When Faith Is Hard And The Burden Is Heavy


When Faith Is Hard And The Burden Is Heavy


When Faith Is Hard And The Burden Is Heavy

Matthew 11

Main Idea: Although followers of Christ may experience doubt, we must trust in and submit to the truths of God's Word concerning who Jesus is and what He has provided for us in the gospel.

Four Portraits of Jesus

  1. Jesus Is the Promised Messiah.
    1. John doubts Jesus.
      1. The anatomy of doubt
      2. The answer to doubt
    2. Jesus defends John.
      1. John was the greatest prophet.
      2. We have a greater privilege.
    3. Like Jesus and John
      1. we will be opposed by this world.
      2. we will be criticized in this world.
  2. Jesus Is the Authoritative Judge.
    1. Jesus will condemn the unrepentant.
    2. Jesus will damn the indifferent.
  3. Jesus Is the Sovereign Son.
    1. Jesus alone knows the Father.
    2. Jesus alone reveals the Father.
  4. Jesus Is the Gracious Master.
    1. An explanation of Christianity
      1. We give all we have to Jesus.
      2. Jesus gives all He has to us.
    2. The invitation of Christ: When faith is hard and the burden is heavy
      1. repent of sin.
      2. renounce yourself.
      3. rest in Christ.
      4. rejoice forever in Him.144

Have you ever doubted what the Bible says about God? What about the gospel? When you're alone, do you ever sit and wonder whether the things that we believe as Christians are actually real? I got an email recently from an old friend whom I respect greatly, and he is going through a very challenging time in his life. I was struck when he told me that faith is harder to come by than ever before. Do you ever feel like that?

If you've wrestled with doubts about God and His Word, take heart, because you're not alone. Alister McGrath said, "Doubt is natural within faith. It comes because of our human weakness and frailty." McGrath contrasts this doubt with unbelief:

Unbelief is the decision to live your life as if there is no God. It is a deliberate decision to reject Jesus Christ and all that he stands for. But doubt is something quite different. Doubt arises within the context of faith. It is a wistful longing to be sure of the things in which we trust. (McGrath, "When Doubt Becomes Unbelief," 8-10)

Likewise, John MacArthur observed,

When the New Testament talks about doubt, whether you're talking about the gospels or the epistles, it primarily focuses on believers. That's very important. It's as if you have to believe something before you can doubt it; you have to be committed to it before you begin to question it. So doubt is held up as the unique problem of the believer. (MacArthur, "Solving the Problem of Doubt")

Even Charles Spurgeon, one of my favorite pastors in history, said,

Some of us who have preached the Word for years, and have been the means of working faith in others and of establishing them in the knowledge of the fundamental doctrines of the Bible, have nevertheless been the subjects of the most fearful and violent doubts as to the truth of the very gospel we have preached. (Charles Spurgeon, "Psalm 69:14")

The reality is that even for those who seem to be the most faithful, faith is sometimes hard, particularly when the burdens of life feel heavy. But the good news is that even in our doubts, the God whom we seek to be sure of is certain to meet us where we are. He desires to assure145 us of His faithfulness. In the words of J. C. Ryle, "Doubting does not prove that a man has no faith, but only that his faith is small. And even when our faith is small, the Lord is ready to help us" (Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, 170). John the Baptist, the greatest prophet who ever lived, struggled with doubt. This prophet whom Jesus called the greatest man ever born up to that time (Matt 11:11) wavered over the identity of the Messiah. He needed to see afresh that Jesus is worthy of our faith and our worship. This is at the heart of the message of Matthew 11, one of the most beautiful passages in this Gospel. Jesus invites us to rest in Him when faith is hard and burdens are heavy.

Below we'll consider four portraits of Jesus that should help to combat doubt and strengthen our trust in Him.

Jesus Is the Promised Messiah

Matthew 11:1-19

Matthew has already mentioned the fact that John was arrested (4:12), and in just a few chapters he'll tell us why (14:1-12). By the time John began asking questions in Matthew 11, he had likely been in prison for a while. This may help explain why he was perplexed. John doubts Jesus, so he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus a question. Matthew also tells us in verse 2 that John was hearing about the deeds of the Christ, another indication that John was in touch with his disciples during his imprisonment. He had believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but now he was starting to wonder. This leads us to ask, What exactly is causing John to doubt Jesus at this point?

Because we often find ourselves doubting for reasons similar to John, we need to consider the anatomy of doubt. There are at least three things we learn about doubt in this passage. First, doubt often arises during difficult situations. We've already seen John, a prophet in the wilderness who had proclaimed God's Word with boldness, preparing the way for the Messiah and pointing people to Him (Matt 3:1-12). But now, as a result of his bold and faithful proclamation, John was experiencing shame, hunger, physical torment, and emotional struggle as he sat there alone in prison. We're reminded again of Elijah, a tired prophet who was running from Jezebel and ready to give up (1 Kgs 19). Such difficult situations tend to produce doubt.

Second, accompanying the difficult situations were unmet expectations. After all, this is the Messiah of whom it was prophesied, "He has146 sent Me... to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners" (Isa 61:1). It was becoming clear by this point that Jesus was not meeting many of the expectations that a lot of Jewish people had for the Messiah. John the Baptist had prophesied about the judgment that the Christ would bring about (Matt 3:11-12), but Roman rule was still in place—and John was in jail because of it! It must have been confusing for the prophet to see Rome in charge, sin still rampant, and political and religious corruption still ruling the day. Everything seemed to be just as it had been for generations. Instead of overthrowing Rome, Jesus was spending time with irreligious sinners, teaching them about forgiveness, and to the great surprise of some, He wasn't even fasting. Surely John was thinking, "Isn't the Messiah the One who is going to deliver us?"

Third, in the midst of his struggles, John suffered from limited perception. He simply didn't understand everything that was happening, or not happening, around him, so he sent his disciples to question Jesus.

In reality, many of our questions and doubts often spring from these same factors. It's often in the midst of challenging circumstances that faith is hardest to come by, especially when we have been walking with the Lord, faithfully serving and worshiping Him, and then tragedy hits, maybe even multiple tragedies. We think, "God, where are You?" We don't understand why certain things are happening, especially when our trials seem to be getting in the way of our desire to serve God. We know He's good, but we can't understand why the struggle won't end.

Oftentimes, trials come as a result of sin in our lives or sin in the lives of others around us. However, even when our trials are not a direct result of our own disobedience, we must remember that our perception is limited. For example, John the Baptist had no idea how this story of Jesus the Messiah was going to play out. God was ushering in a totally different type of kingdom than most Jewish people expected. This was more than just a political regime change; God was ushering in redemption of the entire world. John likely understood much of this when many people didn't, yet he was almost certainly perplexed regarding the timing of it all. Wasn't the Messiah supposed to bring imminent blessing and judgment? When would this kingdom come? John's perspective was limited, and so is ours. Whenever we go through difficult situations with unmet expectations and questions rising up within us, we need to147 remember that our perspective is always limited. In the end, we must trust that God knows what He is doing.

Now that we've seen the anatomy of doubt, we need to see something even more important—the answer to doubt. In this text and in our lives, the answer to doubt seems to be (at least) twofold. First and foremost, we confront doubt with biblical revelation. When John's disciples questioned Jesus, Jesus answered them in verse 4 by saying: "Go and report to John what you hear and see." Then Jesus used phrases taken from Isaiah 35:5-6 and 61:1 to describe the miraculous works He had been doing and to show that He was indeed the Promised One.24 He tells John, for instance, that the blind were receiving their sight. In the entirety of the Old Testament, no blind person ever received sight, nor is there any story in the New Testament, apart from Saul's conversion (Acts 9:17-18), where Jesus' followers restored a blind man's sight. Jesus was fulfilling what Isaiah had long ago prophesied, "Then the eyes of the blind will be opened" (35:5).

Interestingly, the passages that Jesus alluded to in Isaiah refer not only to healing but also to the judgment that the Messiah would bring. Jesus' miraculous works were evidence of the in-breaking kingdom; therefore John needed to trust that Jesus would indeed bring full and final judgment, a judgment that comes to the fore in verses 20-24. God will be true to His Word, and to try to fight doubt without a foundation in the truth of His Word is futile. God's Word is a rock, not because it makes everything easy, but because it keeps your feet out of sinking sand amid difficult situations and unmet expectations.

So the first antidote to doubt is biblical revelation. Second, we battle doubt with joyful submission. After Jesus recounts His great works to John's disciples, He closes by saying, "And if anyone is not offended because of Me, he is blessed" (v. 6). To not be offended because of Jesus is essentially to trust Him. Even when it's not easy and trusting Christ seems contrary to reason, we need to remain grounded in biblical revelation and look to Him in faith. The reward is blessing, and that's a promise from God.

As John's disciples leave to take this message back to him, Jesus defends John in verses 7-19. We may wonder, based on the first part of148 this chapter, if tension was developing between John the Baptist and Jesus, but Jesus took this opportunity to defend (and affirm) John for who he was and what he had done. Jesus told the crowds that John was the greatest prophet. More than that, John was also the greatest person born of woman. That is quite a statement! Even compared to Old Testament spiritual giants like Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and King David, Jesus says that none of them was greater than John. So what are we to make of this shocking claim?

Jesus' statement about John had to do not primarily with John's person, but with his position in redemptive history. He was a prophet, a position of highest honor as a spokesman for God, but he was not just any prophet. John was the prophet whom God had promised would come and announce the Messiah (Isa 40:3; Mal 4:5-6). So many prophets had come before him—Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and a host of others—but none of these holy men of God had the distinct privilege of announcing the arrival of the King. John's ministry was the prophetic climax of all pre-Christian revelation. The greatness of John's position in redemptive history sets the stage for the absolutely astounding statement that Jesus makes next: "but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he" (Matt 11:11).

While John was the climax of all who had come before and pointed to Christ, none of them, not even the highest of them, had the position and privilege that is reserved for all believers who would come after Christ. That's because all men, including John the Baptist, had an incomplete picture of the Messiah. Their perspective was limited in terms of what to expect from the Messiah. However, even the least person who comes into the kingdom after Jesus has a greater understanding of the Messiah than everyone who came before Him. As followers of Christ today, we should be amazed and grateful that we have a greater privilege and position than John the Baptist did. While John was unclear on all that the Messiah would do, we know all that Christ has done. Furthermore, we have the privilege of proclaiming the crucified and resurrected King to the ends of the earth. What a position in redemptive history we have! Therefore, let us take hold of this truth and be faithful to our task, a task that is greater than all the prophets of the Old Testament. D. A. Carson writes about our privilege:

So often Christians want to establish their "greatness" with reference to their work, their giving, their intelligence, their149 preaching, their gifts, their courage, their discernment. But Jesus unhesitatingly affirmed that even the least believer is greater than Moses or John the Baptist, simply because of his or her ability, living on this side of the coming of Jesus the Messiah, to point him out with greater clarity and understanding than all his forerunners ever could. If we really believe this truth, it will dissipate all cheap vying for position [in this world] and force us to recognize that our true significance lies [simply] in our witness to the Lord Jesus Christ. (Carson, God with Us, 65)

Followers of Christ today should rejoice in their privileged position. However, just because we have this privilege does not mean that things will be easy. Like Jesus and John, we will be opposed by this world. In verse 12 Jesus says, "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent have been seizing it by force." The kingdom of heaven experiences opposition as it advances, a truth we've already seen in Matthew 10 in Jesus' instructions to His disciples. This opposition was present in John the Baptist's ministry, and it will become increasingly evident in Jesus' ministry in the chapters ahead. This greater privilege of proclamation comes with a price: persecution.

Just as John and Jesus were opposed, so our message about the Messiah will be met with hostility. We will be criticized in this world, regardless of how we present the truth of the gospel. In verses 16-19 Jesus speaks of how different His ministry was from that of John the Baptist. John barely ate or drank anything, and it was claimed that he was demonic (v. 18); Jesus, on the other hand, ate with sinners and they called Him a "glutton and a drunkard" (v. 19). While John sounded a warning of repentance similar to a funeral dirge, Jesus had sounded a promise of forgiveness similar to a celebration; yet sinful hearts rebelled against both of them. The world will react similarly to you and me when we speak the truth, but wisdom—right living before God—is "vindicated by her deeds" (v. 19).

Even in the middle of difficult situations, unmet expectations, and limited perception, Jesus is worthy of our trust. Telling others about Him won't be easy, but it is a calling worth giving our lives to. We fight doubt in this world and fight fear of this world with faith in the promised Messiah.150

Jesus Is the Authoritative Judge

Matthew 11:20-24

After the first portrait of Jesus as the promised Messiah, Matthew shows us next that He is the authoritative Judge. The words, "Woe to you" in verse 21 literally mean, "Warning of doom upon you." Jesus is speaking to these Galilean cities—Chorazin, Bethsaida, and later Capernaum—where He had performed most of His miracles, and the reason for the woe is because they did not repent. The message is clear: Jesus will condemn the unrepentant. People had seen the Messiah and been amazed by Him, and some had even admired Him. However, they did not turn from their sin in response to His summons, "Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near" (Matt 4:17). Tyre and Sidon were Gentile cities on the Mediterranean Sea known for their godless idolatry and immorality, and God had previously destroyed them in Ezekiel 28. Yet in verse 21 Jesus says that if He had done in Tyre and Sidon the miracles that He did in Chorazin and Bethsaida, those wicked cities would have repented in grief and sorrow over their sin, which is what it means to repent in "sackcloth and ashes" (v. 22). This was a stunning indictment, and it continues when Jesus speaks about Capernaum.

Jesus tells self-righteous Capernaum that though they think they will be exalted to heaven, in fact, they will "go down to Hades" (v. 23). Capernaum, then, teaches us a lesson: Jesus will damn the indifferent. The city where Jesus did more miracles than any other place during His earthly ministry, the place where He gave sight to the blind, healed demon-possessed men and paralytics, and even brought the dead to life, did nothing in response to Him. And Jesus says that that is worse than the immorality of Sodom, for the people of Sodom would have turned from their sin and the city would have been spared. We must be warned not to be indifferent to Christ, or we too will be damned forever. Don't close your eyes to Christ, the authoritative Judge.

Jesus Is the Sovereign Son

Matthew 11:25-27

Matthew's third portrait of Jesus is portrayed in a dialogue between the Son and the Father, wherein we get a glimpse into their relationship with one another. Reading these verses, you sense yourself treading on holy ground as you glimpse the inner workings of the Trinity. In the process, we discover several things about these trinitarian relationships.151 First, in verse 27 we learn that Jesus alone knows the Father. When Jesus speaks of "knowing" here, He has in mind more than mere mental recognition, as when we speak of knowing an acquaintance. Jesus knows the Father in a unique and intimate sense, a kind of knowledge that only the divine Son possesses.25

Jesus' exclusive knowledge of the Father is closely connected to another important truth in this passage: Jesus alone reveals the Father. The only people who know the Father are those "to whom the Son desires to reveal Him" (v. 27). Revealing God was part of the purpose of Jesus' coming. He didn't come merely with a word from God; He came as the Word of God made flesh (John 1:14), and as such He was God revealed to man. We know the Father not through worldly wisdom and understanding, but through the revelation of the Son.

The fact that the only way to know the Father is through the Son means that knowing God comes only by divine grace. Verse 25 says that God has "hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to infants." In His mercy, God must reveal Himself to us, which He does through the Son. And as God reveals Himself, we respond, not with unrepentance and indifference, but through human faith. We receive God's truth not with self-righteousness nor with intellectual pride, but with the humble trust of a child, acknowledging our total dependence on the Father. This truth leads to the fourth and final portrait of Jesus in this passage.

Jesus Is the Gracious Master

Matthew 11:28-30

Jesus is the promised Messiah, the authoritative Judge, the sovereign Son, and the gracious Master. This text is full of wonder: the Son of God, the revelation of the Father, the One who represents the Trinity before man, says, "Come to Me" (v. 28). We have here an explanation of Christianity that is radically different from every other religious system in the history of the world. With such an amazing invitation, we need to understand exactly what it means to come to Jesus.

To begin with, it means we give all we have to Jesus. The imagery in this passage is of a "yoke" (v. 29), a heavy wooden bar that fits over the152 neck of an ox so that it can pull a cart or a plow. The yoke could be put on one animal or it could be shared between two animals. In a shared yoke, one of the oxen would often be much stronger than the other. The stronger ox was more schooled in the commands of the master, and so it would guide the other according to the master's commands. By coming into the yoke with the stronger ox, the weaker ox could learn to obey the master's voice.

In verses 28-30 Jesus was speaking to self-righteous people who were burdened down with laws, rules, regulations, and commandments. Many of these laws had come from God in the Old Testament, while others had been added on by religious teachers of the day. In Matthew 23:4 Jesus says that these religious teachers "tie up heavy loads that are hard to carry and put them on people's shoulders, but they themselves aren't willing to lift a finger to move them." In contrast to these scribes and Pharisees, Jesus called the weary and burdened to come to Him. This is Christianity explained: we give Him the full weight of all our sin. These people were so burdened because they had failed over and over again to keep the law, and as leaders poured on more laws, the people felt more guilty. The weight of their sin became heavier, and they could not stand up under it.

When Jesus calls us to give Him the weight of our sin, we don't merely give Him some of it, but rather all of it. And it's not just the weight of our sin that we give to Jesus; we give Him our complete and utter inability to obey God. To be sure, it's not that the commands of God are bad; they are good (Matt 5:17; Rom 7:12). But the commands cannot be carried out by men in their own strength. We are imperfect, sinful people, and we cannot obey the Master's voice. The call to come to Christ is definitively not a call to try and reform your life and to be a better person—that's not Christianity. That kind of self-righteousness is what Ian Thomas called "the curse of Christendom" (Thomas, The Saving Life of Christ, 104). Thomas talks about the danger of the result of that kind of effort for the life of the church:

[It's] what paralyzes the activity of the church of Jesus Christ on earth today! In defiance of God's Word, God's mind, God's will, and God's judgment, men [and women] everywhere are prepared to dedicate to God what God condemns—the energy of the flesh! There is nothing quite so nauseating or pathetic as the flesh trying to be holy! (Thomas, The Saving Life of Christ, 85)153

Rather than calling us to greater moral effort, Jesus says, "Come to Me" (v. 28). The good news is that when we submit to Him, Jesus gives all He has to us. Remember as you hear Jesus' invitation that He is the stronger One, the One who alone is able to bear the weight of the Father's commands. This is the One who invites us into the yoke with Him. We give Him the full weight of all our sin, and He gives us full pardon for all our sin. We are counted righteous in Christ because He has obeyed the very law we could not obey. Therefore, when we come to Him, we rest with peace before God. Jesus says in verse 29 that we will find rest in Him, or in other words, "relief from bearing the load." Praise God that in Christ we are free from self-effort, self-improvement, and a constant struggle to overcome the guilt and shame of our sin.

Having peace with God and the forgiveness of sins is an unspeakable privilege, but amazingly enough, that's not where Christianity stops. When we come to Jesus He gives us His complete ability to obey God. In exchange for our inability, Jesus says, "Take up My yoke and learn from me" (v. 29). That word "learn" is important—it's similar to the word that is translated "make disciples" in the Great Commission later in Matthew (28:19). Jesus is essentially saying, "Learn what it means to be My disciple, and you will find rest for your soul." And how is it that we find rest for our souls? Because, Jesus says, "My yoke is easy and My burden is light" (11:30).

Jesus alone knows the Father, reveals the Father, and perfectly obeys the Father; therefore when we come into the yoke with Him, He leads us in terms of how to walk with the Father. He enables us to do what we could never do on our own. And when we are in the yoke with Christ, we work in peace with God. In other words, we obey God, not by our own strength, but with the very strength of Christ. In everything we do, it is Christ who is leading us, guiding us, enabling us, teaching us—literally living through us. Speaking of our utter dependency on Christ, Martin Luther said, "Here the bottom falls out of all merit.... Christ must do and must give everything." When Hudson Taylor, the well-known missionary to China, came to this realization in his Christian life, it was said of him,

He was a joyous man now, a bright happy Christian. He had been a toiling, burdened one before, with not much rest of soul. It was rest in Jesus now, and letting Him do the work—which makes all the difference. Whenever he spoke in meetings after that, a new power seemed to flow from him,154 and in the practical things of life a new peace possessed him. How was his faith strengthened? Not by striving after faith, but by resting on the Faithful One. (Taylor, Hudson Taylor's Spiritual Secret, 159)

At the end of the day, the Christian life is not about what you and I can do in and for the kingdom in our own effort; that's a recipe for failure. Following Christ is about Jesus the Christ living in and through and for us on a daily basis. He helps us in our struggles with sin, in our battles with temptation, and in our suffering in trials. Believers are in the yoke with Jesus, and the One who calls us to righteous living is the One who enables us to live a righteous life. The One who beckons you to trust the Father is the One who enables you to trust the Father. And the One who calls us to preach the gospel to the nations is the One who empowers us to preach the gospel to the nations.

We desperately need to hear the invitation of Christ: When faith is hard and the burden is heavy, several responses are appropriate. First and foremost, repent of sin. Don't be indifferent or unrepentant when you become aware of your disobedience, but instead confess it and run from it. You do not need to bear its burden any longer. Second, renounce yourself. Like a child, come to the Father and throw aside your pride. Third, rest in Christ. Come to the One who is gentle and lowly in heart, and find rest for your soul. And when you do come to Christ, rejoice forever in Him. The rest that He offers is eternal.

Reflect and Discuss

  1. How has doubt been a struggle in your own relationship with God? What truths from God's Word were the most difficult to believe in the midst of your doubts?
  2. How can difficulties, disappointments, and suffering feed into our doubts? How did this play out in the life of John the Baptist?
  3. Why is it futile to fight doubt apart from the foundation of God's Word?
  4. How is joyful submission to Jesus an antidote to doubt? Explain.
  5. Many Christians wish they had lived in the time when Scriptures were recorded. How does this passage correct such a notion?
  6. How might the expectation of opposition and criticism from the world help you persevere in the faith? What is the danger to your faith of not expecting trials?155
  7. How does Jesus' role as your authoritative Judge affect how you relate to Him? How might it affect your approach to sharing the gospel with others?
  8. Jesus is presented as the sovereign Son in Matthew 11. How does this portrait of Jesus correct our culture's understanding of Him? How about your own?
  9. In your own words, explain why Matthew 11:28-30 speaks against the idea of works-righteousness. How does it speak to the notion that the Christian life is burdensome?
  10. How would you respond to the following questions: "What is my role and responsibility in responding to the gospel? What is God's role in this process?"

Jesus may also be alluding to Isa 26:19; 29:18-19. Carson, Matthew, 262.


Jesus makes similar claims to deity in passages like John 10:30: "The Father and I are one."