Intro – A college age daughter was home from school complaining about her car’s gas mileage. Dad asked what it was and she replied, “I’m not sure.” Dad replied, “Well, all you have to do is check the odometer when the tank is full, check it again on empty, then divide the number of gallons it took to fill up into the miles you drove.” The daughter replied, “That won’t work.” Her father said, “Why not? The math is easy.” She replied, “It’s not that. The problem is I never have enough money to fill up the tank.”
Ever feel like you’re operating on an empty tank? We want to be part of God’s work – but by the time we keep up with a demanding boss, dependent kids, deserving spouses, defective plans and dire emergencies, we’re running on empty with no resources in sight. Sometimes we need to step back.
So did Jesus. The disciples have just returned from their first solo ministry. They are physically and emotionally spent. Also human tragedy has intruded. John the Baptist had been imprisoned for condemning Herod for stealing his brother’s wife. Matt 14:6-12 takes up the story: “But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod (at a drunken party, Herodias’s daughter provides seductive entertainment, perhaps at the direction of her mother), 7 so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. 8 (She says, “Wait a minute,” tiptoes out to talk to Mom and returns) Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” 9 And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. 10 He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, 11 and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. 12 And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus.”
So Jesus’ cousin and forerunner dies in this gory manner. Jesus knows Herod is looking for Him too, so He decides to retire to a quiet place for rest, to hear the apostle’s report, and to gain some perspective. There is still much for the disciples to learn. So He takes them to a wilderness area near Bethsaida – a fishing village on the northeast shore, east of the Jordan and outside Herod’s territory. It’s “stepping back time.” We all need occasions when a retreat is in order. I see 3 lessons here to help us re-order or gain perspective for ministry.
I. Cherish God’s Rest
V. 10b, “And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida.” The word “withdrew” originally meant a military retreat -- a withdrawal from the front lines – very appropriate to what Jesus is doing here. It’s also used in Luke 5:16, “But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.” Jesus regularly stepped back for reflection and prayer. That’s what He’s teaching.
Did you ever wonder why God made man with the need for rest? He could have created us as energizer bunnies, right? Or a Timex watch that just keeps on ticking! No need for sleep, no downtime – just continual activity. God could have made us that way, but didn’t. Why? I think He knew if we weren’t forced to slow down, we would give very little thought to a God we can’t see. He desires relationship, but that doesn’t happen when we’re buzzing around at top speed. So, He made us to need rest, relaxation, reflection and renewal.
So, the principle of rest is seen in Creation from Day 1 (or Day 7!). That’s the day God rested. Was He tired? Of course not. He was establishing a principle for our benefit. Work 6; rest 1. We are far too casual with a principle to which God attaches great importance. Listen to the last item in His law: Exodus 16:12ff.: “And the LORD said to Moses, 13 “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you. 14 You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. (Skip to 17) 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” Seems pretty important to God, wouldn’t you say? More than to us?
In Lev 25:4 ff, God provides a rest for the land. The people are to farm for 6 years, but in the 7th, they are to let the land rest. He anticipates the question in Lev 25:20, “20 And if you say, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?’ 21 I will command my blessing on you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years.” Even more, every 50th year was a Year of Jubilee when land returned to original families; servants were released from bondage and the land lay fallow again.
God claims authority in Lev 25:23, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me.” There’s the principle: Everything we have – land, houses, property and even our bodies, is not ours. It’s on loan. God wants it managed His way, and the principle of rest is part of the lease agreement. Paul appeals for sexual morality on the same basis in I Cor 6:18-20: “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” Rest was was unique to Israel in the ancient world; so was sexual morality. God’s people are to be different. We are His own, not our own!
Is God serious? He promises blessing for obedience in Lev 26. But beginning Lev 26:14 He promises to deliver them into captivity if they fail. Then in Lev 26:34 He says, 34 “Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbaths. 35 As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest, the rest that it did not have on your Sabbaths when you were dwelling in it.” If they won’t rest the land, He will remove them. And that is exactly what happened. Ezek 20:23-24 says God gave them to Babylon because they profaned His Sabbath. Seventy years of captivity to make up for 490 years’ worth of missed Sabbaths. They wouldn’t rest the land, so God did. “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Gal 6:7).
Two guys are walking down the street carrying attaché cases and looking pretty down-in-the-mouth. One says to the other, “Thanks to computers and wireless technology, I’m expected to work almost anywhere and anytime.” All too true, isn’t it? And unless we establish God-sanctioned boundaries we will burn out. We are designed to step back occasionally – body and soul.
But rest has an far more profound meaning in Heb 4:9-10, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” This is the spiritual rest of people who realize salvation can never be earned! No amount of good deeds, prescribed rituals, or attempts at obeying God’s law can save us. No amount. Ever. By His death and resurrection, Jesus did it all. What is left for us to do? Rest in Him – by faith. That is the ultimate meaning of rest. It is either rest – or die eternally! Salvation isn’t about doing, it’s about resting in His finished work. Physical rest gives pattern for spiritual rest.
II. Credit God’s Power
V. 10: “On their return the apostles told him all that they had done.” The guys are reporting in. It’s a sharing time. But Luke’s phrasing is suggestive – especially in light of what follows. They told Jesus all that they had done. Really? They? Had they the power to cast out demons? Had they healed? Had they changed lives? Of course not. They were instruments, yes. A wonderful privilege. But did they produce the results? No. That’s why Jesus immediately teaches the lesson He does in feeding the 5,000. He saw their pride in what they had done. And they must learn it’s God, not them!
They must cherish God’s rest. We rest a lot easier when we credit God’s power. That doesn’t mean that we don’t work! But it means that we give up the impossible burden of producing results. That is a burden we were never meant to carry. Zech 4 illustrates beautifully. It’s about 520 BC. God’s people were taken captive by Babylonians in 606 BC after 100’s of years of warning to give up their idolatry. After 70 years in captivity, as prophesied by Jeremiah, the Babylonians were overrun by the Medes and Persians. Cyrus the Great, named by Isaiah 100 years before his birth, allowed the Jews to return home. Many did, and started to rebuild a temple that was at the heart of their worship. Solomon’s had been destroyed by the Babylonians. However, they experienced problems at every turn and never finished.
In Zech 4, the building project has been dormant for 16 years. But, through Zechariah the prophet, God has a message for Zerubbabel, the governor and for Joshua the high priest. Zech 4:1, “And the angel who talked with me came again and woke me, like a man who is awakened out of his sleep. 2 And he said to me, “What do you see?” I said, “I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it, and seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it. 3 And there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.” 4 And I said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” 5 Then the angel who talked with me answered and said to me, “Do you not know what these are?” I said, “No, my lord.” The lampstand represents the people of God. The two olive trees are sources of oil to light and sustain the lampstand. Oil in the OT symbolizes the HS. My old seminary prof who wrote a book on Zechariah identified many reasons oil represents the HS. It warms; it lubricates and smooths; it invigorates; it lights; it adorns and it polishes. These are all aspects of the work of the HS that Zerubbabel desperately needed. He was beset with problems from without and from within. Now, some have said that the olive trees are Zerubbabel and Joshua. But note in v. 12 that they are just branches; not the tree itself. Who is the tree – the source? The HS. He flows thru these Spirit-filled leaders to invigorate and inspire the work of others.
V. 6 makes the principle clear: 6 Then he (the angel) said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts. 7 Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’” V. 9: “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it.” Up until now, the work has been human effort only. The people have forgotten to seek God’s help in building God’s house. The flow of oil has been stopped. But in chapter 3, Joshua the high priest has been cleansed of sin. Zerubbabel is renewed in his commitment to God, and God says, “You’re going to finish.” And 4 years later, empowered by the HS, they did finish.
Did that mean the people could quit working? Of course, not. They still had to clear land, put stones in place, fight enemies – do the backbreaking labor attached to completing this building. But now it was being done by the power of the HS. Now the results were up to God; now the unifying and clarifying focus on God brought about success where it had not been possible before.
The application is clear. The disciples had labored hard at their ministry! But the results were God’s! David Platt says when he was considering taking the church he now pastors in Birmingham that he became enamored of the money, talent and global vision of the people. But he goes on, “I have since discovered that this was a woefully wrongheaded way to think. The reality is that it doesn't matter how many resources the church has. The church I lead can have all the man-made resources that one can imagine, but apart from the power of the Holy Spirit, such a church will do nothing of significance for the glory of God.” The same is true of every church, every family, every job and every life. Eternal results require God’s touch!
Platt goes on to say, “The reality is that the church I lead can accomplish more during the next month in the power of God's Spirit than we can in the next hundred years apart from his provision.” So why do we not desperately seek His power. God is giving us a taste, but there is so much more for us if we will seek Him. That’s why Paul urged, “Be filled with the Spirit.” Platt’s church is shaking the world for God; and I tell you there is no limit to what God will do thru us if we get serious about committing every second to Him.
III. Cultivate God’s Compassion
Jesus and His disciples have withdrawn to a resort outside Bethsaida but word filters out. V. 11: “When the crowds learned it, they followed him, and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing.” Jesus’ group took a boat from Capernaum. The crowds high-tailed it on foot around the top of the lake to meet them.
The crowd was a serious interruption to the retreat? A 21st century time-management expert would not doubt have advised: “Sorry folks. I hope you’ll excuse us, but we are near exhaustion and need some time alone.” Who could have faulted Jesus for that? But His compassionate heart had no such thought. I love the words, “he welcomed them.” Tho they were infringing on badly needed rest, Jesus put their needs first – not grudgingly, but lovingly! See yourself there. Me neither. (Mark 6:34).
Don’t you wish you could be like Jesus? I wish I was more like Jesus. I can show compassion when it is built into the schedule; I’m terrible when it interrupts! Not Jesus. He responded -- with enthusiasm! We’re like the guy who took his wife and mother-in-law on a safari to Africa. One morning the couple awoke to find Mother missing. The finally found her in a clearing, face-to-face with a huge lion. The terrified wife cried out, “Bill, what should we do?” He replied, “Not a thing. The lion got himself into this mess; let him get himself out of it.” Sound like us? “They made their bed, let them sleep in it.” “I’m just too busy.” “Tried to help them before. Not going to be taken advantage of again.” Oh, to have the heart of Jesus – able to put aside inconvenience to minister. Do we need rest? Yes. Jesus recognized and pursued those opportunities. But we must also be ready to respond when God puts need in our path. That’s the principle. Those needs supersede our own.
Conc – Henry Luce was the founder and publisher of Time magazine for years. One night he and his wife, Clare Booth Luce, met General Douglas MacArthur for the first time over dinner in MacArthur’s penthouse in Manila. MacArthur talked without interruption for at least an hour and a half which, according to Mrs. Luce, “irritated my husband, who also wanted to talk for an hour and a half.” Afterward, as the Luce’s were going down the elevator to leave, Henry pushed the Stop button. He said, “I’ve got to decide right now whether MacArthur is a military genius or the biggest egotist in the world.” After 30 seconds, he pushed the button again. “Well?” Mrs. Luce asked. Henry replied, “He’s both.”
And that’s what we must be, Beloved. Both. Both resting, and ready!We must have balance in our lives – wise enough to seek times of refreshment, honoring days off, getting appropriate rest. Filling an empty tank. But at the same time, we must be ready to respond to needs as and when God puts them before us. That is what God is teaching us in this passage. Let’s pray.