The Great Invitation
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matthew 11:28 Introduction
In the Bible, no verse is more important than any other verse. “All (not some) Scripture is God-breathed” (2 TM 3:16). Some verses seem to resonate better with our lives. John 3:16, Psalm 23, John 14–these and other passages are favorites. Included in this cherished list is our text, Matthew 11:28, where Jesus said, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” These pinnacle passages spawn wonderful stories. Our text is no exception.
After England’s King Charles I was beheaded in 1649, his daughter Elizabeth was captured and imprisoned at Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight, in south England. The princess was 14, fluent in five languages, and a deeply committed Christian. Kept in solitary confinement, Elizabeth grieved her dad’s death. Her heart broken, her body wasted away, and she died alone of pneumonia.
She was found dead with her head resting on a Bible open to Jesus’ words, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Elizabeth lies buried in Newport Church, Isle of Wight. Queen Victoria honored the princess with a white marble memorial. Above the sculpture, bars, indicating she was a prisoner, are broken to show she had escaped to a better rest. The memorial has Elizabeth’s left cheek resting on Jesus’ “comfortable words.”
One of the most beloved Bible verses, our text should be memorized by all. “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Matt. 11:28a (Holman) “Come. . .”
One of the English language’s most precious words, “come” means I desire your presence, I want you to be near me, I need all distance between us removed.
Israel, downtrodden by their sin, rejoiced to hear God reaffirming His love for them as a nation by pleading with them, “Come to Me” (Isaiah 55:3 Holman).
John the Beloved, when old, wrote about the second coming of his longtime acquaintance, Jesus. Dwelling on the return of Christ, John tenderly remembers his Friend from youthful days and sighs, “Come, Lord Jesus” (RV 22:20 Holman).
“Come” is a word believers should use often. It bespeaks the love we are to have for the lost, and our desire for them to enjoy what we have found in Jesus.
George W. Truett, pastor for over 40 years at First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, in his final illness would slip in and out of a coma. One day nurses found him standing at his hospital room window. Looking out at people walking on the sidewalk below, he had his arms stretched out, and was saying, “Come to Jesus. Please come to Jesus. Come. Come.” The word was planted deep in his psyche.
Billy Sunday had his first heart attack while preaching. Thinking he was dying, he fell to the floor, crying, “Come. Join me in Heaven someday. Come.”
Facing texts like ours is a preacher’s worst nightmare. We fear we won’t do justice to Jesus’ zeal. We’re ever in danger of our coldness thwarting His passion, of our dry eyes evaporating His tears.
Only God-given gentleness can reproduce in a sermon tenderness like this. It takes a full measure of divine anointing from the sweet Holy Spirit of Jesus to preach Jesus’ words here aright and to accurately convey the warmth of His heart.
This is The Great Invitation, maybe the most blessed summons ever uttered by deity. For weeks I’ve seen our text coming, looming on the horizon of my pulpit schedule. I’ve studied the text to the point it is about to explode within me.
Thoughts from it have been rushing through my heart like a torrent. I feel I am standing on a vast shore, experiencing a huge tidal wave of love rushing past me. I find myself desperately trying to pick up from the sand lovely thoughts, as pretty as seashells. Seeing them momentarily as they rush through my mind, I have to grasp them immediately lest they be gone with the tide. Please let me grab some seashells, and share bits and pieces of what I’m finding in this ocean of love.
First, audacity. No other person anywhere anytime any place would have ever dared to make the claim in our text. This is why Jesus had previously spent much time explaining in detail His own Person, and relationship with the Father.
Jesus told us precisely who and what He was so that we would know He was not a quack doctor. There have been many fake physicians in history, each offering bogus medicine. Is this One making the almost-too-good-to-be-true promise in our text also an imposter? Will He prove false and disappoint us?
Jesus told us who and what He was in order to prove He was authorized to make promises like this. He had to demonstrate He is able to give because He has. Otherwise, His words would be meaningless chatter. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this verse is quoted, “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” A slave responds, “Those are good words, but who says them?”
He asks the right question. The strength of our text lies in the validity of the One making the claim. The deep theological data Jesus previously provided was given not merely to gratify curiosity or evoke philosophical debate. It was proffered to help us, to provide us confidence in the invitation given here.
Second, amazing. Don’t overlook who the first hearers of this invitation were. They were people rejecting Him. They were turning their backs on Jesus, yet He reaches out to them, telling them not to leave, but to come. Amazing love!
It’s all about Him and His condescending love for sinners. He does not need us to help Him. He is omnipotent, having all power. He has no need to be out recruiting soldiers for an army to help Him buttress His reign. His throne is not teetering. Myriads of angels are ready to fly and fight at His command.
He invites not to receive from us, but to give to us. He simply wants to help us. “It is a strange sight–the Son of God entreating sinners to have mercy on themselves, yet the guilty ones unwilling to receive the mercy!” (Spurgeon).
They refused Jesus, but He refused to refuse them. The same is true today. Sinners revile and reject Him, yet in gentle, amazing love, He still asks us to come.
He invites us, though rebels against Him, to come to Him anyway. Sinners are outsiders only by their own choice. All barriers to salvation are in us, not God.
Third, approach. Come. Overcome inertia. The prodigal son, sinking in a squalor, vowed, “I will arise and go to my father” (LK 15:18). He determined what to do, and then did it. We must do the same. Rise. Get up. Actually come. Don’t wait. No text, except in the devil’s bible, bids you delay (Spurgeon).
“Come” implies absence, being away from where we ought to be. We wouldn’t need to come to Jesus if we were not at a distance from Him. We are not made right with God naturally, by birth, or by osmosis. We must choose to come.
Don’t hold back, fearing the invitation is not for you. Our text has been a pillow for millions of weary heads. Elizabeth, dying in a castle, rested her head on it physically. Come rest yours on it spiritually. Jesus has never yet failed anyone.
Spurgeon’s favorite poem by Tennyson pictures how Jesus wants to receive any and all who will come to Him. A child in a hospital was terminally ill, about to die. Doctors had decided to try a surgery they did not think would help. The girl, knowing she probably would not live, asked a friend in the next bed what she should do. The friend said, tell Jesus all about it, and ask Him to take care of you. The sick girl asked, “How will Jesus know me?” Stumped, the girls discussed how busy Jesus was, and puzzled over how He would, in a ward filled with many long rows of beds, recognize the child needing Him most. The two finally agreed the sick one would put her hands out of the bed, and when Jesus saw her hands, he would know she was the one most in need. In the morning, the girl had gone on to Heaven without the operation. It was obvious Jesus had been there. He had cared for her in the gentlest way possible. There she lay, with her little hands out of bed.
I love this story. It is simple and tugs at the heart. The girls knew they were in trouble, realized they needed help beyond themselves, and knew Whom to come to. They just had to figure out the details. We may have more knowledge than they had, but are we wiser than they were? They knew Jesus would receive them. Having no reservations about coming to Jesus, they came. Will you? Come.