Open Matthew 11:25-29.
Tired? Worn out? Jesus said, Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).
Stop for a moment right now. Just breathe. Refreshing? Now, before you rush back to the frenetic pace, do you have time to explore with me what Jesus meant? He went on to say, “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 light” (11:29-30).
What did he have in mind? His yoke? His burden? It’s even more liberating that you imagine.
Why is life so hard? Why so burdensome? It’s not what God designed. When God established the world as his domain, he rested on the seventh day. His creation entered his rest with him (Genesis 2:2-3).
When creation rebelled against his kingship, life became painful. Taking on the weight of trying to be God is such a heavy burden. We’re no longer living in God’s garden; we wrestle with the ground to produce anything. The pain starts at birth (ask your Mum!), and lasts till death. Eve’s pain and Adam’s toil are both described with the Hebrew word ʿiṣ·ṣā·ḇôn in Genesis 3:16-17, just as the word labour has both meanings in English. Life feels futile. It’s a struggle to survive. It grinds us down, until we sink back into the soil.
There is a reason why you feel you’re labouring and heavy laden, not getting to enter God’s rest. And it’s a reason that Jesus promises to deal with!
But why would he ask us to put on his yoke and accept his burden? How does that help?
Commentators often dig up Jewish references to “the yoke of Torah” to contrast Jesus with the Pharisee who put heavy burdens on people. Yes the Pharisees who controlled the Galilean towns (11:16-24) were a current manifestation of the problem, but that doesn’t begin to exhaust the issue. That whole approach fails to do justice to the way the Torah functioned as the law of their heavenly king, the expression of the Sinai covenant that yoked Israel to YHWH their sovereign. Some of the Jewish sources that use the phrase “yoke of Torah” also speak of “the yoke of the kingdom.”
In the Old Testament, the word yoke is usually a symbol of rulership. An animal that had never been yoked was unbroken, not under anyone’s control. Freeing Israel form slavery under Pharaoh was “breaking the bars of your yoke” (Leviticus 26:13). But if they refused to serve YHWH as their king and follow his laws, he would hand them over to a foreign ruler who would “put a yoke of iron on your neck” (Deuteronomy 28:48). When they turned back to submit to YHWH’s kingship again, he would “break the yoke” of their oppressor (e.g. Isaiah 9:4; 10:27; 14:25; 47:6; Jeremiah 2:20; 27:8, 11-12; 28:2, 4, 11, 14; 30:8).
So, when Jesus asked Israel to accept his yoke, he was asking them to recognize his kingship. He was expecting them to submit to the kingdom of God — heaven’s reign on earth through him.
Because this world’s rulers are so oppressive, we’re fearful of submitting to anyone. But Jesus removes the slavery, the oppression, the harsh servitude. He restores the rest God designed for us in the beginning. His kingship is not a heavy burden; it’s a light yoke.
Israel had struggled to serve God as their king, without having a human king. Samuel warned them how a human king would burden them: “He will take …, he will take …, he will take …, he will take …, he will take …, he will take … (1 Samuel 8:11-17). They insisted. David defeated their enemies, and Solomon could say God had given him rest (1 Kings 5:4). But Solomon did not give rest to his people.
Solomon levied a heavy tax burden, and he expected his people to work for him three months every year for 7 years to build the temple. When the temple was finished, he didn’t ease the burden: he kept it up for another 13 years, so they could build him a palace too.
The burden was so great that ten of the twelve tribes of Israel threw off the yoke of Davidic kingship when Solomon died. They asked his son Rehoboam to ease the burden:
1 Kings 12:4 (NIV)
Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.
But Rehoboam followed the advisors who told him to turn the screws even tighter:
1 Kings 12:10–11 (NIV)
10 The young men who had grown up with him replied, “These people have said to you, ‘Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter.’ Now tell them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist. 11 My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.’ ”
It split the kingdom. Only Judah retained David’s descendants as king. The other tribes formed their own nation under another king. The division made them more vulnerable to their enemies, and sometimes they even fought each other. Eventually Assyria conquered Israel and Babylon conquered Judah. This moment — the rejection of the Davidic kingship because of its harshness — was the beginning of Israel’s demise.
Then Jesus came, the son of David, calling Israel back under God’s reign, promising his kingship would not be like Solomon’s. He would restore God’s people from the yoke of slavery, from oppression under the reign of evil. He would give them God dwelling among them without the taxes and forced labour Solomon had imposed to build the temple. He would impose no heavy demands for a palace for himself.
That Jesus is talking about his kingship is obvious in the preceding verse. His Father is the heavenly sovereign, the rightful ruler of heaven and earth, and Jesus claims, “All things have been committed to me by my Father” (11:27). He’s also implying a contrast with the existing rulers of the Galilean towns that have resisted his kingship (11:20-24).
The yoke of his kingship is easy. His burden is light. The people under his kingship find rest. It’s so refreshing to come under a ruler who is “gentle and humble” (11:29).
The yoke Jesus calls us to take on is to love God (our sovereign) and people (his family). And you ain’t heavy if you’re my brother.
This is the nearest thing we’ve heard so far in Matthew to what we might call Jesus issuing a gospel “invitation.” I have trouble imagining Jesus marking his gospel as “Come here for prayer, and I’ll give you a free gift.” Yes, the king’s grace is undeserved, but it comes with an obligation of fealty (faith). You cannot accept Jesus without accepting his yoke, serving him as king. Is there something we can learn from how Jesus issued his invitation?
What others are saying
Psalms of Solomon is a Jewish text from the first century BC. It illustrates how Jewish people understood the yoke of the Messiah’s kingship even before Jesus:
Psalms of Solomon 17:32-36
32 He will have peoples of nations to serve him under his yoke,
and he will glorify the Lord notably over all the earth.
33 And he will cleanse Jerusalem with sanctification, as also from the beginning,
34 for nations to come from the edge of the earth to see his glory,
bringing as gifts its utterly weakened sons,
35 and to see the glory of the Lord that God glorified;
and he is a righteous king over them, taught by God,
36 and there is no injustice in his days among them;
because they all are holy, and their king is the anointed Lord.
Anonymous early commentator, in Matthew 1–13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture edited by Manlio Simonetti (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 233:
“Place my yoke upon you, and learn from me that I am gentle and humble of heart.” Oh, what a very pleasing weight that strengthens even more those who carry it! For the weight of earthly masters gradually destroys the strength of their servants, but the weight of Christ rather helps the one who bears it, because we do not bear grace; grace bears us.
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