By Frederick W. Robertson
Preached January 13, 1850
"Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls."-Matt. xi. 28, 29.
No one, perhaps, ever read these words of Christ without being struck with their singular adaptation to the necessities of our nature. We have read them again and again, and we have found them ever fresh, beautiful, and new. No man could ever read them without being conscious that they realized the very deepest and inmost want of his being. We feel it is a convincing proof of His divine mission that He has thus struck the key-note of our nature, in offering us rest.
Ancient systems were busy in the pursuit after happiness. Our modern systems of philosophy, science, ay, even of theology, occupy themselves with the same thought; telling us alike that "happiness is our being's end and aim." But it is not so that the Redeemer teaches. His doctrine is in words such as these: "In the world ye shall have"-not happiness, but-"tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world;" "In Me ye shall have peace." Not happiness -the outward well-being so called in the world-but the inward rest which cometh from above. And He alone who made this promise had a right to say, "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls." He had that rest in Himself, and therefore could impart it; but it is often offered by men who have it not themselves. There are some, high professors of religion too, who have never known this real rest, and who at fifty, sixty, seventy years of age, are as much slaves of the world as when they began, desiring still the honors, the riches, or the pleasures it has to give, and utterly neglecting the life which is to come.
When we turn to the history of Christ we find this repose characterizing His whole existence. For example, first, in the marriage-feast at Cana, in Galilee. He looked not upon that festivity with cynical asperity; He frowned not upon the innocent joys of life: He made the wine to give enjoyment, and yet singularly contrasted was His human and His Divine joy. His mother came to Him full of consternation, and said, "They have no wine:" and the Redeemer, with calm self-possession, replied, "Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come." He felt not the deficiency which He supplied.
We pass from the marriage-feast to the scene of grief at Bethany, and still there we find that singular repose. Those words which we have seen to possess an almost magical charm in soothing the grief of mourners congregated round the coffin of the dead-"I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die"-speak they not of repose? But in the requirements of these great matters many men are not found wanting; it is when we come to the domesticities of their existence that we see fretting anxiety comes upon their soul. Therefore it is that we gladly turn to that home at Bethany where He had gone for quiet rest. Let us hear his words on the subject of everyday cares. "Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things; but one thing is needful."
We pass on from that to the state in which a man is tried the most: and if ever we can pardon words of restlessness and petulance, it is when friends are unfaithful. Yet even here there is perfect calmness. Looking steadfastly into the future, He says, "Do ye now believe? Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave all alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me."
Once more, we turn to the Redeemer's prayers. They are characterized by a calmness singularly contrasted with the vehemence which we sometimes see endeavoring to lash itself into a greater fervor of devotion. The model prayer has no eloquence in it; it is calm, simple, full of repose.
We find this again in the 17th chapter of St. John. If a man feels himself artificial and worldly, if a man feels restless, we would recommend him to take up that chapter as his best cure. For at least one moment, as he read it, be would feel in his soul calmness and repose; it would seem almost as if he were listening to the grave and solemn words of a divine soliloquy. This was the mind of Him who gave this gracious promise, "Come unto Me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." We repeat these words as a matter of course; but I ask, Has that repose been found?-has this peace come to us? for it is not by merely repeating them over and over again that we can enter into the deep rest of Christ.
Our subject this day will be to consider, in the first place, the false systems of rest which the world holds out, and to contrast them with the true rest of Christ. The first false system proposed is the expectation of repose in the grave. When the spirit has parted from the body after long protracted sufferings, we often hear it said that the release was a happy one; that there is a repose in the grave; that there "the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest." Nay, at times, perhaps, we find ourselves hazarding a wish that our own particular current of existence had come to that point, when it should mingle with the vast ocean of eternity.
There is in all this a kind of spurious Pantheism, a sort of feeling that God is alike in every heart, that every man is to be blessed at last, that death is but a mere transition to a blessed sleep, that in the grave there is nothing but quiet, and that there is no misery beyond it. And yet one of the deepest thinkers of our nation suggests that there may be dreams even in the sleep of death. There is an illusion often in the way in which we think of death. The countenance, after the spirit has departed, is so strange1y calm and meek that it produces the feeling of repose within us, and we transfer our feelings to that of the departed spirit, and we fancy that body no longer convulsed with pain, those features so serene and full of peace, do but figure the rest which the spirit is enjoying; and yet, perhaps that soul, a few hours ago, was full of worldliness, full of pride, full of self-love. Think you that now that spirit is at rest-that it has entered into the rest of Christ? The repose that belongs to the grave is not even a rest of the atoms composing our material form.
There is another fallacious system of rest which would place it in the absence of outward trial. This is the world's peace. The world's peace ever consists in plans for the removal of outward trials. There lies at the bottom of all false systems of peace, the fallacy that if we can but produce a perfect set of circumstances, then we shall have the perfect man; if we remove temptation, we shall have a holy being: and so the world's rest comes to this-merely happiness and outward, enjoyment. Ay, my Christian brethren, we carry these anticipations beyond the grave, and we think the heaven of God is but like the Mohammedan paradise-a place in which the rain shall beat on us no longer, and the sun pour his burning rays upon us no more. Very often it is only a little less sensual, but quite as ignoble as that fabled by Mohammed.
The Redeemer throws all this aside at once as mere illusion. He teaches just the contrary. He says, "Not as the world giveth, give I unto you." The world proposes a rest by the removal of a burden. The Redeemer gives rest by giving us the spirit and power to bear the burden. "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of Me, and ye shall find rest unto your souls." Christ does not promise a rest of inaction, neither that the thorns shall be converted into roses, nor that the trials of life shall be removed.
To the man who takes this yoke up in Christ's spirit, labor becomes blessedness-rest of soul and rest of body.
It matters not in what circumstances men are, whether high or low, never shall the rest of Christ be found in ease and self-gratification; never, throughout eternity, will there be rest found in a life of freedom from duty: the paradise of the sluggard, where there is no exertion; the heaven of the coward, where there is no difficulty to be opposed, is not the rest of Christ. "Take my yoke upon you." Nay, more-if God could give us a heaven like that, it would be but misery; there can be no joy in indolent inaction. The curse on this world is labor; but to him who labors earnestly and truly it turns to blessedness. It is a curse only to him who tries to escape from the work allotted to him, who endeavors to make a compromise with duty. To him who takes Christ's yoke, not in a spirit of selfish ease and acquiescence in evil, but in strife and stern battle with it the rest of Christ streams in upon his soul.
Many of us are drifting away from our moorings; we are quitting the old forms of thought, and faith, and life, and are seeking for something other than what satisfied the last generation: and this is a vain search for rest.
Many are the different systems of repose offered to us, and foremost is that proposed by the Church of Rome. Let us do her the justice, at all events, to allow that she follows the Redeemer in this-it is not happiness she promises, she promises rest. The great strength of Romanism lies in this, that she professes to answer and satisfy the deep want of human nature for rest. She speaks of an infallibility on which she would persuade men, weary of the strain of doubt, to rest. It is not to the tales of miracles and of the personal interference of God Himself; but to the promise of an impossibility of error to those within her pale, that she owes her influence. And we say, better far to face doubt and perplexity manfully; to bear any yoke of Christ's than be content with the rest of a Church's infallibility.
There is another error among many Dissenters; in a different form we find the same promise held out. One says, that if we will but rely on God's promise of election our soul must find repose. Another system tells us that the penalty has fallen upon Christ, and that if we believe we shall no longer suffer. Narrowing their doctrines into one, as if all the want of the soul was to escape from punishment, they place before us this doctrine, and say, believe that, and your soul shall find repose.
We have seen earnest men anxiously turning from view to view, and yet finding their souls as far from rest as ever. They remind us of the struggles of a man in fever, finding no rest, tossing from side to side, in vain seeking a cool spot on his pillow, and forgetting that the fever is within himself. And so it is with us; the unrest is within us: we foolishly expect to find that tranquillity in outward doctrine which alone can come from the calmness of the soul.
We will not deny that there is a kind of rest to be found in doctrine for a time: for instance, when a man, whose only idea of evil is its penalty, has received the consoling doctrine that there is no suffering for him to bear: but the unrest comes again. Doubtless, the Pharisees and Sadducees, when they went to the baptism of John, found something of repose there; but think you that they went back to their daily life with the rest of Christ? We expect some outward change will do that which nothing but the inward life can do-it is the life of Christ within the soul which alone can give repose. There have been men in the Church of Rome and in the ranks of dissent who have indeed erred grievously, but yet have lived a life of godliness. There have been men in the true Church-as Judas, who was a member of the true Church-who yet, step by step, have formed in themselves the devil's nature: the rest of Christ pertains not to any one outward communion.
Before we go farther, let us understand what is meant by this rest; let us look to those symbols about us in the world of nature by which it is suggested. It is not the lake locked in ice that are suggests repose, but the river moving on calmly and rapidly in silent majesty and strength. It is not the cattle lying in the sun, but the eagle cleaving the air with fixed pinions, that gives you the idea of repose combined with strength and motion. In creation, the rest of God is exhibited as a sense of power which nothing wearies. When chaos burst into harmony, so to speak, God had rest.
There are two deep principles in nature in apparent contradiction-one, the aspiration after perfection; the other, the longing after repose. In the harmony of these lies the rest of the soul of man. There have been times when we have experienced this. Then the winds have been hushed, and the throb and the tumult of the passions have been blotted out of our bosoms. That was a moment when we were in harmony with all around, reconciled to ourselves and to our God; when we sympathized with all that was pure, all that was beautiful, all that was lovely.
This was not stagnation, it was fullness of life-life in its most expanded form, such as nature witnessed in her first hour. This is life in that form of benevolence which expands into the mind of Christ. And when this is working in the son], it is marvellous how it distills into a man's words and countenance. Strange and magical is the power of that collect wherein we pray to God, "Who alone can order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men, to grant unto His people that they may love the thing which He commands, and desire that which He promises; that so among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found. There is a wondrous melody in that rhythm; the words are the echoes of the thought. The mind of the man who wrote them was in repose-all is ringing of rest. We do not wonder when Moses came down from the mount on which he had been bowing in adoration before the harmony of God, that his face was shining with a brightness too dazzling to look upon.
Our blessed Redeemer refers this rest to meekness and lowliness. There are three causes in men producing unrest: 1. Suspicion of God. 2. Inward discord. 3. Dissatisfaction with outward circumstances. For all these meekness is the cure. For the difficulty of understanding this world, the secret is in meekness. There is no mystery in God's dealings to the meek man, for "the secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him, and He will show them His covenant;" there is no dread of God's judgments when our souls are meek.
The second cause of unrest is inward discord. We are going on in our selfishness. We stand, as Balaam stood, against the angel of the Lord, pressing on whilst the angel of love stands against us. Just as the dove struggling against the storm, feeble and tired, is almost spent, until gradually, as if by inspiration, it has descended to the lower atmosphere, and so avoided the buffeting of the tempests above, and is then borne on by the wind of heaven in entire repose: like that is the rest of the soul. While we are unreconciled, the love of God stands against us, and, by His will, as long as man refuses to take up that yoke of His, he is full of discord; he is like the dove struggling with the elements aloft, as yet unconscious of the calm there is below. And you must make no compromise in taking up the burden of the Lord.
Lastly, unrest comes from dissatisfaction with outward circumstances. Part, perhaps the greater part, of our misery here comes from over-estimation ourselves. We are slaves to vanity and pride. We think we are not in the right station; our genius has been misunderstood; we have been slighted, we have been passed by, we have not been rewarded as we ought to have been. So long as we have this false opinion of ourselves, it is impossible for us to realize true rest.
Sinners, in a world of love, encircling you round on every side, with blessings infinite upon infinite, and that again multiplied by infinity: God loves you: God fills you with enjoyment! Unjustly, unfairly treated in this world of love! Once let a man know for himself what God is, and then in that he will find peace. It will be the dawn of an everlasting day of calmness and serenity. I speak to some who have felt the darkness, the clouds, and the dreariness of life, whose affections have been blighted, who feel a discord and confusion in their being. To some to whom the world, lovely though it be, is such that they are obliged to say, "I see, I do not feel, how beautiful it is."
Brother men, there is rest in Christ, because He is love; because His are the everlasting verities of humanity. God does not cease to be the God of love because men are low, sad, and desponding. In the performance of duty, in meekness, in trust in God, is our rest-our only rest. It is not in understanding a set of doctrines; not in an outward comprehension of the "scheme of salvation," that rest and peace are to be found, but in taking up, in all lowliness and meekness, the yoke of the Lord Jesus Christ.
"For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones."