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THE GREATEST OF All INVITATIONS: TO RECEIVE CHRIST
The passages below are taken from John Stott’s book “Why I Am A Christian,” published in 2003 by Inter-Varsity Press.
We all like receiving invitations, whether to a meal, a party, a concert or a wedding. Usually at the bottom of the invitation card those cryptic letters are printed: RSVP and those of us who have been brought up in a western culture know what they stand for, namely a polite request in French to respond to the invitation (Repondez s’il vous plait).
Not everybody knows this, however. I think of a married couple who had fled from Eastern Europe before the Second World War and found asylum in the UK. Their knowledge of western culture was distinctly limited. So when they received an invitation to a wedding, which concluded with RSVP they were flummoxed. ‘Vife,’ said the husband, in his thick, eastern accent, ‘vot does it mean, RSVP? I do not know vot it means.’ Then suddenly, after prolonged reflection, inspiration dawned. ‘Vife,’ said the husband, ‘I know vot it means: Remember Send Vedding Present!’
That couple thought the card was a demand, when in reality it was an invitation. Many people make the same mistake today about Jesus Christ and the gospel. They miss the fact that it is a free invitation, indeed the greatest invitation anyone ever receives. Here is its essence: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28 NIV).
These words must surely be among the most appealing that Jesus ever spoke. It is no wonder that the crowds ‘listened to him with delight’, and ‘were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips’ (Mark 12:37; Luke 4:22 NIV). The invitation of Jesus to come to him has been immortalized by musicians, liturgists and artists. Thus Handel, in one of the best-known arias of Messiah, skilfully combined Jesus’ words with words from Isaiah: ‘He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; come unto him.’ Then in the sixteenth century Thomas Cranmer took Jesus’ invitation from the German liturgy of Archbishop Hermann of Cologne and incorporated it in his reformed prayer book, so that every time Anglican worshippers attend a Communion Service according to the 1662 Prayer Book they are invited to listen to the ‘comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him’, namely, ‘Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.’ One more example comes from the early twentieth-century religious artist and Bible illustrator Harold Copping. He painted Jesus on a hillside with large crowds gathered below him. Jesus’ arms are stretched out in welcome, and underneath is written the simple caption, ‘Come unto me.’
In 1996, as a seventy-fifth birthday present from friends, I had the good fortune to visit South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic, some 800 miles east of the Falkland Islands. We landed at Grytviken, an abandoned Norwegian whaling station, where the great British explorer Ernest Shackleton is buried. Nearby is a tiny Lutheran church, recently restored, and now surrounded by king penguins and elephant seals. The church door responded to my touch, and what do you think I found? On the church’s east wall are inscribed in Norwegian the same invitation of Jesus: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’
This appeal (‘Come to me’) is the most famous part of the passage. It is, however, embedded in a paragraph of six verses, which need to be kept together. They contain two invitations addressed to us, preceded by two affirmations that Jesus made about himself. And we are not in a position to respond to the invitations until we have considered and accepted the affirmations. 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. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.
‘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.
‘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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:25—30 NIV).
1. TWO AFFIRMATIONS
The two affirmations both concern that most important of all subjects, the knowledge of God. Is it possible for human beings to come to know God, for creatures to know their Creator? And if so, how is it possible for us to do so? Jesus addresses himself to these questions when he says that the Father has ‘hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children’ and that ‘no-one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’. We note at once that the word common to both affirmations is the verb ‘revealed’. The implication is that there can be no knowledge of God without his initiative in revelation.
First, God is revealed only by Jesus Christ. It may be helpful to jump straight to the second statement of verse 27: ‘No-one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ That is to say, only Jesus knows God, so only he can make him known. This means, of course, that God is fully and finally revealed in Jesus Christ. It does not deny that there are other and lesser revelations. For example, God is partially revealed in the ordered loveliness of the created universe, in the moral demands of the human conscience and in the unfolding developments of history: But, although creation speaks of God’s glory, conscience of his righteousness, and history of his providence and power, nobody tells us of his love for human beings in their alienation and lostness, or of his plan to rescue us and reconcile us to himself, except Jesus of Nazareth.
This is the claim of Jesus, as we have already seen. And this is why every enquiry into the truth of Christianity must begin with the historic person of Jesus. The most unnerving thing about him is the quiet, unassuming yet confident way in which he advanced his stupendous claims. There was no fanfare of trumpets, no boasting and no ostentation. His manner was altogether unaffected. Yet here he is daring to call ‘the Lord of heaven and earth’ (the creator and sustainer of all things) his Father, and himself the Father’s Son (verse 25), indeed ‘the Son’ in an absolute way; and that all things have been committed to him by his Father (that is, that he is the heir of the universe). And finally he claims that as only he knows the Father, so only the Father knows him; he is an enigma to all others. There therefore exists between them an unparalleled reciprocal relationship. This is Jesus’ multiple claims. It is breathtaking in its sweep. Nobody else has dared to make it, while retaining his moral integrity, sanity and balance.
Jesus’ second affirmation is that God is revealed only to babies. Verses 25—26: ‘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 [nepioi, babies]. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.”’
By ‘babies’ Jesus meant not those who are young in years but those who (whatever their age) are humble and childlike. ‘Babies’ in the vocabulary of Jesus are sincere and humble seekers; from everybody else, Jesus said, God actively hides himself.
Please do not misunderstand this. This is not obscurantism. It is not to copy the ostrich and bury our head in the sand. It is not to murder our intellect or deny the importance of thought, for we have been told to ‘stop thinking like children’ and instead in our thinking to be adults (1 Corinthians 14:20 NIV).
No. It is simply to acknowledge the limitations of the human mind. When seeking God it flounders helplessly out of its depth. For by definition God is infinite in his being, whereas our little, finite mind, capable as it is of remarkable achievements in the empirical sciences, is utterly incapable of discovering God.
If, then, we stand on our proud pedestal, with our spectacles on our nose, presuming to scrutinize and criticize God, and proclaiming the autonomy of our own reason, we will never find him. It is not only unseemly to treat God like that; it is also unproductive. For according to Jesus God actively hides himself from people like that.
If, however, we step down from our lofty platform and humble ourselves before God; if we confess our inability to find him by ourselves; if we get down reverently on our knees and read the story of Jesus in the Gospels with the open mind of a little child, God reveals himself to such. Is this perhaps why some of my readers have not yet found God? Is it that you have sought him in the wrong mood? What is required of us is not that we close our minds, but that we open them; not that we stifle them, but that we humble them. So far we have reflected on Jesus’ two affirmations concerning the knowledge of God. It is as if we have been given answers to two fundamental questions. Firstly, who can reveal God? Answer: only Jesus Christ. Secondly, to whom does God reveal himself? Answer: only to ‘babies’. God hides himself from intellectual dilettantes, but reveals himself in Christ to those who humbly seek him.
2. TWO INVITATIONS
We turn now from the two affirmations that Jesus made to the two invitations he issued and continues to issue today. Here is the first: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28 NIV). This invitation is addressed to all human beings, including us. In issuing it, Jesus is being far from complimentary. He describes us as ‘weary and burdened’ or ‘labouring and heavy laden’. He seems to be likening us to oxen, labouring under a yoke that chafes on our neck, and bearing a heavy, even a crushing, load.
Thus Jesus assumes that all human beings are burdened, and I for one do not doubt the accuracy of his diagnosis. There are the burdens of our anxieties and our fears, our temptations, our responsibilities and our loneliness. There is the terrible sense, which sometimes engulfs us, that life has neither meaning nor purpose. Above all, there is the burden of our failures or (to give them their proper name) our sins, which deserve God’s judgment. Does our conscience never feel its guilt? Is our head never bowed down with a sense of shame and alienation? Have we never cried out, as the Anglican Prayer Book obliges us to, that ‘the burden of our sins is intolerable’ (that is, we can bear it no longer)?
If not, if we are strangers to all this heaviness, I fear that we shall never accept Christ’s invitation to come to him for release. It is the burdened to whom he promises rest. As he said elsewhere, ‘it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick’ (Matthew 9:12). In other words, just as we don’t go to the doctor unless we are ill, so we shall not come to Jesus Christ unless and until we acknowledge the burden of our sin. The very first step to becoming a follower of Jesus Christ is the humble admission that we need him. Nothing keeps us out of the kingdom of God more surely than our pride and self-sufficiency.
Having considered to whom Jesus addresses his invitation, we are in a position to consider what it is that he offers us. He promises, if we come to him, to ease our yoke, to lift our burden, to set us free, to give us rest.
A few years ago I visited a student group in Cuba, in which there was widespread disillusion over the failed experiment of Marxism. One male student described his experience. He had been a Christian for only four months, he said. Previously, like everybody else in Cuba, he had felt overloaded with shortages and poverty, by existential emptiness and alienation, until he asked Jesus Christ to give him peace and tranquility and to free him from his burdens. He received such relief from the promise of Matthew 11:28 that he could hardly sleep. The next day he perceived himself to be different. No medicine had been able to give him tranquility; he was still poor, but Jesus Christ had given him rest.
And only Jesus Christ can do these things. For he is portrayed in the New Testament as the world’s supreme burden-bearer, since he bore our burden on the cross. Listen again to these well-known words from the Bible:
The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
(Isaiah 53:6 NIV)
For he bore the sin of many (Isaiah 53:12 NIV)
‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29 NIV).
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24 NIV).
Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people (Hebrews 9:28 NIV).
These verses all speak of Jesus Christ as ‘bearing’ our sins and so taking them away. To ‘bear sin’ is a frequent Old Testament expression for bearing the penalty of sin. The penalty is paid either by the sinner or by the God-given substitute. This is the very essence of the gospel.
The good news, then, is this: that Almighty God loves us in spite of our rebellion against him; that he came after us himself in the person of his Son Jesus Christ; that he took our nature and became a human being; that he lived a perfect life of love, having no sins of his own for which atonement needed to be made, but that on the cross he identified himself with our sin and guilt. In two dramatic New Testament expressions he was ‘made ... to be sin for us’ and became ‘a curse for us’ (2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13 NIV). For in those awful three hours of God-forsaken darkness he endured the condemnation our sins had deserved. But now, on the ground of Christ’s sin-bearing death, God offers us a full and free forgiveness, together with a new birth and a new beginning in the power of his resurrection.
Nobody has described more dramatically than John Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress the exhilaration of losing the burden of our sin.
Up this way therefore did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back.
He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a Cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a Sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the Cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to rumble, and so continued to do, till it came to the mouth of the Sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.
Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said, with a merry heart, He hath given me rest by His sorrow, and life by His death. Then he stood still awhile to look and wonder, for it was very surprising to him, that the sight of the Cross should thus ease him of his burden. He looked therefore, and looked again, even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks ... Now, as he stood looking and weeping, behold, three Shining Ones came to him and saluted him with ‘Peace be to thee.’ So the first said to him, ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee’ ...; the second stripped him of his rags, and clothed him with change of raiment; the third also set a mark on his forehead, and gave him a roll with a seal upon it ... that he should give it in at the Celestial Gate. . .
Then Christian gave three leaps for joy, and went on singing:
‘Thus far did I come laden with my sin,
Nor could aught ease the grief that I was in,
Till I came hither. What a place is this!
Must here be the beginning of my bliss?
Must here the burden fall from off my back?
Must here the strings that bound it to me crack?
Blest Cross! blest Sepulchre! blest, rather, be
The Man that there was put to shame for me!”
Having considered the questions to whom the invitation of Jesus is addressed, and what he offers, the third question concerns what he asks from us. The plain answer is ‘Nothing!’---except that we come to him. For he has done everything else. Salvation is a gift that is absolutely free and utterly undeserved.
Yet there is no substitute for this personal coming to Jesus Christ. Some people become engrossed in the externals of religion. They come to church. They come to be baptized and confirmed. They come to a pastor to seek his counsel. They come to the Bible and read it, together with other religious literature. But it is possible to engage in all these ‘comings’ without ever coming to Jesus Christ himself. I beg you not to stumble over the simplicity of Christ’s invitation.
There was a famous Professor of Hebrew at Edinburgh University from 1843 to 1870. His name was Dr John Duncan, but because of his familiarity with Hebrew language and literature he was known affectionately to his students as ‘Rabbi Duncan’. Such were his attainments in the Semitic languages that his students felt sure he said his prayers in Hebrew, and two of them determined to find out. They crept outside his bedroom door one night to listen. They expected to hear great flights of Hebrew rhetoric and mysticism. Instead, this is what they heard:
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
Look upon a little child;
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to thee.2
If a university professor could approach Jesus Christ like a child, I guess we can too. We may be sure that Rabbi Duncan did not encourage childishness in either himself or his students. But child-likeness is something quite different. For Jesus exalted the virtue of humility. He taught that, unless we humble ourselves like children, we shall not even enter God’s kingdom (Matthew 18:1—3 NIV). He also taught, as we have seen, that God reveals himself only to ‘babies’, to humble seekers after the truth.3
If Jesus’ first invitation is that we ‘come’ to him, his second is this: ‘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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:29—30 NIV).
I constantly marvel at the balance of the Bible. The Christian life is not just taking it easy and enjoying ‘rest’. No; when we come to Jesus, a marvellous exchange takes place. He first eases our yoke and then fits his upon us instead. He first lifts our burden and then lays his upon us instead. But too many people, influenced by the ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ mentality of postmodernism, want the rest without the yoke; they want to lose their burden but not to gain Christ’s. Yet the two invitations of Jesus belong together; we have no liberty to pick and choose between them.
What then is the ‘yoke’ of Christ? A yoke, of course, is a horizontal wooden bar which is laid on the necks of oxen when they are harnessed to a plough or a cart. And symbolically in Scripture it expresses submission to authority. Thus the Jews spoke of ‘the yoke of Torah’, because they submitted to the authority of God’s law. Now, however, Jesus invites us to take his yoke upon us and---by doing so---to learn from him.
To take Christ’s yoke upon us is to enter his school, to become his disciples and to submit to his teaching authority. It implies that we are to regard him not only as our saviour but also as our teacher and Lord. Jesus himself put this beyond doubt when during his last night on earth he said to the Twelve, ‘You call me “Teacher” and “Lord”, and rightly so, for that is what I am’ (John 13:13 NIV). In other words, ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’ were more than courtesy titles; they bore witness to a reality. It will include bringing every part of our lives, public and private, under the sovereign lordship of Jesus.
Does it sound hard? On the contrary, Jesus insists that it is the way of liberation. For the burden we lose when we come to Christ is heavy, whereas his burden, he said, is ‘light’. Again, the yoke we lose when we come to Christ is a misfit; it chafes on our shoulders. But the yoke we gain is ‘easy’; it is a perfect fit. ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ How is this? I think it is that both our mind and our will find their freedom under the authority of Christ. The only authority under which our mind is genuinely free is the authority of truth. So-called ‘free thought’, which claims licence to believe anything, including lies, is not authentic intellectual freedom; it is bondage to illusion and falsehood. As Jesus said elsewhere to his disciples, ‘you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32 NIV). Similarly, the only authority under which our will is truly free is the authority of righteousness as revealed in God’s commandments. ‘I will walk about in freedom’, declared the psalmist, ‘for I have sought out your precepts’ (Psalm 119:45). And the reason freedom is found in obedience to God’s commandments is that there is a fundamental correspondence between God’s law and our moral nature. The requirements of his law are not alien to us, for they are the laws of our own human being, written by creation on our hearts (Romans 2:15).
Having described the compatibility of his yoke and his burden, Jesus goes on to describe himself He is ‘gentle and humble in heart’, he says. What Jesus offers us is the light burden and easy yoke of a kind and gentle Master. Under them we find rest.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew about this. He was executed by the special order of Heinrich Himmler at the Flossenburg concentration camp in April 1945. He wrote in his book The Cost of Discipleship as follows:
Only the man who follows the command of Jesus singlemindedly, and unresistingly lets his yoke rest upon him, finds his burden easy, and under its gentle pressure receives the power to persevere in the right way. The command of Jesus is hard, unutterably hard, for those who try to resist it. But for those who willingly submit the yoke is easy and the burden is light.
4. CONCLUSION: RSVP
We have considered the two affirmations and the two invitations that Jesus made, and continues to make today. The affirmations are that only he can reveal God, and that he does so only to ‘babies’, while the two invitations are that we come to him and take upon us his yoke.
But have we noticed that, although the two invitations are different, the promise attached to them is precisely the same? To those who come to him he says, ‘I will give you rest’, and to those who assume his yoke he promises that ‘you will find rest for your souls’.
Everybody is looking and longing for rest, for peace, for freedom. And Jesus tells us where it may be found---in losing our burden at the cross, and in submitting to his teaching authority.
Freedom is indeed found in laying down our burden, but it is emphatically not found in discarding Christ’s. We are back with the great paradox of Christian living. It is under Christ’s yoke that we find rest, and in his service that we find freedom. It is when we lose ourselves that we find ourselves, and when we die to our self-centredness that we begin to live.
So why am I a Christian? It has become clear that there is no one overriding reason, but rather a cluster of interlocking reasons. Some have to do with Jesus Christ himself---his extraordinary claims for himself, which I cannot explain away; his sufferings and death, which throw light on the problem of pain; and his relentless pursuit of me, in which he would not let me go. Others are concerned more with me than with him: he helps me to understand myself in the paradox of my humanness and to find the fulfilment of my basic human aspirations. Yet another concerns the necessity of decision as he invites us to come to him for freedom and for rest.
To sum it up in a single sentence: he who claims to be both Son of God and saviour and judge of humankind now stands before us offering, if only we come to him, fulfilment, freedom and rest. Such an invitation from such a person cannot lightly be dismissed. He waits patiently for our response. RSVP!
It is many years ago that I made my response to Christ, kneeling at my bedside in a school dormitory. I have not regretted it. For I have experienced what Lord Reith (the first Director General of the BBC) once called ‘the mystery and the magic of the indwelling Christ’.5
I wonder if you, my reader, are ready to take the same step? If so, perhaps you would find it helpful to get away and alone somewhere, and to echo this prayer, making it your own:
Lord Jesus Christ,
I am aware that in different ways you have been seeking me.
I have heard you knocking at my door.
that your claims are true;
that you died on the cross for my sins,
and that you have risen in triumph over death.
Thank you for your loving offer of forgiveness, freedom and fulfilment.
I turn from my sinful self-centredness.
I come to you as my Saviour.
I submit to you as my Lord.
Give me strength to follow you for the rest of my life. Amen. (123-141)
1. John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Library of Classics (Collins, n.d.), pp. 47—48.
2. In Charles Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Songs (1742).
3. I can vouch for the truth of this anecdote, because I heard it from the lips of Professor James Stewart of New College, Edinburgh. I am surprised, therefore, that it is not included in Life of the Late John Duncan, written by David Brown and published in 1872 (Edmonston & Douglas, 2nd edn, revised). Nevertheless, David Brown did write of ‘the childlike simplicity of the man’ in prayer (p. 361).
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (1937; English translation SCM, 1959), p. xxxiii.
5. Andrew Boyle, Only the Wind will Listen: Reith of the BBC (BBC, 1972), p. 18.
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