Father wants you to carry out. The other rabbis of Jesus’ time were concerned that people were not anxious enough about keeping the law of God. Their job was to ‘yoke’ their hearers to the law properly. The idea of yoking people to the law was that the rabbi would explain what he understood God expected of them, both in terms of not breaking the law (sin) and also of being careful to keep it rightly (holiness). The law would then pull them along to their destination. Those rabbis’ lists of what were do’s and don’ts created several different denominations within Judaism. So people were interested in Jesus’ list. What did Jesus know about God’s intention?

Instead of starting with the law, Jesus starts with his unique relationship with the Father. “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” In other words, if you are looking for God’s intention in giving the law, Jesus knew it intimately. It was not about working harder, doing more, groveling or showing greater restraint. It was about rest. The transformational gospel of the kingdom counseled people to stop striving for holiness—stop being anxious about God’s expectations—and trust that Jesus himself would make them holy.

Why? Because Jesus is the only person who can fully keep the law. This truth is captured in Paul’s amazing observation: “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:3-4)

This is not merely about entering the kingdom. Our theology rightly tells us that we are justified—saved from the penalty of sin—by faith in what Jesus did through his death and resurrection. But often we are then prompted to go into a work mode. We owe Jesus so much that we need to serve and sacrifice and work hard to make the teachings of Jesus true in our lives. Balderdash! That is not the good news.

Jesus’ gospel includes being sanctified by faith in him as well. Being made holy by faith in the power of the one who lives in us quiets the accusations of the lie that, if I just work harder, I will finally get it right, be freed by my efforts from a habitual sin and have a relationship with God that far outshines my present one.

I recently read an article taking a ministry to task because they seem to take Jesus seriously on this point instead of pushing the hard work of sanctification. Just writing those words reminds me why I struggled so long to be made whole in so many areas. I was striving. However, Jesus was inviting me not to strive in my own strength, but to surrender to his power. To rest from my best efforts to be good for him and rest in what he alone would accomplish in me as I trusted and cooperated with him to do it. Jesus knew what his followers needed was not more requirements, but Sabbath rest. And that is transformational.

Steve Smith