Life is hard. There is so much that makes us feel weary: our vocational labors, our parenting labors, our ministry labors, our relational conflicts, our sudden or lingering illnesses. Almost everything we do can at times exhaust us. But what makes us most weary aren’t the things we do; it’s what we believe.
Our beliefs either lighten our burdens or add to them. Jesus knew this. That’s why at times he would look out on the crowd of people flocking to him, and he’d overflow with compassion, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). At least once it moved him to cry out to the weary,
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)
And because of his great compassion, we have one of the most beautiful gospel invitations from God to sinners in all of Scripture. In these three precious sentences, the Savior bares his shepherd’s heart to us.
Yes, to us. Jesus feels the same compassion toward those of us who are heavy laden today as he did to the weary back then. And he extends his invitation as urgently and tenderly to us as he did to those harassed and helpless people. His great desire is that we find the rest we so desperately need, which is a rest that only he can give. And so he calls us to come to him, a command loaded with burden-lifting grace and mercy.
“Come to me . . . and I will give you rest.” My goodness, who would not want to receive such a wonderful invitation? Many, as we discover in the immediate context surrounding these verses.
Just before and after Jesus made this amazing offer, we hear him rebuke the people of certain cities (Matthew 11:20–24) and then the Jewish religious leaders (Matthew 12:1–14). For they had heard his teaching and saw firsthand his miracles — works that so clearly demonstrated who he was (John 5:36) — and yet they still did not believe in him.
In fact, the leaders’ offense was worse. Not only were they rejecting Jesus’s rest for themselves, but what they taught was only adding to the burdens of their heavy-laden listeners. We hear this in a rebuke Jesus delivered to them on another occasion: “You load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 11:46).
Unbelief and wrong belief (and false teaching) were causing great misery.
So, out of the heart of God the Son, “the exact imprint of [the Father’s] nature” (Hebrews 1:3), pours this great invitation. It flowed from his grief over watching unbearable burdens being heaped on people and from his compassionate desire to bear their burdens for them. If they would but let him, he would exchange the unbearable for an easy yoke and a light burden.
Let Me Bear the Unbearable
What precisely is this easy yoke Jesus offers us? Jesus actually provided an answer to that question when a crowd once asked him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” (John 6:28). “This is the work of God,” he responded, “that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). And to his disciples on the night before he died, he put it this way: “Abide in me” (John 15:4). Believe in me, abide in me, trust me: this, at root, is the work Jesus requires of those who would find rest in him. Jesus wants for us to live by faith in him — to rest on the hope-giving promises of God.
And in exchange, Jesus removes our former yoke from us and carries it on his own shoulders: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). On the cross, Jesus took our inconceivably and unbearably heavy yoke of sin’s condemnation and penalty. And that redemptive work not only purchased our justification (2 Corinthians 5:21); it also ensures the fulfillment of God’s promise to supply all of our needs (Philippians 4:19) and underwrites his invitation that we continually cast all our anxieties on him, since he continually cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).
In this exchange, Jesus bears all our unbearable soul-burdens and gives us the soul-rest we so desperately need.
The Rest We Most Desperately Need
That’s what we deeply long for: rest for our souls. For the hardest burdens to bear are our soul burdens. And so often what burdens our souls are the effects of false beliefs — half-truths we believe about God, ourselves, others, the world, the future, and life that weigh down our hearts with sorrow, fear, anxiety, discouragement, or despair.
The degree that something we believe drains us of hope is the degree to which that belief burdens our souls. For our souls only find peace and rest in hope. This is why we find Scripture recording God’s people saying things like,
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God. (Psalm 42:11)
For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken. (Psalm 62:5–6)
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13)
Hope is what we’re frantically looking for whenever our souls are heavy laden. But hope is only as good as what it rests on is true. A false hope will eventually become its own unbearable soul-burden.
And that is why Jesus cried out, “Come to me!” The God of hope himself, the God of compassion, the God who wishes to bear our sin, to daily bear us up (Psalm 68:19), to shepherd through places of refreshment and danger (Psalm 23), to give us all we need, and to “rescue [us] from every evil deed and bring [us] safely into his heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18), this God invites us to come to him and receive from him rest for our souls.
For only Jesus can provide that rest.
Rest That Makes the Hard Way Possible
Coming to Jesus for soul-rest doesn’t change the fact that life is hard. It doesn’t mean our vocational, parenting, and ministry labors, or our relational conflicts, our illnesses, or the countless other struggles we could include will no longer weary us. Jesus made that clear when he said, “The way is hard that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14).
In fact, in another great invitation, he said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). This sounds very different from Matthew 11:28–30. Is Jesus calling us to a life of refreshing rest or to a life of sacrificial dying?
The answer, as you might expect, is both. These invitations aren’t at all contradictory. The truth is, accepting the invitation to Christ-given rest makes accepting the invitation to Christlike living and dying possible. For when a soul has been relieved of its unbearable burdens and is abounding in Spirit-empowered hope and joy through believing the promises of our burden-bearing Lord, we are able to say with Paul,
This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17–18)
Coming to Jesus for rest doesn’t shield us from afflictions. It transforms afflictions from fear-dominating, anxiety-producing, and hopeless to “light and momentary.” Hoping in the God of hope makes all the difference.
So, Jesus says to us, “Come to me.” His shepherd’s heart toward us is filled with the same compassion, and his invitation is as urgent and tender as ever. But it is an invitation that must be accepted. Many do not.