Gen. 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 and Ps. 45:10-17 (or Song 2:8-13) or Zech. 9:9-12 and Ps. 145:8-14; Rom. 7:15-25a; Matt. 11:16-19, 25-30
THE JOY OF TAKING JESUS’ YOKE (Matthew 11:27-30)
By Cathy Deddo
Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matt. 11:28-30)
When I was a child, I loved the comfort of these words, even if I didn’t really understand them. When struggling in some way or anxious, I liked the picture they gave me of gentle Jesus wanting to help me when life got overwhelming. I liked the idea that Jesus, somehow, wanted me to rest.
As I got older and encountered greater challenges and more painful trials, I often was drawn back to these words. What did Jesus mean when he said them? Maybe he wasn’t just trying to sound encouraging or letting me know he wished I would be at peace. I began to wonder if there was more to the meaning of Jesus’ words than just “there, there” or “it’s okay.”
As I considered this passage more deeply, I found, and still find, myself challenged by the command I came to realize Jesus gives in this invitation. With these words, Jesus extends to us a real call to come to him. He not only directs us to come, but also to take up his yoke. And he addresses us with the assurance that in doing so we will find rest. What does coming and taking Jesus’ yoke involve? Let’s take a closer look at this passage.
Who is the command issued to?
Jesus issues this command to all who are weary and heavily burdened—all who find the burdens they are carrying in their lives to be weighing them down and thus a source of weariness. The word translated “weary” means to labor until one is worn out. We could say that when someone is weary, they have come to the end of their resources and so realize the limits of what they can accomplish on their own.
So Jesus is giving his invitation in the form of a command to all who are worn down in some way in their lives due to various concerns, challenging circumstances, past hurts or sins, difficult relationships, etc. He is addressing them in such a way that they have come to recognize their need for rest and their inability to give it to themselves. Their lives are engendering weariness and while they long for rest, they are unable to supply it for themselves.
What does Jesus command?
Jesus commands three things:
1. “Come to me.” He calls the weary and burdened to come to him—to let their longing for rest lead them to Jesus. He invites them to draw near to him—to be in his presence. He is opening a door for us all to grow into deeper relationship with him—to be in communion with him. We are to enjoy being with him and staying with him. He is inviting us to have a growing fellowship with him—to get to know him in deeper ways where we enjoy knowing him and trusting him for who he is.
2. “Take my yoke and learn from me.” Jesus tells his listeners not only to come to him, but also to take his yoke. He then shows that taking up his yoke involves learning from him. Let’s consider what Jesus means.
First, Jesus notes that his “yoke” involves his “burden.” The word for burden is related to the one he uses in speaking of those who are burdened in their lives. The verbal form of burdened has a prefix giving the idea of being overloaded, weighed down, which is why some English translations have it as “heavily burdened.” The noun form, which Jesus uses for his own yoke, simply indicates a load one is to carry. His yoke, his burden, are thus described as “easy” and “light.” Jesus is drawing a sharp contrast between the burdens we already carry and the one he is calling us to take up. Let’s look carefully at all that Jesus says to describe that yoke.
First of all, he calls us to take up his yoke, his burden, not “a”, or even “the” burden he has for us, but the one that is his own (whatever that is). By speaking of yoke, and not just burden, Jesus is indicating that his intention is that we share with him what he possesses.
As seen in the picture above, a yoke was a wooden bar placed across the necks of a pair of animals, usually oxen, to enable them to pull a load together. Thus, in inviting us to be yoked with him, Jesus is inviting us to share in bearing his “load.” He isn’t wanting to give us something and then leave us with it. The burden he has for us is his, and being yoked to him involves a relationship—sharing with him, being with him, walking with him, being joined to him.
Then, yoked to Jesus (in a relationship with him), we are to learn from him. This changes the image we may have at this point of a pair of animals struggling to pull a heavy load together. There is asymmetry here, and the primary goal of being yoked to Jesus is not to help him to do his work, but to be in a relationship with him such that we are learning from him. The picture is of being tethered to Jesus as a learner—gazing at him more than being side-by-side with him and looking ahead.
Yoked to Jesus, we are to walk with him, continually learning from him—gaining our perspective, our cues, from him. The focus is not so much on “the load” being borne as it is on the One to whom we are yoked.
See how intimate and personal this command is? Jesus isn’t calling us to join a large class, but into a personal, one-on-one relationship with him that is so close and daily that we can say we truly are yoked to him!
I have gotten some idea of what being yoked to Jesus looks like in training our dog Samantha to heel—to walk next to me with a loose leash. Not long ago we decided to adopt a dog from a rescue shelter. As I worked on training her, I came to realize that I am not merely teaching Samantha certain behaviors or dog tricks—I’m training her to attend to me first as we walk, and to decide how she should respond to other stimuli (e.g. other barking dogs) by first learning from me, that is, by taking her cues from me. Samantha is easily distracted and startled by various sights and sounds when we are outside. In teaching her to attend or attune herself to me, I want her to trust that I will help her know how to handle whatever she encounters. If I am not upset by the garbage truck, the jogger, or the roller-skating child, she doesn’t need to be either. In getting her to “take my yoke,” I am teaching her that I can be trusted to take care of her. I want her to see that she can make my “mission” her own because mine truly is greater, better than hers and she is safe with me.
Taking Jesus’ yoke means having our whole lives oriented to him. Jesus calls us into an ongoing, dynamic relationship—one closely connected to him, growing in knowing him, the one to whom we are yoked. Being yoked with Jesus for life means that we will learn more and more about him. We’ll learn to know him for who he truly is.
What sort of yoke is this?
Notice that Jesus describes his yoke or burden as being easy and light.
We often think of “easy” in contrast to what is “hard,” but the word in Greek means excellent, useful, pleasant or kind, well-fitted. It conveys the idea of what is kind and good at the same time. In other places in the New Testament, the word is used to describe the kind and gracious action of God. In Luke 6:35, God is described as “kind to the ungrateful” and 1 Peter 2:3 speaks about tasting “the kindness of the Lord.” Jesus is not going to jerk us around and pay no attention to who we are. He will give us what we really need (not just what we want) and take us where he’s going—but he’ll be patient and gentle in doing so. He will not indulge us but will give us the very best he has for us as we walk with him, day-by-day.
Jesus’ yoke or burden also is “light.” This is perhaps a strange word to use. Isn’t a burden, by definition, heavy? If light, how can it be a burden?
Jesus calls all who are weary and burdened down to share his good, fitting, kind yoke—his light burden, which is about continually learning from him, the One who is willing to be yoked with us and so to teach us, share life with us.
A yoke and burden that brings deep soul-rest
Jesus assures us that in sharing his yoke and burden, and thus in learning from him, we will be given rest. For emphasis, he repeats this idea two times, and the second time says we will find “rest for our souls.”
The idea of rest in the Bible involves far more than merely ceasing from our labors. It’s connected with the Hebrew idea of shalom, which is God’s intention for his people to have goodness and well-being, knowing the goodness of God and his ways. Think about this—what does Jesus want to give those he calls to come to him? The answer is deep soul-rest—refreshment, wholeness, healing.
The implication is that the burdens we are bearing when we come to Jesus are leaving us rest-less. In great contrast, Jesus’ yoke, his burden, which we share with him, is one that uniquely and supernaturally brings about rest for our souls. Being with Jesus and learning from him is, indeed, our true Sabbath rest—a rest that reaches down to the core of who we are—to our very souls.
From this passage, we thus learn that there is more than one kind of burden to bear. And the nature of the burden that we are bearing has everything to do with whose burden it is.
Jesus is gentle and humble
Jesus assures us that in being yoked to him and bearing his burden with him, we will indeed find deep soul-rest, precisely because he is “gentle and humble in heart.” How can that be? Wouldn’t it make more sense for Jesus to tell us that he provides an easy yoke and rest for our souls because he is powerful? But that’s not what he says. To grasp the paradox here, we must look at the verse that precedes our passage:
All things have been committed to me by my Father and no one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Matt. 11:27)
It is this statement about Jesus’ relationship with his Father that leads to Jesus’ call to the weary and heavily burdened. He states that his relationship with the Father is one of real giving and receiving. Jesus has received all things from the Father because the Father has given them to him. And he describes the relationship with the Father as one of mutual, personal, intimate knowing. It’s an exclusive relationship—there is no one who knows the Son this way except the Father, and there is no one who knows the Father this way except the Son. Their deep, eternal intimacy involves mutual knowing.
How is Jesus’ description of himself as gentle and humble in heart related to this description of the relationship he has with his Father? The word gentle can be translated meek as it is in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” A meek person does not use evil for gain, not even to gain what is rightfully theirs. The word humble or lowly describes someone willingly dependent on another, so that person is looking away from themselves in order to trust fully in the other. Both words indicate a person who is yielded to another—open-handed and so receiving from another. In Matthew 11:27, Jesus says he has received all things from his giving Father. Jesus is thus the “receiving one”—receiving from the One he deeply knows. He is not just externally bending to the Father’s will to give, but freely receiving what is freely given. Jesus enjoys living in the rest that comes from living in the knowing, loving, giving relationship he has with his Father.
I don’t think it is too much to say that Jesus is yoked to the Father and this yoking is dynamic and continual, from eternity. He has existed from eternity in a real relationship of giving and receiving from the Father. In the Gospel of John, Jesus notes that he does only what he sees the Father doing and says only what he hears the Father saying. He notes that he and the Father are one. Jesus is gentle and humble because he is yielded to the Father, secure in his Father’s love.
Jesus says that the only ones who can know the Father are those to whom he chooses to reveal him. And then he calls out to all who recognize that they are weary and burdened. Notice it is to all who are weary, not just some. Why are these the ones Jesus calls? Because Jesus is seeking those who are willing to receive.
Let me make a couple of points here:
- It is this relationship—the one Jesus is enjoying all the time with his Father—that is his burden or yoke. It is this relationship he has come to reveal and enable us to share in. His whole life, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit, was to make it possible for him to issue this call, to open up this relationship to us, to offer to share his yoke with us, his yoke with the Father.
- So his burden is not easy, good and light because it amounts to a shorter list than ours, but because it is for us to partake in this loving relationship he gives us, to share in his communion with the Father.
In taking Jesus’ yoke, we are not trying to earn his grace, but growing in our ability to receive it from him. Jesus’ yoke is different from every other burden or yoke we may have taken on or are being tempted to take on. All other burdens or yokes will, in the end, engender weariness and not give deep soul-rest. All other ways of seeking life and identity are not about, first and last, receiving all that God is giving us in Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the one true receiver, gentle (meek) and humble of heart. And in relationship with him, he enables us to share in his receiving from the Father. That’s the light and easy burden of being yoked with him.
Put down your burdens
Implicit in Jesus’ command to come, to take up his yoke, and learn from him is the command to put down the burdens we come to him with. We put them down and thus hand them over.
Jesus doesn’t offer his burden and yoke to add to the burdens and yokes we already are bearing. He doesn’t offer advice on how to more efficiently or effectively carry our burdens so they seem lighter. He is not giving us shoulder pads so that the straps of our burdens don’t cut into us quite as much.
By speaking on the one hand of our burdens and on the other of his burden, it seems that Jesus is calling us to a “burden exchange.” We can’t easily receive what Jesus is giving us when our hands are already full—when we are focused on the various burdens weighing us down. He’s not interested in loading us up with another burden that’s just a bit lighter than the ones we already are carrying.
As he calls us into a relationship with himself, Jesus calls us to put down (and so hand over to him) all that is weighing on us, because when we try to carry them, we forget who God is and we are not looking at Jesus anymore, not listening to him, not knowing him. The burdens we are holding onto get in the way of receiving what Jesus is actually giving us.
In this call to the burdened, Jesus says that the triune God is the One who has found a way to share with us his wonderful relationship of love and the rest that is the fruit of that love. Jesus wants to share with us his receiving gentleness, his Father-minded, self-forgetful meekness. In that way, seeing what he has to offer, we can live receiving from him.
A continual coming to Jesus
Jesus’ command to come to him is in the present tense, which means a continuing action. We don’t just come once, we continue to come, over and over. Why? Here are two reasons:
- Living yoked to Jesus is what the Christian life is all about. It’s like the command to abide that Jesus gives his disciples in John 15. They are to abide because they are his branches, and he is their vine. So he calls us to purposely take up his wonderful life-giving yoke again each day. Jesus is committed to enabling us to live in his soul-rest all the time, not just when we are aware we need it. To enable us to share his yoke, then, he will be showing us more of what we are still carrying that is actually engendering weariness and so keeping us from living in his rest.
- Jesus command to come to him and rest is a continuing one because we are tempted, over and over, to pick up old burdens or find new ones to carry. We are tempted, as new challenges and situations arise, to think that this situation, this relationship, this trial, is the deepest reality, and is too big or pressing for us to let go of, so that we can live out of being yoked to Jesus instead. Or we may think we will take his yoke and live in his soul-rest later after we have this situation fixed, when things have calmed down a bit, been put in order, when it is more practical to live in and act from a place of receiving from Christ our daily rest.
In considering handing over our burdens to Jesus, it’s vital we understand that he is our High Priest—the one who already knows all about our burdens and has taken them on, sharing in what is ours. He has taken our broken lives—our trials, struggles, sins, fears, etc. and made all these his own in order to heal us from the inside-out. We can trust him—we don’t need to be afraid to hand over to Jesus all our old burdens, all our new struggles, our seemingly trivial burdens and the ones that seem crushingly large. He is already and always faithfully at work—we are yoked with him and he with the Father, all in the Spirit.
This process of growing more accustomed to being fully yoked to Jesus—of turning away from ourselves to him, of living in his rest—continues and deepens all our lives. No past or present struggle or concern is more immediate than his call to us. To what is he calling us? To himself—to share in his life, his love, his rest. There is only one burden we are called to carry and that is Jesus’ burden. We want to grow in our being aware of when we are picking up and carrying the wrong burden.
Each morning and through the day, let’s all hear Jesus inviting us to himself again—inviting us to come to know him more, to trust him more deeply with all of our lives. We glorify him in doing so—in responding to his Spirit’s work in our lives, freeing us to turn and receive again his trust in, his communion with, the Father.
Trusting in Jesus in this way will, no doubt, involve some wrestling, since being yoked to him is not an automatic and fixed state—it’s a real, dynamic relationship. But as our faithful Lord and Savior, he will continue to speak to us, drawing us to himself. We hear again in this passage the delight in his voice calling us to his side—his invitation to share his yoke with the Father and so to live in his rest by the Spirit.
What other burden would you want to have compared to that one?