It is not uncommon to hear the phrase ‘burning the candle at both ends’ these days, which means that a person is working more than he or she should. Those who have high professional ambitions are more often than not guilty of overworking themselves. They rise early in the morning and stay up late at night as they pursue success in their careers. But they are not the only ones who are running against the clock. Sometimes people in the church, people in Christian service, can also fall into such behaviour. And, as a result, if they do not make changes in their lives they can “burn out”. And, we may not recognise their true condition until something drastic happens—maybe a trip to hospital. Such circumstances are unfortunate. But do they need to happen at all?
In a rather well-known text in Mark’s gospel, Jesus instructed His apostles to rest (Mark 6:31). He was very direct about this—there can be no misunderstanding about what He said. This verse presents us with two questions. Why did Jesus tell His apostles to rest? And, do His words apply to His followers today? In order to answer these questions it is important to understand the setting in which His words were first spoken.
We need times of rest, not just sleep, we need breaks from the needs of the ministry. It is to our advantage to heed Jesus’ words to rest. It will help us, and also those who sit under our ministries.
Mark 6:30 hints at the fact that the apostles had just returned from a ministry trip. The verse mentions: “all they had done and taught” (NIV). This ministry was one that Jesus had sent them on. The account of their commission, His instructions, and what they did can be found in Mark 6:6b–13. In this passage we learn that Jesus sent the apostles out two by two. In His instructions He basically told them not to take any provisions for their journey. They had a message to deliver, we know this because Jesus mentioned people listening to them (Mark 6:11). They were also given works to do, Jesus gave them authority to drive out evil spirits (Mark 6:7). The closing two verses of the passage give us a summary statement of what the apostles actually did. We learn that they preached a message of repentance, healed the sick, and drove out evil spirits (Mark 6:12–13).
Let’s think about these texts in Mark 6 for a moment. The apostles were sent out in teams of two (Mark 6:7) on a journey (Mark 6:8) probably to multiple towns (Mark 6:10). So the mission they were engaged in required them to travel. They were expending physical energy on this mission. We know they preached in the places they went to. The message they preached was very likely not a popular one; it was the message of repentance. In view of that, they probably encountered resistance from a number of people who did not want to hear what they had to say. The apostles also participated in a healing ministry and had great success; Mark 6:13 says they healed “many” (NIV) people. This healing ministry may have drained the apostles in at least two ways. It may have troubled them mentally or emotionally to observe the various physical needs the people had. It also may have been physically draining because we are told they anointed the sick with oil. This means they gave the sick individual attention; they touched each person in order to apply the oil. In addition to the healing ministry they also participated in deliverance ministry, they set people free from demonic possession. This could have been a bit frightful for them and it may also have been spiritually draining as they confronted the evil spirits who likely resisted the apostles’ efforts to expel them. When they returned to Jesus (and we don’t know how long they were away on their mission) there were so many people moving about that the apostles did not have time to eat (Mark 6:31). It is in this context that Jesus spoke to these men.
When the apostles returned from their ministry trip they were no doubt excited, but they were also in need. Jesus recognised this and told them to rest. Please note that His words were directed to the whole group, not just to any who may have outwardly appeared to be in need of rest. What He said was not a suggestion, it was stronger than that. He did not say “if you want to, come with Me and rest.” The one who had sent them out in ministry was now directing them to take a break from it. Jesus was, and is, divine, the second person of the Trinity. He knows what He is talking about and should be listened to! His purpose in telling them to rest was not to dampen their enthusiasm but to refresh them; it was a redemptive word that He spoke to them. He did not want them to burn out. Rest is a regular part of the cycle of life. All humans need rest; we generally sleep at night but we sometimes need rest at other times as well. And rest does not always come in the form of sleep. It can take the form of refraining from certain activities—taking a break. Even Jesus during His earthly life got tired and had to take a break, He had to rest (John 4:6).
Being with Jesus is part of what it means to rest. In Matthew 11:28–29 Jesus says He can give rest. Mark 6:31 also indicates that the apostles should withdraw from other people. However, it is interesting to note that the apostles could be refreshed together as a group.
The words of Jesus in Mark 6:31 were intended for the apostles’ good. It is interesting to note what Scripture says about this place of rest. Jesus told the apostles to “come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31 NIV). Being with Jesus is part of what it means to rest. In Matthew 11:28–29 Jesus says He can give rest. Mark 6:31 also indicates that the apostles should withdraw from other people. However, it is interesting to note that the apostles could be refreshed together as a group; Jesus did not tell them to get away from each other. They could refresh one another. The words used to describe the place of rest are also interesting. Mark 6:31 describes it as “quiet” (NIV) and Mark 6:32 calls it a “solitary place” (NIV). The place of rest is one in which the individual is removed from distractions and pressing needs. The apostles’ boat ride provided them with a brief respite. They were able to distance themselves from the crowds and their needs. But, as we will see, the story doesn’t end there.
Do Jesus’ words about rest have application to His followers today? Even though He spoke them to some of His first-century followers, and that too only once, I think, His words do have relevance for His people today. The pressures of the world and the ministry are still real (and perhaps increasing) and the limitations of our bodies, minds, and emotions still exist. We need times of rest, not just sleep, we need breaks from the needs of the ministry. It is to our advantage to heed Jesus’ words to rest. It will help us, and also those who sit under our ministries.
Recognising the need for rest does not in and of itself guarantee that a person will rest. As the text makes clear there is more to the story. The apostles got into the boat with Jesus and were able to escape the crowd, so they got a little break. However, when they arrived on shore again there they found a crowd of people! This part of the story lets us know that our attempts to rest will be challenged. There will always be people and needs that will cross our paths, this is the nature of Christian ministry whether you are a pastor or a worker in the church. Some seasons of life and ministry can be particularly stressful. The needs of the people have to be addressed at some point, but the needs of the Christian worker also need to be addressed. Rest is one of those needs. One interesting thing to note in Mark 6 is that the apostles worked in teams of two and Jesus told them to rest. Many in ministry today are working by themselves, how much more do they need rest?
Rest is biblical, it is also a need and a choice. The Christian worker must decide to rest and commit to it; rest needs to be guarded. That being said, adjustments may need to be made from time to time as to when rest is taken, but it needs to be taken. If one waits for a break in the action before resting, that time may never come. God rested from His labours (Gen 2:2), and Jesus rested during His earthly ministry (John 4:6). In Mark 6 Jesus urged the apostles to rest. So rest is both an Old Testament and New Testament concept. May God grant us, His servants, the wisdom to rest. God is in favour of it, and it can do much to revitalise us for the work ahead.