Come Unto Me
“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.”
One of the most well known and beloved passages in all the Bible is the gentle invitation of our Lord in Matthew 11:28-30. He lovingly encourages us as he invites all sinners to “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.”
Throughout the centuries these words have served to uplift mankind with the blessings of divine encouragement, comfort and assurance. Even today, as we read and reflect upon this gracious invitation of our Lord we are encouraged, comforted and assured that our faith is secure in Him.
Aside from the emotional comfort conveyed by these words of Jesus, there are certain underlying religious and cultural references that need to be understood in order to fully grasp the meaning of the passage. When we look a little deeper into this tender invitation several questions come to mind: Who, for example, are those who labor and are heavy laden? What is their labor, and with what weight are they burdened? Furthermore, why would a disciple’s relationship with Jesus be described as a yoke? And, how can a yoke be easy and a burden light? It is the purpose of this article to offer answers to such questions in the hope that we will attain an even deeper understanding and appreciation for these wonderful words of Jesus.
Come to Me
The tremendous basis for Christ’s invitation that all men come to him is the dominion which he exercises and the knowledge which he alone is able to impart. Just prior to the invitation that begins in verse 28 we see certain credentials of Christ being laid out. Verse 27 says: “All things have been delivered to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal him.” In the invitation of verses 28-30 Jesus is asking sinners to respond to this revelation of his dominion and knowledge.
Looking back farther to verse 25 we find that even though all may come, all do not. The babes (i.e. those who lack everything and realize their emptiness - Lenski) were willing to receive the truth concerning Christ, but the wise and prudent (i.e. the religious leaders who were filled with their own wisdom and learned ideas) were not.
Also, coming to Christ requires the recognition that persons cannot come by depending on or exalting themselves. Verse 23 states, “And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades. Apparently the citizens of Capernaum were reputed to have exalted themselves, and would hence be brought down. The lesson is that only those who are willing to depend wholly on Christ and trust only in Him will be able to come and receive his divine blessings. The spiritual babes were willing to come to Christ under those conditions, but the proposition was distasteful to those who were wise in their own eyes.
Furthermore, note the number of times the pronoun “me” is used in Christ’s invitation. In this can be seen an emphasis upon the fact that it is only Jesus who maintains a relationship to the Father (as described in verse 27) that can produce eternal blessings for those who follow him. Only to Christ have all things been delivered and only through the Son can one hope to know the Father. Thus, it is to Christ and only to Christ that we must come.
All You Who Labor and are Heavy Laden
Who were those who labored and were heavy laden? They were any and all who had been struggling in an effort to find the truth. They had discovered, however, that the task was impossible and they had been driven to weariness and despair in their vain search. They were exhausted with the search for truth. This group would have included the Greeks of Christ’s day who believed it was very difficult to find God and then impossible to tell anyone else about him. It would have included the Jews, whose religion was a thing of burdens (Matt.23:4) and endless rules. The Law, it seems, was to them a forest of regulations dictating every action of a person’s life to the point where one was always listening for a voice which said “Thou Shalt Not.” During the time of Christ the Pharisees burdened the multitudes by loading them down with whatever they saw as necessary for obedience (Matt 23:1-4, 23), and then, adding insult to injury, confused and exasperated the multitudes as they themselves lived up to the much easier standard of saying but not doing.
The terms, however, really apply to all men. Mankind, generally, has labored and become heavy laden in the search for truth. Zophar rhetorically asked of Job, “Can you search out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limits of the Almighty?” (Job 11:7). Jeremiah speaks of the vanity of seeking God on one’s own terms. “O, Lord, I know the way of man is not in himself; It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps.” (Jer. 10:23).
Jesus, in keeping with the Father’s plan of salvation, proclaims himself to be the only true revelation of God and the exclusive path to Him. He declares to Thomas: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Finally, the burden of seeking (but being unable to find) the eternal truth of salvation has been lifted, for we find it through Jesus Christ.
My Yoke is Easy and My Burden is Light
Jesus now speaks of his yoke and his burden. They are described as being easy and light. Truly, the burden of obedience has thus been made lighter in that we now know in whom we have believed (2 Tim 1:12), i.e. Christ Jesus. It is only through Christ that our search for and obedience to the truth produces the desired result of salvation. The burden, however, has not been completely eliminated. Even though Jesus equates the Christian life with spiritual rest, he still proclaims that we must wear a yoke and bear a burden.
Traditionally, a yoke was seen as an emblem of oppression, possibly of slavery. The Jews used the term yoke for entering into submission to something. They spoke of the yoke of the law, the yoke of commandments, the yoke of the kingdom, the yoke of God, etc. The imagery of the yoke in Matthew 11: 28-30, however, is borrowed from the plowing of fields and is presented here as an aid in our spiritual struggle rather than a hindrance.
The yoke of Christ is our fellowship with Him. And like the yoke that couples oxen together, the yoke of Christ neither hinders our efforts nor exempts our need to put forth effort. What it does is make the work of obedience manageable or do-able. Thus, it is a blessing. According to William Barclay, oxen yokes were customarily made to fit a particular animal. They were, in effect, tailor made. The idea being that the yoke of Christ fits well, and will not be a burden to those who wear it. Whatever God gives one to do in the way of burdens (obedience) is designed to fit our spiritual needs and abilities exactly. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome. Truly, the yoke of Jesus is easy – not of great weight. It enables us to do much service in his kingdom. No one ever demanded a higher standard from his disciples than did Jesus – consider, for example, the sermon on the mount (Matt 5-7). But Jesus has done more than set a high standard. He also offers to help us meet that standard. He helps us carry the burden. He shares the load of obedience that he places upon us.
Even though the Christian life is not easy, it is possible. In fact it is pleasant. Our burden is light. The yoke of Christ is easy. Our Lord is gentle and lowly in heart and provides rest for our souls. On the other hand, those who spurn Christ’s yoke have only dismay and despair in dealing with the search for truth and spiritual rest.
By Ed Barnes
From Expository Files 16.1; January 2009