Who knows how many times this is going to happen, but once again, I have realized that the way I have always interpreted a passage of Scripture was not at all what it meant. I’m sure that inspires great confidence in the hearts of the people who hear me preach every week, but I’m also sure I’m not the only one who has missed it on this one.
In Matthew 11:23, Jesus says: “Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Of course, the version I memorized growing up included the words “labor” and “heavy laden,” so it suits itself just fine to a Labor Day sermon. One of the interpretations that I have heard over the years (and probably preached), goes something like this: “Life can get tough, and you are going to have to work really hard, but if you accept me as your Savior, then one day, when you die, you will get to rest.” Now, I’m not going to argue that that is entirely without value, but I do think that it entirely misses the point of what Jesus was saying. For some, the above statement is the only good news they have ever found in the gospel, but let me suggest to you that the good news of the gospel in that verse is even better than the promise of an eternal weekend.
The key to this verse is found in the next two verses, 29-30: “All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” So here is another place where I have traditionally veered off the trail of good Bible interpretation, even further missing the point of the passage. I just assumed that the “yoke” in question referred to the wooden bow-shaped plow attachment that fit over the neck of a pair of oxen so that they could pull the plow. So, the verse naturally meant, “If you give your life to Me, you are still going to have to work hard, but somehow you will like it better.” Again, still not what I would call the glorious good news of the gospel.
I believe now that what Jesus was referring to was the same thing that He went on to talk about more specifically in Matthew 23:1-4: “Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples: “The scribes and the Pharisees are seated in the chair of Moses. Therefore do whatever they tell you and observe [it]. But don’t do what they do, because they don’t practice what they teach. They tie up heavy loads that are hard to carry and put them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves aren’t willing to lift a finger to move them.” You see, every Rabbi had a “yoke.” The yoke was what the Jewish people called any particular Rabbi’s specific interpretation of the Torah, or the Law. Each Rabbi would have a special slant, if you will, or a different take on how he interpreted the Law. Jesus says, though, that the “yoke” of the scribes and Pharisees was too much for the people to bear, and they didn’t even try to help them carry it. The people were being crushed under the weight of the Law. They couldn’t bear up under the requirements of righteousness necessary to please the heart of God and appease his judgment against sin. And the Pharisees kept their distance.
But Jesus has a better invitation: “Come to me. Take my yoke on you. My yoke is light and will not be a burden.” What was Jesus’ yoke? What was His primary interpretation of the purpose and role of the Law? It is revealed in the verse leading up to his invitation, in Matthew 11:27: “All things have been entrusted to Me by My Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son desires to reveal Him.” Jesus’ yoke- His emphasis, His focus- was an invitation to know the Father like He knew the Father. And where the Pharisees wouldn’t lift a finger to bear the heavy burden of the Law, Jesus would actually bear the full weight of the Law on Himself- he who knew no sin became sin for us- and take it off of our shoulders, putting it on his own in the shape of a cross. All so that we could know what it is to be sons and daughters of God, brought into the family on the shoulders of the only begotten Son.
And so His yoke is easy. That doesn’t mean that life is always easy, because the yoke isn’t “life”. It is the life-giving, burden-lifting, freedom-bringing, prison-door-opening truth that we are now, at His invitation, sons and daughters of the living God, through no effort of our own, but resting fully on the gift of grace. What could be easier than that?