Matthew 11:28-30 Through Old Testament Eyes: Rest

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from Matthew Through Old Testament Eyes
by David B. Capes

Matthew 11:28–30

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Jesus’ offer to “come to me” is an invitation to relationship and discipleship. His promise—I will give you rest—assumes a variety of Old Testament shades depending on the contexts.[1] For example, at Mt. Sinai Moses is busy interceding for his people and taking advantage of his special relationship with God. As Moses presses God further, he wants assurance that God will go with them along the journey to the promised land. YHWH seems reluctant at first to make the pledge, but finally he says: “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Ex 33:14). Ambiguity resides in this text (in English); “you” could be singular (Moses) or plural (the people). But the Hebrew is not ambiguous. God’s pledge appears to be focused on Moses: “My Presence will go with you, Moses, and I will give you rest.” But Moses was not content with that. Three times in his pleading he brings God back to his people: “Remember that this nation is your people” (Ex 33:13, italics added) and “For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth” (Ex 33:16 NRSV, italics added). It is not too much to say that Moses demands that YHWH accompany his people and give them rest; eventually, the Lord agrees to everything Moses asks (Ex 33:17).[2] In this context, entering rest has to do with entering the promised land. The slaves of Egypt under Moses’s governance would not remain nomads forever. There is a long journey ahead, but they will have the land God has promised. Then they will have rest.

Sabbath rest constitutes a different kind of rest, a cessation of labor (Ex 20:8–11). For those who had been slaves in Egypt, the command not to work one day in seven likely sounded strange. But Sabbath rest is based on God’s rest in creation. In six days YHWH made the heavens, the earth, the seas, and all their inhabitants, and then he rested on the seventh (Ge 1:1–2:3). Sabbath rest, then, forms a type of imitation of God. On day seven his people are to lay their burdens down.

Going Deeper into Rest: Matthew 11:28–30

In Jeremiah, the people are in the land. They had been for hundreds of years, but there are threats against them from ancient superpowers that filled them with dread. Through the prophet, the Lord says (Jer 6:16):

Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls.

“Rest for your souls” sounds remarkably like what Jesus promised. YHWH’s offer to Jerusalem was an opportunity to seek the right road, the ancient path. If they discovered it, it would be “the good way” and they ought to walk in it. We are dealing here with deep, ethical metaphors for what God wants for his people now, in this world. Another way of putting this is to say that obedience to God and his way will lead his people into soul-rest. It echoes Jesus’ invitation toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Enter by the narrow gate. The narrow gate leads to a narrow road. Few are on it. The end of that road is life (Mt 7:13–14). When we read passages like this, we should be careful not to default immediately to thinking “rest” means the assurance of life after death. That may well be the end to which all things are headed, but in the present we are not meant to live insecure, frazzled existences. Rest can be, ought to be, a here-and-now reality for kingdom citizens.

This squares perfectly with what Jesus says next: take my yoke upon you, learn from me, my yoke is easy, my burden light. A yoke consisted of a wooden frame that joined two oxen for pulling a load (Nu 19:2; Dt 21:3; 1 Sa 6:7). But the idea of a yoke became a ready symbol for subjection of one person to another (Ge 27:40) or one nation to another (Jer 27:8–11). On most occasions the symbol is deployed negatively. The people, for example, came to Rehoboam with the complaint that his father, Solomon, had placed on them a heavy yoke of servitude and asked him to lighten their load. After consulting with advisors, the new king decided to make a statement, saying in effect, “You think my father’s yoke was heavy, I will add to your yoke and make it even heavier” (1 Ki 12:1–15). Often the prophets describe God as shattering the yoke of the oppressors (e.g., Isa 9:4; Jer 30:8; Na 1:13). Jeremiah chastises the rich of Israel for breaking the “yoke” of the covenant; by that he meant that they did not know the way of YHWH nor did they live according to God’s law (Jer 5:5). Positively, it could be said that a person who spent time learning the way of God and living by God’s law was yoked to the covenant.

The rabbis took these ideas, developed them in their own unique way, and the yoke image became a useful way to describe a person who undertakes the study of Torah (m. Avot 3.5; cf. Sirach 51:23–27). It is probably this meaning that is closest to what Jesus is talking about. Taking Jesus’ yoke stands in parallel with “learn from me.” Likewise, “my yoke is easy” stands in complement to “my burden is light.” Taking on Jesus’ yoke refers to anyone who decides to learn Jesus’ teachings and then live by them. Jesus fulfills Torah, every jot and tittle—to borrow the King James language—so following Jesus and his teachings means fulfilling Torah, Jesus’ way.

Following Jesus does not mean that God promises we can take wonderful, long naps every day. Nor does it mean that all of our sleep will be restful. It means we have the security and safety of leaning on the power and love of God to do his will rather than the exhausting work of relying only on our own energy or understanding in life.

[1] There are 430 references to “rest” in the Old Testament in thirty-five of the thirty-nine books. Many of these relate to Sabbath and God’s promise of rest for his people. See Stephen Westerholm, “Sabbath,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 716–19 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992).

[2] Brevard Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster, 1974), 594–95.

This post is adapted from Matthew Through Old Testament Eyes by David B. Capes. This title is set to be released on March 26, 2024. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

Through Old Testament Eyes is a new kind of commentary series that illuminates the Old Testament backgrounds, allusions, patterns, and references saturating the New Testament. The structure and content of the Old Testament were second nature to the New Testament authors and their audiences, but today’s readers have no reference point for understanding their intricate role in the New Testament. Bible teachers, preachers, and students committed to understanding Scripture will gain insight through these rich Old Testament connections, which clarify puzzling passages and explain others in fresh ways.

The Gospel of Matthew contains both overt and subtle connections to the Old Testament, capitalizing on the scriptural literacy of the work’s original, first-century Jewish audience. These complex and multifaceted connections are not always recognized by today’s readers, meaning significant ideas can be easily missed or misappropriated. David B. Capes elucidates these extensive backgrounds, echoes, quotations, ways of thinking, and patterns of living, showing how God’s plan–introduced in the Hebrew Scriptures–is revealed through the very person, work, life, and ministry of Jesus.




About Author

David B. Capes (PhD, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the executive director of the Lanier Theological Library (Houston, Texas). He taught for more than thirty years in various colleges and graduate schools around the country. He earned his PhD in New Testament. He is the author, coauthor, editor, or coeditor of a number of books including The Divine Christ: Paul, the Lord Jesus, and the Scriptures of Israel and Rediscovering Paul: An Introduction to His World, Letters, and Theology.

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