Come unto Me all ye that Labor and are Heavy Laden, and I will Give you Rest
#7 in the Series “All I have Commanded You”
At that time Jesus answered, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hid these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father, for thus it seemed good to you. All things are delivered unto me by my Father, and no man knows the Son but the Father. Neither does any man know the Father, except the Son and whosoever the Son chooses to reveal Him.
Come unto me all you that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Mat.11:25-30
Is the burden of Jesus light? Thus far in the series of articles which seek to set forth a representation of all of the teaching of Jesus, we have seen one foundational commandment which redirects our priorities: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God,” by willingly submitting to God’s will. We have seen five other commandments by which Jesus seeks to use to give us an abundantly heroic life: “You must be born again” (allow God to transform you perpetually), “Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (allow your actions and attitudes to be guided by the compassion that is at the center of God’s goodness), “Forgive your brother from your heart” (refuse to stand in judgment of another person; instead, courageously and lovingly confront the person who hurts you to offer forgiveness), “Love one another as I have loved you” (Humbly and sacrificially commit to loving the people who don’t love you in return), “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me” (Allow Jesus to put an end to the habits, possessions, and desires that enslave us).
Jesus does not just want us to live a life that is abundant in heroism, however, He also wants us to live a live that is abundant in freedom. The first component of freedom is the ability to rest. The children of Israel were slaves in Egypt, subjected to forced labor by Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Moses and Joshua who led the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land foreshadowed Jesus who by his death on the cross is leading God’s children from slavery to selfishness and into the Promised Land of God’s rest.
After having considered the heroic (and truly impossible) demands that Jesus has made in the first six weeks of this series, I must confess that when Jesus offers us rest, the following image comes to mind: You come home from a hard day at school. You drop stretched out into the living room sofa without even taking off your shoes off, where your mother finds you moments later. She yells at you for not taking your shoes off, for not putting your things away, and for not making your bed in the morning. You complain that your school day was terribly rough, that your teachers were unsympathetic, that the girl you have a crush on has decided to go steady with a football player. Your mother will have none of it. She says, “You think you need rest now because you’ve had a hard day? Just come with me and I’ll give you rest! After we get through with the laundry, the vacuuming, the yard work, the cooking, the washing dishes, the dusting, and the cleaning bathrooms, I promise you’ll sleep like a baby!” Is Jesus unsympathetic in that way?
It does seem strange that Jesus would offer us rest by asking us to take a yoke upon ourselves. In ancient times a yoke would not only have been the harness for oxen to pull a cart or a plow (horses and donkeys don’t work efficiently in a yoke, so they are harnessed, though I supposed “harness” is similar). Occasionally, if they were very poor, people would have to wear a yoke to do the farm work themselves. People would be especially be yoked together if a foreign king had conquered their city and they were being led out as prisoners or slaves—often to do backbreaking and life-shortening labor as rowers on ships or workers in a mine. This is indeed the image that the Lord Jesus calls to mind, of himself as a conquering king and ourselves as his captives.
There are, however, significant differences between Jesus as king and the conquering Roman emperors. Jesus offers us his yoke on a strictly voluntary basis. Then, when we accept his yoke, we are surprised to find that He, himself, the King of Kings gets in the yoke with us.
There is obviously a significant element of trust in this. I have taught my boys to swim when they were little and could not touch the bottom of the pool. It takes a lot of trust to jump off that step with no life jacket and nothing under you when your Daddy says “I will not let you sink” but he is obviously too far off for you to get to on your own in one jump. It is that kind of trust that Jesus asks for when he says “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.”
The secret to rest is not in not working. Being unproductive is not restful but tiring. C.S. Lewis points out that the student who will ultimately work harder is not the diligent student who spends thirty minutes a day reviewing her notes and working the assigned algebra problems. The student who will work harder is the one who blows off the studies and the homework to cram for the test in the final 24 hours. Following the path of least resistance through life is not ultimately restful because the path of least resistance leaves issues unaddressed that simply become larger and more problematic as they are ignored.
Why would one want to get in the harness with Jesus, to take upon oneself an implement of hard work? Simply because by working with Jesus and learning from Jesus, we will eventually arrive at a full experience-based knowledge of God, the kind of knowledge which produces perfect rest. Yes, the work will at times be strenuous and difficult, but just as an older and wiser animal prevents a young ox from pulling the plow all over the field, Jesus will pace us. Sometimes He will stop, and when He does, we will need to stop also. Indeed, in walking with Jesus we may well find that His pace is unhurried and that He is very patient and seemingly slow, wasting little energy or effort in accomplishing His purpose.
When Jesus speaks of giving us rest, what does that mean? In his own teaching and ministry, Jesus demonstrates four different dimensions of rest.
- In John 4 Jesus offers the Samaritan woman living water for the spiritual thirst for meaning in her life. This living water represents rest as relief. Have you ever felt very thirsty on a hot summer’s day in Houston? That cool glass of water brings relief to your whole body. Allow me to use a more delicate but no less effective metaphor. You need to go very badly. You are on a trip. You find a gas station. You fear to open the restroom. The restroom is spotless, clean, private, and perfumed. Relief. Some of us are like little children so busy with our play that we neglect to go when we need to. We are dancing around when Jesus gently tells us we need to go to a private room with our Father who will take that spiritual break (Jesus explicitly tells us to pray in private, locking the door!) to cleanse u.
- Jesus wants to give us the ability to relax. Most of us can only relax given the proper conditions—a massage, a hot bath, a beach, a vacation—and maybe not even then. Jesus could sleep soundly through a hurricane. We know this because we are told in Mark 4 that the disciples were rowing across the Lake of Galilee when a severe storm blew in. The ship was sinking and Jesus was sound asleep in the back of the boat, probably with water sloshing over him. The disciples had to wake him up. He calmed the storm with a word and then scolded them for their lack of faith (presumably because they had woken him up and I suppose because they were supposed to sleep through the storm with him). Those who have no regrets or guilt have the freedom to relax after a good day’s work.
- In John 14:27 Jesus says “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you, not as the world gives, do I give to you.” Jesus offers us peace and serenity—an assurance of unhurried nonanxiety. We have faith that things will work out for the best, and that faith enables us to face all sorts of crises with confidence. Mature Christians calm those around them because in their walk with the Lord they have learned how not to get angry, irritated, upset, or panicked.
- In Luke 10 Jesus commissioned seventy of his disciples to go to prepare the way for His own coming. In verse 17 of that chapter when the disciples return they are all excited because “even the demons are subject to us through your name!” Jesus offers us rest as satisfaction. Just as God finished creation and rested from his works while calling the work of his own hands good, so we who are Jesus’s disciples will have occasion to find great satisfaction in the very meaningful work that we do for the kingdom of God.
Jesus complained about the Scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of his day, saying, “They bind heavy burdens, hard to lift, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” In the heroic life that Jesus commands there is a burden seemingly much greater than any Pharisee could dream of. The difference is that with Jesus in the yoke with us, He does most of the heavy lifting, if we will allow.
I end this article with a word of warning to us as a church. Like the religious leaders of old, we too can place heavy burdens of condemnation and guilt upon people. Jesus intends for his house to be a place of worship and of rest. Church leaders have only one burden that they can appropriately offer people to take upon themselves voluntarily—the yoke of Christ.