At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was Your gracious will. All things have been handed over to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him. 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 11:25-30 ESV
In Matthew 11:25-30, Jesus’ familiar invitation to take His yoke in verse 28 unfolds into profound hope when taken in the context of the surrounding, though often overlooked, verses. Jesus uses irony, the opposite of what is expected, to pull His listeners into His words and deepen their understanding. This passage falls into three parts based on who Jesus is addressing. First Jesus addresses the Father in praise (v25-26). Then Jesus explains His relationship to the Father to the crowd (v27). Last, Jesus specifically addresses those in the crowd who “labor and are heavy laden” (v28-30). In each section, a sharp distinction is made between what the listeners expect to be the case and what the truth actually is. The irony is a thread in the invitation of hope that Jesus is weaving.
Jesus’s public praise of God the Father in verses 25-26 is a glimpse of the unity between God the Father and God the Son. Jesus celebrates God’s will as “well-pleasing in Your sight.” In other words, Jesus is pleased by that which pleases the Father. Jesus thinks God’s will is good; the Two are entirely united in will. What is this pleasing will? Contrary to what the crowd expected, God’s will is to hide “these things from the wise and understanding” and reveal them “to little children.”
To understand the full extent of the irony, one has to answer “Who are these wise and understanding?” and “Who are the little children?” The earlier chapters of Matthew give this context. Chapter 11 opens with the disciples of John the Baptist asking Jesus if He is the “expected One” (11:3). Jesus answers by citing Isaiah’s description of the Messiah (11:4-6) and then chastises those in the crowd who did not believe John and subsequently Jesus Himself (11:7-19). Jesus then denounces the unrepentant in the cities where most of His mighty works had been done: Chorazin, Bathsaida, and Capernaum (11:20-24). Matthew 9 details miracle after miracle that Jesus performed in and around Capernaum (Matt 9:1, see Mark 2:1) and the persistent unbelief and accusations of the Pharisees. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were the religious leaders who the Jewish people, whom Jesus spoke to, would have viewed as the educated and godly elite. Therefore, “the wise and understanding” from whom the things of God are hidden is in part referring to the unrepentant Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees expected that God would reveal the things of God to the intelligent, the educated, and renown, not the ignorant, illiterate, and the unimportant. But it was God’s good will to hide true wisdom and understanding from those who arrogantly believed themselves to be wise and learned. The Pharisees and Sadducees repeatedly refused to believe Jesus and instead criticized and challenged Him by leaning on their own understanding rather than God’s.
The “little children” (ESV) or “infants” (NASB), can inversely be identified as those who are not the proudful Pharisees or leaders. The Pharisees believed their intelligence made them self-sufficient. However, God reveals Himself to those who are as dependent on Him as children are on their parents. A child wholly relies on its parents not only to learn but to sustain its life entirely. Jesus fleshes out more qualifications of those to whom God has revealed these things in His invitation in verse 28. But before that, Jesus defines what these hidden things are by explaining His unity with the Father.
Where Jesus’s praise of the Father gave a glimpse into His unity with God the Father, verse 27 lays it open. First, “all” the “things” that God the Father handed over to Jesus is exactly that, all the things. In addition to rightly praising God by calling Him “Lord of heaven and earth,” Jesus is also defining that which God has handed over to Him: heaven and earth. Jesus affirms this in Matthew 28:18 when He says, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Me.” The unity of God the Father and God the Son is shown by the Father giving over His absolute authority to the Son.
Jesus doesn’t stop there but continues to explain His intimate unity with God as “no one knows the Son except for the Father; and no one knows the Father except for the Son…” The prophet Isaiah tells us that our human thoughts are not God’s thoughts, nor are His ways our ways; they are as far apart as the heavens from the earth and the east from the west (Isaiah 55:8-9). The crowd then would expect that no one at all could know God. Yet the Son knows the Father and the Father knows the Son. Their thoughts and ways are one in the same. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he explains that the hidden mystery of God is that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus Christ is entirely God, for in Jesus the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Col 1:19). When Jesus says that only the Father knows the Son and only the Son knows the Father, He is both expressing His very nature as divine and His deep intimacy with God the Father.
Jesus doesn’t stop there either! He adds “and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” This clause contains two outstanding elements. First, “anyone” is without any qualification in itself. This means anyone: not just the educated or elite but the ordinary, the unknown, the poor, or the sinner. The only qualification is that the Son wills the person to know the Father. Essentially, Jesus, having been given all authority on heaven and earth, can choose anyone! It is the very essence of unmerited, undeserved, unimaginable grace. This is good news for anyone who has ever been told they are disqualified from relationship with God because who their parents are, how much money they make, how much education they have, where they grew up, or how anyone else has judged them. Anyone can include us, the criminal, the barista, the man sleeping in the bus stop, and our friends and family whom we desperately will to know God. The second breathtaking component of this clause is that those whom Christ wills know the Father. Those whom Christ chooses can know the Father just as He Himself as the Son knows the Father. Indeed, those who Christ wills become sons of God (Luke 20:36). This is why Jesus prayed before His death that He would be in us as the Father is in Him so that we are brought to complete unity (John 17:23). Not only does Jesus have this robust intimacy with God the Father but He also wills “anyone” to have that same intimacy with God as well. This is the climax of why Jesus is explaining His relationship to the Father: Through Jesus Christ, anyone can know God the Father.
In verse 25, we learned that the Father’s good will is to reveal the things of God to little children. In verse 27 we learn that the Son’s good will is to reveal the Father. Since the Son’s will and the Father’s will are the same, as shown by Jesus’s praise of the Father, then those whom Jesus invites to learn from Him in verse 28 are the same as the “little children.” Who is it then that Jesus wills to reveal the Father; who are these little children? They are the weary, the burdened, the exhausted, the weak.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus began His teachings with the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they will inherit the Kingdom of God. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:3, 5,6). The weary and heavy-laden are those who toil trying to appease the law and additional stipulations stacked upon it by the Pharisees to fight their sin so that they may know God. The exhausted and burden are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, but continually find they come up short both with the Pharisees and God’s commands. The laborers are those who know their sin stands between them and God and realize they are dependent on God’s grace rather than their own attempts to clean themselves. Like David in Psalm 51, they see that nothing they can do can fully atone for their sin and thus rely on God’s unfailing love so that He has mercy on them. They are those who the “wise and understanding” deem unable to know God. And they are those whom Christ invites to Himself to find rest.
However, Jesus doesn’t offer the laborers lemonade or a recliner, He offers them a yoke that oxen would use to plow fields. The ironic invitation bids the questions: How can a yoke be restful?
Yokes appear often in both the old and new testament. As an agricultural society, the Jewish people would easily relate to such an image as being yoked. The crowd would have known that when two oxen are yoked together, they must travel the same path and do the same work. To take up Christ’s yoke is to commit to doing as He does and walking the path He walks. In doing so one learns from Christ. No one wants to be bound to violent criminal. No one wants a teacher who is abusive. Jesus reassures His hearers that He is not these things. One can yoke themselves to Christ because He is “gentle and humble in heart.” Christ also clarifies that He isn’t speaking of physical rest but spiritual by adding, “rest for your souls” in verse 29.
In Jeremiah 27, a striking parallel to Jesus’ yoke is found in the prophet literally wearing a yoke. Jeremiah appears before the king and elders urging them to yoke themselves to God’s chosen servant, Nebuchadnezzar. God declares through Jeremiah: “It is I who by My great power and My outstretched arm have made the earth, with the men and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever it seems right to Me. Now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, My servant, and I have given him also the beasts of the field to serve him. All the nations shall serve him…” (Jeremiah 27:5-7). God the Father more profoundly handed over all things in heaven and earth to Jesus, the Son, as He had given Nebuchadnezzar authority over the lands and the people of Israel. However, the king and leaders of Jeremiah’s time refused to listen and in their pride chose to believe the false prophets and rely on their own strength. The Pharisees and the Sadducees rejected Jesus just as the educated and elite rejected Jeremiah in his day. In contrast to Nebuchadnezzar, Jesus is “gentle and lowly in heart.” Instead of carrying away the people from God’s presence in exile as Nebuchadnezzar’s yoke did, Jesus offers a yoke that carries the weary into the knowledge of God.
Such a yoke is restful because Jesus’s invitation is a promise to share the burden, which stands in contrast to the heavy burdens the Pharisees and leaders laid on the people. The leaders didn’t lift a finger to carry the load they heaped on the people (Luke 11:46). Jesus, however, gives one rest by carrying the load of fulfilling the law Himself. Yoked to Him, one can learn to know God and be as intimate with God as Christ is.
Jesus describes His yoke as “easy” and His burden as “light.” Again, some irony creeps in. Jesus tells His disciples in Luke 14 to count the cost of being His disciple; one must “bear his own cross” (v27). Even in the Beatitudes, Jesus says “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” and “blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account” (Matthew 5:10, 11). Crosses and persecution do not seem “easy” and “light.” So is Jesus contradicting Himself? Certainly not. His yoke and burden are easy and light because He carries the load. Yoking oneself to Christ means having faith in His work on one’s behalf, trusting Christ’s atoning sacrifice of Himself on the cross as payment and ransom for one’s sins and relying on Christ’s righteousness alone.
Because Christ carried the load, Paul proclaimed that he “can do all things” (Phil 4:13). Paul’s confidence is not from his “righteousness that comes from the law” (Phil 3:9) or his wisdom and intelligence, which he considers “garbage” (Phil 3:8). Paul’s righteousness comes “from God through faith in Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:9). Peter similarly writes that his readers rejoice though “grieved by various trails” (1 Peter 1:6). They can rejoice in the midst of suffering because they have “a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). Jesus isn’t promising a cake walk or a comfortable, apathetic life; He’s promising to carry the load of the law and the burden of sin. Taking on the yoke of faith in Christ frees us to set down the burden of the law of sin and death.
The Greek for “easy” in verse 30 can be translated as “comfortable,” but it more often appears in the New Testament as “good” or “kind.” This same word can also be rendered as “useful.” “Light” in the Greek is the opposite of heavy; and can also be used for “agile” or “quick.” Instead of reading verse 30 as “My yoke is comfy and My burden is like a feather,” substituting the synonyms gives a different, more robust picture: “For My yoke is fruitful and My burden buoyant.” Jesus’s useful yoke contrasts the futile precepts of the Pharisees. His “good” yoke is the antithesis of the Pharisees’ superfluous and empty regulations. One becomes productive in the pursuit of knowing God under the kind guidance and work of Christ as opposed to the Sisyphean tasks of the Pharisees. A burden that is quick and agile gives the image of a frolicking mountain goat rather than weighed down ox. Jesus is inviting the weary to “take off that which hinders and the sin that entangles" (Hebrews 12:1) by removing the yoke of the Pharisees and taking His “light” burden to run the race with ease and agility. Rather than offering a list of impossible tasks or a sofa and unlimited Netflix, Jesus invites us to put on His lightweight running shoes and go to work with Him.
Jesus’s offer echoes back further still. Beyond rest from the extraneous rules of the Pharisees, beyond the statues of the Law given to Moses, beyond the short comings that each of us when we’re honest with ourselves know exist within ourselves, Jesus’s invitation addresses where the problem of sin began. After Adam had taken and eaten the fruit and then tried to hide it from God, the holy and just God rightly cursed Adam, “Because you listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat of the plants of the field” (Gen. 3:17-18). The Israelites were so familiar with yokes and farming because ever since Adam, man was cursed to labor until weary just to eat. Our sin reaps fruitless toil, but Jesus offers rest. Because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we can have rest from religious requirements, rest from vainly striving for perfection, rest from tyranny of brokenness, and rest from the rule of the sin within. In taking Christ’s yoke, we take rest from rebellion against God and learn to walk in the ways of our Creator.
The Pharisees thought they knew God, and puffed up with their status and education, they piled restrictions and regulations upon the people that in no way brought the people closer to God but rather exiled and enslaved them. Conversely, Jesus offers rest for the weary by sharing His yoke with them and teaching them who the Father is. The Pharisees self-professed wisdom and intelligence did not entitle them to know God, rather their pride prevented them from seeing the things of God. God the Father and God the Son did not choose those who thought they were smart or had it all figured out, but rather those who recognized their need for help, who recognized that no matter how hard they tried to fulfill the law they were still sinful and therefore as dependent as babies on God for hope and salvation. Christ invitation still stands for us today: “Come to Me all who labor under the oppression of sin and are weighed down by trying to fix yourselves through religious rules, and I will give you rest…For My yoke is useful and good and My burden is freeing and light.”