Whose Yoke Is It?

"Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." — Matthew 11:29-29

A few Sunday afternoons ago our after-dinner conversation brought us to grace versus law. Trying to make a point, I asked the table, "What statement in the Gospels most clearly and completely distils Christianity?"

"'This is the first and great commandment,' etc.?" ventured Johnny Bain.

"No," I answered, "I think it is those words you hear every Sunday in the Communion Service, right after the confession of sin and the announcement of pardon, the first of the "comfortable words": "Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all who truly turn to him. `Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.’"


Why do these words distil the gospel so completely for me? First, they define our condition. We are sinners groaning and labouring under a heavy burden—so heavy that the remembrance of our sins is "grievous" unto us, the burden of them is "intolerable," as the Prayer Book says. We are sinners. Weary Sinners. Sinners without rest in sight.

But more, these comfortable words offer us rest and grace. What does that say about the nature of God and Jesus Christ? Sinners (and too often saints as well) view him as law, demanding a perfection of us we cannot deliver. Indeed, he is perfect, but above his perfect justice his grace crowns all his righteousness.

The whole point of the Gospel—the good news—is not "Be perfect as I am perfect," although that, too, is there. Rather, God says to us first, "Rest in me because I am perfect, and since you cannot make yourself perfect, I will make you perfect in Christ."

What amazes me is that God meets us where meeting is possible, not impossible. He does not wait for us to come to him, but comes to us in our helplessness. "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." He comes to us as we are, not as the frightening, sovereign God on whom we cannot even rest our eyes, but as a little child, as a baby, as a friend, in the workplace and in the marketplace.

The good news is, Jesus’ name translates Jehovah saves! God intends to save sinners. He is our friend, and our father. ("Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust." Psalm 103:113-14) The gospel is an island of Grace in an ocean of grace on a globe of grace. Grace comes to us first, God forgiving and enabling us to love and obey him.


Freely I admit that two things seem to be happening here all at once, grace and law. What we can’t lose sight of, however, is that God’s grace comes first and conditions all our relation with him. Grace and law never contradict each other, but, as the Westminster Confession quaintly states it, they do "sweetly comply." Certainly the Law convicts sinners and alarms their consciences and fears, but it also guides the saved into the way of obedience. Law becomes grace to the saved. On the one it is a curse, on the other a blessing. To the sinner, righteousness is both hopeless and hateful. No amount of work can reach it, so why try? To the saved, righteousness and rest are vouchsafed—promised and guaranteed.


What did the Pharisees so misunderstand in Christ’s preaching? They refused to believe that the crown over all God’s perfections is warm mercy, not cold righteousness. They refused to understand that grace comes first, then obedience, not vice versa. "We love him because he first loved us." The blood of Christ purges us from self-righteousness to serve God with a whole and willing heart. (Hebrews 9:13, 14) "[God] retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy." (Micah 7:18b)

Starting out from the wrong place, the Pharisees’ "righteousness" inevitably perverted the law into unrighteousness. (Matt 15:1-3 ff) Over and over, Christ keeps on telling them, "You’ve missed the whole point!" Take this example from Matthew 9:11-13.

"And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, 'Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?’

"But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, 'They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’"

Jesus was not announcing some new law, or something new in God’s character. He was quoting Hosea 6:6 and Micah 8:6-8, with Exodus 20:6, 34:6, and Deuteronomy 33:27 in mind ("The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath [you] are the everlasting arms" What a picture!). The Pharisees refused to understand that God’s law and righteousness never exist without his mercy and his grace. He does not mean to kill, but to save us. "There is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared." (Ps. 130:4)


Once God graciously and unilaterally brings us into his family, law-and-grace and rest-and-work are so closely intertwined that they seem to happen at the same time. Hebrews 3:4-4:11 discusses the rest (grace) into which the people of God enter. However, that is set forth in the context of obedience to God (work).

"Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily while it is called Today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin."

Work? Yes, but the balance of this passage more than any other argues for a continuing weekly observance of a day of rest (the Fourth Commandment). It points to another rest as well, the entry into which rest (grace) is the defining hallmark of the people of God.

"For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his [on the seventh day of creation.]"

The seeming simultaneity of law and grace, work and rest, is most sharply expressed by Paul in Philippians 2:12b-13, "[W]ork out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure."

Well, which is it? Is God working, or am I? Both. Because God works in me, I can work in confidence that he will "perfect what concerns me." (Ps. 138) His gracious work in us calls forth a grateful response from us in work. Because he has first worked in us and we have therefore entered into his rest, we rest from our own works. That is, we abandon any thought that our works can earn us favour with God. His unqualified love qualifies us for his grace, which qualifies us to do his work.

God is holy and terrible and perfectly righteous, so it is fitting for us to approach him with fear and trembling. But still, we always remember that he both tenderly desires that we approach him, and gently enables our approach. "Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."


Elijah offers us a perfect example of God’s gracious will towards us. Elijah performed great works for God. He stages the Fire Calling Down Contest with the priests of Ba’al on Mount Carmel, derides them all day, then calls down fire on his sacrifice. Not content with proving who was God, he orders all 400 priests of Ba’al executed. Then he predicts rain and ties up his robe up around his waist and runs back to Samaria faster than Ahab can drive his chariot.

Not bad for a country boy from Tishbe.

That triumph doesn’t last long. Jezebel finds out what he’d done and sends him a note prophesying that she will kill him. Elijah, of course, responds calmly and logically to the situation.

Nope, he lays tracks for the border. Once he gets there he pauses only long enough to leave his servant (who I reckon was slowing him down) and then he starts kicking up dust for the wilderness. He runs another whole day before he stops and lays his weary bones down under a juniper tree.

Now what does God do? Does he send an angel to punch Elijah in the side and lecture him about running away from trouble? No. Does he send an angel to cuss him for a cowardly dog and kick him in the ribs or other kickable parts of his anatomy?

No, praise his holy Name, he lets Elijah rest. And when he has slept, an angel comes and wakes him up with something to eat and drink. Elijah falls asleep a second time. Again the angel wakes him up and tells him to eat, "Because the journey is too great for thee." It isn’t just Elijah’s present journey into the wilderness he means, either, but the journey of his whole life.

So Elijah walks another forty days into the Wilderness until he comes to Mount Horeb—the special mountain of God, the mountain where God had given Moses the law (no accident, that). Elijah settles into a cave, and only then is God ready to talk to him.

What does he say to Elijah? Does he say, "What in the world are you doing here in the desert when Jezebel is back there persecuting my people and dancing in front of the temple of Ba’al, you slouch?" No. Gently, gently he asks Elijah a question, "What are you doing here?"

With a show of earthquake and storm and fire God reminds Elijah of his power. Then, and only then, comes "a still, small voice"—after Elijah had rested from his labours.


Personally I experience a cycle which I imagine a lot of Christians share. I start out holding firmly to God’s grace, then I remember this thing he requires me to do, and then that thing, then another, until I am weighed down to the ground with the load. Finally I collapse in rebellion. "I can’t do it!"

Years ago, caught deep in the forgetful, legalistic phase of my cycle, I was complaining to a friend about all my burdens. "You know," he said, "you ought to ask yourself whether that burden belongs to you or to Jesus. If it’s too heavy to bear, then it’s your burden, and not his, because he says, "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

Friends, if your burden is too heavy to bear, is it yours or Christ’s? His can never be too heavy to carry.

For the best news is, first of all, he gives us rest.