One of the most beloved passages in the New Testament is Matthew 11:28-30. In it the Lord summarizes the invitation to discipleship that characterized His earthly ministry, but to understand the invitation of this passage, we need to understand the background.
In this passage the Lord was addressing the people of Israel who were burdened and weighed down with the externalism and the legal do’s and don’ts of the Pharisees, and with the consequences—the guilt, frustration, and dissatisfaction that always goes along with legalism.
For instance, in Matthew 23:2, Christ referred to the Scribes and the Pharisees as men who “sit in Moses’ seat.” What was His point? The Pharisees claimed the authority of Moses as interpreters and teachers of the Law which meant they also demanded that all in Israel who submitted to Moses should also submit to them.
Then, in Matthew 23:4, the Lord warned the people of the oppressive and legalistic ways of the Pharisees. He said, “And they tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders.” He was speaking about the way they had hidden the true meaning of the Old Testament Law with all the religious rules and regulations that these religious externalists had instituted as the way to God, to true spirituality, and as a way to receive God’s blessing in life. They had codified the Mosaic law into 365 prohibitions and 250 commandments.
But even though the Old Testament Law was good, holy, and righteous, it did not bring liberty because it was weak in that it depended on man. It did not provide the means of fulfilling the law and thus it left man under the guilt and load of sin. Rather than freedom, it brought oppression. Paul called it an administration of death. Instead of a sense of release, it brought a sense of guilt and failure.
Those who were under the Mosaic Law were said to be yoked to Moses. Those who were under the authority of the Pharisees were said to be yoked to the Pharisees. As an illustration, see Acts 15:7-11.
It is in the midst of this religious setting that the Lord makes a very gracious invitation to all who would want to experience the relief, joy, and the blessings of His life through a grace/faith relationship with Him. This is an invitation aimed at all, at the curious and at the convinced to bring them to a place of a deeper level of commitment in which they are to take His yoke and learn from Him as committed disciples.
But what does all this mean?
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden”
“Come” is deute, an imperative particle of exhortation and incitement with the force of an imperative, a strong appeal on the will of another. It expresses the desire and compassionate heart of the Savior and is His appeal for people to come to Him as a relief from their oppression. It is a call to turn from whatever they are presently depending on to Him.
For those without the Savior, it is equivalent to a call to believe in Him. Compare the context of the preceding unbelief in the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida (Matt. 11:20-24).
For those who are already believers, it is a call to follow him as a committed disciple; it is a call to completely turn their lives over to Him.
“To” is the preposition pros, a preposition expressing close proximity and intimate fellowship. It is used of the fellowship of the Son with the Father. We have here a call to an intimacy of fellowship.
“Me” is a personal pronoun, me. Note that the Pharisees basically said, “do as we say, obey our system,” but the Lord Jesus said, “come to me.” What’s His Point?
Application: This drives home one of the great concepts of Christianity that must be taught and grasped. Christianity is a relationship with the person of Jesus Christ. This is not a call to a program, nor a system of religion, nor to a church, and certainly not to the discipler, or some human leader.
Too often disciple makers end up cloning subordinates rather than developing Christlike people. They draw people to themselves and reproduce graven images. In essence, they say, “agree with me, think like me, dress like me, teach like I do, act like me, and you will have success, or have a successful ministry.”
While God uses churches, people, and theological systems, Christianity is an intimate, personal relationship with the Lord Jesus.
“All” points to the universal significance of this offer. We are never to be partial to one group, or class, or nationality. In Christ, God reaches out to the whole world.
“Who are weary and heavy laden” points us to the objects of the appeal. Let’s note several things here:
Please bear with me while I get a little bit technical and grammatical. We have two adjectival participles here which are very descriptive. Though aimed at those under the Pharisaic system, they really describe the condition of all that are either without Christ as their Savior, or who, as believers, are not submitted to Him in intimate fellowship as learning disciples. Such are “the weary and heavy laden ones.” These participles are grammatically closely connected together (one article with both participles connected by kai) as cause and effect. The first word, “weary,” is the effect, and the other word, “heavy-laden,” gives us the cause. Let’s take the cause first.
“Heavy-laden” is phortizo, “to place a burden upon; to load as when placing a load upon the back of an ox.” Then, it came to means “oppress by legal burdens.” Compare the following verse from Luke.
Luke 11:46 But He said, “Woe to you lawyers as well! For you weigh men down with burdens hard to bear, while you yourselves will not even touch the burdens with one of your fingers.”
The tense is perfect which draws our attention to the abiding results, the overbearing burden on the backs of men. The Savior obviously has in mind the Pharisees, but it would include the burden of sin as demonstrated so clearly by the Old Testament Law which shows us all under sin, its guilt, and its death, and thus also, the burden and frustration of any solution by which men seek to deal with their sin and emptiness without Jesus Christ.
“Weary” is kopiao, “to labor, toil, expend great effort in hard and disagreeable work,” “to grow weary, tired; labor to the point of exhaustion.” It is in the present continuous tense, and undoubtedly describes man’s fruitless efforts to deal with sin, its guilt, and personal misery whether by some form of religious legalism, or by whatever method or human strategy he seeks to deal with the emptiness and frustrations of his soul (cf. Col. 2:16-23).
“And I will give you rest”
“I” is the first person singular personal pronoun which again reminds us that our need is the person of Christ, and a personal relationship with Him.
“Rest” is anapauo which means “to refresh, rest up,” but also “to cease from labor.” But how could Christ give rest? His solution seems no solution at all. After all, a yoke is a yoke. Right? No!
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me”
This is a call to discipleship and the means by which men find rest.
“Take” is airo and means “to take up, lift up.” Here it is used in the sense of “to take on oneself what has been lifted in order to carry it.” It is an aorist imperative and represents a decision, sometimes in a crisis, to submit to the Lord. It is undoubtedly equivalent to “take up one’s cross.”
“My yoke” is of course the key phrase. The Lord did not say, “come to me and I will remove all yokes.” So what does this mean? How is this not just another yoke and not a contradiction?
“And learn.” This verb is in the continuous present tense and describes a process of discipleship, of the journey in growth and Christlike change.
“Learn” is manthano, the verb form from which mathetes, “disciple,” comes from. It means “to learn by inquiry, but also by use and practice, to acquire the habit of, be accustomed to.”1 It means “to learn, appropriate to oneself less through instruction than through experience or practice.”2 (See also Heb. 5:8; 1 Tim. 5:4, 13; Tit. 3:14.)
The key idea is to acquire a custom or habit through practice. Do you get it? The Lord is talking about more than the simple acquisition of information. He has in mind a change of life, a transformed life-style through intimate relationship with Him. Let’s compare a number of passages—Deut. 17:19; Ezra 7:10; Ps. 119:11; Jam. 1:22; Luke 6:47-49; 8:21; 11:28. We are talking about having the attitude of a learner, someone who takes in and seeks to apply the information that comes from God.
“For I am gentle … you shall find rest … and My load is light”
This, as far as I know, is the only place where the Lord tells us what His person is really like, but this description tells us why taking His yoke is not just taking up another yoke. What is His point? “For I am gentle … Do not fear my yoke for I am not like your previous masters. I am gentle and humble. You suffer now because your present masters (the world system, Satan, and your own sinful nature) are haughty, proud, and dominating.”
“Easy” is chrestos. It is from a verb which means “useful, manageable, serviceable, that which fills a need and is well fitting.” In other words, it is designed to fit our needs; it is tailor-made.
“Light” is elaphros, “light in weight, agile, not burdensome, or overbearing.”
So what does it mean to take Christ’s yoke? To take Christ’s yoke means to submit to His person as the one who is gentle and meek, as one who is gentle and caring and concerned for us. It means to put yourself under His leading, to join yourself together with Him, but the difference is, He is the yoke mate and this is how He can give rest.
Note the following illustration of two oxen, one huge, and one very small.
There was an old farmer plowing with a team of oxen. As I saw this team I was somewhat amazed, for one was a huge ox and the other a very small bullock. That ox towered over the little bullock that was sharing the work with him. I was amazed and perplexed to see a farmer trying to plow with two such unequal animals in the yoke and commented on the inequality to the man with whom I was riding. He stopped his car and said, ‘I want you to notice something. See the way those traces are hooked to the yoke? You will observe that the large ox is pulling all the weight. That little bullock is being broken into the yoke but he is not actually pulling any weight.’ My mind instinctively came to this passage of Scripture where our Lord said, “Take my yoke upon you, learn of me; for I am …” In the normal yoking the load is equally distributed between the two that are yoked together, but when we are yoked with Jesus Christ, He bears the load and we who are yoked to Him share in the joy and the accomplishment of the labor but without the burden of the yoke.3
How can we submit to the Savior’s yoke? The answer is found in the command “to learn from me.”
He is calling us to serve, but we work and serve in the strength which He gives. He is always there beside us pulling the weight for us, if we will only yield our lives to Him. The only time the load becomes overbearing is when we try to take over and do the pulling, or handle the load ourselves.
Many of us call ourselves “disciples” but do we have the right? We have responded to Him as our Savior, we have come to Him, but when He seeks to slip the yoke around our necks to join Him, well, we resist, we back off, we refuse to truly listen and submit to His Word and acknowledge His authority.
We really refuse to trust in His gentleness and goodness. We look at the yoke and think it does not fit when in reality, it is designed perfectly for us in that it is designed to make us like Him, but also because it is tailor made for us.
Back on the ranch where I grew up, my Dad and I used to break horses to ride and then we would train them for various tasks according to their abilities and breeding. Always, the first thing we did was to get their trust. We then trained them to reign, to turn and stop on a dime, back up, follow a calf, and stand quietly and poised in a shoot ready to launch after a calf, etc. Some we trained as cutting horses, and some as roping horses. But first there was the process of gently caring for them. We brushed them, trimmed their hoofs, fed them, and halter broke them so we could lead them from one place to another. We would often tie the younger horse to an older and stronger horse and lead it around the corral. Then, when large enough to carry a rider, we would step up and into the saddle while the young horse was tied close to the saddle horn of the larger horse. Sometimes, because the young horse so trusted us, this last step was not even necessary. Then came the process or teaching the horse to respond to the reigns and other cues.
These young horses didn’t like the new conditions at first. It scared them and they liked their freedom, but in time, through the gentleness of the trainer who loved the horse and through the example of the older horse, they became trained and learned to love what they did. It was not burdensome. They often had to work hard and would work up a sweat, but they loved it. It was a yoke fitted for their abilities and their natural instincts.
So the Savior promised, “For My yoke is easy, and My load is light.” It is tailor made for each of us and furthermore, He is always there with us to bear the burden.