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Learning from Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30)by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Johannes Vermeer, 'Christ in the House of Martha and Mary' (1655), Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, oil on canvas, 63 in. x 56 in.
Perhaps the most gracious invitation in the Bible is given by Jesus, offered amidst intense criticism and pressure from his picky, fault-finding enemies. You are familiar with it. You may have even memorized it. Let's meditate on it for a few minutes.
"Come to me, all 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." (Matthew 11:28-30)
The Yoke of the Law
An important key to understanding this passage is the term "yoke." A yoke, of course, is a wooden bar shaped to fit across the necks of two oxen or other draft animals, enabling them to pull a plow or draw a load together. By the time the New Testament is written, however, the phrase is being used figuratively, as well. "Yoke of the law" is a common phrase in Rabbinical teaching, meaning to take upon oneself the burden of obeying every command of the Mosaic Law. And the "yoke," as interpreted by the hyper-legalistic Pharisees, is a very heavy burden indeed (Matthew 23:4). Peter calls it "a yoke ... that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?" (Acts 15:10). Paul calls it a "yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1).
So when Jesus says, "Take my yoke upon you," he is referring to taking seriously following and obeying Jesus himself, rather than the heavy burden of the minutiae of the Mosaic law and all the Pharisaic additions to it.
Rest for Your Souls (Matthew 11:29c)
In this saying, Jesus contrasts labor with rest, a heavy burden with lightness. He is speaking to people whose religion has consisted of doing all the things that their religious rules required, as well as abstaining from all the things their religious rules prohibited. It is a rule-based religion, salvation through rigorous rule-keeping, not a real relationship at all. That may have described your faith at various times in your life, perhaps even now.
Jesus offers rest for your soul, assurance that his love continues, a deep sigh of relief that you don't have to constantly work to be saved, that can accept his grace without striving.
Jesus' Gentleness and Humility (Matthew 11:29b)
In contrast to the proud, disdainful Pharisees, Jesus describes himself in verse 29 as gentle and humble. "Gentle" (NIV, ESV, NRSV) and "meek" (KJV) translate a Greek adjective meaning, "not being overly impressed by a sense of one's self-importance, gentle, humble, considerate, meek" in the older favorable sense.1
A second phrase Jesus uses to describe himself is "lowly in heart." This is a synonym of "gentle," meaning specifically one with a "heart" or "inner person" that is "unpretentious, humble."2
Some people always make sure you know that they are better than you. But humble people are not driven by pride; they are comfortable being who they are without needing to impress. Those who love themselves greatly, demand those around them to be duly appreciative, attentive to a fault. But those who love others with a passion are not so concerned with how others perceive them; rather they focus on how they can help.
Matthew recounts how Jesus goes throughout all the cities and villages, teaching and healing. The crowds flock to him, but instead of being caught up in adulation, he cares deeply about them: "He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:36).
Humble doesn't mean weak. Jesus is strong, and pushes back when confronted by the Pharisees who nip at his heels as he goes around healing and preaching.
Rather, humble means that Jesus isn't self-centered or demanding that others meet his perceived needs. And because Jesus is humble and not self-focused, you can trust him to care about you, rather than the other way around. You can't relax around a person who is judging, demanding. But you can relax around Jesus. He loves you.
Learn from Me (Matthew 11:29a)
What strikes me as I read this passage are Jesus' words,
"Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me" (Matthew 11:29a)
He asks two things. First, "take my yoke upon you." That is, take seriously obedience to my teachings as your new approach to life, rather than devotion to a legalistic law-keeping.
His second statement, really the core phrase of this whole passage, is, "Learn from me." He isn't saying learn Christian theology. Nor is he saying to memorize the Gospels so you know them through and through -- though both of these can be valuable. Rather he is saying, "Learn from me -- personally." Sit at my feet, like Mary of old (Luke 10:39), and absorb what I am saying to you. Sit and listen; take it in without having to formally categorize everything I am saying into neat doctrinal propositions.
Jesus is inviting us to listen to his voice and learn from him personally about life itself. Jesus, what are you saying to me? Jesus, how should I handle this crisis that has just come up? How should I react towards people who make my life difficult? What are you up to in my world? How do I fit in your plans? What gifts should I cultivate and use in your service? Lord, who are you? Who am I? These are examples of the intimate, important questions that a disciple asks when trying to understand his or her place in Jesus' Kingdom.
When Jesus is calling us to learn from him, he is asking more than requesting that we read the Scriptures. He is calling us calling us to himself to listen. It is personal. It is intimate.
My dear friend, perhaps Jesus is calling you away from some of your other religious pursuits to bring rest and refreshing to your soul. To just sit with him and listen. To bask in his love and be healed. This isn't about what you can busy yourself with to accomplish for him. It is how you can quiet yourself to receive from him.
My prayer for you is that you can find a way to learn from Jesus, to learn from Master afresh -- new for today.
Lord Jesus, quiet our souls. Still our strivings. Lift from us the burden of guilt that often motivates our service. And help us learn from you. Thank you for it, Jesus. Amen.
End Notes (References and Abbreviations)
 Praus, BDAG 861.
 Tapeinos, "lowly, undistinguished, of no account," then "unpretentious, humble" (BDAG 989, 3).
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