NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 28: So come to me all of you who are tired of being forced to carry a heavy burden and I will give you relief.”
Here Jesus gives an invitation to those who are struggling with trying the impossible task of keeping each letter of the Law in order to have a relationship with God that leads to eternal life. Augustine of Hippo explains it this way: “If you wish to reach high, then begin at the lowest level. If you are trying to construct some mighty edifice in height, you will begin with the lowest foundation. This is humility. However great the mass of the building you may wish to design or erect, the taller the building is to be, the deeper you will dig the foundation. The building in the course of its construction rises up high, but he who digs its foundation must first go down very low. So then, you see even a building is low before it is high and the tower is raised only after humiliation.”1 In other words, before Jesus can lift you higher, you must lower yourself from the pinnacle of haughtiness: “I can do it on my own” to the level of humility: “I can’t do it without Him.”
I like the way another early church father expounded on this invitation by our Lord. He writes: “Draw near to me, so that you may become sharers of the divine nature and partakers of the Holy Spirit. Jesus called everyone, not only the people of Israel. As the Maker and Lord of all, He spoke to the weary Jews who did not have the strength to bear the yoke of the law. He spoke to idolaters heavy laden and oppressed by the devil and weighed down by the multitude of their sins. To Jews He said, ‘Obtain the benefit of My coming to you. Bow down to the truth. Acknowledge your Savior and Lord. I set you free from bondage under the law, bondage in which you endured a great deal of toil and hardship, unable to accomplish it easily and accumulating for yourselves a very great burden of sins’.”2
Verse 29: Join me in my yoke and learn this about me: I am gentle and humble in spirit, and this will give you some peace of mind.
Here our Lord repeats the Old Testament message of hope to those who are weary: “Stop at the crossroads and look; ask about paths others have taken in the past,‘Which one is the right way?’ Take it, and you will find assurance for your souls.”3 And we also hear an echo of the words used by an ancient Jewish scribe: “Draw near to me, you who are unenlightened, and lodge in the house of instruction… Put your neck into the yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by.”4
The Jews clearly understood the use of the term “yoke” to signify submission or repression. In one Jewish apocalyptic work from 300 BC we read: “We hoped to be the head and have become the tail: We have worked endlessly and have no satisfaction in our toil; And we have become targets of the sinners and the unrighteous, And they have laid their yoke heavily upon us.”5 It also appears that several Rabbis saw this yoke in similar fashion as our Lord. One of them said: “He that takes upon himself the yoke of the Law, will have the yoke of the kingdom and the yoke of worrying about what will happen6 taken away from him; but he that throws off the yoke of the Law, upon him shall be laid the yoke of the kingdom and the yoke of worrying about what will happen.”7 However, Jesus saw the yoke He offered as being lighter since He would help carry the load and He has overcome the world.
In that light, perhaps Jesus’ promise of rest for the soul would compensate for the imposition of worrying about what will happen. But this time He offers the right way, because He is the only Way. This yoke that Jesus talks about was also spoken of by one Rabbi: “Rabbi Judah by the authority of Samuel said, ‘One must accept upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven’.”8 They then go on to say that this yoke is to recite the first verse of the Shema while standing: “Hear, Isra’el! Adonai our God, Adonai is one.”9 Jesus was familiar with the yoke the Jews talked about, but He was offering a new one: “Hear, Israel, the Adonai our God and I are One.” We don’t send you off alone without guidance or authority. We are with you because we are yoked together.
But as we can see in Jewish writings, they had to live being yoked together with the commandments that God laid upon them.10 The reason Jesus wanted those who followed Him to be yoke together with Him was to learn that unlike the commandments, the guidelines and instructions He received from the Father were accompanied by grace and mercy. Being yoked together with the commandments, if you broke one, you shattered the yoke. You then had to be cleansed and forgiven by way of animal sacrifice, and a new yoke was placed on you to tie you together again. But the yoke of Christ came with the assurance that if you sinned, since Christ was already the accepted sacrifice, the Father would forgive you and cleanse you of all wrongdoing.11 The Jews had their own version of what it meant for a teacher to be gentle and humble.12
Verse 30: Yes, my yoke that joins us together is comfortable, and that makes the load you carry much lighter.
So often, the last part of this section is separated contextually from the first part and thereby loses some of the impact of what Jesus was saying. He begins by talking about how deeply and intimately He knows His heavenly Father and the Father is intimately acquainted with Him. And the only way anyone can join this union is if Jesus shares with others what the Father has shared with Him. In order to illustrate this, our Lord uses the metaphor of a yoke. A yoke is not a harness, it is an object that ties two things together. So the Master is saying, by my sharing with you the deep truth and understanding of the Father we are therefore yoked together in this understanding.
Then Jesus proceeds to use the idea of a yoke to again employ metaphorical symbols of how being yoked with Him will assist those who come to know what He knows about God. Let me illustrate this by inserting what each metaphor means in this context. “So come to me all of you who are tired from the heavy burden of fulfilling every letter of the law you have been forced to carry. I will give you relief from its impossible demands. Accept knowing what I know. Learn it from me. See that I will not force it on you like the scribes. And you will be able to get relief from their impossible demands. Yes, learning what I know should be easy for you to do. The responsibility for obeying what I give you is light.” Here our Lord echos God’s message to the faithful through the prophet Isaiah, “When I make a promise, that promise is true. It will happen. And I affirm by my own power that everyone will bow before me and will take an oath to obey me. They will say, ‘Goodness and strength come only from the Lord.’”13 Our Lord knew what Solomon meant when he said, “Words cannot fully explain things, but people continue speaking. Words come again and again to our ears, but our ears don’t become full. And our eyes don’t become full of what we see.”14
His disciples had already heard what the Law said from their youth, and now they were listening to the Messiah teach what they should know about grace and salvation. So Jesus was basically saying, I’m ready to do some personal tutoring because I know the source of this information better than anyone else on earth. When it came to obeying the law in order to get forgiveness and live righteously, it was a burden that even the strongest found hard to carry.
The prophet Micah put it this way, “What must I bring when I come to meet with the Lord? What must I do when I bow down to God above? Should I come to him with burnt offerings and a year-old calf? Will the Lord be pleased with a thousand rams or with ten thousand rivers of oil? Should I offer him my first child to pay for my wrongs? Should I sacrifice my very own child for my sins?”15 Jesus was saying, let me lift that burden for you and give you some rest.
Once the disciples fully understood this, they could say with the Psalmist, “The Lord takes care of those who cannot help themselves. I was like that, but He lifted me up. My soul, relax! The Lord is now caring for you.”16 The prophet Isaiah knew that this was God’s desire from the start. “God will use a unique way of communicating, and He will use a different vocabulary to speak to these people. In the past He spoke to them and said, ‘Here is a resting place. Let those who are tired come and rest. This is the place of peace.‘”17 Isaiah goes on to say, “I am the Lord your God. I teach you for your own good. I lead you in the way you should go.”18 It isn’t that the disciples were not going to be responsible with what they did with the things Jesus revealed to them. But whatever it was, it certainly would be easier than teaching the law and holding everyone responsible for obeying it in every detail.
One early church father gives us his understanding of an easy yoke and a light burden. He writes: “How is it then that Jesus Himself demands a high degree of strictness? He answers, “You have not yet had experience of things that are mine, and for this reason you think this way. But if you would take up my yoke and would believe in those things I give, you would find the greatest difference between the things that are from me and those that are from Moses. From me there is great, patient endurance and kindness. Seeing such a weight of sins—murders and self-love and things more unnameable than these—I am longsuffering and bear with those who do these things, not despising them but waiting for them to repent. If ever they should repent and change their ways, I immediately forgive them, not remembering their former acts. But the law of Moses is not like this. When you sin, it immediately punishes the sinner. It knows no repentance. It promises no remission. When I make demands about the covenant, I am not so much preoccupied with investigating the things that happened. For me, it is enough that a soul choose what is good with a genuine resolution. But the law goes overboard, both adding more punishments to the smaller ones and cursing the transgressors. Therefore my yoke is good on account of forgiveness, and my burden is light because it is not a collection of customs and various observances but decisions of the soul.”19
Also, they would be able to learn at their own pace, as long as they gave it their full effort to learn and follow what they were being taught. But first they needed to rid themselves of any burdens they were already carrying in order to be yoked together with Christ. The words of the Psalmist would serve them well, “Lord, I don’t feel proud. I don’t see myself as better than others. I am not thinking about doing great things or reaching impossible goals.”20 And that’s the way every aspiring believer should feel today. There is nothing wrong with confessing that you haven’t memorized every verse in the Bible, or that you don’t fully understand what each doctrine taken from the Bible means. But you can pray and study as the Holy Spirit teaches you so that you do understand the message you are about to deliver to others.
As a missionary in Europe and Asia, what Isaiah said became my mission statement, “I will not cry out or shout or try to make myself heard. I will not be hard on those who come to learn, not even the most vulnerable. I will not push away those who find it difficult to study. I will treat everyone fairly and evenly. I will not grow weak or give up until I have given everyone an opportunity to learn. So people in faraway places will be glad I came to teach.”21 I found that understanding God’s Word through prayer, study, asking, seeking and knocking brought what Solomon said to fruition, “Wisdom will lead you to a life of joy and peace. Wisdom is like a life-giving tree to those who hold on to her; she is a blessing to those who keep her close.”22 I’m sure Jesus had every hope that His disciples would accept this challenge and find out what a joy it was to share with others what He had shared with them.
1 Augustine: Sermons 69:2
2 Cyril of Alexandria, ibid., fragment 149
3 Jeremiah 6:16
4 Wisdom of Sirach (Book of Ecclesiasticus), Ch. 51:23, 26
5 Book of Enoch (also known as I Enoch) 103:11
6 The Sayings of the Jewish Fathers (Pirke Aboth), Translated by W. O. E. Oesterley, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1919, pp. 16, 33. This worrying is often expressed in Jewish literature as “worldly cares.” It means how ones behavior will be perceived by others. They point to Genesis 19:31; Joshua 23:14; 1 Kings 2:2 as examples.
7 Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKanah : Jewish Mishnah, op. cit. Fourth Division Nezikin, Tractate Abot, Ch. 3:5
8 Jerusalem Talmud, op. cit. First Division, Tractate Berakhot, Ch. 2:1 [I:2 A]
9 Deuteronomy 6:4 – Complete Jewish Bible
10 Jewish Mishnah, op. cit. First Division: Zeraim, Tractate Berakhot, Ch. 2:2
11 1 John 1:9
12 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Shabbath, folio 30b-31a
13 Isaiah 45:22-24
14 Ecclesiastes 1:8
15 Micah 6:6-7
16 Psalm 116:6-7
17 Isaiah 28:12
18 Ibid. 48:17
19 Theodore of Mopsuestia: Commentary fragment 67
20 Psalm 131:1
21 Isaiah 42:2-4
22 Proverbs 3:17