I believe that Jesus is calling out to people today, almost pleading with them to come into a very close relationship with Him. The way to Jesus is meant to be so simple that no one would be prevented from coming to Him, and no one would feel like it was too difficult to find that deep relationship. Unfortunately, many have decided that what Jesus said was too good to be true, and have tried to complicate it. Organized religion has sometimes misrepresented Jesus, making Him to be a God whose primary focus is on judgment and condemnation. Even people who genuinely love Jesus can make it difficult for themselves, by putting additional burdens of performance on themselves, or by unnecessarily choosing to continually carry a heavy load of guilt or shame. But the very words of Jesus speak against this. We can read His appeal to those far and near alike in Matthew 11:28-30.
28Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke fits perfectly, and the burden I give you is light.” (NLT)
We need to take Jesus’ words seriously, when he says that he provides rest for us, and that his way is easy (or light). He says a lot more than that in these few simple verses, and it would help us if we unpack them a little bit.
Jesus begins with the word “come” (v 28). This is clearly an invitation, and he wouldn’t invite each one of us unless he meant it. The truth is that God is not far from any of us. He wants us to find Him. Yet it is also true that we can hear the invitation and not respond. The first step to finding rest for our souls is to stir ourselves enough to move in the direction of God. In the well known story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), as soon as the father saw the son returning, even though he was still far off, the father ran to him. That is true of how God responds to us. Once we make a move to come to Jesus (remember Jesus and the Father are One — see John 10:30), he makes his move toward us, to embrace us and welcome us home.
The second thing that Jesus does in this passage is clarify where to come to. He says to come “to me” (v 28). Jesus could have said to come “to my Word” or “to my followers” or “to my way of behaving” or some other destination, but He didn’t. He made it personal. Our destination is Jesus. The Bible is wonderful and being part of a good church can be a great blessing, but these are not substitutes for knowing the person of Jesus via an intimate life-giving relationship based on talking and listening. When we stir ourselves to move, move toward Jesus. Only in finding the person and heart of Jesus is it possible to find peace.
Jesus tells us who he is calling: “you who are weary and carry heavy burdens” (v 28, NLT). It seems like the invitation is only for a few — those who are weary and burdened. What if you don’t feel weary and burdened? Can you still come?
First, if you have been walking with Jesus, don’t feel like you have to make yourself weary and burdened to approach Him. You’re not supposed to live in a state of being weary and burdened. Jesus is trying to get us into a state of living in His rest. Perhaps when you first came to Jesus, or some point after that, you were weary and burdened, and came to Jesus, and found a place of rest. So you are already close to Jesus, and living in that rest.
On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that you cannot be following Jesus and feel weary and burdened. Most if not all of us who follow Jesus feel that way at least some of the time. Jesus, however, is trying to bring us to the place of continual rest. If we have already come to Him but are still feeling weary and burdened, we also need to listen to the other things He says in the following verses, so that we can find that rest.
To all of us, and especially those who would say they have not yet comet to any kind of relationship with Jesus, humility is extremely important for coming to Jesus and entering into His rest. We have to “fess up” to being weary and burdened. If we look back to verse 25, Jesus says to His Father, “you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (NIV). In context, Jesus was speaking to our heavenly Father about faith, and saying that people who are self-important are too self-important for God. This whole idea carries over to verse 28, and is incorporated in the idea of being weary and burdened. If you’ve got your act together, then why do you need Jesus? And why do you need the rest that Jesus gives? It is essential to recognize our need.
People who think they have their act together have no room for someone to help them. The truth is that no one has their act together, but there are many people who are so unaware of themselves, or perhaps so prideful, that they cannot see how weak they really are. For all of us who would love to see these folks find a relationship with God, the best thing we can do is continue to pray for them, but take a step back until their eyes are opened to the truth about their neediness.
For those who come to Jesus, he promises us rest. This occurs first in verse 28, when he says plainly, “I will give you rest”, and then again in verse 29, when he promises that “you will find rest for your souls”. This concept of finding rest is so important, Jesus tells us twice. The phrasing of the latter points to a very deep and inviting rest, because it promises to reach down to our souls, rather than just our bodies. It is a peace that calms and reassures our hearts and emotions. Sometimes just being aware of Jesus being near us and caring about our situation is enough to give us rest, but sometimes we need more. Rest comes through trust. If we see Jesus with us, and trust Him to care for us, we can release the burdens we carry to Him.
In verse 29, Jesus says “Take my yoke upon you” (NLT). A yoke is used to join a team of animals together — oxen perhaps — so that working together they can pull the load. I suppose some might envision Jesus driving us oxen, but I envision us side-by-side with Jesus, pulling the load. I think this is the imagery that Jesus intended. You might infer this from the ease that we are to experience in taking this yoke upon us.
I am encouraged very much that I am yoked with Jesus — and for that matter, with other followers of Jesus — and that together we can do great work, more than I could ever dream of doing on my own. The one thing about a yoke, though, is it does constrain us. In a yoke, you just can’t walk off and do whatever you want whenever you want to do it. So there is a cost to following Jesus. On the other hand, walking apart from Jesus leads us away from the good that we were destined to do (Ephesians 2:8-10) — and from the glory that God wants to reveal in our lives.
Jesus also says in verse 29, “I am gentle and humble in heart” (NIV). I am taking this slightly out of order, but I think it is important to focus in on the trustworthiness of Jesus. I mean, if we are going to give up our freedom, we want it to be for a good reason. If we were being yoked by or with a harsh taskmaster, we ought to think twice about giving up our freedom. But Jesus says that He is gentle and humble in heart. “Gentle” means that He does not want us to experience any unnecessary pain, and it really implies that even if He has to experience some of the pain to spare us, He will. And of course, looking at what He did on the cross, we already know He did that for us. But He has not stopped doing that for us today. He still tries to spare us from unnecessary pain. Being “humble” means that He thinks of others ahead of Himself (see Philippians 2:5-8). Jesus is completely trustworthy.
In between these two declarations in verse 29, Jesus says, “Learn from Me” (NIV). To take on a yoke with Jesus is a learning process. The first time in a yoke, you don’t know how to lean, how to pull, the pace to set, or how to work with the team (or the stronger one in a pair). Jesus knows this. So He tells us that He will teach us, but we need to take the time to listen and learn. A team doesn’t get to be a well-trained team for quite some time. It takes practice. Trainers start off a new team with lighter weights and simpler tasks. But after gaining some experience, the weights can get quite heavy, and the tasks more complex.
It is important to note that again this is personal: we learn from Jesus. Sure, the Bible is terribly important, and so are teachers and other means of learning, but Jesus says “learn from Me”. That has to mean that He wants to communicate with us, and I think that requires us to develop an ability to hear what He is saying to us.
The thing about a yoke is that it keeps us in close proximity to those we are yoked with. This yoke Jesus speaks to us about keeps us right by His side. It is through this intimacy with Him that we are able to absorb things from Him that we might not otherwise be able to pick up.
In verse 30, Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (NIV). This goes along with Jesus’ earlier statement about Him being gentle and humble in heart. Here, though, he assures us that not only is His character good, but what He requires of us is doable, and even pleasant. He says, in fact, that we will not regret taking on the yoke because it is easy. We will not burn out being yoked with Jesus, because we find that what we bear is light. In fact, if we start feeling burned out, it is a good sign that we have become unyoked, and are pulling the load without Jesus.
Sometimes we can get too focused on details. So, as we conclude, I want to come away from these powerful words of Jesus with the big picture. Jesus calls to all of us, particularly when we are weary and burdened. He promises us rest for our souls as we go to Him. Many times, we just need comfort and assurance from God for our souls to find rest.
But if we find ourselves habitually weary and burdened, Jesus wrapping His arms around us will only be a short-term solution. For those of us in this situation, after Jesus comforts us, He then gently takes us by the hand and leads us to be yoked together with Him. It is during these times of staying close to Him that the deeper changes we need in our lives takes place. And He restores us and makes us able to find the peace and joy that we’ve desired.
When we are part of Jesus’ team, if we are feeling like the tasks we have are way too heavy, we might actually have to say something to the rest of the team, and not just Jesus. We are told, after all, in Galatians 6:2, to carry each other’s burdens. Some of us are simply at the end of our ropes, and we need to say to someone in flesh and blood, “I just can’t do this anymore. I need help!”
When one part of the Body of Christ suffers, we all suffer (1 Corinthians 12:26). Let us redistribute the load, as best we can, so that we might also recognize that as one part of the Body rejoices, we all rejoice.
Addendum: Ways in Which Jesus Gives Rest
Let us take a moment to point out types of burdens and sources of weariness, so we might understand better some of the ways in which Jesus give us rest.
1) Guilt and shame. Romans 3:23 tells us that all have sinned. Romans 6:23 tells us that because of sin, we deserve death, but through faith in Jesus, we have instead eternal life. By faith in Jesus, all of our sins and failures are forgiven. Jesus, in John 3:16-18, affirms this, by saying that whoever believes in Him has eternal life, but whoever does not is condemned. We who follow Jesus are declared righteous by him (Romans 3:21-22), and we are called dearly loved (Ephesians 5:1 and Colossians 3:12). The worst moments of our past have been completely forgiven by God. By walking with Jesus, we find rest from carrying our burdens of guilt and shame.
2) Working for righteousness. Working for righteousness is closely related to carrying the burden of guilt and shame. A number of people are aware of Jesus’ forgiveness for past failures, but act like His forgiveness does not cover present and future failures. They insist on perfection in themselves and others. While I would never advocate disobeying God, God also knows that in the process of maturing and learning to conform our wills to His, we will have some slip ups, sometimes some big slip ups. His grace covers those things, as well. In fact, God says that the way to righteousness is not by trying to follow the letter of the Law, but rather to walk with the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-18). Therefore, Jesus releases you from the burden of working to be “right with him”.
3) Working for acceptance. Working for acceptance is closely related to the idea of working for righteousness, and the only distinction in my mind it that the former is more related to the issue of trying to attain holiness and the latter is more related to the idea of showing oneself to be worthy of love. Jesus declares unequivocally that He loves you (John 3:16; Ephesians 5:1; Colossians 3:12), so for those who struggle with this, you already have what you seek, given freely to you.
4) Problems which overwhelm us. There are many worries in this world, some related to life and death matters, other related to lesser matters that no less are of a great deal of importance to us. In Philippians 4:6-7, Paul writes that if we will simply take time to tell God about what we need, and do it with thankfulness, the peace of God will descend upon us. This peace comes as a result of being able to release the burden of our needs to God, whom we can trust to care for us, better than we can care for ourselves (Matthew 6:19-34).
5) Hurts done to us. Many of us are carrying wounds we experienced at the hands of others, and these keep us from finding rest. Jesus is known as both the healer of the brokenhearted (Psalms 147:3), and the one who sets the captives free (Isaiah 61:1-2; Luke 4:18-19). Without healing, we might walk around in fear, or with anger or bitterness, or with shame. But the Lord can touch the deepest recesses of our hearts and bring life. I have experienced that myself. Once we are touched and healed, we are then able to minister that healing in the lives of others (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).
Acknowledgments: Thanks to my friends at Harvest Church in Hampstead, MD, and Harvest Christian Fellowship in Frederick, MD, who heard earlier versions of this message.