Jesus: Our True Rest
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.”
Our exhausted and stressed-out society is overworked, sleep-deprived, and even our technology depletes us. We are truly a culture that desperately needs rest and yet when we attempt to find that rest, it backfires.
In our passage Jesus speaks of a “yoke”, referring to the bar which fastens two oxen together tightly at the neck in order that they could work more effectively. Weights are attached to that bar in order to maintain constant pressure. In speaking this way, Jesus guides his audience to conclude that there are two choices: The default yoke of idols (leading to exhaustion) and the yoke of Christ (the true sabbath rest).
1. The Yoke of Idols
The yoke that harnesses each and every one of us destructively to our idols is one that always crushes us over time; choking us with an ever-increasing pressure that won’t let up. Lest we limit our thinking, consider some obvious modern examples of idols:
Physical appearance; endlessly shopping for new trends or fashions, but never satisfied.
Health and fitness; running and exercising our bodies down to a grinding bone-on-bone pain, but never content with what stares back in the mirror.
Career and recognition; perpetually climbing the stairs of ambition, only to find out that our loved ones and friends (even ourselves) were left in the dust.
Striving for success, reputation, intelligence, being liked, or being seen as cool or hip.
Personal freedom; but finding that more sex with more partners or manipulating more people to make more money merely brings emptiness.
And what about those things we perceive as GOOD things like family, friends, community, church? The problem here is that any time we tether our identity, self-worth, and inner peace to something added onto Jesus Christ, we turn that “good” thing into an “ultimate” thing1 thereby converting it into an idol.
And ironically, the rest we seek cannot be found in church or religion either. Paradoxical as this initially sounds, it is true that people can get far more burned and washed out by church and religion than by all other realms of life. Think of our context here in Matthew 11.
Jesus came to a culture that was extremely religious and yet very far from God. The religious systems and structures, as exemplified and directed by the Pharisees (the religious leaders of that day), had been crushing the common people. So near the middle of this long multi-chapter section in the gospel of Matthew confronting those Pharisees, we find our strategically placed verses in 11:28-30 (about coming to Jesus for rest) immediately followed by chapter 12 regarding Sabbath rest. The context speaks of rest from religious striving.
The word “weary” in vs.28, translated from the Greek kopiao, speaks of being tired and exhausted from toil, burdens, and even grief; more than physical tiredness, it’s an emotional and spiritual exhaustion. Also in vs.28 is the word “heavy-laden” phortizo. This word only appears twice in the New Testament; once here and then in Lk.11:46 where Jesus condemns the Pharisees for weighing down people with religious burdens. The context is important.
Even up til today, the rank and file in the pew have become guilted and shackled by man-made religious rules, traditions, and expectations. The underlying (and lying) message is that if we somehow can get our act together better, then we would please God; as if our righteousness was tied to our religious performance. But it’s not.
In fact, any time we say to ourselves, “If only I could ______, then I would be ok” (regardless what we fill in that blank), we have dangerously put onto ourselves the yoke of idolatry and will never be able to find the rest we so desperately need. However, there’s good news.
2. The Yoke of Christ
Jesus offers a whole other way; the true rest that our human condition yearns for: Rest from striving, rest from trying to measure up, rest from trying to better ourselves for recognition or self-respect, rest from trying to improve in order to be okay with God, others, and ourselves. True rest.
In vs.28, Jesus invites us to “come”, the Greek deute, which has the meaning of “coming with and following”. We see it in Mt 4:19 where Christ solicits the new disciples to “Come, follow me … and I will make you fishers of men”. Jesus is not referring to a one-time event but rather an active and continual relationship of following; that we would find our rest in Him.
This is a deep and refreshing spiritual rest. It’s the same word used in Revelation 14:13 regarding the rest of the saints who have died after all their labors are complete.
Gospel writer Matthew immediately follows this discourse about Jesus’ rest with chapter 12 about the Sabbath. The connection is that Jesus is saying that it is HE himself, not a day of the week or activity in an assembly, who is the Sabbath rest for the people of God.
In this way, we have yet another example of Jesus Christ being the absolute fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures: In this example, he is the embodiment of the Old Testament Sabbath.
But we must come to him in weakness, humility, and dependence, like little children (vs.25) with hands and hearts opened wide to receive; for children are helpless and needy. For when we come to Jesus in this way, he figuratively removes the default yoke of our idolatry that weighs down and crushes, and places onto our necks His yoke which is “easy” (vs.30; the Greek chrestos which interestingly sounds very similar to Christos, which translates as Christ!).
The yoke Jesus gives his followers is not something that is separate from him (that he places on our necks and then walks away), but rather the yoke IS Jesus. He is the easy yoke that binds us together with him, and in whom we can truly find the eternal rest for our hearts and souls, both now and forevermore.
NOTES: The gospel reading for July 19, Feast of Macrina, Monastic and Teacher 379
1. Ultimate things is a phrase I’m borrowing from Dr. Timothy Keller, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Manhattan NYC.