First comes the statement by Jesus that all are who are heavy laden should come to him and he will give them rest. In context it says this (11:28-30):
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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (ESV)
What is Jesus talking about? He is talking to all of us. We are all heavy laden and wearied. By what? Does he mean by our jobs? Our schoolwork? The pressures of life? Illness? No, not those things, but spiritual things.
We are weighed down by our sense of guilt, inadequacy, insufficient righteousness, and poor performance in the face of the holiness of God and his perfection. How do we know that is our burden? Every human being who has ever lived has felt that burden, however it may be expressed (see, e.g., Rom 1:18-32). Even the pagans understood, perhaps better than people today, that their lives, their conduct, their actions, their behavior, would not be considered righteous under the scrutiny of divine authority. They had no doubt that some thing, some one, some person or persons, some god or gods, ruled over them and had authority over them, and ultimately would hold them accountable. That is why they made sacrifices to whatever deities they worshiped. This is what Paul spoke to when he addressed the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:22-34, page 926).
This is what John Bunyan wrote about in The Pilgrim’s Progress:
I dreamed, and behold I saw a man [Pilgrim] clothed in rags standing in a certain place, with his face [turned away] from his own house, a book in his hand [the Bible], and a great burden on his back [his sense of guilt]. I looked and saw him open the book, and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled: and not being able to contain himself any longer, he broke out with a lamentable cry, saying, “What shall I do?”
In the second comfortable words verse Jesus says is that God loved the world, his creation, so much that he took steps to breach the gulf between us and him caused by mankind’s rebellion. He acted where we were impotent. He forgave us and took the initiative with us and for us by joining with us in a unique and inscrutable way through the incarnation. He so loved the world that he gave his only son, that is he gave something most precious, so that those who place their trust and faith in the son, in Christ Jesus, would not die forever but would have eternal life. There is tremendous power, hope, and joy in those few direct and simple words Jesus spoke.
And though Archbishop Cranmer gave us these “comfortable words” in 1549 from John 3:16, there are sobering words that follow and that really show us just how wonderful the “comfortable” words are (Jn 3:16-21):
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (ESV)
And then we have one of the many statements from Saint Paul, in which he tells us the statement he is making is trustworthy and should be embraced by all of us. That statement is that Christ Jesus came to earth not to judge sinners, but to save sinners. The time for judgment will come in the future. But that was not Jesus purpose or function in coming to the earth. As he said when he read from Isaiah he had come to proclaim freedom, liberation from the yoke of the law.
And finally, what could be more comforting, more “comfortable,” than what John the apostle wrote when he said if we sin, he might as well have said when we sin, we have an advocate with the father. We have a defense attorney when we stand in the dock. And that defense attorney is the perfect advocate, truly the only one who could be our advocate in that circumstance, Jesus Christ the righteous.
And he doesn’t only defend us, he rescues us because, as John said, he is the propitiation for our sins. Now that’s a big word probably not seen much today except in the Bible. But it is a word pregnant with meaning and power. Some Bible translations call it something other than propitiation, something like sacrifice of redemption. And that’s a good way to put it. God is reconciled to us not by anything we do, or could do, but by the atonement, the propitiation, performed by Christ Jesus the righteous.
And when we put our faith and trust in Christ Jesus, that sacrifice, that propitiation, is transferred to our side of the ledger and we are redeemed. We are justified. God justifies us, not because of anything we do or possess, but because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The vocabulary of the Bible talks about a declaration by God at the last judgment that we are acquitted because of Jesus (e.g., Rom 2:13, 3:30, pp. 940, 941).
So that’s why we call these brief but pithy statements from the Bible comfortable words. Aren’t they comforting, friends, for people like you and me?