Come Unto Me, All...
Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28
This lone sentence is frequently cited as a proof text for the doctrine that each unbelieving human being is free and able to choose for himself whether or not s/he will come to Jesus to receive salvation. The word "all" is the single piece of evidence offered. Calvinists are sometimes ridiculed for asking whether "all" really means "all," even though it's a small matter to identify instances where no one takes "all" to mean every individual in the world. Let's look at the "all" at hand to see what it means in this case.
In order to be sure we're considering adequate context, let's briefly look at chapter 11 in its entirety.
At the beginning of the chapter, we find Jesus preaching in the cities on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. In vv. 20-24 he names three of these: Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Caperneum. These were old stomping grounds for many of Jesus' disciples, the very fishing villages from which some of them had been called, and not far from Jesus' own home town of Nazareth, only about a day's journey away.
The tone and theme of the chapter is set by a question sent to Jesus from John the Baptist by some of John's disciples. John had sat in prison for some time now--he probably guessed correctly that he would never get out alive--and was beginning to wonder whether the Jesus he had proclaimed to be the Lamb of God (John 1:28-36) was really the Messiah after all. Jesus responds in v. 5 by citing Scriptural Messianic prophecies his ministry was fulfilling.
The Jews knew these Scriptures; they were always looking for the fulfillment. Nevertheless, recognizing and accepting the true Messiah would not be a simple, scientific proceedure, no mere act of observation using a checklist of prophecies on a clipboard. In v. 6 Jesus hints that most of the Jews will fail to recognize him and will stumble over him. Why? How? What makes the difference between those who do and those who don't? This is the issue that lies at the heart of chapter 11: who comes to Jesus, and why? Is it done by human effort or by God's grace alone?
Fundamentally, Jesus tells us, the key is blessedness: the grace of God. The word for "blessed" is often translated "happy" in English. That's a woefully inadequate translation but there's no single English word that captures the full meaning of the original, because its meaning was imbedded in ancient Hebrew culture. To the Jew, the ultimate blessedness is to see the face of God and not be destroyed. In our sinful condition, a vision of God in His holiness is anything but a happy occurance. The blessed man is one who has been rescued by God from his sinful condition through faith in God's Word, and so may now stand in the judgment. See Psalm 1 for a beautiful picture of this idea. Bottom line: those who do not stumble over Jesus are kept from it by an intervention of God's grace. That this is the best interpretation of v. 6 is borne out by Jesus' following words.
As John's disciples return to reassure him that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah, Jesus turns to the multitudes to whom he had been preaching and teaching, and begins confronting them with their unbelief. Plainly, he is upset, apparently even angry. Why had they gone out into the wilderness to see John the Baptist? Was it just an excuse for a nature walk? Was it not to see a true prophet? If so, why did they not believe him? It was clear enough from Scripture that John was sent to prepare the way for the Messiah. John had pointed them to Jesus. Yet now they held back, intrigued by Jesus' teaching--more than happy to have their blind, deaf, sick, lame, and even dead friends and relatives healed and resurrected by him--but still unwilling to accept him as Messiah. What more did they need? Jesus' answer: ears to hear. How does one aquire these ears capable of responding to the high frequencies of spiritual truth? Jesus is about to reveal the answer.
But first, he finishes his rail against the North-shore Galileans with some really harsh accusations, including curses pronounced upon them--an exceedingly non-seeker-friendly technique, to say the least. Not the kind of talk that fills synagogues. Apparently, Jesus' first priority was something other than convincing as many people as possible to believe in him. In fact, he's about to say as much.
The following questions are intended to help us think through the ramifications of Jesus' words.
If the miracles done for the North-shore Galileans had been done in Tyre, Sidon, and most depraved Sodom, even those Gentile dogs would have repented. But the miracles were not done there, and those cities were all permanently destroyed.
In the NIV and NRSV, the word "answering" is unaccountably omitted from the introductory phrase of v. 25. Other translations correctly read something like, "Then Jesus answering said." That connects vv. 20-24 to vv. 25-30, showing that Jesus' praise and prayer were in response to their unbelief specifically, and stated aloud for their ears. That he was answering presupposes that they were questioning Him. They would certainly have been taken aback by the severity of his condemnation of them. One might well imagine them asking such questions as "What gives you the right...?"
None of us deserves the Father's revelation of Jesus' true identity. He reveals it to some because He is a loving, merciful, and gracious God, and thus it is pleasing in His sight to select the most undeserving.
The multitudes from the surrounding towns were the wise and intelligent ones from whom the Father hid Jesus' Messiahship. Who, then, were the babes to whom He revealed it? Remember that some of his own disciples came from this area. Peter was one of them. These were fishermen and similarly occupied men. They were nobodies in the Jewish religion, nobodies in the civil government. They were blue-collar workers, so to speak, uneducated generally and untrained in theology specifically. In today's terms they were the kind of guys who drive beat up Camaros, listen to the oldies rock station, and look forward to partying in the yard on the weekend. In terms of the likelihood of their comprehending spiritual truth, they were like babies enrolled at Harvard--hopeless. But with God, nothing is impossible.
God nowhere spells out why it pleases Him to be merciful to some of us and execute righteous judgment upon others. To my knowledge, no one has ever offered a completely satisfactory explanation. However, since the only man to receive injustice at the hands of God is His beloved, only begotten Son, Jesus, it seems supremely audacious to call it unfair that some people receive what they have earned. After all, it's only on Jesus' behalf that any of us are shown mercy and given grace--called into the Beloved Himself.
Seems like a catch-22 situation unless you remember, "I and the Father are One" and "He who has seen me has seen the Father." The two decisions are one, and the effect is the same, only stated differently. Either way, the sole authority to grant repentance, knowledge of the Father, knowledge of Jesus, and ability to come to Jesus rests jointly with God the Father and God the Son. In His infinitely unattainable wisdom, He chooses to withhold it from some, and grant it to others. That arrangement pleases the Father, and the Son always does what pleases the Father. John 8:29
Notice that Jesus performed the miracles for those cities even though they were not going to repent, and their increased exposure to truth would increase the severity of their punishment (v. 24). God's sovereign election of some doesn't contradict Jesus' command to everyone to come to Him. Everyone ought to come. What we ought to do and what we are able to do are not the same thing, and the fact that our ability is in God's hands should always be understood against the backdrop of what we have earned by our wicked deeds.
And finally to the text in question. I find that I'm left with at least two optional interpretations, neither of which resembles the usage common in evangelicalism today.
Admittedly, at first read it sounds like a universal call. But if indeed it were, there would be no need to say more than, "Come unto Me, everyone." Of course, it would have been a rather awkward moment to interject such a call, considering what He was in the middle of saying. The meaning simply doesn't flow from thought to thought in a reasonable manner under that interpretation.
A closer inspection reveals that He may have restricted His call with the qualification, "all who are weary and heavy laden." How is that a meaningful restriction? On another occasion, Jesus used a similar manner of speech to refer to people in whom a work of grace had already begun. In Mark 2:17 He said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance." What an odd thing to say! Everyone needs the Great Physician, everyone is a sinner. "There is none righteous, no not one." Romans 3:10 Whom, then, did Jesus not come to call? To answer, "No one" would be glib and make Jesus out to be a person of shallow and meaningless speech. His point is, not everyone has been given the grace of Holy Spirit conviction to confess their own fallen state. Similarly, though everyone is born enslaved to sin, and bearing a weight of guilt under the Law, most are never able to acknowledge it, even to themselves. The North-shore Galileans would be the present example. Jesus may be turning away from them, calling to Himself those to whom the Father has revealed their weariness and the weight of their burden.
Alternatively, it's interesting to note that the words "Come unto Me..." are associated with this event only in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew's gospel was written to the Jews, about words and events that have particular significance to Jews. Particularly, it was written to demonstrate to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, as chapter 11 bears out. Notice that Jesus quotes Jeremiah 6:16 in v. 29. That passage speaks of Judah's stubbornness, their refusal to accept God's offer of rest, even with the imminent threat of destruction. The phrase in Jeremiah 6 that follows Jesus' quotation is, "But they said, 'We will not listen.'" The North-shore Galileans must have reminded Jesus of those inhabitants of Judah during Jeremiah's ministry. His offer to come to Him may have been made to the people who had just rejected Him, paralleling the offer He had made to the willfully deaf Judeans hundreds of years prior. He knew then that Judah would persist in idolatry until they fell to the Babylonians, and He knew that these present Galileans would persist in rejecting Him until the Romans destroyed them 40 years later.
So was He making facetious offers? No, in both cases He was explicating the consequences of their unbelief, making sure they understood what they were rejecting, letting them know what they were missing out on.
I prefer the interpretation that Jesus said "Come to Me..." to those who had already rejected him, echoing Jeremiah 6, since the whole section Matt. 11:25-30 is introduced with the statement, "Jesus answered and said," and there is no indication that he ceased addressing the Galileans. It would make a fitting close to His rant against them to imply that He is Yahweh come in the flesh, standing before them and healing their sick, and still they refuse to believe.
Whether Jesus was addressing the North-shore Galileans or others, we must not make the mistake of minimizing the content of His call. He certainly does actively call His sheep to Himself, and "there remains therefore a rest for the people of God." Hebrews 4:9a He does give rest to the souls of those who are burdened down, like Pilgrim in John Bunyan's classic tale Pilgrim's Progress, with the guilt of their sin or under the false guilt of man-made religious expectations.
He calls us, not to a life of ease in this world, but to His Sabbath rest. That rest involves submission to His authority and the labor of discipleship. Christ doesn't offer us autonomy, He calls us into His service. Our bone wearying burden of guilt is exchanged for the noble pack of the pilgrim, accompanied by God's sustaining grace to empower us, equal to the load. The soul-draining occupation of service to self is exchanged for the fulfilling occupation of service to Christ. Service it is, to be sure. But comparitavely, His yoke is easy, and His burden is light, because He gives rest to our souls.
The rest motif pervades all of Scripture. It was indelibly etched on the minds of the Jews of Jesus' time, due to their servitude to the Romans. It appears first in the Creation account; God works six days and rests on the seventh. It appears in the story of the fall: Adam's rest is removed--he is cast out of Eden, and his labor is intensified through wearisome obstacles as a consequence of his sin. It appears in the story of the Great Flood: the ark rested upon Mt. Ararat. It appears in the promise to Abram to lead him to a land of promise, and in subsequent reiterations of that promise to Isaac and Jacob. It appears in Egypt as the Israelites are enslaved, and long for rest. It also appears in absentia through their wilderness wanderings, and as the goal of their entrance into and conquest over Canaan. It appears cyclically in Judges, in the reigns of Kings David and Solomon, and as a promise through the prophets during the times of evil kings and Babylonian captivity. In the New Testament, Jesus speaks of it here in Matthew 11. The book of Hebrews deals with it at length, explicitly connecting the old covenant rest with the new. The book of Revelation portrays the time when the days of striving are fulfilled, and we all take our Sabbath rest with our Creator.
Take His yoke upon you. Learn of Him. And you will find rest for your soul. "Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest." Hebrews 4:11a