Gentle Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30)


Audio (13:29)

James Tissot, 'Jesus Speaks near the Treasury' (1886-96), gouache on paper, Brooklyn Museum, NY.
James Tissot, detail of 'Jesus Speaks near the Treasury' (1886-96), gouache on paper, Brooklyn Museum, NY.

One of the most winsome invitations in the Bible is offered by Jesus:

"28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30, ESV)

I invite you to mine its treasures with me as we seek to find what it tells us about Jesus, about us, and about the Christian life.

Just previous to this, Jesus has denounced the stubborn unbelief in the Galilean towns where he has performed his greatest miracles (Matthew 11:20-24). Then he marvels at how his Father has revealed an intimate knowledge not to the wise and learned, but to "little children," a term of endearment for his true disciples who come with openness, humility, and obedience to learn from him (Matthew 11:25-27).

Jesus Calls the Overburdened (Matthew 11:28)

Now we arrive at the invitation

"Come to me, all who labor
and are heavy laden,
and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28)

Jesus calls1 to the people who crowd around him for hope, for healing, for answers. They had gone to the Pharisees, considered the strictest, the most intense seekers after God. But all they ended up with was instruction in how to obey more rules more precisely. Jesus' criticism of their religious practice is unsparing.

"You travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves." (Matthew 23:15)

They deal in legalism, not life.

To religion-weary people, Jesus' invitation is refreshing.

"Come to me, all who labor
and are heavy laden,
and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28)

The verbs describe his hearers. The first, "labor", means more than "to work." It expresses the exhaustion that comes from labor: "to become weary, tired," to "strive, struggle."2 The second verb, "heavy laden" has the idea of overloading a donkey -- or a person -- to the maximum weight that they can carry. 3 It recalls Jesus' criticism of the legalism imposed by the scribes and the Pharisees:

"They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger." (Matthew 23:4)

Sometimes the Jews referred to this heavy burden as taking on the "yoke of the law."

Yokes

To carry heavy loads more efficiently, humans invented yokes -- wooden devices that enable men or beasts to carry weight across their shoulders.4 Yokes join a pair of oxen so they can pull a load together. But here, I think Jesus has in mind a human yoke that helps distribute the weight over the shoulders.

Originally, yokes were mere wood poles with ropes hanging down at both ends to carry buckets or bundles of firewood. Backpack frames are now made of aluminum, but once they were made of wood to transfer weight to the shoulders.

In Bible times, yokes were associated with oppression and slavery because they typified the heavy labor of slaves.5 Sometimes the yoke expressed a bondage to sin (Lamentations 1:14). As mentioned above, the expression, the "yoke of the law" was common among rabbis to describe taking upon oneself an obligation to obey the law. But the Pharisees' expression of law-keeping was oppressive (Acts 15:10; Galatians 5:1).

The Attractiveness of Legalism

Legalism can seem attractive at first because it clearly defines what is expected. There's no middle ground. You either achieve the standard or you don't. And so we strive for perfection, we crank up our self-discipline. For a while we're okay, but then we fail and feel awful. And we either end up depressed or self-deceived, in deep despair or proud that somehow we can attain perfection and salvation by our own efforts -- and thus are superior to others. Legalism is exhausting and ends up warping one's self-image. Consistent perfection is unachievable, though under a legalistic system, nothing less will do.

Rest and Relief from Jesus

To this image of heavy, joy-less, legalistic religion. Jesus offers his alternative.

"Come to me, all who labor
and are heavy laden,
and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28)

Jesus offers relief from toil, rest, a refreshing, a reviving of spirits.6 He offers an alternative yoke to the yoke of the Pharisees.

"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." (Matthew 11:29)

Here's that word "rest" again, "cessation from wearisome activity."7

The disciples had been absorbing the exhausting values of the Pharisees -- or perhaps the corrupting values of the world. Now Jesus calls them to "learn from me."8 The Greek noun "disciple" is formed from the same root. Disciples are those eager to learn from Jesus.

Jesus gives three reasons we should come to him.

1. Jesus is "gentle" (KJV "meek"). The word suggests humility, consideration of others, not being impressed with one's own importance.9 Jesus is gentle compared to the harsh and demanding nature of the law's teachers. He knows that we are weak. He loves us. He has died to take our sins upon him. He doesn't have to make us into something to love us; he loves us as we are. He doesn't operate from demand, but from love.

2. Jesus is lowly in heart. This is a similar word: unpretentious, humble.10 So many leaders, so many teachers, so many pastors have hearts that have become puffed up with knowledge, with position, with business, with a self-importance regularly re-inflated by the adulation of people. And they approach people from an elevation that can be felt in their attitude.

But not Jesus. Though he is God, he has emptied himself, humbled himself to be one of us (Philippians 2:5-8). He calls us out of a good and sincere heart because he genuinely cares for our welfare and wants to comfort us.

"When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." (Matthew 9:36)

3. Jesus can provide rest for our souls. Too often you are unable to quiet your soul, your inner self.11 You can't calm your struggling heart, but he can. He calls you to him because he can actually do in you what you cannot do for yourself. You've been trying to follow God your way. Just stop. Come to him. And let him show you how it's done.

Jesus' Yoke

If the "yoke of the law" was burdensome, Jesus' way of life is different.

"For my yoke is easy,
and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:30)

He does have a yoke, a device to help carry the burdens of life along his path. But his yoke has two characteristics:

  1. Jesus' yoke is easy, that is, it doesn't cause discomfort, it is easy to wear.12 As I've studied human yokes, some are just long poles, perhaps flattened when they go over the shoulder. Others are carved carefully to fit just so, and not cut into the shoulders and cause excruciating pain with continued use. Jesus' yoke is formed especially for you, to fit your shoulders, to help you live your life.
  2. Jesus' burden is light. Yes, there is a burden,13 but it is light. Jesus doesn't overload you nor is he a slavedriver. Oh, we can overload ourselves with tasks and responsibilities and expectations Jesus never intended. We feel the lash of self-criticism when we can't do it all. And sometimes we need the approval of others so much we find it difficult to say, "No." But in this verse we are assured that Jesus' burden will be light in weight.14

Legalism vs. "Sloppy Agape"

Legalism abounds in certain branches of Christianity bearing the fruit of hypocrisy, fear, and despair. In others branches of the faith there is little talk of sin or of living a holy life, of seeking to be pleasing to God. This yields the fruit of lives that look little different from those of non-Christians.

We seek to live in a different place. Our emphases ought to be:

  1. Deep, abiding, forgiving love for one another. Our churches must be safe places of healing for broken people. And as that healing comes, we're able to better minister to the hurting in our midst.
  2. A healthy trust in God's grace. Grace is God's safety net for us when we sin, when we fail to live up what Christ leads us to do and be. Jesus died for all of my sins, and all of yours. Even sins committed after we were saved. His sacrifice is full and complete! Hallelujah. But it's one thing to appreciate grace as God's safety net. It is entirely another to use the safety net as a trampoline with no concern for learning to follow Jesus faithfully. We are not to misuse grace as an excuse for sloppy living.
  3. An earnest desire to follow Jesus in all our lives. Being disciples of Jesus means we are devoted "learners," seeking to listen to him, follow him, walk in his paths, and let him change our lives. In my experience, this is anchored in a morning Quiet Time where we worship, read his word, meditate, and pray.

The antidote for legalism is love for Jesus.

References and Abbreviations

[1] "Come" is the adverb deute, "come here! Come on!" mostly as a hortatory particle with the plural. (BDAG 220). Liddell-Scott, " adv., as plural of deuro, "come hither!" Deuro is an adverb of place, "hither", with all verbs of motion. Used as an interjection, "come-on!" "come let us" (Liddell Scott).

[2] "Labor" (ESV, KJV), "are weary" (NIV, NRSV) is present participle of kopiaō, "become weary/tired" or, perhaps, "to exert oneself physically, mentally, or spiritually, work hard, toil, strive, struggle" (BDAG 558, 1).

[3] "Heavy laden" (ESV, KJV), "burdened" (NIV), "are carrying heavy burdens" (NRSV) is the perfect passive participle of phortizō, "to load/burden" someone with something, more exactly, "cause someone to carry something," in imagery, of the burden of keeping the law (BDAG 1064).

[4] "Yoke" is zygos, "a frame used to control working animals or, in the case of humans, to expedite the bearing of burdens, yoke," in our literature only figurative, of any burden (BDAG 429, 1). Gal 5:1; Acts 15:10.

[5] Deuteronomy 28:48; 1 Kings 12:4, 9-11, 14; Isaiah 47:6; Jeremiah 27:1; 28:14; 1 Maccabees 8:18, 31; 1 Timothy 6:1.

[6] "Rest" is the future of anapauō, "to cause someone to gain relief from toil, cause to rest, give (someone) rest, refresh, revive" (BDAG 69, 1).

[7] "Rest" is the noun anapausis, "cessation from wearisome activity for the sake of rest, rest, relief" (BDAG 69, 2).

[8] "Learn from" (ESV, NIV, NRSV), "learn of" (KJV) is the aorist imperative of manthanō with the preposition apo, "from." The verb means, "to gain knowledge and skill by instruction, learn" (BDAG 615, 1).

[9] "Gentle" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "meek" (KJV) is the adjective praus, "pertaining to not being overly impressed by a sense of one's self-importance, gentle, humble, considerate, meek in the older favorable sense" (BDAG 861).

[10] "Lowly" (ESV, KJV), "humble" (NIV, NRSV) is the adjective tapeinos, "pertaining to being unpretentious, humble" (BDAG 989, 3).

[11] "Souls" is the plural of the noun psychē, "seat and center of the inner human life in its many and varied aspects, soul," here, "as the seat and center of life that transcends the earthly" (BDAG 1099, 2d).

[12] "Easy" is the adjective chrēstos, "pertaining to that which causes no discomfort, easy," here, "easy to wear" (BDAG 1090, 1).

[13] "Burden" is the noun phortion (diminutive of phortos, "cargo"), "that which constitutes a load for transport, load," here, figuratively, "burden" (BDAG 1064, 2).

[14] "Light" is the adjective elaphros, "having little weight, light" in weight. Figurative, "easy to bear, insignificant" (2 Corinthians 4:17; BDAG 314, 1).

Copyright © 2021, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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