Matthew 11:28-30

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Matthew 11

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

I do believe that the last words of Matthew 11 are some of my favorite in all of scripture. My soul positively yearns for the peace they offer. Jesus calls upon those “who labor and are heavy laden”—the exhausted, the burned out, those crushed by religious charlatans and spiritual legalism—to remove the yokes that destroy and take from Him the sweet yoke of relationship and service.

David Platt had done a good job of unpacking this “yoke” imagery.

The imagery in this passage is of a “yoke” (v. 29), a heavy wooden bar that fits over the neck of an ox so that it can pull a cart or a plow. The yoke could be put on one animal or it could be shared between two animals. In a shared yoke, one of the oxen would often be much stronger than the other. The stronger ox was more schooled in the commands of the master, and so it would guide the other according to the master’s commands. By coming into the yoke with the stronger ox, the weaker ox could learn to obey the master’s voice.[1]

I love this image of the dual yoke that binds the weaker animal to the stronger so that the stronger can show the weaker how to obey the voice of the master. This is what it is to give one’s heart to Jesus! What a beautiful image!

In our text, Jesus calls us from a yoke and to a yoke. He is clearly not calling us from effort to laziness. Rather, He is calling us from a type of labor that ultimately destroys to a type of labor that ultimately heals and brings life.

There is a yoke that brings soul-crushing labor.

Yes, there is a yoke we are called to reject. In context this refers primarily to the yoke of legalism that the Pharisees and the religious establishment of first century Judaism was putting on the shoulders of the people of God. “The Pharisees spoke of 613 commandments,” writes Michael Wilkins, “and their halakot (binding interpretations) produced an overwhelmingly complicated approach to life.”[2] This is the very heart of legalism: the obscuring of the law of God that is inherently good with the traditions of man that crush the soul. Jesus was and is calling us out from under this kind of legalism.

Jesus condemned this yoke in Matthew 23.

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.

This is a powerful image. The yoke of the scribes and Pharisees was a yoke of legalism and rule-keeping that rested on a rotting foundation: the assumption that if you worked hard enough then maybe you could impress God enough that He might save you. There is no peace in such a view and no joy. This is a yoke of fear and enslavement. It is a “heavy burden, hard to bear.”

Peter draws on this same imagery in Acts 15 when he spoke against the brothers at the Jerusalem Council who felt that Gentile Christians needed to keep the Jewish law in order to be Christians. Listen to what Peter said:

10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

The yoke of legalism and self-righteousness is a yoke no man can bear! It will either crush the one beneath it or lead to self-defeatist wickedness. It is truly, as Paul wrote in Galatians 5, a yoke of bondage.

1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

What is sad about all of this is that the Law of God is good and right and healthy. Rather, it is what self-righteous people and religious abusers do with the law that is so damaging. Philip Yancey writes, “You can know the law by heart without knowing the heart of it.”[3] True enough.

No, we were not made to destroy ourselves by trying to earn or achieve the favor of God! This is what is behind a great deal of religious busyness. Thomas Merton has passed on a helpful illustration from the monastic world in this regard.

Once Abbot Anthony was conversing with some brethren, and a hunter who was after game in the wilderness came upon them. He saw Abbot Anthony and the brothers enjoying themselves, and disapproved. Abbot Anthony said: Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it. This he did. Now shoot another, said the elder. And another, and another. The hunter said: If I bend my bow all the time it will break. Abbot Anthony replied: So it is also in the work of God. If we push ourselves beyond measure, the brethren will soon collapse. It is right, therefore, from time to time, to relax their efforts.[4]

To be sure, we are not talking about taking a break from holiness! Perish the thought! Rather, we are trying to situate holiness in the right place: away from our own efforts and in the person and work of Jesus! Religious legalism and performance-based religion is always pulling the bow until it snaps. You have got to keep pulling the bow in such a system for that is your only hope. And it leads ultimately to despair.

Let us also note one more false yoke about which the scriptures warn us. We are not to yoke ourselves to that which is not of God, as we read in 2 Corinthians 6.

14 Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?

You cannot yoke two oxen who are going in the opposite direction! Beware of yoking yourself to self-righteous legalism. Beware too of yoking yourself to the world.

There is a yoke that transforms labor into joy.

But there is a yoke we were meant to be under. Hear, again, Matthew 11.

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

That word “labor” is important. By calling us to a yoke Jesus is calling us not away from labor but rather to the right kind of labor. He is calling us from the labor of the Pharisees to the labor of the Kingdom. The former kills. The latter gives life. The former is too heavy to bear. The latter is easy and light.

One of the ways to get at what the yoke of Jesus is like is to see the positive ways that the New Testament speaks of labor in and for the Kingdom of God. These pictures will differ from the pictures of the yoke of the Pharisees, which binds us to a labor that is debilitating and corrosive. What, then, is the yoke of Jesus like? What does Kingdom labor look like? The scriptures offer us many verses.

The labor of the Kingdom is divinely commissioned not humanly contrived.

In Matthew 9 we read:

37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

The labor of the Pharisees is contrived. It rests on the traditions and rules and regulations of the religious leaders. But the labor of the Kingdom is God-ordained. “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers.” The work of the yoked people of God is Kingdom work and therefore commissioned work. It does not come from some human desire to control and manipulate. The labor of the Kingdom comes from a divine desire to bless and transform!

The labor of the Kingdom will receive its just reward.

First, hear the words of Jesus from our previous chapter, Matthew 10:

Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food.

Kingdom labor “deserves” appropriate assistance. It will be rewarded. He tells His disciples that they will be cared for. So, too, Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:

12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.

Here, those who labor in the church are to be cared for. Under the yoke of the Pharisees to work and work hoping that God might look favorably upon you. Under the yoke of Jesus the Lord calls for His laborers to be blessed. We find the same principle in 1 Timothy 5:

17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”

It is God who gives these wages however He sees fit, but this much is true: God sees the labors of His faithful children and will reward us either here or hereafter. And this is good news to the children’s Sunday School teacher who wonders why nobody ever says “Thank you!” or offers an encouraging word. God sees you! You will receive your reward! Do not lose heart!

The labor of the Kingdom is not in vain.

This means that no Kingdom labor is wasted labor. We see this in both 1 Corinthians and Philippians.

1 Corinthians 15

58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

Philippians 2

16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.

You do not labor in vain! It matters! The yoke of Jesus is ever in service of the King of Kings! So put one foot in front of another and feel the sweet joy of being in the service of Jesus! No, it is not in vain. You are not wasting your days to give a cup of cold water or to do whatever task God has called you to, no matter how menial you may think it is.

I once went to Honduras and on that trip there were some ladies who got up before everybody else and prepared breakfast. Then they prepared lunch. Then they prepared dinner. In between they cleaned and organized and got ready to prepare more food for the returning bands of doctors and nurses and pharmacists and dentists and preachers and translators. After the trip one of these dear ladies in the kitchen told me that her son, upon finding out she worked in the kitchen, said, “The kitchen? I thought you were going to do missions!”

I do not think I have ever been so angry! The very suggestion that the hard work and faithfulness of these ladies—done with faithful, excellence, joy, and good cheer—was not of value or was not missions, was absurd! In the Kingdom of God these ladies are heroes…and I can personally tell you that after hiking up and down with backpacks of rice and beans it was a welcome and restful thing indeed to come back to camp to one of their meals.

No, their labors were not in vain. Neither are your labors! If God has called you to a task, that task matters! Embrace it with joy!

The labor of the Kingdom brings forth fruit to bless others.

The yoke of Jesus produces fruit that blesses all around!

Ephesians 4

28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.

Philippians 1

21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.

Your Kingdom labor is fruit-bearing labor. It matters and it blesses others. You are being salt and light and these are purifying, flavoring, illuminating things. They bless others! The yoke of the Pharisees was all about yourself: Will this get me to Heaven?! The yoke of Jesus is about others: Will this be a blessing to those around me?

Kingdom labor is evidence of Kingdom citizenship.

In Philippians 4, Paul is calling upon the church to help two conflicting women work through their tension and conflict. Watch how Paul speaks of their labors.

I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord.Yes, I ask you also, true companion [i.e., “loyal Syzygus” or “true yokefellow”], help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

These women “labored side by side with” Paul and their “names are in the book of life.” Let us be clear: their names are not in the book of life because they labored. Rather, they labored because their names are in the book of life! Kingdom labor and taking the yoke of Jesus is evidence of Kingdom citizenship. When we serve the King it is because we are in a relationship with the King. We must be yoked with Jesus before the fruit of Kingdom labor can come about. The relationship precedes the labor. If you get that backwards you have legalism yet again.

Conversely, a person with no interest in serving King Jesus and no interest in laboring for the Kingdom is a person about whom it might reasonably be asked: “Has this person truly been yoked to Jesus?”

Kingdom labor is a labor of love.

There is another qualitative difference between the yoke of the Pharisees and the yoke of Jesus. The Pharisees’ is a yoke of fear whereas Jesus’ is a yoke of love. Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 1, writes:

We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Faith and labor of love.” It is love that compels us to labor, love that enables us to labor, and loves that is the fruit of our labors! The yoke of Jesus is easy and light because it is a yoke of love. The yoke of the Pharisees is crushing and cruel because it is a yoke of fear!

Kingdom labor will end in Kingdom rest.

Finally, the New Testament picture of Kingdom labor must include Revelation 14 and the rest that will ultimately be given the children of God.

12 Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. 13 And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”

Yes, Jesus gives us rest here and now, to be sure. But we will not enter finally into perfect rest until we enter glory. There is a rest to come for the yoked people of God! But that rest will not come from casting off the yoke of Christ but rather finally coming to fully comprehend the beauty of it as we enter into eternal bliss with King Jesus. The rest of glory will be the final flowering of the yoke of Jesus, not its abandonment, for in glory we will finally be home with Jesus and we will see Him face to face.

The yoke of Jesus is a privilege and a joy. Do not hate or spurn it! Embrace and love it, for it is life and rest and peace! Come under the yoke of our precious Savior. Cast off the yoke of self and sin and legalism and performance. Jesus is welcoming you into His perfect rest.


[1] Platt, David. Exalting Jesus in Matthew (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary) . B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Michael J. Wilkins, “Matthew.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Gen. Ed., Clinton E. Arnold. Vol.1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.76.

[3] Philip Yancey. What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), p.195.

[4] Thomas Merton, The Way of the Desert (New York, NY: New Directions), p.63.


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