“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”—Matthew 11:28-30
This passage is very familiar to most Believers, even to those who have but a spare knowledge of the Gospels. The passage is replete with “comfort words”, like comfort food for the soul. Words like rest, gentle and humble in heart, rest for your souls, easy, light… provide a sense of relief just in the reading. At one time or another, and perhaps especially during this season, we all find ourselves wanting to take Jesus up on His simple, compassionate invitation.
However, like many of the words and phrases employed by the Messiah which we tend to echo to one another with an air of presumption, I wonder, do we really know what He meant? Are we presently experiencing rest for our souls or are wearied by the incessant current of unrest we face in the world each day. Is our daily yoke easy? The load light? The phrasing is poetic. The feel is divine. But, do we really understand how to apply these words to actually effect rest for our souls in our broken, confusing, wearying world? If we are feeling “weary and heavy-laden” perhaps we do not really understand what He was offering or how to take Him up on His offer.
How does one come to Jesus? Was Jesus literally telling that massive crowd of people to come to Him in a physical sense? Certainly if they were in need of healing then they would want to come near, but I believe Jesus had a bigger picture in mind. Jesus would not make an illusory promise. He was not a Sunday preacher with a nice flowery message designed to make us feel better about ourselves and life. No, Jesus intended a specific, measurable effect for anyone who would “Come to Me”. So let’s take a deeper look…
First, and perhaps foremost, one must understand the historical and cultural context. Who was the audience? How would they receive these words? We cannot hope to understand Jesus’ words if we simply take them at face value based upon our 21st century understanding of an English translation of this Gospel. Who was the audience? For one, it was a very large audience.
Later in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus fed 5,000 men, not included in the count were women and children, so perhaps 15,000 people or more. While that was not this specific “multitude”, the descriptors earlier in this Gospel would indicate that this was a similar gathering in terms of size and composition. Some of these folks had come from as far away as Jerusalem and its environs, 100 miles away! They had walked to see this Jesus. No hotels. No restaurants. No showers. No water fountains. Many were sick or disabled. Further, they had been living under a yoke of Roman oppression and a Pharisaical religious spirit for their entire lifetime. These people were beat up. Jesus often described them as “the lost sheep of Israel”, “sheep without a shepherd” living among wolves. The truth is these “lost sheep” had been, were then, and still are the primary target of the evil one. He hates God’s chosen people. He had been trying to wipe them out all the way back to Egypt. He has never stopped, witness Hitler. These people were beat up and Jesus knew it wasn’t going to get better for them from a political or religious standpoint. Those were, and still are, false hopes.
Jesus just got done telling them that “all things have been handed over to Me”, that is to say He had divine authority. He had the power to give effect to His words. He had already proved it by healing the sick, casting out demons and raising the dead. The first words after making that statement are… “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Good hook, as Jesus spoke right to their felt-need. The word rendered “weary” in the Greek meant to labor until worn-out, depleted, exhausted. Frankly, “weary” may be too weak a word to describe many of those in the audience. These people had little or nothing left in the tank, physically, emotionally or spiritually. To be “heavy-laden” actually meant to be overloaded, one who was literally “weighted-down.” We have all felt the weight of the world. I have often felt that physical challenges are much easier than those that are emotional, psychological or spiritual. Physical challenges, typically, do not break one’s spirit. One can almost always manage a physical challenge, as it is external to us. But, it is exceedingly difficult to press on when one’s spirit has been broken or seriously denigrated. When we are internally handicapped or broken we are truly vulnerable. There is nowhere to run from my own head. These people were starving, both literally and in every other way. This was a very needy multitude. Where does one start? Jesus started with their essential need… food for their soul. They had need to come under the watchful, protective eye of the Great Shepherd who alone could lead them to green pastures and still waters. (Psalm 23) So far so good, but then Jesus throws a bit of a curve…
“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS.”
Yes, of course, the first thing that comes to mind when one is exhausted is to take up an implement of hard labor! Yokes were for oxen, beasts of burden who were the John Deere tractors of the day. A yoke was a heavy, sturdy piece of lumber strapped to the neck and shoulders of the ox. There were typically two oxen yoked together to make a team. Figuratively speaking, a yoke would unite or join two people to move or work together as one. A secondary definition of the word yoke had to do with the cross beam on a balance scale, wherein two pans hung on either side, weights placed in one pan, goods on the other. This yoke was common in the marketplaces of the time. Why would Jesus employ this metaphor in this context? We’ll get there.
Why would these Jews want to replace one yoke for another? They were already operating under a yoke of political and religious oppression. First, Jesus assures them that He, unlike the Romans and the scribes and the Pharisees, would be under the yoke with them. It was His yoke. The invitation was to be yoked with Him. He would not ask them to do anything He wouldn’t be doing with them. And, His intention was not just to give them a break, but also to teach them. The word translated “learn” carries with it not just an intellectual aspect, but also an experiential one. This may seem trite, it is not. In my opinion, one of the greatest weaknesses in American culture, including the church, is the assumption that if one intellectually knows and gives assent to information then they “know”. Do you want your heart surgeon to be someone who has collected all the information he/she can about a heart through “book learning” or do you want one who has conducted hundreds of heart surgeries before performing yours? The old adage holds true, “There is no substitute for experience.” Jesus was inviting them to be yoked with Him as they “plowed” through life together, and as they did so He would teach them, demonstrate to them, guide them in the way that they should go. He would teach them to “fish so that they would eat for a lifetime.”
Further, he was not harsh and or self-serving like the Romans and/or the Pharisees, rather He was “gentle and humble in heart”. The word rendered “gentle” is insufficient. A better translation would be the word “meek”. Unfortunately, in English the word “meek” sounds, and is too often associated with, “weak”. Biblical meekness is not weakness but rather refers to exercising God’s power, yet with restraint. The English term “meek” often lacks this blend of gentleness and strength. In truth “meekness” is a great word, a wonderful attribute. It is difficult to think of someone in the public eye who demonstrates true meekness. The reason for that is that one who operates in meekness has no need to be known or celebrated by others. This was Jesus. It is characteristic of one who has power, but chooses not to use it for selfish gain or for self-aggrandizement, which marries up perfectly with the notion of being “humble”. One who is humble operates without an ulterior motive or selfish ambition. This powerful combination of “meekness and humility” in heart would serve to ease the trepidations of any in this mass of humanity who might be skeptical due to past hurts or abuses at the hands of their so-called “spiritual” leaders. In short, Jesus could be trusted.
Jesus was not asking these folk to do anything He wouldn’t do. He was offering to be yoked to each of them. That was, and frequently still is, an unheard of or seldom employed form of leadership. He was willing to be yoked, that is to come into very close proximity with this dirty, smelly, ill and even demonized bunch. (Jesus touched a leper to effect healing when all He had to do was speak a word.) The scribes and Pharisees wanted nothing to do with this rabble, except to control them. While Jesus was saying “come to Me” and “be yoked to Me”, the religious leaders were saying “keep your distance, but pay homage and, of course, be sure to tithe.” Sound familiar? Some things never change. Jesus’ offer was, and still is, radical.
“For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
Where would one go to find a yoke that was easy? There was no such thing. The two words “easy” and “yoke” are simply incongruent. No one would describe a yoke as easy. Sturdy, durable, well-fitting sure, but “easy” is simply a non sequitur. I can imagine the multitude was curious to know more about this “magic” yoke. The word translated easy is “xrēstós”, pronounced “khrase-tos’”. The word means useful, serviceable, productive, well-fitted, beneficial, benevolent. Interestingly enough, a very similar sounding word, “Xrestus” was a common slave-name in the Greco-Roman world. It “appears as a spelling variant for the familiar Christus (Xristos). (In Greek the two words were pronounced alike.)” (F. F. Bruce, The Books of Acts, 368). Perhaps Jesus was here employing a double-entendre or a play on words. He had come as the Xristos, literally the “anointed one”. No Jew would expect that their Xristos, their Messiah, would come as Xrestus, a suffering servant. But He did, a stumbling block for many. He would take on a yoke that no one could imagine, that no one else could carry. A yoke, a cross-beam, that He would literally carry to His own crucifixion. (Criminals were forced to carry the cross-beam to their own crucifixion, not the entire to cross.) This yoke, also served as a cross-beam of another sort, the cross-beam on the balance-scales of God’s justice. On one side of the scales would be placed the entire weight of the world’s sin and brokenness, on the other the sinless, broken body of Jesus. God’s justice would be served. It was only because of the yoke that Jesus would shoulder in the not so distant future that would enable Him to make good on the invitation to this needy multitude. An invitation to be yoked with Him that would result in “rest for their weary souls”.
When Jesus stated, “My burden is light” He was obviously not referring to His own burden, rather the burden He was offering to everyone in the audience, from that day down to ours. He promised that if they would choose to take on His yoke, His cross-beam, that their “burden” would be “light”, especially in comparison to His. Again, the Greek is instructive. By definition, this “burden” must be carried by the individual, i.e. as something personal and hence was not transferable. This definition fits perfectly into the theology of the cross. Jesus takes on the sin of the world, but we each have an obligation, a personal responsibility, as well. We must choose to come under His yoke. We must attach ourselves to Him. We must learn from Him. We must walk where He walks. We must carry burdens that He tells us to carry. This burden cannot “be shifted” to someone else. However, when yoked with Jesus this “burden” becomes “light”. The reason that the burden Jesus would have us carry becomes “light” is because He is the one doing all the heavy lifting and He supplies the grace necessary for us to do our part.
All in all this passage, taken as a whole, is the Gospel. It must have sounded like Good News to the masses that day, and it still does. How about you? Are you weary, completely depleted, exhausted of mind, body or soul? Are you in need of refreshing? Are you in need of food for your depleted soul? Are the burdens of this world overwhelming? Is there a heaviness about your life that you just can’t shake, that is sucking the life right out of you?
If your response to any of those questions is in the affirmative then may I suggest that the yoke you are operating under may not be His. If the yoke is rubbing us the wrong way we are either wearing it incorrectly or it is not His yoke. If the burden is heavy we must ask ourselves if we are shouldering that burden in obedience to Jesus? Is the burden anchored in guilt or shame or condemnation? If so, it ain’t Jesus. We need to dump that load. Jesus does not employ guilt and shame. Rather, His tool of choice is grace. Grace is more than another nice Bible word, it is a form of divine empowerment that is attendant to all that God asks of us. When we are walking in grace we are empowered and the burden is all of a sudden very doable.
You may ask, how can it be? “I am not a lost sheep I am a Christian, a Christ-follower.” Be that as it may, Jesus always said that one can tell the tree only by the fruit. If the fruit of our life is not consistent with what He promised… peace, joy, love; then our connection to the Tree has been broken or at least denigrated. To employ a different metaphor, perhaps there is a disconnect, an electrical short if you will. The circuitry may be there, but the power connection has been corrupted or interrupted.
Jesus had the Holy Spirit without measure. All things had been given unto His hand. He was absolutely sure of His identity and His call. Yet, He frequently went off by himself to spend time with the Father. Perhaps He was going to the Father because He was “weary” and in need of rest for His soul. Perhaps He was lightening His load by unloading it on the Father. Perhaps He was “learning” from the Father from the standpoint of gathering direction and insight for the coming day, as we must always remember He was fully human having laid aside His divinity in order to accomplish His Messianic mission. Everyday Jesus was yoked with the Father. Just as it was with Jesus, being a Christ-follower is not a one-time decision, it is a daily choice. Jesus said we would have to take up His cross, His yoke, daily. We do so by saying yes to Him each and every day. We live on enemy ground. From time-to-time we may lose a battle, but we will win the war if we stay yoked to Jesus. Jesus stayed yoked to the Father by spending time alone with Him. Solomon said it a little differently, “Come away with me my beloved.” When I am weary and heavy-laden I must take Jesus at His word and do that which is counter-intuitive, stop and spend time with Him. This is not a religious practice or formula. It may be a walk. It may be listening or playing music. It may be writing. It may be taking a nap. It may be sitting and listening. It may be reading. You get the idea, we are all different and He will meet us in the way which works for us. But, we must take the time, in so doing we will take Jesus up on His offer to “Come to Me” and He will not disappoint.