Jesus often calls us to rest in the areas of life where our flesh wants to work, and to work in the areas of life where our flesh wants to rest.
The gospel is an ingenious work of salvific engineering. The Engineer knew what he was doing. The gospel turns out to be good news to us in precisely the ways we need most. If we trust it, the gospel simultaneously frees us from the despair of trying to save ourselves through our own effort, while also working to free us from the despair of slavery to our remaining sin.
However, the best news for our souls often doesn’t feel like good news to our flesh.
Rest Through Repentance
We hear Jesus’s call to rest in Matthew 11:28–30:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Few words are more beautiful and wonderful and comforting and inviting. But if we want to truly understand them, we need to read them in the context.
In Matthew 11:7–18, we hear Jesus challenge his listening crowd with how many of them were rejecting both the more ascetic John the Baptist as a demoniac (Matthew 11:18) and the more indulgent Jesus as a degenerate (Matthew 11:19). He said they were like fickle, discontented children, because “we played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” (Matthew 11:17). Both John and Jesus were inviting people to receive the gift of eternal life through repentance and faith in Jesus (John 3:16, 36), but they were refusing to come to Jesus that they may have life (John 5:40).
Come and Rest
Then we hear Jesus deliver scathing rebukes of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, cities in which he had preached and performed “mighty works,” because they wouldn’t repent (Matthew 11:20–24). They too refused to come to Jesus that they may have life.
It’s at this point we hear Jesus utter his great invitation: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” But he also tells us that only “little children” — the humble and helpless — accept it, while the “wise and understanding” reject it (Matthew 11:25).
Why? Because to receive the gospel rest Jesus offers requires us to trust him fully and hand him back the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — ceasing the evil work of trying to be like God (Genesis 2:17; 3:5). We must cease trying to atone for our own sins. We must cease trying to qualify for heaven or God’s approval on our own merits. We must cease putting God on trial. And we must cease considering ourselves our own (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).
To come to Jesus to find the rest we so desperately need requires the surrender of our autonomy and self-perceived rights to anything. To be God’s means to no longer be gods. And this is something our sinful flesh hates.
Come and Die
We hear Jesus’s call to work in Matthew 16:24–26:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”
Jesus’s call here is to a life of redemptive, self-sacrificial labor. However, it is not atoning work, but the “the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26). It is the kind of work that can be performed only by those who have received rest for their souls from Jesus. Because they trust him and believe that they will receive all they need (Matthew 6:33), they take up their cross daily and follow him in living lives of loving labor (Luke 9:23).
This is a Philippians 2 way of living, having the “same mind” as Jesus (Philippians 2:2, 5): humble, servant-hearted, not grasping at status and power and privilege and admiration — things humans love so dearly. And this too is something our flesh hates. Because it is fiercely proud, loves to be served by others, counts itself more significant than others, and grasps so tightly to all those things Jesus refused to grasp, for the love of his Father and the love of rebels he’d redeem.
Just as coming to Jesus for gospel rest requires surrender of what our sinful flesh loves, following Jesus into gospel work requires surrender of what our sinful flesh loves.
The Way That Leads to Life
Both the rest Jesus offers and the work he assigns require us to live by faith and die to sin. And though we often experience it as a war waging in our members between the Spirit and the flesh (Romans 7:23), it is “the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12) in which we learn to deny our sinful flesh — and thus deny the way of death — and choose the Spirit, the way of life and peace (Romans 8:6).
The Christian life is significantly counterintuitive. It is not easy. Jesus didn’t promise it would be. In fact, he said,
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13–14)
The way is hard. But it leads to life. It leads to joy. It leads to freedom. For to surrender our desire to be gods so that we can become God’s, and to surrender our desire to be ruled by our pride so that we can humbly serve the purposes of God and the good of others, is to begin living now in “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
This is an ingenious design, calling us to rest and work precisely in the ways our souls most need, and yet our sinful flesh least wants. And it is pure gospel. For its purpose is for our freedom. And “if the Son [sets us] free, [we] will be free indeed” (John 8:36). We will find rest for our souls and have spiritually fruitful lives.