Q. Is Our Lord’s Burden Really Light?
How can Jesus say that His burden is light when living the Christian life is not easy?
28 “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29 “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble 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, NASB).
The context is very important here. Jesus has some very condemning words for that generation of Jews. They wanted Jesus and John the Baptist to “dance to their tune” (11:16-17). Jesus said greater judgment would come upon the Jewish cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum than upon the Gentile cites of Tyre and Sidon because they had received greater revelation concerning Jesus, but had rejected it (11:20-24). Jesus then praised the Father for revealing Himself to little children, while the wise and understanding simply didn’t get it (11:25-27).
Jesus then invited all who were weary to come to Him in faith and He would give them rest. He promised that His yoke was easy and His burden was light (11:29-30). And yet elsewhere Jesus made it clear that following Him was not the path of least resistance:
23 And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23).
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” 59 And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” 60 But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” 61 Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” 62 But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:57-62).
Paul’s words were similar to new believers:
21 After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:21-22).
How, then, can Jesus speak of His “burden” as light and yet warn that following Him is not easy? In Matthew 11:29-30 Jesus is speaking of salvation and how it is obtained, in contrast with the legalism of Judaism, which lays heavy burdens of men, which do not lead to salvation:
1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, 2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; 3 therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. 4 “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger” (Matthew 23:1-4).
When Jesus spoke of His burden being light, He was speaking of the fact that we don’t have to work to attain enough righteousness to be saved. We’ll never make it if that is what we are trying to do. This is why Israel failed to trust in Jesus as the Messiah. They sought to earn salvation by law-keeping, and the Gentiles attained salvation without working for it, but merely trusting in Jesus by faith:
19 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; 20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:19-26).
30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; 31 but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. 32Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 just as it is written, “BEHOLD, I LAY IN ZION A STONE OF STUMBLING AND A ROCK OF OFFENSE, AND HE WHO BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.” 10:1 Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. 2 For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. 3 For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Romans 9:30-10:4).
The burden of working for one’s salvation is heavy, while trusting in Christ and His work at Calvary is light (for us). For our Lord the load was extremely heavy, but He bore our load by dying for our sins, and rising from the dead so that we could be declared righteous in God’s sight.
When the Jews asked Jesus what work they must perform to attain salvation, Jesus told them that their only “work” was to believe:
28 Therefore they said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent” (John 6:28-29).
While we cannot labor to earn our salvation, we must “fight the good fight” and wrestle against sin, in reliance upon His Word, His grace, and His Spirit:
24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin (Romans 7:24-25).
11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you (Romans 8:11).
In this, we are not to be passive, but to strive in the power of His Spirit:
10 For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers (1 Timothy 4:10).
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