At the end of his life, my friend David leaned into Christ’s promise of rest. The hope he drew from that promise so comforted him that he spent his last moments witnessing to others.
He’d endured a long, arduous struggle with end-stage emphysema. For months he ricocheted back and forth between the hospital and rehab, and wrestled with fear, doubt, and exhaustion as the simple act of breathing became a burden. “I’m so tired,” he would say, between gasps of air. “I just wish I knew what God is doing.”
Yet even when David could barely breathe, he felt an urgency to share the hope and peace he gleaned from the gospel, so he diligently planned a funeral that would offer Christian hope to all in attendance. When my kids and I visited him the day before he died, we found him sitting at a table with his laptop open to a letter he wanted read during the service. He passed into Jesus’s arms a little over 24 hours later.
I was privileged to read the passages he chose for his funeral, and tears sprang to my eyes when I saw his most cherished verse among them. It was a verse that had offered him a cool cup of water in arid times, and he now ensured that it would be offered to the gathered mourners so that they too might find comfort: “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” (Matthew 11:28–29).
Seeking a Hidden Rest
In our world that prizes productivity over stillness, rest seems an alluring but ever-elusive gift. A startling number of Americans struggle with sleep deprivation, and more than half of American employees report symptoms of workplace burnout.
The tourism industry in the United States generates over one trillion dollars in revenue each year, as we flee our hometowns with the hope that ocean breezes, mountain air, or a change in scenery might finally calm our frayed nerves. Inevitably, when the vacation weeks fly by, and we return home sunburned, weary, and deflated, we wonder how the refreshment we sought has escaped us yet again. While our Lord calls us to “be still” and know he is God (Psalm 46:10), we never seem to find the time.
Meanwhile, the travails of life exhaust us. Businesses fail. Disasters strike. Loved ones fall ill, and some die. Our bodies wither and break, and our hopes along with them. Pain and loneliness, grief and worry weigh down our souls, and we find ourselves broken, parched, exhausted, and yearning for stillness. For relief. For rest — that cool cup of water that never seems to come.
Fallen from Rest
We yearn for rest because God made us in his image, and he set apart a day of rest during creation (Genesis 1:26; 2:2). As reflections of him, we too must pause from our labors and revel in his goodness. Sadly, no matter how diligently we strive, or how ardently we yearn, such rest slips from our grasp over and over, because although we’re made to rest, we’re also fallen in sin.
“Wrenched from fellowship with our loving Father, weary in our sins, we toil and ache for rest.”
God provided rest from the first, walking with Adam and Eve “in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8). Yet in their rebellion, our first parents unleashed sin into the world, and in so doing, tore us from the respite with the Lord for which we were made. Since the fall, sin has tainted our work, and dragged down our efforts with weariness: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life. . . . By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground” (Genesis 3:17, 19).
Wrenched from fellowship with our loving Father, weary in our sins, we toil and ache for rest. We pine for relief, but find we are “like the tossing sea, for it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up mire and dirt” (Isaiah 57:20).
Since the fall, mankind has secretly yearned for the peace that comes not from the toil of our own hands, but from communion with the loving, sovereign Creator who gives us life and breath and everything else (Acts 17:25). And over millennia, the prophets have clung to God’s promise that while we can’t usher in that rest ourselves, he would pave a path for us. He would save us.
God’s Promised Rest
Lamech hoped God would bring this relief through his son, Noah: “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands” (Genesis 5:29). Moses and Joshua hoped for respite in Canaan.
Yet even after the floodwaters receded, or the walls of Jericho crumbled to the ground, mankind largely remained sinful, restless, and alienated from the God of rest. Hundreds of years later, God describes Israel as “a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways. Therefore I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest’” (Psalm 95:10–11).
Still, through his prophets God promised an eternal jubilee, an ultimate Sabbath, when those who mourn would be comforted, and righteousness and praise would “sprout up before all nations” (Isaiah 61:11). He promised freedom from sin and the sweet relief of communion, at last, with our holy God, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).
He promised rest in Christ.
Rest for Our Souls
Jesus invites those who are weary, burdened, and heavy laden to savor the rest he offers (Matthew 11:28-30). Relief from the yoke of the law and from our toilsome labors. Rest for the soul. The restoration of God with his children, to abide together in his rest for all eternity.
Right now, we live on in a sin-stricken world. But when Christ returns, God will dwell among us, and “he will wipe away every tear, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
“Jesus invites those who are weary, burdened, and heavy laden to savor the rest he offers.”
Although we stoop with weariness, when we place our faith in Christ, we have assurance. Jesus will return. He has overcome (John 16:33). “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Hebrews 4:9–10).
During his walk upon the earth, my friend David endured homelessness, drug addiction, breathlessness, and the despair of a life whittled away by disease. Yet, ultimately none of these hardships overcame the promise God gave him in Christ: rest for his weary soul. The world wore him down, but Christ promised an easy yoke. A light burden. A heart, mind, and body made new by God’s grace, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
The effects of sin strangle us. The woes we carry crush us. But in Christ, we who labor and are heavy laden find rest for our souls. And in him, we have hope.