Jesus speaks these words to all who ‘labor and are heavy laden’. He tells these people to come to Him and that He will give them rest (verse 28). The surrounding context indicates that these heavy loads may have been the numerous requirements imposed by the Jewish religious establishment, but it also may have been the general burdens of life.
Jesus invites these people to His yoke upon them (instead of the yoke they are currently carrying). A yoke (Greek ‘zugos’) is a heavy wooden bar that was placed over the neck of a pair of animals so that they together could pull a plough. In addition to asking people to take His yoke upon them, Jesus also invites the people to learn from Him. Taking his yoke on you is not possible unless you learn from Jesus.
The reason Jesus gives to people is because he is gentle and lowly in heart. The Greek word for gentle is `praus` and is often translated as gentle or meek. However, a better translation may be temperate; exercising strength under control, demonstrating power without undue harshness. Jesus of course had immense strength and could call upon armies of angels. But he would control it and not use it unless necessary. Jesus was obviously not always meek and gentle, as we typically understand these words.
The Greek for lowly in heart is ‘tapeinos te kardia’. The heart is mentioned because it refers to the very center of our being. Tapeinos means lowly, not rising far from the ground. It is often translated as humble, and it is indeed the opposite of pride. A humble Christian knows that he totally depends on God, that he can do nothing without Christ (John 15:5), but that he can do anything through Christ (Phil 4:13). It does not mean that you think you are less good than others. Jesus knew that He alone was sinless, that He was God and that God alone was good. But it does mean that you place the needs of others ahead of your own (knowing that God will meet your needs if you do).
The result of taking Christ’s yoke on our shoulders and learn from Him is that we will find rest for our souls. Note that He does not promise that everything will always be smooth sailing. But within the stormy circumstances of our lives, our souls will find rest.
It may be helpful to look a little deeper into what this means. In verse 30, Jesus says that His yoke is easy and that His burden is light. The word for easy is 'chrestos' and means useful, fit-for-purpose. So easy may not be the best translation, but light does mean indeed light. So even though it is a yoke, it is good for us and it is not heavy. Does this mean that the Christian is like a walk in the park?
Jesus also said that if we want to follow Him, we have to deny ourselves and pick up our crosses daily. That does sound like hard work. And it is. If we were to try to carry the load of the Christian life all by ourselves, it would be impossible. It would be way too hard and the burden would be far too heavy. But do you remember that there are always two oxen carrying a yoke? We are unable to carry Christ’s yoke by ourselves, but luckily for us, Jesus is doing the heavy lifting, and that makes it light for us. So then we can say with Paul:
Phil 4:13 I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.