God hides spiritual understanding from “the wise” who consider themselves too sophisticated for Jesus, thus leading to turmoil and judgment; but he reveals spiritual understanding to “the simple” who come to Jesus, take his yoke, and learn from him, thus leading to soulful rest. Seek your rest under Christ’s yoke.
Introduction – We’ve been considering some “hard sayings” of Jesus, and with this passage we’ll end this series. I suspect some of you are breathing a sigh of relief! It’s about time for a change. After all, summer is almost finished, our vacations are now just memories, and we’re all energized by a long, restful summer break. Or perhaps you’re not feeling well-rested at all. Why is that?
People have an innate sense that rest must be earned through work (“What did I do to deserve this?”) So also we tend to seek spiritual rest by trying to earn God’s favor by living morally. If the kind of rest we find after a day’s, week’s, or year’s toil cannot deeply revive us, even more so our living to please God through our own moral effort cannot bring us spiritual rest, but instead crushes us under its heavy burden. How we view work and rest matters, especially regarding spiritual things.
I. The Yoke of Religion Brings Judgment
A. Today: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual (vv. 27-30)
1. What is a yoke? It is a wooden harness that fit over the shoulders of animals, binding them together so they are forced to work in unison. In the OT the image of a yoke was commonly used to describe Israel’s submission to foreign oppressors (Lev 26:13; Isa 10:24-27). By the NT era the yoke had become a common metaphor for the law of God (i.e., for discipleship), which crushed the people who sought to keep it (and all the various Pharisaical additions) in their own strength (Mt 23:4; Acts 15:10). The Jewish rabbis viewed the law’s yoke, representing the sum-total of all the law’s obligations, as difficult yet joyful (“Stop complaining, it’s good for you!”), and the people viewed the yoke of law as a divine mandate but found no joy in it.
2. By “religion” I mean a set of beliefs that one acts upon to earn God’s favor. There are endless varieties of beliefs and actions people use to get on God’s good side. Most are legalistic additions to God’s law, but one common variety is trying to obey God’s law to merit salvation (using the law to make one righteous). Whatever you believe and do in relation to spiritual things, if the motivation is to be judged by your performance, then that is the yoke of religion, and it will always bring judgment.
3. We can see the effects of these judgments through “mirror” reading. The yoke of Jesus is contrasted with the yoke of the religious teachers. To discover what Jesus says the yoke of religion brings, look at the opposites of his promises: rest (restlessness), light burden (heavy burden), easy (difficult), gentle and lowly (rough and haughty). Chronic fatigue, emotional exhaustion, mental burnout, and spiritual restlessness—these are all symptoms of wearing the yoke of religion. If you’re suffering from any of these, it may (but not necessarily) indicate that you’re wearing the yoke of religion, which God says is perhaps the very worst way to live.
B. Last Day: judgment (vv. 20-24)
1. Background on the OT cities. Tyre and Sidon were Gentile cities on the Mediterranean coast in Phoenicia (north of Israel). The OT prophets often denounced these cities for their Baal worship, materialism, pride, greed, cruelty, slave-trading, pleasure-seeking, and presumption (Isa 23; Ezek 26-28; Amos 1:9; Joel 3:4-6; Zech 9:2-4). Sodom was the prototypical city of sin (Isa 3:8-9; Gen 18-19) known for its licentiousness, excess, sensuality, violence, and perversity. God dramatically judged these cities because they did not repent.
2. These verses are a frighteningly hard saying. Jesus did most of his miracles (mighty works) in the respectable Galilean towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum (his ministry base). What privilege these residents received! If anyone would have believed in Jesus as the Christ and followed him, surely it would have been those who need not exercise faith in the unseen because they had seen so much. How much more culpable were these cities who witnessed miracles and heard Jesus himself preach the gospel? Here is the principle: those with greater access to the gospel will be judged more strictly than those with less. God says it would be better for you to be a Baal-worshiping Sidonian, a slave-trader from Tyre, or a violent Sodomite than a respectable church-going person who knows the gospel yet will not repent!
We ought not to fall for the common error that all sins are equally bad in God’s sight. It is true that the smallest sin makes a person guilty of breaking God’s Law and thus deserving of hell. WSC 84: “What does every sin deserve? Every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come.” But that does not mean that one sin is as grievous as the next. According to God’s Law, there are degrees of punishment that fit the crime. WSC 83: “Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous? Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others” (Ezek 8:6, 13, 15).
II. Why the Yoke of Religion is Attractive
A. It appeals to our pride of accomplishment (vv. 20, 23)
Bethsaida, Chorazin, and Capernaum did not repent in response to Jesus’ miracles and preaching because they proudly wore the yoke of religion. They considered themselves first in line for heaven. Religious people who think they are pretty good at keeping rules and knowing right doctrine don’t have much need of the gospel. “That’s for sinners!” Secular people who consider themselves pretty good at being moral, tolerant, and productive don’t have need of Jesus at all. “Fine for you, but I don’t need him to be a good person!” People proud of their moral accomplishments think they don’t need to repent. Hence a religion that rewards morality (religious or otherwise) is more attractive than the gospel, since the gospel requires a person to approach God with empty hands and a criminal record.
B. It appeals to our pride of superiority (vv. 16-19)
Jesus compared the people of the three towns to contrary children. His parable unmasks their superiority complex. There is no pleasing the proud. They have “party-pooper” syndrome. Their mood is stubbornly contrarian and they refuse to cooperate with God. First they didn’t listen to John the Baptist, who came neither eating nor drinking, accusing him of being demon possessed. Then they didn’t listen to Jesus, who came eating and drinking, accusing him of being a glutton, a drunk, and a friend of notorious sinners. In other words, they saw themselves as more respectable than the messengers and thus didn’t heed the message.
C. God hides spiritual understanding from the proud (vv. 25-26)
The way things are turning out—the proud rejecting Jesus, but the simple coming to him—is exactly according to the will of the Father. God is sovereign over the hearts of men. What are “these things” God hides from the proud? The message and activities of the kingdom of heaven: the gospel of repentance, and salvation. These things require humility, faith, and repentance to grasp. The “wise and understanding” are not those with more education, but who are wise in their own (and the world’s) eyes. They are stubbornly proud of their perceived superiority. In this instance they are those who wear the yoke of religion—believing they can (and have) earned God’s favor by their good works. But human wisdom and understanding are powerless and irrelevant for knowing God (1 Cor 1:26-31) because God wills to hide himself from the proud to glorify his grace.
Someone may say, “Is the yoke of religion really that bad? Or is the preacher just blowing smoke? After all, good religious people seem happy, even smug.” Anyone who has tried the yoke of good works, religious deeds, or rule-keeping knows how dangerous they are (Rom 8:15a). Let’s try on the yoke of religion to see where it leads us. (1) Unshakable Doubt: this yoke cannot provide certainty that God approves of you and has forgiven your sin. How can you know you’ve been good enough, or kept all the rules, or performed enough good works to turn God’s attention away from your sins? At this first stage you notice the yoke becoming heavy. It is a great burden. (2) Gripping Fear: the path of performance, of relying on your ability to do the right thing eventually leads to fear. If you cannot be certain that God loves you and has saved you once and for all, then the woes Jesus pronounced over Bethsaida, Chorazin, and Capernaum may apply to you. What a horrible thought! At this second stage you redouble your efforts to bear the yoke but eventually run out of energy, collapsing under the weight. It is now a crushing burden. (3) Hopeless Despair: this yoke promises positive self-esteem, righteousness, and blessing, but because it cannot deliver it will eventually paralyze you physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. It will lead you to give up on yourself, on God, and cry “Woe is me!” At this third and last stage, you realize that you lack the strength and motivation to get up and try again. You’ve lost all hope of helping yourself. The false gospel that once excited you into living to please God with your performance (e.g., “God helps those who help themselves”) now sounds cruel—a burden too great to overcome. Your burden that seemed manageable, but then became heavy and later crushing, is now killing you.
III. The Yoke of Christ Brings Rest
All who have come to this place of despair, weary and heavy laden, are ready for a new kind of yoke. One from Jesus. One not tied to your own performance for God’s approval. One that is light.
A. Jesus makes us wear a yoke? (v. 29a)
This is also a hard saying. Even those who repent and turn to Christ will wear a yoke! But Jesus transformed the yoke metaphor. Turning to Jesus as Savior will not allow anyone to avoid him as Lord. Jesus is the boss. He is the master. We will still be his servants, even after he releases us from the yoke of other masters. So this is a gentle “hard saying.” His yoke is easy and his burden is light when we willingly submit to him. Believers are under his yoke, which in a certain sense is hard because we are not free from our responsibility to give total obedience to God. But consider: everyone wears some kind of yoke. Everyone serves something or somebody. We are all under authority. In this sense Christ’s yoke is easy, because life is only blessed when lived under his yoke.
Someone may be saying, “I’m wearing Christ’s yoke, and it’s incredibly hard! I don’t know how much longer I can carry it.” I sympathize with this objection because it’s honest and comes from the depths of a hurting soul. And we’ve all felt this way before. Let me offer an answer by suggesting that Jesus is describing his yoke as relatively easy compared to all other yokes, especially the yoke of religion. Consider a man who is very sick. He has followed all the various advice of his friends and family but his health keep getting worse. He desperately wants to live, so he goes to the doctor. It turns out his illness is curable, but he must strictly follow the doctor’s orders of regular exercise, a completely changed diet, and frequent doses of an expensive medicine. This man won’t hesitate to put himself under the doctor’s yoke because he doesn’t want to die! He has newfound hope, and though the doctor’s regiment is arduous, it is relatively easy because the man knows he will get better. He wakes up each morning tempted to throw off the yoke, but joy, hope, peace, and health keep him going one day at a time. He knows first-hand the doctor’s yoke takes a lot of effort, perseverance, and faith, but when he considers the alternatives, the yoke feels easy. The doctor’s yoke is his salvation. So it is with the yoke of Christ.
B. God gives spiritual understanding and rest to the simple (v. 27-29)
Jesus contrasts “little children” with contrarian, stubborn children (vv. 16-19). The simple receive Jesus and his message gladly and with a repentant heart. They realize they are saved by God’s grace alone, and put their trust in Christ. They are the humble disciples to whom Jesus will reveal himself and his truth. They are the weary and heavy laden, weighed down with sin and guilt in this life, trying feebly to rid themselves of their burden which only Jesus can remove.
C. Changing yokes (vv. 28-30)
1. The Bible tells you what to do. “Come” to him. “Take” his yoke upon you. “Learn” from him. “Come” and “Take” reflect the conversion of a sinner to Jesus (Jn 6:35), encompassing knowledge, assent, and trust. They are the entrance into salvation and the Christian life. But even mature Christians learn to never stop coming to Jesus and taking his yoke. So “Learn” reflects the continuation in the life of faith. Learning who to trust, what to believe, and how to obey. It’s that simple!
2. Right now Jesus is inviting you to exchange all your sub- and anti-Christian yokes for his teaching and way of life. He invites you to come (perhaps for the first time) to him—the most humble and gentle teacher. The rest he gives brings peace of mind and heart (Jn 16:33; Rom 5:1), and assurance of salvation (2 Cor 5:1; 2 Tim 1:12; 4:7-8; 2 Pet 1:10-11).
Conclusion – We will all wear a yoke in life. Doesn’t it make sense to take the one that fits us best, the one designed by our loving Creator and Redeemer? The rest he gives is categorically different than our culture’s view of Saturday and Sunday (“I’m working for the weekend!”), or even of retirement (“I’ve put in my 40 years and earned my 24/7 R&R!”). Jesus will put you to work and teach you the right use of his law, but you’ll find satisfying, eternal rest serving him. Moreover, Christ promises that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. How can this be? Because of the cross! Christ’s yoke is not true because it works. It works because it is true. His yoke is not merely a better philosophy for living. His yoke is better because of what he really and truly accomplished on the cross. Jesus literally carried all the heaviest burdens of this life when he yoked the cross across his weary shoulders on the way to Calvary. He was crushed under the unfathomable weight of sin as he was crucified to death. He experienced total spiritual restlessness as the Father abandoned him. But through his loving sacrifice he won for us and shares with us forgiveness of sins, intimate and personal knowledge of God, and everlasting soulful rest. This is where all the “hard sayings” of Jesus point. They may appear unduly hard at first glance, but viewed through the lens of the cross they lead to knowing God and finding the rest for which your soul yearns. In the final analysis, the “hard sayings” of Jesus are only hard when we resist the yoke of Christ. But when you give up resistance and submit to his lordship, the hard sayings become easier and lighter. Do you see now that the yoke of Christ is a picture of salvation? Do you understand St. Augustine when he confessed to God: “You have created us for yourself, and our heart cannot be stilled until it finds rest in you”?