I first encountered The Message translation of this oft-quoted verse about four years ago and was instantly struck by it. It captured my attention because all I knew—all I had—at the time was heavy and ill-fitting. Though I couldn’t necessarily name my yoke back then, I knew I was heavily burdened and longing for relief, but I did not know how to seek it.
Jesus’s words pierced the ill-fitting armour I was suffocating inside and found their way straight to my heart. Could He—knowing me for exactly who I am—possibly want to keep company with me and give me the deep, deep rest I so desired?
I wanted to believe it, but I struggled. I painted the words on a huge sign and hung it on my living room wall, where it has remained ever since, a daily reminder to seek Him and the rest that He offers.
Over time, it began to fade into the background, just another piece of art blending in ambiguously with all the others. It caught my eyes sometimes. On a harried afternoon, I occasionally glanced up at it as I hastened to return all the toys to their chest. If I noticed it at all, an inadequate, “That’s nice,” echoed in my head, the voice of a woman disillusioned enough to stare the answer to all her problems in the face, never really comprehending that which she sees.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
What an invitation!
A call to rest, to God’s divine rest. A call to keep company with Jesus, the one who knows us inside and out, who sees all our messiness, our flaws, our brokenness, and who loves us all the same. He—yea, this loving, compassionate, forgiving Messiah—says "Come to me," for He wants to be with us, to spend time with us, to teach us His ways.
A call to freedom and lightness. A casting off of all that is weighing us down—our sin, fear, shame, anxiety, anger, all of it—and a stepping out into a new way of living. A way of living defined by His presence, His company, His peace, which He longs to bring upon us, like a flowing river quenching a parched and thirsty land.
It is a call to walk in step with the perfect will of God for our lives. To hear and obey that which He calls us to do. A message He so desperately wants to whisper in our ears when we’re finally able to remove ourselves from the deafening noise long enough to hear it.
Come to me
But you know, for all my years of admiring and staring at this passage in my weary state, the depth of its meaning failed to sink down within me. I knew and believed that Jesus had the power to relieve me of my burdens and my unrest, I just couldn’t figure out why He wasn’t doing it. I made the sign, I hung it up, I glanced at it intermittently, prayed about it now and again.
But I didn’t feel any different. I was still tired, still worn out.
I had no idea what a real rest felt like; I’d never experienced it. I was anxious all the time. The burdens I was carrying were not getting any lighter. In fact, they seemed to be multiplying.
It wasn’t until I recognized that it was my soul—not my body—that was in the direst need of rest that this passage started to come alive in me.
It wasn’t until I recognized that it was my soul—not my body—that was in the direst need of rest that Matthew 11:28 started to come alive in me.
The NIV puts it this way, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
I needed to find a way for not just my mind and body to come to Him, but also my soul, and that act of deepest communion was not possible in my ongoing state of physical restlessness. How can the soul commune with its Creator when the body won’t slow down long enough to even acknowledge the existence of its soul?
Jesus compares His yoke—submission to the Father through acceptance and following of the Son—to that which we once carried, the heavy burden of religious compliance (Luke 11:37-52). Though present-day Christ followers are unlikely to be yoked to the Law in the way our predecessors were, I can’t help but wonder if our desire to fulfill our role in the body doesn’t sometimes have the same impact on us. Do we not get pulled into more ministries and serving roles than we can adequately manage, and in our efforts to be the body; and to be everything to everybody, do we not end up running ourselves so ragged that our soul is no longer capable of seeking Him, or His yoke, or His rest?
Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness
A few chapters earlier, Jesus told his disciples not to worry about anything, but to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.” (Matthew 6:33).
This is where true rest begins. It starts with us renewing our mind and casting our anxieties and worries upon him, trusting that when we seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, that everything we need will be given to us.
From there, we must slow our bodies down enough that our soul has time to awaken, to emerge from its hiding space, stretch out its arms, and sit down to do its own work, to put on the yoke of Jesus, let’s say. I have come to realize that the restless soul—the one that is not ready to come face-to-face with its sins, the one that doesn’t have a true sense of His calling on its life, the one that doesn’t fully realize what has been offered to us through the cross or just how deeply it is loved by Jesus—wants the body and mind to stay perpetually busy and preoccupied: how else will it avoid dealing with the universal questions that plague it?
But deal with them we must. The only way to experience the true freedom and rest that Jesus offers us—that He so freely gives—is to deal with these questions of the soul, to pray for understanding and wisdom, that we might know Him and that He might dwell in our hearts through faith, so that we, “being rooted and established in love, may have power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that [we] may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17-19).
A real rest
The rest we receive from Him is first a release from the grip that these unanswered questions have on us: Am I loved? Am I forgiven? What is my purpose? Will my needs be met? Will my life have meaning? Only once these have been settled in our hearts and minds can we be properly yoked to Him, submitting in love, serving Him in obedience, hearing and heeding His whispers, learning His ways and walking with Him.
How then, should we seek the answers to these questions? Keep company with me. We must make it a priority to spend time with Him, something our frantic pace of life too often precludes. We must slow down long enough to walk with Him, to watch Him, to learn His ways. We do this through scripture study, prayer, meditation, silence—things that cannot exist in a life plagued with busyness.
The Matthew Henry Commentary sums this up so well:
“First, rest for the soul is the most desirable rest; to have the soul to dwell at ease. Secondly, the only way, and a sure way to find rest for our souls, is to sit at Christ's feet and hear his word. The way of duty is the way of rest. The understanding finds rest in the knowledge of God and Jesus Christ, and is there abundantly satisfied, finding that wisdom in the gospel which has been sought for in vain throughout the whole creation.”
I look at my sign through a new lens now. How can I not? It represents at once a warning and a promise, an invitation and a command. Come to me. Take a real rest. Walk with me, work with me. Watch how I do it. Keep company with me.
The answer now to me is clear: the rest that I seek—both for my soul and my body—comes from accepting this invitation. A call to His holy presence, to His companionship, to a laying down of everything I am worried and anxious about and a taking up instead of an easy and pleasant yoke. A yoke whose weight is so light, it can be borne indefinitely. Daily, I must accept this invitation and reject all that which encumbers it. Simultaneously simple and profoundly challenging, that is the path to true rest.