“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 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 is light.” (Mt.11.28-30)
I obeyed the gospel when I was very young, and while I have never doubted my understanding of my own sin and the need for forgiveness, there were clearly aspects of discipleship that I failed to appreciate. I believe that is true of everyone, to one degree or another, regardless of their age. In my youth, service to Christ was sometimes a ball and chain to me. I had limited life experience, and while I was certainly guilty of sin, most of my sins did not carry consequences that were life-changing. I distinctly remember the angst of guilt, but I had never plumbed the depths of depravity, despair, and disease that can accompany sin. I had no alcohol or drug addiction to deal with; no unplanned pregnancies or ill-advised marriage to manage; no sullied reputation to rebuild or habitual godlessness to exonerate. Like many young people who obey the gospel, I was guilty, but really hadn’t experienced how bad sin can be. Forgiveness relieved my conscience and freed me from punishment, but discipleship sometimes felt as burdensome as did sin. So, I often thought of following Jesus in terms of all of the things I couldn’t do. “Want to party?” “Can’t do that. It’s against my religion.” “Want to dance?” “Can’t do that. It’s against my religion.” “Let’s fool around?” “Can’t do that. It’s against my religion.” I knew what Jesus demanded as my Lord, and discipleship delivered me from some really bad decisions and problems. But, honestly, His yoke felt awfully heavy at times.
In Mt.11.28f, Jesus offers the words quoted above. This is one of those statements that often adorns crafty wall hangings, and due to it’s familiarity, is often under-appreciated. In the context (if indeed this chapter describes a single incident), Jesus has challenged the multitudes regarding their views of John the Baptist. John has been imprisoned, and sends disciples to question Jesus about His identity as the Messiah (v.1-6). John appears to have some questions about his own testimony, perhaps as the result of a misunderstanding of the spiritual nature of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus alleviates his concerns and then defends him to the multitudes (v.7-15). The Lord then offers a couple of reprimands: first, of “this generation” because of their fickle regard for God’s spokesmen (v.16-19); then of those cities that had witnessed His miracles but had not repented (v.20-25). The chapter concludes with an apparent public prayer of gratitude for the “babes” who honestly accepted His teaching and testimony, recognizing Him as the key to knowing the Father (v.25-27). As He concludes His rebuke of the doubt, uncertainty, and disbelief around Him, Jesus offers this invitation, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…”
There are some elements and principles in this invitation that merit our careful attention.
First, discipleship is voluntary. Christ invites us to servitude, and to the fellowship with God that results (the “knowing” God of v.27). Jesus imposes His will on no man, regardless of the Calvinistic idea that grace is irresistible or the charismatic notion that God the Spirit has overwhelmed me. In Mt.16.24, Jesus calls upon any man who “desires” to follow. There will be a time when, in judgment, the Lord demands compliance. “As I live, says the Lord, Every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall confess to God” (Rom.14.11; Isa.45.23). For now, however, we are free to choose whether we will accept or deny His Lordship.
Given the voluntary nature of our service, we ought to be cautious about resentment. If discipleship demands that I make sacrifices, that I follow Christ in some area of my life, I should do so willingly, enthusiastically, and joyfully, for I have chosen this path. I am regularly puzzled by those who bow up at some demand of Christ when they have volunteered to submit to Him. We would do well to evaluate our attitude about service. After all, it is a service we choose.
Second, Jesus offers “rest for your soul.” It seems likely that the reason we sometimes view Christianity as a ball and chain is because we have failed to fully appreciate the blessing it offers. Jesus calls to those who “labor and are heavy laden.” We can forget just how burdensome sin is. The weary toil and great weight that Jesus addresses here is not physical or occupational – it is spiritual and moral. The selfish pursuit of our lusts and whims, along with Satan’s devious allurements, crushes us under the consequences that follow – destructive habits; illicit relationships; isolating injustices; guilt; fear; anxiety; disease. Spiritual failure prompts emotional, mental, and psychological damage that can so occupy us that we become paralyzed by our own regrets. As moral beings, it is difficult to escape the concept of right/justice and we must grapple with such.
As Jesus looks upon this multitude, and upon mankind, with all of our doubt and disbelief and disobedience, He sees burdened souls in need of rest. Judgment is certainly coming, but His offer now is deliverance. We do not have to live hopeless, miserable lives. We can find spiritual relief. And appreciating the offer of Christ as true rest depends upon our understanding of just how horrible is the alternative. We can get so caught up in all that we must sacrifice or all that we miss that we fail of considering where we would be otherwise.
Third, there is a yoke to be accepted. For many folks, this is the rub. The imagery of a yoke is indeed the imagery of a burden to be borne or that of servitude/slavery. We dismiss the drudgery of our own sins, deceiving ourselves with the idea that we are free and that discipleship will bring oppression and misery. But we must also appreciate that a yoke implies joint effort. In v.27, Jesus observes that no one can know the Father unless the Son reveals Him. Jesus invites us to serve with Himself, to work in unison with the Messiah as we strive to become the children God created us to be. Our union with Him is not a pairing with some egoist, taskmaster, or tyrant. We labor with One who is “gentle and lowly in heart.”
Our Lord and yoke-fellow has our spiritual well-being at heart. He does ask that we serve and learn, but in so doing we become loving, joyful, peaceful, longsuffering, kind, good, faithful, gentle, temperate (Gal.5.22-23). The end of His service leads to holiness and the very nature of God Himself, as we are being “transformed…from glory to glory” (2 Cor.3.18). Discipleship, particularly as compared to the excessive weight of sin, is a yoke that is easy, a burden that is light.
Time has lent some perspective to my life. I can see now what I didn’t see in my youth. What was sometimes a ball and chain to me was nothing compared to the slime pit of sin into which so many people are sinking. For some, the thought of discipleship is abhorrent. Unfortunately, for some Christians, the yoke of Christ is a terrible burden. What a pity. The beauty, and irony, of the offer of Jesus Christ is a yoke that is easier, and a burden that is lighter, than anything this world can provide. “Come to Me…and I will give you rest.”
– Russ Bowman