Pastor Kyle McIver
Think back with me for a moment to a time when you interviewed for a job. Perhaps you can recall a particularly difficult interview in which the questions were hard to answer clearly. Now imagine you’re sitting down for another job interview and the interviewer looks you in the eyes and asks, “Who are you?” You respond, “well, I’m a husband, a father, and I like to read books and spend time with my family.” To which the interviewer says, “I didn’t ask you about your marital status or what you do - I asked who you are.”
Now think about that for a moment - when we talk to other people and tell them about ourselves, the conversation almost orients around what we do. Where we work and what the job is like, we talk about our spouse and kids, or our hobbies or where we go to school and what we are studying. But all of that is external - all of those things are defined by our doing. The question, “who are you?” drives deeper than that. Maybe as you think about it, you aren’t really sure how to answer it! Who am I? What do you even mean if I can’t tell you about my family, work, and hobbies?! Well, I’m going to leave you to answer that question for yourself right now. However, I use this example to highlight an even more significant question: who is Jesus?
In the same way we talk about ourselves, we tend to speak about Jesus in terms of what he has done. Jesus died on the cross for my sins, Jesus rose from the dead, Jesus ascended to heaven! Now, don’t get me wrong - we must talk about what Jesus has done! We need to preach about it and press what Jesus has done into our hearts and lives. But I wonder if we’ve given much time to the question “who is Jesus?” Deep down, who is he? What is his heart like? What’s most true about him? I want to persuade you tonight that the way you answer these questions is one of the most significant and determinative factors for the health of your life as a Christian. I’ll say that again: your answer to the questions: “who is Jesus? What is he like? What is most fundamentally true about his heart?” is one of the most significant and determinative factors for your health, happiness, and holiness as a Christian.
And here’s the thing: whether you’ve given much thought to that question or not, you have an answer. You have a mental picture of who Jesus is. Consider the following questions with me, which begin to peel back and expose who we really think Jesus is:
...What does Jesus think about me when I haven’t read my Bible in days? Or even weeks?
...How does Jesus feel about me after I’ve blown up at my child?
...What is the look on Jesus’s face after I didn’t study well and failed my most recent test?
...What is Jesus’s disposition toward me in the moments after I’ve looked at pornography?
...I know I’m supposed to believe Jesus loves me, but... does he actually like me?
...Or in other words, who is Jesus?
To get at an answer to this question, we’re going to focus in on Matthew 11:29. And from the outset I want to make clear that I am indebted to Dane Ortlund’s new book, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. I read Gentle and Lowly earlier this year and it had a profound effect on me. So profound that I was convinced that looking at the heart of Christ and asking the question, “who is Jesus, deep down?” to be the single most important thing that I could say to you all tonight.
The outline for the sermon is very simple. We’re going to look at Matthew 11:28-29 together and pull in a few other texts that get at the heart of Christ, then we’re going to make very direct application to a few areas in which I think we most need to be shaped by Jesus’s heart toward his people.
So here’s Matthew 11:28-29 again: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. The first part of these two verses we’re going to look at is the phrase, “I am gentle and lowly in heart…” Dane Ortlund points out that this is the only place across the four gospels that Jesus speaks about his own heart, which is significant. Remember the Bible’s broader teaching about the heart. Jesus himself taught us that the heart is the center of our being. He rebuked the Pharisees for thinking that washing your hands kept someone from being defiled. Instead, Jesus said that “what comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adutlery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these things come from within, and they defile a person.” Our speech Jesus says, comes forth from the treasure we hold in our hearts, whether good or evil. And here’s Jesus in Matthew 11:29 giving us a glimpse of his very own heart. He tells us that he is gentle and lowly. Let’s look at each one of those.
In explaining what it means for Jesus to be gentle, Ortlund writes that he is:
Meek. Humble. Gentle. Jesus is not trigger-happy. Not harsh, reactionary, easily exasperated. He is the most understanding person in the universe. The posture most natural to him is not a pointed finger but open arms.
Yes! Jesus is the most understanding person in the universe. How wonderful is that? Especially when we pair it with Jesus’s “lowliness”, that he is lowly in heart. There is some overlap between these two words, “gentle” and “lowly”, but what we see specifically in Jesus being lowly of heart is that he is accessible. The word used for “lowly” here is translated as “humble” in other places across the New Testament; an example is James 4:6: God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. One point of emphasis in saying that Jesus is lowly is to say that he is approachable. Ortlund says it this way:
For all his resplendent glory and dazzling holiness, his supreme uniqueness and otherness, no one in human history has ever been more approachable than Jesus Christ… This is who he is. Tender. Open. Welcoming. Accommodating. Understanding. Willing.
Now, I want to provide one more layer of nuance as we peer into the heart of Christ. Consider the contrast between Matthew 11:20-24 and 11:25-28. In the first set of verses Jesus is pronouncing “woes”, judgment, on unrepentant cities, making repeated reference to the severity of the day of judgment for these people. But then in verses 25-28 we get Jesus, gentle and lowly, supremely accessible and approachable. There is a tension here, isn’t there? The gentle and lowly Jesus is the same Jesus who pronounces woes and judgment on these unrepentant cities. Does this then minimize the gentleness and lowliness of Jesus? Is he only partly merciful and kind and accessible? No! The difference lies in Jesus’s own invitation. Look at Matthew 11:28: Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Jesus is accessible, not apathetic. He is merciful, not mushy. He invites us to come to him in our weakness, in our inability, in the very midst of the mess of our sin. And if we do, then He is to us infinitely gentle and lowly. But for those who reject his gracious invitation, who spurn his mercy and run instead toward other comforts, Jesus will bring justice fitting the crime of rebellion and treason against the High King over all creation. This distinction is so important to help us walk with confidence amidst this tension of Jesus’s tender mercy on the one hand, and his uncompromising justice on the other. The difference, the hinge, the fork in the road, is whether or not we come to Jesus and are yoked to him. When we repent and believe the gospel, we are united to Jesus - yoked to him - and come under the infinite riches of his tender mercy.
Now, with that distinction in place, I want to look at several other passages that press home the heart of Christ toward his people. Let’s back up just a few more verses in Matthew 11 and look at verse 19. Not everyone loved Jesus. Not everyone looked at the way he extended mercy to the least of these and saw the nobility of his heart. Some of Jesus’s enemies and accusers called him “a friend of tax collectors and sinners,” intending it to be a derogatory title. Jesus however does not run from this accusation, but rather embraces it as a truth that his opponents clearly do not grasp - they had no idea just how right they were! Jesus is not insulted by being associated with tax collectors and sinners. This barb was intended to denigrate his name and image before the crowds by lumping him in with the most despicable and detestable people that society had to offer. But Jesus doesn’t run away from this! Rather, these are the very people Jesus welcomes into his embrace.
Jesus gladly takes upon himself the title, “friend of tax collectors and sinners” because it resonates with the deepest recesses of his heart. He himself declared that he did not come for the healthy, wealthy and wise! When He is questioned by the scribes of the Pharisees in Mark chapter 2 for eating with tax collectors and sinners, he responds by turning their accusation on its head, saying: Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.
Jesus’s friendship is for sinners. He is not repulsed by you, but rather attracted to you in your weakness and sin. Now be honest - does hearing that make you theologically uncomfortable? Some of you might be thinking that Jesus is holy, and therefore he hates sin. And he does. But the holiness of Jesus is not something that we can simply reduce to moral purity and hatred of sin. His holiness certainly does include both! But we miss so much of his holiness if we stop there. Holiness gets at the utter uniqueness and “otherness” of Jesus. It gives shape to all of who he is, including his mercy and his heart for sinners. His holiness is not just his moral purity, but also the intensity of his mercy, the ferocity of his steadfast love, and the limitlessness of his patience toward his people!
Let me show you. Look with me at a different passage commonly applied to God’s holiness and sovereignty, Isaiah 55:8-9, which says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Now many of us have heard this passage and often thought that it means that God does what he pleases, and that we cannot understand the depth of his wisdom and sovereignty. And if that’s you, I think you’re right. But, do you know what he is referring to when he says that his thoughts are higher than ours? That his ways are above our ways? Is he talking about power or sovereignty or wisdom or might? He’s actually speaking directly about his compassion. His heart for the lost and wayward, and his desire that we come to him that he might lavish grace on us.
Listen to Isaiah 55:6-8, the verses directly before the passage I just read: “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” In what way are God’s thoughts higher than ours? His compassion! How does God’s nature stretch the human imagination? In his glad desire to abundantly pardon!
Now when we look at Jesus and see that he is gentle and lowly, humble and accessible, prone to mercy and desiring to show compassion, it might seem too good to be true. Or maybe it seems that we aren’t doing justice to God’s justice. Do you know what I mean? We get a whiff of sin somewhere and we immediately think that God must hate it because he is holy and righteous. And he is! He is absolutely holy and righteous and he never diminishes in any way the gravity of our sinfulness. But his justice, his holiness, his righteousness, is not in any way threatened by the riches of his mercy. What I want for us here is to be able to make a distinction - a distinction that makes all the difference in your life between joyfully walking in repentance and faith, or fearfully hiding and living in shame.
Here’s what I mean. Knowing that Jesus is holy and that he hates sin does not mean that his disposition toward you in your sinfulness is hatred. Or disappointment. Or disgust. But I’m willing to guess that not a few of us here tonight imagine that Jesus feels this way when we’ve sinned.
You see the lust in your own heart and in your guilt think that Jesus must be disappointed.
You’re painfully aware of your own laziness and the way it hurts your family and think that Jesus has had just about enough of you.
You can’t stop comparing yourself to others and suffer from such deep insecurity and discontentment that you can’t help but see Jesus as wearily perplexed by your vanity and lack of gratitude.
But is that really who Jesus is? Disappointed? Fed up? Weary? Perplexed? Is that Jesus’s heart? Who he is deep down? No, no it’s not. That’s us imposing our own failings onto Jesus. We’re easily disappointed and fed up and wearied by sinners, and so in some subtle and deceptive and dangerous way, we think Jesus is too. But we’re wrong.
Jesus is gentle and lowly. He has appointed you, Christian, to an unbelievable inheritance. He desires your time and attention the way a new husband seeks the company of his bride. Jesus does not grow tired and weary. Though he knows us, he is not confused or down trodden by our folly and failure. Deep down, Jesus loves you - he even genuinely likes you. He yearns to show you mercy and comfort you in your suffering and forgive your sins. Why? Because that’s who... he… is.
And he is so steadfast, so stable, so secure, so holy in his tenderness and mercy and love toward his people, that your sin does not - cannot - diminish his character. He doesn’t flinch when you sin. He leans in. He’s leaning in right now. Will you come to him? Will you bring your burdens? Will you give him your sin in all its ugliness in exchange for his robes of righteousness and his consoling friendship? That’s the invitation Jesus makes in Matthew 11. He invites us to come, and he gives us every reason to do so by putting his very heart on display for us.
So what does this mean for you? I hope you have some sense of that already. But I want to bring the heart of Christ to bear on three specific areas for us as a church: repentance, community, and witness.
First, repentance. Pastor Mike preached on repentance last week and told us that repentance is a privilege. And he is absolutely right. Repentance is often hard because our sins are deep and complex and they frankly… they ain’t pretty. And so we look at repentance like getting a tooth pulled. We do it because we have to, but it’s going to hurt and we really wish we didn’t need to go through with it.
But consider Jesus. Repentance is turning away from our sin and turning back to him. Is it possible that we’ve made the focus of our repentance more about our sin than about Jesus? It’s both for sure, but if what you feel about repentance is along the lines of getting a tooth pulled or having a root canal, then I think you’ve made it so much about your sin that you’ve diminished the heart of Jesus toward you. He understands that you’re a sinner who sins. He knows it far more deeply than you do. And yet he invites you to come to him, again and again and again and again - because deep down, at the very bottom of Jesus’s heart, is love so vast and mercy so deep that you cannot exhaust him in your repentance.
Repentance isn’t dental work - repentance is coming home for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s the warm welcome of Jesus who feeds you and cares for you and knows you. Jesus is your refuge when all else is chaos and confusion. So when we are confronted by our sin and our need to repent, I want the heart of Jesus to be at the forefront of your mind, wooing you and drawing you into his embrace.
Second , community. What kind of church are we? I mean that in the same way that someone asks that piercing question, “who are you?” Who are we, Redeemer Church? What is our make up? What’s at the bottom of our hearts? My contention is that one of our distinguishing marks as a church should be mercy. Think about this with me. We’re starting with the heart of Jesus, who is gentle and lowly. If Jesus receives the worst kinds of sinners with such tenderness, with full forgiveness and deep friendship, then what should we look like as a church? We’re here to make disciples of Jesus. We want to be like him. We want to know him and be transformed into his likeness. And because Jesus is gentle and lowly, meek and humble, rich in mercy, so we should be to.
Husbands, when your wife sins against you, is your response an exasperated verbal jab? Or a patient, long-suffering willingness to be wronged rather than to return sin for sin?
Wives, when your husband does not understand you or neglects to acknowledge the difficulty of your role, is your response to be cold and distant? Or to shower love and respect even if he hasn’t earned it this week?
Parents, when your child talks back and disobeys for the 17th time before you’ve even eaten lunch, is your response a raised voice and intimidation? Or is it a prayerful, patient embrace?
Church members and friends, when one of your fellow brothers or sisters doesn’t respond to your text, or holds a different political point of view, is your response to grow distant or even to gossip about them? Or is it to lean in in love, knowing that this is a brother or sister for whom Christ died?
What I’m getting here is that we can only give what we’ve received. The way we respond when our family members, friends and fellow church members sin against us says a great deal about the state of our own hearts. Knowing the heart of Jesus and being intimately acquainted with him is the only way to turn the sinful dispositions of our hearts. When life’s circumstances or other people jostle us, we can only respond in mercy if we’re full of mercy that we’ve received from Jesus. The heart of Jesus gives shape to a compelling Christian community when we begin to take on his own character and aroma in the way that we love one another. We can be quick to forgive and show mercy only when we’re regularly drawn to Jesus by his own great mercy.
Lastly, our witness. Sharing the gospel is difficult for many of us. I count myself amongst that number. Fear often cripples our evangelistic efforts before they even begin. But I think that our fear may be rooted in an incomplete or shrunken view of evangelism. I said earlier that I think many of us reduce the holiness of God to his moral purity and hatred of sin. And if we do that, what does it look like to share the gospel? What about the holiness of his love and mercy? What about the heart of Jesus? Have you ever thought about evangelism as something more provocative, such as enticing sinners with the love of Jesus? Yes, they are dead in their sins - but Jesus invites them to come! And the Holy Spirit is more than merely capable to bring the dead to life and awaken people to the wonders of his love. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. He invites sinners to come to him and he puts his heart on display for them as a very real incentive to lay down their lives and follow him.
I want to challenge you to filter your own fears about sharing the gospel through the heart of Christ: if they reject you along with the gospel message, then you are still safe in His arms. If you’re doubtful they’ll repent and believe, don’t lose sight of Jesus’s own love for the lost and his sovereign ability to draw the most unlikely people to himself. I want you to be emboldened to share the gospel with people because of the depth and wonder of the heart of Jesus for sinners and sufferers.
Which brings us here to the table. Is not this table a vivid picture of the heart of Christ? Jesus lays down his life for his enemies, makes them his friends, and then sustains them by way of his own body and blood. The table exists because Jesus is gentle and lowly, because he is shockingly tender and near to broken, depressed, addicted, wayward people like you and me. And when we come to this table, we are welcomed by him. Perhaps you’ve never come to Jesus, you’ve never taken his yoke upon you, you’ve never seen his heart for you. Tonight is your night. His arms are open wide, and you will never find a friend so close, a refuge so safe, or a Savior so understanding as Jesus. Whether for the first time or for the ten thousandth time… Won’t you come to him?