(Mat 11:28-30) “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.”
What is a “yoke”? RVL explains that women carried water using a shoulder yoke to carry two jars with the same effort as a single jar on the head. A rabbi called his approach to the scriptures his “yoke,” that is, the interpretive tools he used to make interpretation easier. The rabbis called the text “living water,” and so the yoke helps to carry the water.
Jesus says that we should use his “yoke” and “learn from me.” What was Jesus’ yoke?
Before we get there, we should consider the meanings of other phrases in Jesus’ declaration.
“Give you rest” comes from Exodus, in a conversation between Moses and God, in which Moses asks for instruction from God.
(Exo 33:13-14) If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”
14 The LORD replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
Jesus was claiming to be God! Moses asked God to teach him his ways, and God replied that Moses should follow his Presence.
Jesus tells his disciples to follow him and so learn from him. It was both a claim to be God and statement that we learn Jesus’ ways by coming to him and following him.
“Rest for your souls” comes from Jeremiah —
(Jer 6:16) This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.'”
The “ancient paths” aren’t the five acts of worship. The ancient paths are found in the Law of Moses. God is calling the people back to obedience to the Law.
Therefore, when Jesus promises his listeners to find “rest for your souls” and to “give you rest,” he’s saying that he will show them the ancient paths (KJV: “old paths”) and the ways of God himself by showing them how to follow the very presence of God. He is saying that following him is the true fulfillment of the Law.
Finally, a First Century Jew would have known that Jesus’ claim to be “gentle and humble” is a claim to be like Moses.
(Num 12:3) (Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.)
This, of course, is an essential claim if Jesus is to be a true interpreter of the Law of Moses. Moreover, to claim to be like Moses is to claim to be the Prophet —
(Deu 18:15-19) The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. … 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. 19 If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.
This passage echoes throughout the Gospels.
Church of Christ application
Not surprisingly, this rich passage in Matthew is immediately followed by two stories that illustrate the yoke of Jesus and why it is easy and light.
(Mat 12:1-13) At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. 2 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
3 He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread–which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. 5 Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? 6 I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
9 Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10 and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
11 He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other.
This passage is often interpreted as saying nothing more than that Jesus repealed the Sabbath or wasn’t subject to the Sabbath. But that misses the larger point. Why doesn’t the Sabbath apply? What is the interpretive rule?
Jesus could have pointed out that the accusations made against him were inaccurate interpretations of the Law of Moses. Modern commentators pretty much agree that Jesus and his apostles were not in fact violating the Law in either case. But Jesus doesn’t take this tack – not directly.
Rather, he says the apostles could harvest and thresh for the same reason David could eat the show bread. At first reading, this seems to create an exception to the Law out of necessity. David, like the apostles, was on a holy mission. It was more important that David and his men be fed than that the ritual-requirements of the Law be met. And David really did violate the letter of the Law (Lev 24:1-9).
Just so, Jesus healed the man because it was more important to do good – to heal – than to satisfy the Law.
So Jesus seems to be arguing for a humanitarian exception.
And he declares himself “Lord of the Sabbath,” which some take to mean he’s above the Sabbath and so doesn’t have to honor it. But if that’s right, then he didn’t need to give the other excuses. And it would hardly be fair for the New Testament writers to declare that Jesus perfectly fulfilled the Law and yet grant him an exception because he was above the Law.
And so I’m thinking it means something like this: You can’t know the Law until you first know the Lawgiver. The Lawgiver loves his people and made the Law to benefit his people as an act of compassion. Therefore, whenever you interpret the Law in a way that contradicts the Perfect Law of Love, who’ve misunderstood the Law, because you’ve misunderstood the Lawgiver’s heart.
Jesus (as part of the Godhead) wrote the Law. He is the author of these rules. Therefore, his mission to teach the gospel and heal the sick cannot contradict the Law. Rather, he is the fulfillment of the Law. He is the Law perfectly interpreted.
Jesus is thus Lord of the Sabbath in the sense that he created the Sabbath. He understands perfectly why the Sabbath exists and how the Sabbath rules should be interpreted. And they cannot be interpreted to prevent the doing of good. The Sabbath serves love. Love doesn’t serve the Sabbath.
In support of this theory, I’d point out that these two Sabbath Day accounts are shortly followed by the Sermon on the Plain, in which Jesus declares, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says this saying “is the Law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12 KJV). In other words, the Law cannot contradict the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule, rather, perfectly interprets the Law.
In short, Jesus is arguing hermeneutics. You start with the true universal: the nature and character of God as he reveals himself – the God of love – and don’t get so lost in the details you forget who wrote the rules and why.
Therefore, “love your neighbor” becomes not merely one of hundreds of commands, and therefore one more burden among many. It becomes the totality of the Law.
(Rom 13:8-10) Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
(Gal 5:6) For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
(Gal 5:14) The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
We in the Churches of Christ have traditionally said that love is one among many, many commands. Jesus and Paul disagree.
Back to RVL
In Judaism, the rabbis say there are three types of law:
- There is the moral law. Jesus limits this to “love your neighbor.” The rabbis wouldn’t disagree.
- There’s what the Jews call the “temple cult” — the religious system involving sacrfices and such. We still need the offerings, but Jesus fulfilled them in his crucifixion. All the Levitical laws anticipate Jesus. We obey these commands through Jesus’ perfect, once-for-all sacrifice.
- And there are “certain works of the law” — being those laws that make someone Jewish – tassels, kosher food, circumcision, etc. Paul says we don’t have to keep these in Christ because we are saved by faith, not works. (But in so saying, Paul was interpreting Jesus.) These are not “faith expressing itself in love” and so they avail nothing (Gal 5:6b).
For reasons I’ve explained elsewhere, “faith” includes repentance, which includes the moral law. Faith in Jesus therefore fulfills the law — all of it. But only a penitent faith is truly faith.
Now, by “penitent” I don’t mean saying you’re sorry every time you mess up. Rather, “penitent” means turning your heart and your will toward God to obey his will out of a passionate love for the Creator and his Son. Penitence means being so in love with God that you want to have a heart that’s just like his.