“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” (Matthew 11:28-30, NKJV).
Do you get excited when you learn something new about a verse that you’ve read many times before? Do you get even more excited when the Holy Spirit seems to connect the dots between that new thing and your everyday life? A couple of years ago I learned something new (to me) about these verses, and the Holy Spirit is still connecting the dots. I know He wants to do the same for all of us.
Listening To Rabbi Jesus
Jesus was one of many rabbis that taught in synagogues and trained up disciples to carry on His teachings. In fact, many of the things Jesus says seem a bit confusing at first read, until you realize He’s using an expression that was commonly used among rabbis and known by the people at the time. When we put on the “rabbi filter” and read these verses from Matthew, this is what we discover.
First century Israel was an agricultural society. They used oxen and donkeys to plow fields and power simple machines. If one ox is good, two is better. You would put a yoke around the neck of the oxen, which then bound them to one another and to the plow, or wagon or whatever they were pulling. The two functioned as one. Whichever ox was stronger, or more stubborn, or had more experience, was the one that set the pace for both of them. Where one led, the other had to go because of the yoke.
If you needed to train a new ox, one that had matured enough to do a day’s work, you would put it in a yoke with an older, more experienced ox. This ox knew how fast to go and how much energy to use so as not to get burned out too early in the day. One ox trained the other.
This was one of the pictures that rabbis, including Jesus, used to communicate the process of learning to be a disciple of a rabbi.
Teamed Up With Jesus
In my own imagination I’ve always pictured the believer as an ox all by itself and Jesus as a farmer sitting on an empty wagon, steering and driving the ox. Am I the only one? I don’t think that’s what it’s supposed to be.
Instead, what I think Jesus is trying to communicate, what His original hearers would have understood, is this: Jesus is the more experienced ox, which in itself is a Biblical pattern for a servant, with whom I am to be yoked. As I am yoked to Him I can learn His pace, His rhythms, His strength and His direction.
This gives me goose bumps! Go back and reread the verses at the beginning of this article with that picture in mind.
The yoke was a picture of the manner in which rabbis trained their disciples. They could be rough, harsh and manipulative. Jesus said that His yoke was easy, which means gracious, kind and gentle.
The burden was the rules and regulations rabbis would put on their disciples. Think of the things Jesus often dealt with in regard to the legalism of the pharisees. Jesus said that His burden was light, meaning just that, not heavy. It wasn’t a drag.
Putting It All Together
Oftentimes Bible teachers today put this verse out as a call to people who are burned out by life. Life can be very hard to be sure. Sickness, finances, politics, addiction, family turmoil, depression, the list goes on. However, in context, these verses are not primarily aimed at people who are having a hard time in life.
In context, these verses are primarily aimed at people who want to follow God, but they have a harsh yoke and a heavy burden put on them by those who are leading them. Jesus is talking to people trapped in any religious system where there are rules to follow and standards to meet & exceed in order to be saved. Laws, not love. Rules, not relationship.
The reason we cannot apply these verses to simply being burned out by life is because taking Jesus' yoke upon ourselves, which is an act of choice and obedience, doesn’t automatically make life easy. The things we deal with in life don’t just go away and suddenly life becomes light.
What does happen as we take on Jesus’ yoke, is that the way in which we deal with life changes.
If you are someone who is burned out by life, Jesus’ words do apply to you. What you may not realize is that you are following someone. It might be yourself, it might be the culture, but you are yoked to someone; and it is harsh and heavy. Stop following that and start following Jesus.
The purpose of being yoked with Jesus is to let Him lead while we learn. We learn how to navigate these things the way Jesus did, the way Jesus does.
. We learn to go at His pace and not be in a rush nor be too slow.
. We learn His rhythms, which means we learn when to work and when to rest.
. We learn to rely on His strength as well as using the strength and skills with which He has equipped us by His Spirit.
. We learn to follow where He leads and not go our own way.
How Do We Do This?
First, you have to be someone who wants to go deeper with the Lord, just like those Jesus was talking to in Matthew. You get out of a relationship what you put into it, which includes your expectations. If you don’t expect Jesus to do anything, or if you don’t expect to get anything out of this, then He won’t, and you won’t.
Second, obey Jesus’ command to “come.” Find ways to actively and intentionally be near to Him. How do we do this? It depends on how you’re wired. Try some combination of the following and find what works for you. If/when it stops working, because we all change over time, try a different method.
Prayer: Speaking with God. You talk, He listens. He talks, you listen. You can pray in your head silently, out loud, or even written. Find ways to pray throughout the day because Jesus is moving through the day.
Bible Reading: Churches often provide a reading schedule you can use. Free and paid Bible apps provide a variety of reading plans. They are usually based on a topic, or reading a part of the Bible over a period of time. There are audio Bibles you can listen to on breaks at work.
Bible Study: This is different than Bible reading. To be a Christian is to be a student of ancient history. Pick a book of the Bible, a character or a topic and try to become an expert on it. You may or may not become an actual expert on it, but it gives you a level of depth and commitment to aim for. There are podcasts from Bible teachers, Bible schools and universities with materials on ancient history and languages, all available for free in many cases.
Devotionals: Devotionals often provide most of the above elements in “bite sized” pieces for you to read and pray through every day. Some pastors provide a daily devotional email you can subscribe to. You can find devotionals in book form, included in Bible apps and as standalone apps.
Third, put it into practice. Follow Him. Don’t run ahead and try to impress Him. Don’t hang back thinking He is going to do everything for you either. It’s a partnership. Watch what He does and do it. Listen to what He says, believe it and share it.
It was understating the picture that Jesus was using that partially inspired me to embark on a project called The Rhythm Journal. I needed something to help me recognize Jesus’ yoke in my life, so I made this for myself. If you are looking for something to help you be consistent in your daily habits, or perhaps learn them for the first time, it might be helpful to you as well.
The point is, if you are tired and feel overloaded in how you are trying to follow after God, or tired of doing things your own way, then stop. Team up with Jesus. Get in His yoke with Him, learn how He does it, and your soul will be refreshed. Develop a habit of prayer that works for you. Find a way to keep God’s word in your mind and heart all day everyday. Become an expert at something in the Bible and share it with others. As you do this you will be regularly equipped to follow Him and His example.
Where do you need to start?