Question: What does it mean when Jesus says “my yoke is easy and my burden is light?”

Answer: This phrase comes from Matthew 11:30, which is part of a larger passage (Matthew 11:25-30). In that passage, Jesus begins by giving thanks to God the Father that he has “hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children” (Matthew 11:25). This begs the question: What is meant by “these things?” For the answer to that, we have to look at the broader context of this passage.

What you will see in Matthew 11:1 – 12:50 is the growing opposition to Jesus’ ministry; particularly by the Pharisees. In Matthew 11:2-19, he will answer the question posed to him by the disciples of John the Baptist. John’s disciples wondered if Jesus was the Christ, and Jesus reassures them by pointing to his works – the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, the deaf getting their hearing back – the very works that pointed to Messiah from the OT prophets. Jesus then addresses the crowd and extols the ministry of John the Baptist referring to him as the greatest of men.

After that, Jesus then rebukes “this generation” for their fickle attitude toward both he and John. The multitudes viewed John as having a demon and Jesus as being a “glutton and a drunkard.” In other words, the true gospel message of repentance and faith is rejected by the natural man no matter who preaches it and in what manner it is preached. Neither Jesus nor John conformed to the expectations of the people, and therefore they were roundly rejected.

So as this mounting opposition grows, Jesus thanks God the Father for hiding these things from the “wise and understanding.” That may seem like an odd thing to be thankful for; especially seeing as Jesus came to “seek and save the lost” (cf. Luke 19:10). It’s almost as if Jesus is OK with these people remaining lost. This is the doctrine of divine reprobation in a nutshell: The passing over of those who have hardened their hearts in their rejection of God. Jesus goes on to say, “No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (v. 27); further demonstrating the sovereignty of God in salvation and the truth of divine reprobation.

Interestingly, Jesus then follows this message of divine judgment on the unrepentant with an invitation for those who are “heavy laden” to come to him for rest. The context suggests that Jesus is calling out to the “little children” (v. 25) and inviting them to cast of the heavy yoke of the Pharisees and take up the yoke of Jesus. Later on in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will rebuke the Pharisees for laying heavy burdens on the shoulders of the people (cf. Matthew 23:4).

I think the meaning is quite clear: the “yoke of the Pharisees” is the burdensome yoke of self-righteousness and legalistic law-keeping. It has been said by biblical scholars that the Pharisees had added over 600 regulations regarding Sabbath keeping as to what qualified as ‘working’ on the Sabbath. That is a heavy burden! Recall the story of the lawyer who asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment of the Law (cf. Matthew 22:36). You can almost read between the lines of the man’s question – “What law, of all the laws we have, do I absolutely have to keep?”

Any kind of law-keeping is burdensome and amounts to a “heavy yoke” of oppression because no amount of law-keeping can bridge the gap between our sinfulness and God’s holiness. God says through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah that all of our righteous deeds are like a “polluted garment.” The sad truth is that even some Christian churches who profess to be ‘bible-believing’ churches substitute the message of the gospel for something more akin to “moralistic, therapeutic deism.”

The good news is that Jesus promises to all that come to him that he will give them rest. Rest from what? Rest from the heavy burden of trying to earn one’s way into heaven. Rest from the oppressive yoke of self-righteousness and legalism. Jesus encourages those who are “heavy laden” to take his yoke upon them and in so doing they will find rest for their souls. The yoke of Jesus is the yoke of repentance and faith followed by a singular commitment to follow him. As the Apostle John says, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).

This is what Jesus says in v. 30. His yoke is easy and his burden light. Now, you might think that there is really no difference between the commandments of Jesus and the Jewish Law. Isn’t the same God responsible for both? Technically speaking, yes. If anything, one might argue that the commands of Jesus are even more burdensome because his reformulation of the Mosaic Law in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matthew 5 – 7) actually goes above and beyond a mere outward conformity to the Law.

What makes Jesus’ yoke easy and his burden light is that in Jesus’ active obedience (i.e., his perfect fulfillment of the Law of God), he carried the burden that we were meant to carry. His perfect obedience is applied (imputed) to us through faith. Our obedience to Jesus then becomes our “spiritual worship.” Furthermore, we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit who works in our lives to make us into the image of Christ – if this doesn’t make the yoke of Jesus easy and his burden light, I don’t know what else does. The life lived by faith is a much lighter yoke, a much easier burden, to carry than the heavy and burdensome yoke of self-righteousness.