Ulrich Zwingli was a leader of the Reformation in Switzerland in the 1500s. On January 1, 1519 Zwingli turned 35-years-old. It also marked a historic day in his preaching ministry, because on this day he embarked upon the bold and controversial quest to deviate from the official church lecture or sermon schedule. Instead, on this Sunday, Zwingli opened to the Gospel of Matthew and began to preach through the text (something called Lectio continua or “continuous reading”). He inspired generations of expository preachers when he assumed that the story of Jesus could still change lives as his congregation encountered it in the rolling narrative delivered by the inspired gospel writer.
Some months later, Zwingli reached what Timothy George says became one of the reformer’s “favorite sermon texts.” Matthew 11:28 spoke to the pain of generations of weary Christian pilgrims. It echoed back against the works-based teachings of the Medieval Catholic Church. Yet, in the simple words of Jesus, the people of Zwingli’s congregation could finally find peace. A few years later, Zwingli returned to the same passage in another sermon writing:
And the gospel gives us a sure message, or answer, or assurance. Christ stands before you with open arms, inviting you and saying: ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ Oh glad news, which brings with it its own light, so that we know and believe that it is true, as we have fully shown above. For the one who says it is a light of the world. He is the way, the truth, and the light. In his Word, we can never go astray. We can never be deluded or confounded or destroyed in his Word. If you think there can be no assurance or certainty for the soul, listen to the certainty of the Word of God.
How do we find rest for our souls?
The great writer Henry David Thoreau thought he needed some months in a countryside cabin, and he certainly found a version of earthly peace. Others who try religion often wear out or find a life of duty. They cannot quite trust God enough to save them, so they work hard to make it happen.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:
The question of trust, which is so closely related to that of authority, is determined by the faithfulness with which a man serves Jesus Christ, never by the extraordinary talents which he possesses. (Life Together, 109).
For those working hard to find and know the God of heaven and earth, Jesus says: ‘Come to me. The way is narrow, but the path is straight.’ It is not complicated, and it doesn’t add extra rules and barriers. Faith in Jesus alone produces rest.
In Matthew 11:29, Jesus quotes Jeremiah 6:16 to talk about the results of coming to Him:
Thus says the Lord:
“Stand by the roads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.
“But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’” [ESV]
The verse doesn’t end well. God offers this rest for their souls, and Jeremiah records the negative response. Even though a better way is offered, the people didn’t want it. This passage speaks to our own lives as well. There are many options, yet sometimes we choose the difficult way. Zwingli’s own sermon was originally preached to a group of Dominican nuns in 1522 as he encouraged them to rely more on the Scripture and less on hierarchy and tradition. Timothy George writes:
The reformer of Zurich spoke about the “concurrent or prevenient clarity” of the Word of God that “Shines on the human understanding,” and “enlightens it in such a way that it understands and confesses the Word and knows the certainty of it.” This is accomplished in “a gentle and attractive way” so as to bring assurance of the Savior’s presence. (Reading Scripture with the Reformers, 131).
For Zwingli, the Christian can have assurance that Jesus offers rest for weary souls because of “the clarity and certainty of the Word of God.”Without this sure foundation, the faithful are subject to a life of uncertainty and toil, constantly re-plowing the ground that God has already prepared in their own lives.
Find out more about Zwingli’s impact on the Reformation HERE.
J. Baillie, et al., eds., The Library of Christian Classics, Volume 24 and Timothy George, Reading Scripture with the Reformers, 131.
The title of his 1522 sermon.