“What a Friend!”

January 23, 2005

Texts: Matt. 11: 20-30


            What a lot was accomplished at Annual Meeting!  This week’s sermon is directed at the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge--the first of three pursuits (the other two being peace and deeper fellowship) which flow from our purpose that all may know, love and worship God.  Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Matt 11:28  is our text.  How are to we to understand this verse?  We hear it at times of distress, when we’ve lost a loved one . . . or when we are going through some difficult times, suffering, unemployment or even depression.  But, like so much of what the Lord teaches us, there is more to His teaching--it is at once simple and profound.  Let’s explore that, too.


            First, I want us to note that the setting of our verse takes in verses 20 through 30.  The invitation comes to us in a setting that begins with a disheartening rebuke.  The “woes” pronounced against three cities: Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum.  A woe is not good news.  It is a pronouncement of judgment, or of impending doom because they have rejected the Lord, the Lord in turn rejects them.  A woe could be delivered in a gruff manner, or it could be expressed with deep grief and sorrow.  It is not, whichever way it is expressed--and that is something we cannot establish from the text--what one easily connects with the sentiment “what friend we have in Jesus.”  Perhaps that is because our associations with Jesus as our friend tend toward the light and fluffy rather than the serious and substantial.  I can assure you that taking the woes as serious and substantial is best.  Something more in line with the feeling tone of the spiritual, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” especially the words:


            Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down

            Sometimes I’m almost to the ground. . .


            What makes old Satan hate me so?

            He had me once and had to let me go.


            Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,

            Nobody knows but Jesus.


Jesus sees, the trouble in store for those cities.  And He knows that it is because of their failure to repent, their failure to believe in Him and on Him that they are in for a bruising time in the Day of Judgment.[1]  It doesn’t make Him happy--for He delights in the condemnation of no one--and it doesn’t detract from His friendship towards us the least bit.  Indeed, friends care enough to warn and to admonish each other.  Jesus cares enough to upbraid them, to chastise them openly.  Surely, He does so that some, hearing, may turn to Him!  It is good to know Jesus cares about our salvation now as then, but it is still dismaying for us to hear that anyone is condemned.


            Verse 25  says “Jesus answered.“  Whom did He answer?  I believe that He was answering an outcry of public dismay over the woes just pronounced.[2]  Similar dynamics unfolded in another passage (Matt. 19:16) when the rich, young ruler went sorrowfully away from Christ’s invitation to sell all, give to the poor and, consequently, to obtain treasure in heaven.  The young man turned away from all that as well as a chance to follow Jesus.  Then Jesus’ disciples exclaimed, in dismay, “Who then can be saved?”[3]  Jesus’ answer to them then still speaks to us today, “With man it is impossible; but with God all things are possible.”  Jesus meant simply that no one, by works, or by merit--including good scholarship and great learning, can gain entrance into the Kingdom of God.  Salvation is not restricted to the strong and talented!  However, with divine help it is possible, one can get into the Kingdom.  There is, arguably, only One whose righteousness exceeded that of the Pharisees and that would be Jesus Chris Himself.  So, what we need is for the righteousness of Jesus to be our own and obtaining that righteousness should be our life’s goal.  What we need is to avail ourselves of the benefits of the cross, the atoning death of Christ and to now that is wisdom.


            Returning to Matthew 11, here’s the deal.  It seems that Jesus may have just finished a preaching and teaching tour of cities in the vicinity, including Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum.  We may be sure that Jesus was invitational in His mission, gently seeking to gather in all who were willing to be saved!  Change your mind and your ways, leave your sinning behind and  turn to God!  Just like the figure of Wisdom in Proverbs--who invites and when that fails, reproves!--Jesus came first in mercy and He will return, the Second Coming, in judgment!  Jesus was actually headquartered in that region and much of His ministry unfolded in front of them and yet they received Him not.  The woes then are declarations of King Jesus upon subjects who have proven themselves unworthy, frustrating the grace and favor extended to them.  Their sin is against the gospel of Christ!  It is willful impenitency!  Now His listeners are dismayed because they know people, friends and family, who actually live in the places that will necessarily suffer for rejecting the King of kings.  It is worth stating that Jerusalem was not the only place to suffer judgment for rejection and unbelief!  So, we may imagine, there is an outcry, an audience reaction, which explains the “answer” Jesus provides in verse 25.  This makes more sense to me than arguing that Jesus is either answering Himself, or addressing that agitated crowd indirectly through a prayer overheard. 


            Jesus does answer with a prayer (vv.25-26)[4] and then He proceeds to express real comfort setting forth the terms of his friendship towards us.  In essence Jesus says, “Your hope to escape a like condemnation lies with Me, Your Friend.  All things, relating to salvation and judgment, have been delivered to Me.  Secondly, because I know the Father, the God of mercy and love, you do not need to fear.  Because I am friends with the Father, your can be friends again, too.  And, as I choose to reveal the Father to those whom I will, you may be assured that all those who are to know the Father will come to know Him because of My intervention, My help.”  I hear Jesus declaring His kind disposition towards us.  I also hear in the business of becoming “friends again” an open acknowledgment of the reality of sin--that things have gone wrong and need to be put right.  And, what’s more, that His mission on earth was one of rectifying what was amiss--one of making amends on our behalf with an offended, yet holy God.


            Now Jesus rejoices openly that the things of the gospel have been hidden from the “wise and the prudent.”  This means that the unknown consists of that which is yet to be discovered--and the “hidden.”  The hidden cannot be discovered by us at all; it has to be revealed.  Therefore science must never presume that everything is subject to its scrutiny--there are limits, moral and spiritual, as well as technological and practical to scientific inquiry[5].  By virtue of the hidden, God denies the learned both wisdom and revelation--similarly God denies access to the evil and unjust--the unrepentant.  They cannot stand in His holy place and He rejects their sacrifices, worship and, yes, prayers.  In the past these hidden things included the “things of the gospel” which have now been entrusted to us by Christ through His apostles and the scriptures.  God has chosen to glorify Himself in this particular manner--lest any man should boast.  God dignifies and distinguishes whomsoever He chooses--when, where and how--according to His own plan.[6]  Intellectual pride is a peacock!  We must often put it down.


            In verse 27 we come to a mighty prefix.  Jesus is about to command our attention and to encourage our compliance with His offer of rest, and of godly service.  The Son’s commission is from the Father.  As Mediator His authority is derived.  He has come to establish a new covenant, a covenant of grace and truth.  On the basis of this work, He offers happiness and peace to an apostate world--that is to a world still in the straits of rebellion, rejection and fleshly pride.  It is astounding that Christ accomplishes His work right in the middle of everything--defiant to the face of defiance.  And it’s encouraging, too.  For He demonstrates His Lordship where the heat is most intense, the battle the strongest--like a true friend Christ always shows up there!  We need to hear again: all powers, all authority, all treasure and spiritual resources are in His hands.  We need to hear again: His God and ours made Christ the blessed Days-man.  I had never heard of a Days-man before (it’s a little like the man of the hour) but it comes to us from the Hebrew in Job 9:33.  It is the name given to that person who, in the day of trial, appears as our advocate/arbiter--the who settles things for us.  And the counsel of peace is between them--they, the Father and the Son are in perfect, complete and total agreement with each other.


            In vv. 28-30 we are invited to “Come to Christ.”  We are instructed to come according to the three-fold office of His person: Priest, Prophet and King.  Your Friend invites and commands you.  Come.  Come to Him to be saved, and taught and ruled by Him.  We find our rest in Him.  This applies two ways: it fits those who are struggling hard with sin and it fits those who, like pious Jews of the 1st century, tried to keep the ceremonial law.  (Luke 11:46)  The work of the latter had become so onerous that Jesus once declared that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” and, another time, “Go and learn what it means that I desire mercy rather than sacrifice.”  Strong medicine for a disordered religious spirit.  Therefore, the “Come to Me” is a cancellation of the imposition of carnal observances--aimed at pleasing God--for the sake of a purer, more spiritual worship.  As priest Jesus removes the twin burden of sin and guilt with all the powers thereof.  And we, sin weary and sick of worldly service--after all we are only flesh--we who see our state as both sad and dangerous by reason of our spiritual adversaries must come to Him as preparation for pardon and peace!  The Holy Spirit operates like this: first convincing, then convicting and finally healing us.  (John 16:8)  Jesus gives us rest from the terror and from the power sin together!


            Your Friend as Prophet: Come to Me.  Take my yoke upon you and learn of Me.  He is our Teacher and we have two reasons, at least, to attend class.  First, we learn from Him because He is meek.  This qualifies Him to teach and reach all with compassion to the very bright and the slowest intellect.  We also learn from Him because He is lowly, humbly reaching out to instruct.  A slow, even dull student need not fear that the class would pass him by.  Jesus wouldn’t be discouraging to any--He bears with all and most graciously with the simple.  “I am gentle and lowly of heart” (v. 29)  Remember how He taught Ephraim: I taught Ephraim how to walk, Taking them by their arms; But they didn’t know that I healed them.  I drew them with gentle cords, with bands of love, And I was to them as those who take a yoke from their neck.  I stooped and fed them. (Hosea 11:3-4)  There is a rest for those who attend such a class in such a presence.  This was perhaps Mary’s better part as she sat at the feet of Jesus.  And it is just possible that Martha’s plea for her sister’s rebuke had its roots in spiritual envy.  That sin would help explain the strength of Jesus’ rebuke as well as His refusal to bring Mary into condemnation.  But the point is here that Jesus is solicitous of those who submit to Him, who come and take on His yoke.  And yet, the content of His instruction is superlative: Christ’s wisdom according to Job 28 was sought in vain throughout Creation.  It is not found in the land of the living, in the deep . . .it cannot be purchased for any price.  It is hidden from the eyes of the living (v. 13b) . . . God understands its ways, And he knows its place (v.23).  Then He saw it (wisdom) and declared it;  He prepared it, indeed, He searched it out. And to man He said, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, And to depart from evil is understanding.’ (vv. 27-28).  Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully . . . To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven--things which angels desire to look into.” (I Peter 1: 10 & 12).


            So we’ve visited our Friend as Priest and as Prophet that leaves Jesus as King.  Jesus as royalty is perhaps the most difficult for us to relate to, probably due to our history, our Revolution in which we decisively rejected monarchy for a republic.  So we should begin by clarifying that we are not picturing Jesus as either a despot, or a dynastic monarch.  Hereditary rule, on the human plane, is a completely inapt framework.  But it is useful, perhaps, to imagine Jesus as Sovereign, as King extending His scepter towards you while He is seated on His throne.  In the Eastern context, this was a life or death moment--if you were permitted to touch the top, you lived.  If not, you died; it was a serious thing to come into the presence of the king.  We touch this King’s scepter if we are freely willing to be saved by Him.  Service to this King is the yoke in view--a believer casts off the yoke of slavery to sin and takes on the yoke of service  We move from drudgery and futility to adventure and accomplishment.  An exchange of yoke is the only possibility.  We are either slaves to sin, or we are under His rule, command, kingdom.  He learned obedience in the school of suffering and so shall we!  Therefore we do well to submit to the yoke appointed.  While we may live at some remove from monarchic life, we also live at a remove from farm life.  Very few of us have had the pleasure of driving a team of oxen and fewer still have had the actual experience of accomplishing some work with that team.  Actually, with horses, the harness for a team of two, or four serves the same function as the yoke for the oxen.  The yoke makes the work easier--it harnesses the power to a purpose; hopefully, a common purpose.  When Christians are yoked together in a fellowship, great things get down by the communion of saints.  The yoke of Christ differs from the farmer’s yoke in that it is chrestos--that is, gracious.  It is full of grace and therefore it is easy.  I once heard that the yoke is easy because Christ is in it with us, but that is not what this image actually communicates.  The yoke itself is gracious; the affliction is sweet and pleasant because the yoke is reasonable, profitable and loving.  Love is our duty.  And that is a truth which often gets lost in the confusion of duty and feeling.  Cruel treatment for Christ’s sake is both light and bearable by God’s presence with us.  . . .Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.  When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, Nor shall the flame scorch you. (Isaiah 43:1c-2)


            What a friend we have in Jesus. . . He gives us rest, He teaches us the truth and He directs in the paths of obedience and service which are life.  In order to invite others into a relationship with Jesus Christ, we need to know, love and worship Him ourselves.  Knowing what we do about Him as Priest, Prophet and Prince makes that easier, more winsome--indeed, delightful.  Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  That’s what He says, and now we understand what He means.  Let us all heed His invitation, walk in the truth and He will give us the rest we need for the journey.  Amen


[1] The reference to Tyre (known for idolatry) and Sidon (known for moral laxity and wickedness) would not have been lost on the Jewish audience.  Jesus’ point is that had He gone there and done the works He performed in the cities named, the foreigners, like the ancient Ninnevites, would have repented.  For Christians today, the judgment of God is on our slight and superficial repentance.  Nevertheless, Tyre and Sidon will both justly perish in their sins--for, even without a personal visitation by the Lord Jesus, they know enough to turn to God and away from sin.

[2] Repeatedly, we hear in the gospels, the dismay of those who finally, truly hear what Jesus is saying.  For example, once when Jesus demanded that their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees, the Jewish response was dismay.  (Matt. 5:20)  After all Pharisees were known for their moral gravity, their rigorous lifestyle of uprightness in that day.  The Pharisees, whom we may imagine to be pompous, arrogant and vain (looking chiefly to their negative side), were good, religious folks; they took their faith seriously, even if they erred to the side of being legalistic, and/or perfectionist.  Therefore, the people present’ hearing that they needed to do better than these outstanding models of faithful Judaism would faint in their hearts, “Then who can be saved?  Who can attain such righteousness?  If the brightest and the best don‘t cut it, what hope is there for us ordinary people?”  Beloved, there a clue to this being a correct interpretation in Jesus’ exclamation, You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes.  V. 25c&d.  This meaning is drawn from the logic, or flow of the passage!  The “babes” of this verse refers to the simple, the humble folk as opposed to the learned, the proud; the elite.  God has chosen to favor the common and ordinary with the revelation of gospel truth in general, and the workings of divine judgment in particular.  It is contrary to what we think wise, or prudent

[3] At the Judgment, the fate of all the children of men shall be decreed.  (Heb. 6:2)  The issue will not simply be how good, or bad we were--the Lord will hold us accountable for how much better we might have been.  Those who received the greatest grace (greater knowledge by revelation) will receive the most intolerable punishments, or declension of reward.  Those who had the means to obtain heaven and refused will sink the lower in hell.  Let us therefore be diligent to turn knowing that upon true repentance, even the gravest sin shall be freely and fully pardoned--and terrible and unimaginable ruin averted.

[4] I might suggest that given the depressing news regarding these three cities, Jesus models in a very practical way what we should do in the face of evil circumstances.  Look up!  Pray to the Father in Jesus’ Name and gain an audience in heaven!  I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth!  He is both Father and Lord.

[5] I pause to note this: scientists who may qualify as the most experienced in things sensible, material and secular are often the least qualified when it comes to things spiritual.  That is, an expert witness for physics may be completely unqualified to speak on matters of a divine nature--such as origins of the universe, the human race or moral law.  And yet the tension should not drive us to making a choice between the two (say, the scientific versus the theological (philosophical)); rather the authorities we rely upon should be well-versed in both realms.  And why not?

[6] If we were to take our cue from Job, who thanks God for both giving and taking life, blessing etc., we would be inclined to thank God both for revealing things to and for hiding things from us.  In this manner, proud and self-abased thoughts may be brought down.  These are, perhaps, the strongholds alluded to in 2 Cor. 10:4-5: . . .the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high things that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, . . ..”