“Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28)
The Pharisees considered themselves to have the authority of Moses to dictate God’s commandments and add to and took away from them as they saw fit. Jesus instructed the Jews to obey the Law rather than to obey the Pharisees.
In our text today, Jesus states that those who come to Him will be given rest. Even in our modern technologically advanced world, we experience fatigue mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. This world, marred by sin and the consequences thereof, is just as difficult and wearisome to us as it was to the Christians of long ago. Today we have many amenities they could only dream of--automobiles, heating and air conditioning, refrigerators, machines to wash and dry our clothes and dishes, telephones--so many things that are meant to make our lives more comfortable and efficient. Despite all these conveniences, we still get tired and one can only conclude that the people of Jesus’ time did too.
When Jesus spoke of rest, this most certainly caught the ear of His listeners. Everyone was familiar with manual labor and the burdens of life. On the surface, it probably sounded to those listening that Jesus was saying they would never have to work again. However, Jesus was referring to the burden of keeping the Law of Moses and, quite possibly, the burdensome way that the Pharisees interpreted and taught the Law of Moses. Beginning in Exodus chapter twenty we read the first laws given to the Israelites, commonly known today as the Ten Commandments. The book of Leviticus provides us with a record of more commandments given to the Israelites and to the tribe of Levi, the priests. Jesus had come to fulfill the Law and ease the burden of God’s people (Matthew 5:17).
In Matthew 11:29-30 we read these words of Jesus,“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” A “yoke” was a device that had a crossbar with two U-shaped pieces that encircled the necks of a pair of oxen or other draft animals working together. The sole purpose of the yoke was to keep the oxen together, so that they could not go their separate ways and interfere with the plowing process, either by being too fast, too slow or going the wrong direction. The yoke guided the oxen to work together, as a team.
Another type of yoke most likely used in Jesus' time was a frame of wood fitted to a person's shoulders for carrying pails, etc., suspended on each side; as, a milkmaid's yoke. Again, this device brings to mind the idea of balancing the burden, to ensure the work is equally distributed.
Jesus uses this illustration to distinguish between the burdensome nature of the Law of Moses and simplicity of the Gospel. The Law of Moses was filled with rules and regulations, do’s and don’ts and endless animal sacrifices which never took away their sins, but merely pushed them forward, awaiting the arrival of the Messiah. Jesus was proclaiming that He was the Messiah, and those who followed Him would no longer have to practice the Law of Moses. Jesus' method of bringing the believers together was easy, and the burden or message they were to carry, would be easier.
We read in Matthew chapter twelve that Jesus and His disciples walked through a field of grain, picked some and began to eat it. The practice of eating the grain was not what caused the controversy, but rather the fact that Jesus and His disciples rubbed the kernels of grain in their hands to remove the outer covering (the chaff). The Pharisees accused them of violating the Law of Moses, a reference to Exodus 31:24 where the Lord stated that they were to do no plowing or harvesting on the Sabbath day.
In Matthew 12:8 Jesus reminded the Pharisees of the account in I Samuel 21:5-6 where we read that David and his men had not eaten in three days. David entered the temple and stated this fact to the priest, who gave them the shewbread that had been placed before the Lord. Jesus also makes reference to the priests “profaning the Sabbath”, a reference to the fact that a male child was circumcised in the temple by the priest on the eighth day, even if the child was eight days old on the Sabbath. Jesus was teaching the Pharisees that while the Law was of value, there were times when necessity outweighed the ceremonial aspects of the Law.
After this discussion Jesus went to the synagogue where He met a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees seized what they saw as an opportunity to once again find fault with Jesus, and asked Jesus if was lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Clearly, the Pharisees took exception to this, undoubtedly viewing this healing as work which violated the Law of Moses. Jesus used the illustration of a sheep that had fallen into a pit, and asked them who would not reach in and rescue the animal. Just as the sheep was in need of rescue, this man, too, was in need and Jesus had the power to help him. He told them that the man was more valuable than a sheep, and stated “Wherefore it is lawful to do good on the sabbath day.” Jesus healed the man’s hand, once again attempting to demonstrate the burden that the Pharisees had placed upon the Jewish people, a burden that He refused to bear.
The Pharisees considered the actions and teachings of Jesus and those who followed Him to be in direct violation of the Law of Moses. Ironically, the Pharisees themselves had reduced the Law of Moses to mere actions of the body rather than of the spirit, and had invoked their own interpretations and stipulations. The teachings of Jesus appeared to them to be opposed to the Law of Moses, but were in effect the spirit in which the Law was to have been practiced. The teachings of Jesus were principles upon which people were to build their faith and live their lives. Jesus wanted the people to understand that God is not pleased with just the mere act of sacrifice, but rather He desires a person that truly believes and desires to obey God. I am reminded of the passage in I Samuel 15:22 in which Samuel said, “Hath Jehovah as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of Jehovah? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.”
The Pharisees handled the Law of Moses as a sterile set of rules and regulations that were to be followed without exception. Jesus revealed that the Law was given with the purpose of bringing about obedience, not merely robotic like people performing robotic acts without thought or feeling. Pharisees had checklists, but God has mercy and compassion. We read in John 1:17 “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
Friend, are you weary? Have you exhausted yourself by merely trying to do everything that God says, out of fear? Tradition? Peer pressure? If so, you need to know that God is not concerned with our appearance or our actions, but rather the reason for our actions (I Samuel 16:7). God desires us to worship Him, but in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24), not just in appearance (James 1:26).
Jesus came to this earth and walked among men to leave an example for us. We read that Jesus kept the Law perfectly (John 8:29,55) and He did this by obeying God not just with His actions, but with His heart. Jesus allowed Himself to be yoked, or guided, by God’s teachings. He was obedient to God to the point of death. What a precious, perfect example He is to us today!
Friends, we all know that this life is filled with trials and tribulations. We have heartaches and frustrations. Our bodies wear out much sooner than we would like, and everyday we grow weaker. When sin entered the the world it was forever changed. Man’s life of ease was exchanged for one of endless hard work, sickness and decay. Mankind bears the burden of sin and its consequences in the form of physical, mental and financial wear and tear. We endure so much and at times we begin to doubt or question whether we are truly able to endure (I Cor. 10:13).
If you are a Christian and the cares of life are wearing you down, know that Jesus hears you. Hebrews 4:15 tells us “For we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”. How is that possible? Think of the types of sin we face today...jealousy, unrighteous anger, lust, gluttony, deceit. We like to think our temptations are greater than those experienced by those who came before us, but the truth is, sin is merely the result of our succumbing to temptation, a desire to do something other than what God has instructed us to do, something other than what Jesus did.
If you are not a Christian, you too may be experiencing difficulties in your life. Some would tell you that if you do what God says, you will live a life free of care and trouble. One only has to look at the life of Jesus to see that obeying God oftentimes brings more earthly trouble than peace. But if you believe Jesus is the Son of God, confess that belief, repent of your sins, and are baptized for the remission of your sins, you will be following in the steps of Jesus. His life had trials and tribulations just as ours do, but when His life ended here on earth, Jesus entered eternal rest. This same eternal rest is available to us today, due to His willingness to obey God and die a cruel death for our sins.
Won’t you obey Him, and ensure that eternal rest?