The Call of Christ
"Come unto Me all you who labor and are heavy laden—and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you shall find rest unto your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light." Matthew 11:28-30
Familiar as is the sound of those words unto professing Christians—yet there is a pressing need for their careful examination, for there are few portions of God's Word which have received such superficial treatment at the hands of preachers generally, as has the above. That these verses, like all others in the Sacred Volume, call for prayerful meditation, some will formally allow—but that such a "simple passage" demands protracted study, few seem to realize. It is at this very point, that so much damage has been wrought. Many took it for granted they already understood the meaning of such a passage, and hence no diligent inquiry into the significance of its terms was undertaken. The mere fact that a verse is so frequently quoted that we are thoroughly familiar with its language, is no proof that we really perceive its purpose: yes, the fact that such familiarity has precluded careful examination renders it far more likely that we do not rightly apprehend it.
There is a vast difference between being acquainted with the sound of a verse of Holy Writ, and entering into the sense of it. The sad fact is that today there are thousands of unqualified "evangelists" and self-appointed open-air "speakers" who glibly quote snippets from the Word of God—yet no more understand the spiritual significance of the words uttered by their lips, than the telegraph wires understand the messages which pass over them. Nor is this to be wondered at. Ours is an age which is more and more marked by industrial loafing and mental slackness; when work is detested, when how quickly a task may be disposed of—rather than how well it may be done—is the order of the day. And the same dilatory spirit and slipshod methods mark the products both of the pulpit and the printed page. Hence the superficial treatment which the above passage commonly receives—no regard is paid to its context, no laborious attempt assayed to ascertain its coherence (the relation of one clause to another), no painstaking examination and exposition of its terms.
If ever a passage of Scripture was mutilated and mangled by preachers, its meaning perverted and wrested, it is the one quoted above. Nineteen times out of twenty only a mere fragment of it is quoted—that part which is most unpalatable to the flesh, being omitted. A particular call is twisted into a promiscuous invitation, by deliberately ignoring the qualifying terms there used by the Savior. Even where the opening clause is quoted, no attempt is made to show what is signified by and involved in "come to Christ," so that the hearer is left to assume that he already understands the meaning of that expression. The special offices in which the Son of God is there portrayed, namely, as Lord and Master, as Prince and Prophet, are ignored; and another is substituted in their place. The conditional promise here made by Christ is falsified by making it an unconditional one, as though His "rest" could be obtained without our taking His "yoke" upon us and without our "learning" of Him who is meek and lowly in heart.
We are well aware that such charges and strictures as we have just made, would be bitterly resented by a large class of church-goers, who do not wish to hear anyone or anything criticized. But it is not for them we write: if they are pleased to remain "at ease in Zion," if they are content whether they are deceived or not, if they have such confidence in men that they are willing to receive the most valuable and vital things of all second hand, if they refuse to examine their foundations and search their hearts, then we must "let them alone" (Matthew 15:14). But there are still a few left on earth who prize their souls so highly, that they consider no effort too great in order to ascertain whether or not they possess a saving knowledge of God's truth, whether or not they truly understand the terms of God's salvation, whether or not they are building on an unshakable foundation; and it is in the hope that the Lord may deign to bless these writings unto them, that we are penning the same.
But let us now take a closer look at our passage. It opens with "Come unto Me . . . and I will give you rest," and virtually closes with, "and you shall find rest unto your souls." Now it is not (as some have strangely supposed) two different rests which are here spoken of—but the same in both cases, namely, spiritual rest, saving rest. Nor is it two different aspects of this rest which are here portrayed—but rather the one rest is viewed from two distinct viewpoints. In the former, Divine sovereignty is in view: "I will give"; in the latter, human responsibility is being enforced: "you shall find." In the opening clause, Christ makes the bare affirmation that He is the Giver of rest: in what follows, He specifies the terms upon which He dispenses rest; or to express it in another way, the conditions which must be met by us if we are to obtain the same. The rest is freely given—yet only to those who comply with the revealed requirements of its Bestower.
"Come unto Me." Who is it that issues this call? Christ, you reply. True—but Christ in what particular character? Some may ask, "Exactly what do you mean by that?" This—was Christ here speaking as King, commanding His subjects; as Creator, addressing His creatures; as the Physician, inviting the sick; or as Lord, instructing His servants? Does someone reply, "Such distinctions confuse, are beyond me; sufficient for me, to regard this as the Savior offering rest unto poor sinners." But do you not yourself draw a distinction in your mind, between the Person of Christ and the Office of Christ? and do you not distinguish sharply between His office as Prophet, as Priest, and as King? And have you not found such distinctions both necessary and helpful? Then why complain if we are seeking to call attention to the varied relations which our Lord sustains, and the importance of noting which of these relations He is acting in, at any given time. It is attention to such details as this, which often makes all the difference between a right and wrong understanding of a passage.
In order to answer our query—In what particular character did Christ here issue this call "Come unto Me"; it is necessary for us to look at the verses preceding. Attention to the context, is one of the very first concerns for those who would carefully ponder any particular passage. Matthew 11 opens with mention of John the Baptist having been cast into prison, from which he sent messengers unto Christ acquainting Him with his perplexity (vv. 2, 3). Thereupon our Lord publicly vindicated His forerunner and magnified his unique office (vv. 4-15). Having praised the Baptist and his ministry, Christ went on to reprove those who had been privileged to enjoy both it and that of His own ministry—because they did not profit from either ministry; yes, had despised and rejected both the one and the other. So depraved were the people of that day, they accused John of being demon possessed, and charged Christ with being a glutton and a drunkard! (vv. 16-19).
In verses 20-24, we have one of the most solemn passages to be found in Holy Writ, recording as it does, some of the most fearful words which ever fell from the lips of the incarnate Son of God. He unbraided the cities wherein most of His mighty works were done, and that, because "they repented not" (v. 20). Let it be duly noted by those who seem to delight in picturing our Lord as a spineless and effeminate person, who was incapable of uttering a syllable that would hurt the feelings of anyone—a caricature of maudlin sentimentality manufactured by Romanists—but since fostered increasingly by many in the ranks of Protestantism—that the Christ of Scripture refused to gloss over the perversity of the people, instead, charging them with their sins. And let Antinomians also observe that, so far from the Christ of God ignoring human responsibility or excusing men's spiritual impotency—He held them strictly accountable and blamed them for their impenitency.
"Willful impenitency is the great damning sin of multitudes who enjoy the Gospel, and which (more than any other) sinners will be upbraided with, to eternity. The great doctrine that both John the Baptist, Christ Himself, and the Apostles preached, was repentance; the great thing designed both in the 'playing the flute' and in the 'mourning' was to prevail with people to change their minds and ways, to leave their sins and turn to God; but this they would not be brought to. He does not say, because they believed not—for some kind of faith many of them had, that Christ was a 'Teacher come from God'—but because they 'repented not'—their faith did not prevail to the transforming of their hearts and the reforming of their lives. Christ reproved them for their other sins—that He might lead them to repentance—but when they repented not, He upbraided them with that as their refusal to be healed. He upbraided them with it, that they might upbraid themselves, and might at length see the folly of it, as that which alone makes the sad case a desperate one and the wound incurable" (Matthew Henry).
The particular sin for which Christ upbraided them, was that of impenitency, the special aggravation of their sin was that they had witnessed most of Christ's miraculous works, for it was in those cities that the Lord had for some time been residing, and where many of His miracles of healing had been performed. Now there are some places which enjoy the means of grace more plentifully and powerfully than others. As certain parts of the earth receive a much heavier rainfall than others—so certain countries and particular towns in them have been favored with purer Gospel preaching and more outpourings of the Spirit than others, for God is sovereign in the distribution of His gifts both natural and spiritual. And "unto whoever much is given, of him shall much be required" (Luke 12:48). The greater our privileges and opportunities—the greater our obligations, and the stronger the inducements we have to repent—the more heinous is impenitency, and the heavier will the reckoning be. Christ keeps note of His "mighty works" done among us—and will yet hold us to an account of them.
"Woe unto you, Chorazin! woe unto you, Bethsaida!" (Matthew 11:21). Christ came into the world in order to dispense blessing—but if His person is despised, His authority rejected, and His mercies slighted—then He has woes in reserve—and His woes are of all, the most dreadful. But how many who attend church, now hear anything at all about this? O the treachery of the modern pulpit, its abounding unfaithfulness! It has deliberately taken the line of least resistance, and sought only to please the pew—guiltily withholding what is unpalatable and unpopular. How often was this writer told, even twenty years ago, "our people would not tolerate such plain speaking" and, "preaching of that kind would empty our church," to which we replied, "far better close your church altogether, than keep it open for the purpose of deceiving souls!" And souls are deceived if a sentimental Christ is substituted for the Scriptural Christ; if His "Beatitudes" of Matthew 5 are emphasized, and His "Woes" of Matthew 23 be ignored.
In still further aggravation of their sin of impenitency, our Lord affirmed that the citizens of Chorazin and Bethsaida were worse at heart, than the Gentiles they despised, asserting that had Tyre and Sidon enjoyed such privileges as had been theirs, they had "repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes." Some of the blessings which Christendom despises would be welcomed in many parts of heathendom.
It is to be noted on the one hand, that this passage does not stand alone—see Ezekiel 3:6, 7; and on the other that the repentance here spoken of by Christ is not necessarily one which leads to eternal salvation. Still more solemn, are the solemn words of Christ recorded in Matthew 11:23, 24. There He announces the doom of highly-favored Capernaum. Because of the unspeakable privileges vouchsafed its inhabitants, they had been lifted Heavenwards—but because their hearts were so earth-bound, they scorned such blessings, and therefore they would be "brought down to Hell." The greater the advantages enjoyed—the more fearful the doom of those who abuse them; the higher the elevation—the more fatal the fall from it.
The honorable Capernaum is then compared with the dishonorable Sodom, which, because of its enormities, God had destroyed with fire and brimstone. It was in Capernaum that the Lord Jesus had chiefly resided upon entry into His public ministry, and where so many of His miracles of healing had been wrought. Yet so obdurate were its inhabitants, so wedded to their sins—that they refused to apply unto Him for the healing of their souls. Had such mighty works been done by Him in Sodom—its people would have been duly affected thereby and their city would have remained as a lasting monument of Divine mercy.
"But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you" (v. 24). Yes, my reader, though you may hear nothing about it from the flesh-pleasing pulpit of this degenerate age, nevertheless there is a "Day of judgment" awaiting the whole world. It is "the Day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds; it is the Day "when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my Gospel" (Romans 2:6, 7, 16). "For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good—or whether it be evil" (Eccl. 12:14). "The Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptation, and to reserve the unjust unto the Day of judgment to be punished" (2 Peter 2:9). The punishment which shall then be meted out—will be proportioned to the opportunities given and despised, the privileges vouchsafed and scorned, the light granted and quenched. Most intolerable of all—will be the doom of those who have abused the greatest advancements Heavenwards.
"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" (Matthew 11:25). The connection between this and the preceding verses, is most blessed and instructive. There the Lord Jesus intimates that the majority of His mighty works had produced no good effect upon those who saw them, that their beholders remained impenitent—so little influence had His holy and gracious presence exerted upon Capernaum, wherein He spent much of His time, that its fate would be worse than that of Sodom. But here Christ looks away from earth to Heaven—and finds consolation in the high sovereignty of God and the absolute security of His covenant. From upbraiding the impenitence of men, Christ turned to the rendering of thanks unto the Father.
A word of warning is needed, perhaps, at this point, for we are such creatures of extremes. In earlier paragraphs we referred to those who have substituted a sentimental Christ for the true Christ—yet the reader must not infer from this that the writer believes in a stoical Christ—hard, cold, devoid of feeling. Not so, the Christ of Scripture is perfect Man as well as God the Son, possessed therefore of human sensibilities, yes, capable of much deeper feeling than any of us, whose faculties are corrupted and blunted by sin. It must not be thought, then, that the Lord Jesus was unaffected by grief, when He pronounced the doom of those cities—or that He viewed them with fatalistic indifference as He found comfort in the sovereignty of God. Scripture must be compared with Scripture: He who wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41) would not be unmoved as He foresaw the intolerable portion awaiting Capernaum—the very fact that He was "the Man of sorrows" utterly precludes any such concept.
A similar warning is needed by hyper-Calvinists with fatalistic stoicism. "It seems plain then, that those who are indifferent about the spreading of the Gospel, who satisfy themselves with this thought, that the elect shall be saved, and feel no concern for unawakened sinners, make a wrong inference from a true doctrine, and know not what spirit they are of. Jesus wept for those who perished in their sins. Paul had great grief and sorrow of heart for the Jews, though he gave them this character, 'that they pleased not God, and were contrary to all men.' It well befits us, while we admire distinguishing grace to ourselves, to mourn over others. And inasmuch as secret things belong to the Lord, and we know not but some of whom we have at present but little hopes, may at last be brought to the knowledge of the Truth, we should be patient and forbearing after the pattern of our heavenly Father, and endeavor by every proper and prudent means, to stir them up to repentance, remembering that they cannot be more distant from God than by nature—than we were once ourselves" (John Newton.)
As perfect Man, the Lord Jesus felt acutely any lack of response to and the little measure of success which attended His gracious and arduous efforts: this is clear from His lament: "I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing" (Isaiah 49:4). Striking it is to observe how Christ comforted Himself: "Yet I leave it all in the Lord's hand; I will trust God for my reward" (Isaiah 49:4). Thus, both in the language of prophecy and here in Matthew 11:25, 26, we find the Lord Jesus seeking relief from the discouragements and disappointments of the Gospel—by retreating into the Divine sovereignty. "We may take great encouragement in looking upward to God, when round about us we see nothing but what is discouraging. It is sad to see how heedless most men are of their own happiness, it is comfortable to think that the wise and faithful God will, however, effectually secure the interests of His own glory" (Matthew Henry).
Christ alluded here to the sovereignty of God under three details:
First, by owning His Father as "Lord of Heaven and earth," that is, as sole Proprietor and Disposer thereof. It is well for us to remember, especially in seasons when it appears as though Satan is complete master of this lower sphere, that God not only "does as he pleases with the powers of heaven," but also "among the inhabitants of the earth," so that "none can stay His hand" (Dan. 4:35).
Second, by affirming, "You have hid these things from the wise and prudent": that is, the things pertaining to salvation are concealed from the apprehension of the self-sufficient and self-complacent, God leaving them in nature's darkness.
Third, by declaring, "and have revealed them unto babes"—by the effectual operations of the Holy Spirit a Divine discovery is made to the hearts of those who are made little and helpless in their own esteem. "Even so, Father; for so it seemed good in Your sight" expressed the Savior's perfect acquiescence in the whole.
"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" (Matthew 11:27). This verse supplies the immediate connecting link between the sovereignty of Divine grace mentioned in verses 25 and 26—and the offer and communication of that grace through Christ in verses 28-30. The settlements of Divine grace were made and secured in the Everlasting Covenant: the communication of the same is by and through Christ as the Mediator of that covenant.
First, we have here the grand commission which the Mediator received from the Father: all things necessary to the administration of the covenant were delivered unto Christ (compare Matthew 28:18, John 5:22, 17:2).
Second, we have here the inconceivable dignity of the Son: lest a false inference be drawn from the preceding clause, the essential and absolute Deity of Christ is affirmed. Inferior in office, Christ's nature and dignity is the same as the Father's. As Mediator Christ receives all from the Father—but as God the Son He is, in every way, equal to the Father in His incomprehensible and glorious Person.
Third, the work of the Mediator is here summed up in one grand item: that of revealing the Father unto those given to Him.
Thus the context of Matthew 11:28 reveals Christ in the
as the Upbraider of the impenitent;
as the Pronouncer of solemn "woe" upon those who were unaffected by His mighty works;
as the Announcer of the Day of judgment, declaring that the punishment awaiting those who scorned Gospel mercies should be more intolerable than that meted out to Sodom;
as the Affirmer of the high sovereignty of God who conceals and reveals the things pertaining to salvation as seems good in His sight;
as the Mediator of the covenant;
as the Son co-equal with the Father, and
as the Revealer of the Father.
Whom Did Christ Call?
"Come unto Me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).
Having examined at some length the context of these words, that we might the better perceive their connection and the particular characters in which Christ is there portrayed, we turn now to consider the people here addressed, the ones who were invited to come to the Rest-Giver. On this point, there has been some difference among the commentators, some giving a narrower scope to this call of Christ—and some a wider. It is to be noted however, that all of the leading men among the earlier expositors united in restricting this particular call to a special class. Let us quote several of the principal ones:
"He now kindly invites to Himself those whom He acknowledges to be fit for becoming His disciples. Though He is ready to reveal the Father to all—yet the great part are careless about coming to Him, because they are not affected by a conviction of their necessities. Hypocrites give themselves no concern about Christ because they are intoxicated with their own righteousness, and neither hunger nor thirst after His grace. Those who are devoted to the world set no value on a heavenly life. It would be vain therefore for Christ to invite either of these classes, and therefore He turns to the wretched and afflicted. He speaks of them as 'laboring' or being under a 'burden,' and does not mean generally those who are oppressed with griefs and vexations—but those who are overwhelmed by their sins, who are filled with alarm at the wrath of God and are ready to sink under so weighty a burden" (John Calvin)
"The character of the people invited: all that labor and are heavy laden. This is a word in season to him that is weary (Isaiah 50:4). Those who complain of the burden of the ceremonial law, which was an intolerable yoke, and was made much more so by the tradition of the elders (Luke 11:46); let them come to Christ and they shall be made easy . . . this is to be understood of the burden of sin, both the guilt and the power of it. All those, and those only, are invited to rest in Christ—who are sensible of sin as a burden and groan under it, who are not only convicted of the evil of sin—their own sin—but are contrite in soul for it; who are really sick of sin, weary of the service of the world and the flesh, who see their state sad and dangerous by reason of sin, and are in pain and fear about it: as Ephraim (Jer. 31:18-20), the prodigal (Luke 15:17), the publican (Luke 18:13), Peter's hearers (Acts 2:37), Paul (Acts 9), the jailer (Acts 16:29, 30). This is a necessary preparative for pardon and peace" (Matthew Henry).
"Who are the people here invited? They are those who 'labor' (the Greek expresses toil with weariness) and are 'heavy laden.' This must here be limited to spiritual concerns, otherwise it will take in all mankind, even the most hardened and obstinate opposers of Christ and the Gospel." Referring to the self-righteous religionists, this writer went on to say, "You avoid gross sins, you have perhaps a form of godliness. The worst you think that can be said of you is, that you employ all your thoughts and every means that will not bring you under the lash of the law—to heap up money, to join house to house and field to field; or you spend your days in a complete indolence, walking in the way of your own hearts and looking no further: and here you will say you find pleasure, and insist on it, that you are neither weary nor heavy laden . . . then it is plain that you are not the people whom Christ here invites to partake of His rest" (John Newton).
"The people invited are not 'all' the inhabitants of mankind—but with a restriction: 'all you who labor and are heavy laden,' meaning not those who labor in the service of sin and Satan, are laden with iniquity and insensible of it: those are not weary of sin nor burdened with it, nor do they want or desire any rest for their souls; but only such who groan, being burdened with the guilt of sin on their consciences and are pressed down with the unsupportable yoke of the Law and the load of their trespasses, and have been laboring until they are weary, in order to obtain peace of conscience and rest for their soul by the observance of these things—but in vain. These are encouraged to come to Him, lay down their burdens at His feet and look to Him, and lay hold by faith on His person, blood and righteousness" (John Gill).
In more recent times the majority of preachers have dealt with our text as though the Lord Jesus was issuing an indefinite invitation, regarding His terms as being sufficiently general and wide in their scope as to include sinners of every grade and type. They supposed that the words, "you who labor and are heavy laden" refer to the misery and bondage which the Fall has brought upon the whole human race, as its unhappy subjects vainly seek satisfaction in the things of time and sense, endeavoring to find happiness in the pleasures of sin. They are laboring for contentment by gratifying their lusts, only to add to their miseries by becoming more and more the burdened slaves of sin.
It is quite true that the unregenerate "labor in the very fire" and that they "weary themselves for the very vanity" (Hab. 2:13). It is quite true that they "labor in vain" (Jer. 51:58), and "what profit has he who has labored for the wind?" (Eccl. 5:16). It is quite true that they "spend money for that which is not bread" and "labor for that which satisfies not" (Isaiah 55:2), for "the eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear with hearing" (Eccl. 1:8). It is equally true that the unregenerate are heavy laden, "a people laden with iniquity" (Isaiah 1:4)—yet are they totally insensible of their dreadful state: "the labor of the foolish wearies them" (Eccl. 10:15). Moreover, "The wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace, says my God, to the wicked" (Isaiah 57:20, 21). That is, they have neither peace of conscience nor rest of heart.
But it is quite another matter to affirm that these are the characters which Christ invited to come unto Him for rest. Personally we much prefer the view taken by the older writers, for with rare exceptions their expositions are much sounder than those furnished in more recent days. As far back as a century ago a latitudinarian spirit had begun to creep in, and even the most orthodox were often, unconsciously, to some degree affected thereby. The pew was more and more inclined to chafe against what they regarded as the "rigidity" and "narrowness" of their fathers, and those in the pulpit had to tone down those aspects of the Truth which were most repellent to the carnal mind if they were to retain their popularity. Side by side with modern discoveries and inventions, the increased means for travel and the dissemination of news, came in what was termed "a broader outlook" and "a more charitable spirit," and posing as an angel of light Satan succeeded in Arminianising many places of Truth, and even where this was not accomplished, high Calvinism was whittled down to moderate Calvinism.
That to which we have just alluded, is no distorted conception of ours, issuing from an extreme theology—but a solemn fact which no honest student of church history can deny. Christendom, my reader, has not got into the unspeakably dreadful condition it is now in, all of a sudden: rather is its present state the outcome of a steady and long deterioration. The deadly poison of error was introduced here a little and there a little, the quantity being increased as less opposition was made against it. As "missionary" activities absorbed more and more the attention and strength of the Church, the standard of doctrine was lowered, sentiment displaced biblical convictions, fleshly methods were introduced, until in a comparatively short time nine tenths of those sent out to "the foreign field" were rank Arminians, preaching "another Gospel." This reacted upon the homelands and soon the interpretations of Scripture given out by its pulpits were brought into line with the "new spirit" which had captivated Christendom.
While we are far from affirming that everything modern is evil—or that everything ancient was excellent—yet there is no doubt whatever in our own mind, that by far the greater part of the boasted "progress" of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was a progress downward and not upward, away from God and not toward Him, into the darkness and not the light. And therefore it behooves us to examine with double care and caution, any religious views or ways which deviated from the common teachings and practices of the godly Reformers and Puritans. This writer sincerely trusts that he is not a worshiper of antiquity as such, nor does he desire to call any man "father," yet in view of the awful corruption of the Truth and departure from vital godliness, we are compelled to regard with suspicion those "broader" interpretations of God's Word which have become so popular in recent times.
It behooves us now to point out one or two of the reasons we do not believe that Christ was here making a broadcast invitation, issued promiscuously to the light-headed, gay-hearted, pleasure-crazy, masses which have no appetite for the Gospel and no concern for their eternal interests: that this call was not addressed to the godless, careless, giddy and worldly multitudes—but rather unto those who were burdened with a sense of sin and longed for relief of conscience.
First because the Lord Jesus had received no commission from Heaven to bestow rest of soul upon all and sundry—but only upon the elect of God. Said He, "For I have come down from heaven, not to do My will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of Him who sent Me: that I should lose none of those He has given Me but should raise them up on the last day" (John 6:38, 39), and that, necessarily, regulated all His ministry.
Second, because the Lord Jesus ever practiced what He preached. Unto His disciples He said, "Don’t give what is holy to dogs or toss your pearls before pigs, or they will trample them with their feet, turn, and tear you to pieces" (Matthew 7:6). Can we, then, conceive of our holy Lord inviting the unconcerned to come unto Him—for that which their hearts abhorred? Has He set His ministers such an example? Surely, the word He would have them press upon the pleasure-intoxicated members of our rising generation is, "Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart be glad in the days of your youth. And walk in the ways of your heart and in the sights of your eyes; but know that for all of these things God will bring you to judgment!" (Eccl. 11:9).
Third, because the immediate context is entirely out of harmony with the wider interpretation. There we find Christ pronouncing most solemn "woes" upon those who despised and rejected Him (Matthew 11:20-24), drawing consolation from the sovereignty of God and thanking Him because He had hidden from the wise and prudent, those things which belonged unto their eternal peace—but had revealed them unto babes (vv. 25, 26), and it is these "babes" He here invites unto Himself; and there we find Him presented as the One commissioned by the Father and as the Revealer of Him. (v. 27).
It must not be concluded from anything said above, that the writer does not believe in an unfettered Gospel or that he is opposed to the general offer of Christ to all who hear it. Not so! His marching orders are far too plain for any misunderstanding: his Master has bidden him "preach the Gospel to every creature" so far as Divine providence admits, and the substance of the Gospel message, is that Christ died for sinners and stands ready to welcome every sinner who is willing to receive Him on His prescribed terms. Though His mission was the saving of God's elect (Matthew 1:21), the Lord Jesus announced the design of His incarnation in sufficiently general terms, as to warrant any man truly desiring salvation to believe in Him. "I have not come to call the righteous—but sinners to repentance" (Matthew 9:13). Many are called—even though but few are chosen (Matthew 20:16). The way in which we spell out our election, is in coming to Christ as lost sinners, trusting in His blood for pardon and acceptance with God.
In his excellent sermon on the words before us, John Newton pointed out that, when David was driven into the wilderness by the rage of Saul that "everyone that was in distress, and everyone that was in debt, and everyone that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him; and he became a captain over them" (1 Samuel 22:2). But David was despised by those who, like Nabal (1 Samuel 25:10), lived at their ease: they believed not that he should be a king over Israel, and therefore they preferred the favor of Saul whom God had rejected. Thus it was with the Lord Jesus: though a Divine Person, invested with all authority, grace and blessings, and declaring that He would be the King of all who obeyed His voice and that they should be His happy people—yet the majority saw no beauty that they should desire Him, felt no need of Him, and so rejected Him. Only a few, who were consciously wretched and burdened, believed His Word and came to Him for rest.
We must now inquire, what did our Lord signify when He bade all the weary and heavy laden "come unto Me"?
First, it is quite evident that something more than a physical act or local coming to hear Him preach was intended, for these words were first addressed to those who were already in His presence: there were many who attended His ministry and witnessed His Miracles—who never came to Him in the sense here intended. The same holds good today: something more than a bare approach through the ordinances —listening to preaching, submitting to baptism, partaking of the Lord's Supper—is involved in a saving coming to Christ, for such acts as those may be performed without the performer being any gainer thereby. Coming to Christ in the sense He here invited—is a going out of the soul after Him, a desire for Him, a seeking after Him, a personal embracing of and trusting in Him.
A saving coming to Christ suggests first and negatively—a leaving of something, for the Divine promise is, "He who covers his sins shall not prosper: but whoever confesses and forsakes them shall have mercy" (Proverbs 28:13). Coming to Christ, then, denotes a turning our backs upon the world—and turning our hearts unto Him as our only Hope and Portion. It is the abandoning of every idol and the surrendering of ourselves to His Lordship. It is the repudiation of our own righteousness and every dependency, and the heart going out to Him in loving submission and trustful confidence. It is in entire going out of SELF with all its resolutions and performances, to cast ourselves upon His grace and mercy. It is the will yielding itself up to His authority to be molded by Him and to follow Him wherever He may lead. In short, it is the whole soul of a guilty and self-condemned sinner—turning unto a whole Christ, in the exercise of all our facilities, responding to His claims upon us, prepared to unreservedly trust, sincerely love, and devotedly serve Him.
We have said that coming to Christ is the turning of the whole soul unto Him. Perhaps this calls for some amplification, though we trust we shall not confuse the reader by multiplying words and entering into detail. There are three principal facilities in the soul: the understanding, the affections, and the will—and as each of these were operative and were affected by our original departure from God, so they are and must be active in our return to Him in Christ.
Of Eve it is recorded, "when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof" (Genesis 3:6).
First, she "saw that the tree was good for food," that is, she perceived the fact mentally—it was a conclusion drawn by her understanding.
Second, "and that it was pleasant to the eyes": that was the response and going out of her affections unto it.
Third, "and a tree to be desired to make one wise": there was the moving of her will.
"And took of the fruit thereof and did eat": there was the completed action.
Thus it is in the sinner's coming to Christ.
There is first apprehension by the understanding: the mind is enlightened and brought to see our deep need of Christ and His perfect suitability to meet our needs: the intelligence perceives that He is "good for food," the Bread of life which God has graciously provided for the nourishment of our souls.
Second, there is the moving of the affections: hitherto we discerned no beauty in Christ that we should desire Him—but now He is "pleasant to the eyes" of our souls: it is the heart turning from the love of sin to the love of holiness, from self to the Savior—it is for this reason that backsliding or spiritual declension is termed a leaving of our "first love" (Revelation 2:4).
Third, in coming to Christ there is an exercise of the will, for said He to those who received Him not, "you will not come to Me that you might have life" (John 5:40). This exercise of the will consists of a yielding of ourselves to His authority to be ruled by Him.
None will come to Christ—while they remain in ignorance of Him. The understanding must perceive His suitability for sinners, before the mind can turn intelligently and consciously unto Him as He is revealed in the Gospel. Neither can the heart come to Christ while it hates Him or is wedded to the things of time and sense: the affections must be drawn out to Him, "If anyone does not love the Lord—that person is cursed!" (1 Corinthians 16:22). Equally evident is it that no man will come to Christ while his will is opposed to Him: it is the enlightening of his understanding and the firing of his affections, which subdues his enmity and makes the sinner willing in the day of God's power (Psalm 110:3). It is helpful to observe that these exercises of the three faculties of the soul correspond in character to the threefold office of Christ:
the understanding being enlightened by Him as Prophet,
the affections being moved by His work as Priest, and
the will bowing to His authority as King over Zion.
In the days of His flesh, the Lord Jesus condescended to minister unto the ailments and needs of men's bodies, and many came unto Him and were healed: in that we may see a foreshadowing of Him as the great Physician of souls, and what is required from sinners if they are to receive spiritual healing at His hands. Those who sought out Christ in order to obtain bodily relief, were persuaded of His mighty power, His gracious willingness, and of their own dire need of healing. But let it be noted that then, as now, this persuasion in the Lord's sufficiency and readiness to support varied in degree in different cases. The centurion spoke with full assurance: "Only speak the word—and my servant shall be healed" (Matthew 8:8). The leper expressed himself more dubiously, "Lord, if You will—You can make me clean" (Matthew 8:2). Another used still fainter language, "If You can do anything—have compassion and help us" (Mark 9:22). Yet even there the Redeemer did not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax—but graciously wrought a miracle on his behalf.
But let it be carefully observed that in each of the above cases there was a personal and actual application unto Christ, and it was this very application (or approach unto and appeal to Him) which made manifest their faith, even though that faith was as small as a grain of mustard seed. They did not rest content with having heard of His fame—but improved it: they actually sought Him out for themselves, acquainted Him with their case, and implored His compassion. So it must be with those troubled about soul concerns: saving faith is not passive—but operative. Moreover, the faith of those who sought unto Christ for physical relief was one which refused to be deterred by difficulties and discouragements. In vain the multitudes charged the blind man to be quiet (Mark 10:48): knowing that Christ was able to give sight, he cried so much the more. Even when Christ appeared to manifest a great reserve—the woman refused to leave until her request was granted (Matthew 15:27).