Thursday, April 10, 2014

Woe or Rest?

  Life of Christ 62

The Capernaum synagogue in which Jesus probably preached
          There were two major geographical areas in the Israel of Jesus' day. Judea, which was in the south, was where Jerusalem was located. Although it was relatively poor, the people that lived there were considered more spiritual, since they were closer to the Temple. Of course, more Pharisees and rabbis chose to live in this region, so their influence was commensurately high. Galilee, on the other hand, was in the north, and as the larger and more populous region, it had pull, but not the spiritual influence that Judea had. So far, in our journey through the life of Christ, we have seen Him spend the bulk of His ministry in Galilee.
          One would expect Galilee to be receptive of Him. He was her native son. The Pharisees were less influential there than Judea. Jesus, the best preacher the world has ever seen, gave most of His sermons there. In addition, He had done most of His miracles in this region.
          At first, this was indeed the case. There was an initial enthusiasm that surrounded the new rabbi, and the crowds flocked to Him, and marveled at His words and works. But as time progressed, and the Pharisees infiltrated the reaction of the common people, resistance toward His message hardened. Galilee never did develop the blood lust toward Jesus that Judea had (John 7.1), but neither did she choose to believe in the claims of Christ. She rejected His astounding sermons and explained away His jaw dropping miracles.
          Increasingly, this growing resistance wore on Jesus. After months of patient work, powerful preaching, constant travel, and authenticating miracles produced not belief, but hardness of heart, Jesus has had enough. In the story under discussion today (Matthew 11.20-30) He displays neither frustration, temper, or pique, but He does pronounce, out of a holy anger, judgment on these cities that had seen so much and yet had refused to believe.
          The word He uses here, 'woe', is pregnant with implication. It is an expression of deep grief. But it isn't an expression of His own deep grief about the hardness of the Galileans. No, it is an expression of the emotion the Galilean cities would feel when the judgment for their disbelief comes. 'Woe to thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida!' (Matthew 11.21). In this sense it reminds me of the global reaction when the new Babylon is destroyed by God's judging hand. In fact, that reaction, 'Alas, alas, that great city' (Revelation 18.19) uses the same Greek word that is translated 'woe' in Matthew 11. In other words, when this judgment comes, great sorrow will be felt by those who experience it.
          To help drive through the depth of meaning in the word Jesus used look at some of its synonyms: adversity, anguish, burden, calamity, catastrophe, disaster, gloom, hardship, headache, misery, misfortune, pain, tragedy, trouble, affliction, agony, care, cataclysm, curse, dejection, depression, distress, grief, heartache, heartbreak, lamentation, melancholy, rue, sadness, sorrow, trial, tribulation, unhappiness, wretchedness, bemoaning, deploring, and grieving.
          Why would all this come? Because, in spite of Jesus' amazing ministry, their response was unbelief and a refusal to yield to His claims.
          Jesus then compares these Galilean cities in which He had ministered to several Gentile cities that the Jews of Jesus' day knew well. He asserted that if He had done the same amount of ministry in them as He had done in Galilee they would have humbly yielded to Him (Matthew 11.21-23). Consequently, judgment will come, and that an awful one. In this sense He likened it to the fire and brimstone that fell on Sodom, and said that Capernaum's judgment would be worse.
The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
 John Martin, 1852
          Jesus had said and done things no one in the world had seen. Their response was to become increasingly hard hearted. His response was to pronounce judgment, and to declare that this judgment would bring them to the place of woe.
          I do not know of a single passage of Scripture in which there is contained such a complete contrast as there is here in Matthew 11, other than perhaps Deuteronomy 30. There, Moses places blessing on the one hand and cursing on the other hand, and asks Israel to choose. To me, this is exactly what the Prophet greater than Moses does in our story. He places woe on one side and then places rest on the other, and asks Israel to choose.
          And what a rest it is! The word implies the refreshment and relaxation that follows hard labor. To drive home the point look at some of its synonyms: vacation, calm, comfort, downtime, dreaminess, ease, holiday, idleness, leisure, nap, peace, quiescence, quiet, quietude, recess, recreation, refreshment, relaxation, relief, repose, respite, siesta, silence, sleep, somnolence, stillness, tranquility.
          Jesus offers this rest to those who choose to come to Him. He is telling these hard hearted people that He isn't trying to take advantage of them, or walk to a throne over their crushed and bleeding bodies. Rather, if they will believe Him, and accept His claims, He will pour on them the tremendous blessing of rest.
          This rest is better than a rest for your body; it is a rest for your soul (Matthew 11.29). When your body is tired or sick you can rest for a comparatively short period of time and recover, but when your soul is shattered into a million tiny jagged fragments all the kings horses and all the kings men can't put it back together again – but Jesus can.
          We see here, then, laid out before the people of Galilee two completely different scenarios, and their destination was determined by their own choice. If they hardened their heart still further to Him they would experience woe. If they yielded to Him in humility, repentance, and faith, He would furnish them rest.
          Beloved, I am absolutely convinced, from the crown of my head to the sole of my feet, that this choice not only faced the Galileans of Jesus' generation, but also faces the people of our own day. It is the same choice that has come to each generation, including our generation: woe or rest?
          The gracious working of God in a life is a curious thing. In some it produces repentance, faith, and obedience. In some it produces hardness and rebellion. What it never produces is neutrality. And the more of Himself that God has graciously given to you the more true this is.
          Twenty five years ago I watched, for the very first time, a group of young people who grew up in Christian homes, faced with the decision of whether to yield, in humility, to the claims of Christ, or to, in hardheartedness, reject His claim on their life. After going our separate ways after high school, and moving geographically to another section of the country, I reconnected with many of them via Facebook recently. It was downright eerie to see what had happened in their lives. Perhaps I would not have noticed it as much if the transition had been gradual, but suddenly I was confronted with the fully formed lives and families of those whom I knew back in high school. With not a shred of coincidence, I noticed that, by and large, those who back then had chosen the path of hardness and rebellion were living now in a state of woe. On the other hand, those who had chosen back then the path of humility and obedience, well, their life had yielded to them the peaceable fruit of rest for their souls.
          Blessing or cursing? Woe or rest? The choice is yours, my friend, and it rests upon what you do with the claims of Jesus Christ upon your life. Will you harden or will you yield?

If you would like to listen to the audio version of the blog you may find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 33, 'Woe or Rest'.

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