As we read through the story of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew we see that: Jesus shares his Messianic message about the kingdom of God (Mt.5-7), he engages in a ministry of miracles and signs (Mt.8-9), and he commissions his disciples to participate in his mission (Mt.10). The crowds still follow but a tinge of dissatisfaction emerges as questions are being raised about Jesus’ identity and mission (Mt.11). Soon outright opposition and hostility will emerge, especially from the religious leaders (Mt.12). Jesus shows how privileged a generation these people are and with it comes great responsibility. They have witnessed the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah and also experienced the ministry of John the Baptist, the first prophet to speak for God in 100s of years. They have heard the messages from God but how will they respond? Unfortunately, many ignored what God was doing and Jesus pronounced words of judgment for their lack of repentance (11:20-24). He then turns to the crowds and says:
“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” [Mt.11:28-30. NLT]
This passage shows us an incredible invitation. As with any invitation, we need to consider three things: (1) who is making the invitation, (2) to whom is the invitation being made, and (3) what is being offered? Let’s look at these one by one.
1. Who is making the invitation?
Jesus is the one making the invitation. He claims to be the revelation of who God really is. He claims that he and the Father are one and that only by coming to Him can a person see and know God. Jesus has an exclusive and unique relationship with the Father. No one knew the Father like Jesus did. Part of His mission on earth was to reveal the Father to humanity (see Mt.11:27). Jesus describes himself as “gentle and humble in heart (11:29),” a very different picture of God than the religious leaders had portrayed.
2. To whom is the invitation being made?
The invitation is given to all – everyone, worldwide. But it is especially offered to those who are “weary,” which means to be exhausted from work or a long hard journey. Many people in the crowds had exhausted themselves trying to find God or trying to be good enough to earn His favor. The invitation is to those who “carry heavy burdens” – those who are weighed down with heavy loads. These are the crowds of people who Jesus saw as harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd (Mt.9:36). People listening to this invitation of Jesus were carrying a variety of burdens, similar to what we struggle with today.
- The burden of religious legalism. Unfortunately, the religious leaders of the day had turned faith into a ritualistic focus on keeping a myriad of endless rules and regulations, in order to somehow please a harsh demanding God. For instance, they turned the keeping of the Sabbath, which was originally made for the benefit of humanity, into a demanding list of 39 activities that couldn’t be done on that day (see Mt.12:1-4 for some examples). They had turned the simplicity of life being comprised of loving God and loving people into a demanding performance game that could never be won. Their legalistic traditions over-burdened people (Mt.23:4) and that is why they became the target of so much of Jesus’ criticism (Mt.5:20; 6:1-19).
- The burden of sinful habits. Many people struggled with the guilt and the shame of not only not measuring up to the requirements of the law, but of being enslaved by the habits of the sinful nature, which were so hard to break free from.
- The burden of life’s difficulties. Life is not always easy and many people in the crowd would have been weighed down with anxiety, worry, fear, grief, and stress. The Jews of Jesus’ day lived in a time of oppression from a ruthless Roman government.
- The burden of unanswered questions. Life’s expectations are not always matched by life’s experiences. Like John the Baptist (Mt.11:1-6), we can develop many questions and even doubts about what where God is and what he is doing.
As we can see, Jesus’ offer is especially given to those who are aware of their need for God. The proud and the self-sufficient so often miss out on what God is doing while the humble, and those who recognize their need, enter in to it. Note Jesus’ prayer just before this where he thanked the Father for making the things of the kingdom available to ordinary people (Mt.11:25-26).
3. What is being offered?
Jesus is offering rest or Sabbath. True rest involves shalom – which is the experience of ultimate well-being in every area of life. When you are carrying burdens such as these, you desperately need rest and refreshment.
Yes, there is a yoke to following Jesus. However, the yoke of his discipleship is “easy and light.” True, “easy yoke” sounds like an oxymoron. Plowing a field and pulling a yoke is hard work! What Jesus does promise is a relationship with himself. The demands of life and discipleship are great but the relationship with Jesus makes the burden light and bearable. It seems counterintuitive but it is true. The word “easy” means “well-fitting.” Jesus, being a carpenter by trade, knew what it was to make yokes that fitted an ox well. The “yoke” become a metaphor for discipleship. It is not to be seen as a religious obligation but simply as walking with Jesus in the real world, having him teach us moment by moment how to live his life his way. There is rest from weariness as we learn from Jesus and draw strength from him. His sustaining support can help us carry the load. The life Jesus gives to us is not a burden to destroy us. It is made to fit us well. The burden given in love and carried in love is always light. Jesus calls to the crowds to become his disciples and to find a rest not found in the legalism of religion.
Jesus urges us to COME to him, to TAKE his yoke upon ourselves and to LEARN from him.
The Message Bible puts it this way: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly."
Is there a burden you need to bring to Jesus today?