In 2006, a former member of UBF critiqued the message I delivered as Sunday messenger in Toledo UBF. At first I was defiantly proud, thinking, “How dare someone who left UBF criticize me?!” Yet that critique became one of the most profoundly important events in my journey of faith. I now thank God for former members of UBF. We ex-ubfers have a valuable role to play in correcting the teachings of those who are deemed uncorrectable.
What was my 2006 message about? It was based on Matthew 11:20-30. The title was “I will give you rest”, with verse 28 as the key verse. As I re-read this message, I see so many ways I need to be corrected, and how twisted my message really was (now that I have started letting the Bible teach me, instead of me teaching the Bible :)
What were my mistakes? Well, probably there are too many to list, but I am aware of at least five big mistakes I made in that message. Most of these came to my mind from reading that former UBF member’s criticism, which became God’s rebuke to me.
First, I only used verses 20 to 30. Jesus’ words and actions can only be properly understood by a reading of the entire chapter of Matthew 11. Chopping up Scripture into bite-size pieces is something I am quickly repenting of these days. Second, I saw the word “rest”, and because I was weary and burdened and wanted rest, I springboarded into some ideas that I didn’t fully understand. Eventually, I concluded with a cyclical false teaching that “rest=work” and “work=rest”. (For example, my response to the woes Jesus pronounced against religious works, was to do more religious works!) Third, I did not discover the context or audience in which Jesus said such profound words. Fourth, I did not research the original meanings of the Greek text for that passage. Instead, I injected my own meanings of words like “rest”, “find”, “yoke” and “learn”. Fifth, I did not look for Old Testament Scripture to find meaning in Jesus’ words. I completely ignored the Old Testament.
So what are some keys to unlock God’s message in Matthew 11:28-30?
28 “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.”
First, the historical context. Jesus spoke piercing and amazing words in Matthew 11, and concluded with a powerful analogy. As students of the Bible, we should be careful to understand Jesus’ teachings in the context of the audience in which it was taught. In this case, it was taught to a Jewish crowd, apparently in northern Israel. More specifically, Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 11 are in response to John the Baptist’s disciples, who asked the question, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” This question evoked tremendous passion, wisdom, woe, gentleness and a spirit of invitation in Jesus.
Second, the Scriptural context. A friend of mine recently began re-thinking Genesis in light of Jesus, because he realized that the Old Testament teaches about Jesus Christ and can only be properly understood when looked at through the lens of Jesus Christ. As Jesus said, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” (Luke 24:44)
Third, the language context. One of the unfortunate issues with English is that it does not have a lot of what I call “single meaning words”. In English, meaning is often derived from the adjectives and surrounding context of words. Single words often have multiple meanings. The common example is the word “love”. We can say “I love baseball” but not mean the same thing as “I love my wife”. A deeper meaning of Scripture is found by an understanding of the original language (Hebrew or Greek).
Matthew 11, then, comes alive. Take the word “find” for example.
“The nuance that is missing in the plain translation ‘find’ is this: heurisko generally means ‘to find without seeking, to come upon as though by accident, to meet with’. Rest serendipitously comes upon me. I wasn’t looking for it but it happened. All I was doing was letting Jesus carry the load. All I was doing was changing my behavior because I spent time with Him. And suddenly I realized that I was at peace. Rest surprised me. It slipped in while I wasn’t looking.” (source)
Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you…” The quick analogy is that of oxen carrying a load. Indeed, we are yoked to Jesus (Romans 6:1-23). But the analogy stops with submission to Jesus and learning from Jesus. We human beings are not cows… Unfortunately, quite a few people have continued this analogy, insisting that the “yoke” means “spiritual disciplines” or to be “yoked to a more mature Christian”. Is Jesus’ yoke an urging to live a moral life? Is Jesus really just encouraging Christians to have good behavior?
“When Jesus claims that His yoke is easy and His burden is light, He’s setting us free from the legalism, the man-made rules, and the cultural expectations that “experts” are so quick to impose. He’s telling us that following Him doesn’t involve a complicated theological code and a long list of difficult requirements.” (source)
“The spiritual disciplines that are supposedly necessary for spiritual formation are not defined in the Bible. If they were, there would be a clear description of them and concrete list. But since spiritual disciplines vary, and have been invented by spiritual pioneers in church history, no one can be sure which ones are valid.” (source)
“For many a yoke suggests work. Yet the yoke is more the instrument of discipline than of work. The yoke of Jesus becomes a powerful guide for our thoughts and actions.” (source)
Yes, we are to be yoked to Jesus. No, Jesus’ yoke is not spiritual disciplines. What then does Jesus really want? What is Jesus really saying here?
Jeremiah 6 gives insight into Jesus’ mind. Jeremiah 6:1-5 is God’s denouncement of various places and is much like Jesus’ pronouncement of woe in Matthew 11:21-24.
“Flee for safety, people of Benjamin! Flee from Jerusalem! Sound the trumpet in Tekoa! Raise the signal over Beth Hakkerem! For disaster looms out of the north, even terrible destruction. 2 I will destroy the Daughter of Zion, so beautiful and delicate. 3 Shepherds with their flocks will come against her; they will pitch their tents around her, each tending his own portion.” 4 “Prepare for battle against her! Arise, let us attack at noon! But, alas, the daylight is fading, and the shadows of evening grow long. 5 So arise, let us attack at night and destroy her fortresses!” Jeremiah 6:1-5 (NIV)
Perhaps Jesus remembered the children mentioned in Jeremiah when he praised God for revealing God’s message to them (Matthew 11:25-26):
11 But I am full of the wrath of the LORD, and I cannot hold it in. “Pour it out on the children in the street and on the young men gathered together; both husband and wife will be caught in it, and the old, those weighed down with years. 12 Their houses will be turned over to others, together with their fields and their wives, when I stretch out my hand against those who live in the land,” declares the LORD.” Jeremiah 6:11-12 (NIV)
And it seems clear that the audience of Jews who heard Jesus speaking in Matthew 11 would have certainly remembered Jeremiah 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.'”
Jesus connected His “yoke” to Jeremiah (reminding them of the Prophets, the Torah and the law of God). This is a call to walk in the ancient ways in light of Jesus. We must view the Old Testament in light of Jesus. Jesus is saying that if you want to know God, you have to look at Him. If you want rest for your soul, the good way, then come to Jesus.
Jesus is saying that you won’t find such rest for your soul in spiritual disciplines (what audience ever had more spiritual disciplines than the Jews present that day?). You won’t find it in your good works or in your faithful obedience. You won’t find rest for your soul in doing more good work. In essence, Jesus is saying to the Jewish audience, “stop” doing all your religious and pious activity and “take” My yoke upon you. In other words, if you want to know God, if you are tired of your weary and burdened religious life, you have to look at gentle and humble Jesus and learn Jesus from Scripture.
“If you want rest, that state of refreshment in life, then you will have to come to Jesus and follow His pathway of obedience. If you want to know the Father’s blessing and the Father’s delight, then you will have to take the yoke of Jesus upon you.
If you can’t feel the electricity running through the crowd when Jesus said these words, then you must be dead (or sufficiently insulated so that nothing gets to you). Now you know one more reason why you can’t read the New Testament without the Old, and you can’t understand what Jesus is saying without understanding His view of Scripture. Jesus is not only the only way to the Father. He is also the only way to refreshing life.”
So it is clear to me now that the yoke Jesus was referring to was Scripture (Jesus’ words, the words of God, the Old and the New Testament). As a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am bound (or yoked) to Jesus by the word of God, not by religious practice. Jesus is inviting us to an eternal relationship with Him. Jesus is proclaiming that He is indeed the Messiah, the One who was and is to come.
When I take Jesus’ words upon me, take Scripture to heart, learn Jesus from the prophets and psalms, and put Jesus’ words into practice, I will discover rest for my soul and meet Jesus my gentle and humble Shepherd. When I learn Jesus from Scripture, I will find rest for my soul because Jesus said he will give me rest. Jesus will give me the Holy Spirit as my Comforter, my Guide, my Counselor.
“31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'” John 8:31-32 (NIV)
“47 As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. 48 They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built.” Luke 6:47-48 (NIV)
“1 The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” Revelation 1:1-3 (NIV)
New Testament Greek Lexicon
Hebrew Word Study: Matthew 11:29
The Dangers of Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Disciplines
Meditation: To understand ‘Take my yoke upon you and learn from me’
Guidelines for interpreting Jesus’ parables, Mark Bailey
In what language was the Bible first written?
Bouncing Back: Take My Yoke Upon You