The year was 1989. I had just finished presenting a paper on repentance at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in San Diego, CA. I was near the end of the question and answer time.
There were several professors and pastors from John MacArthur’s school and church in my session. One of them asked me how I explained Matt 11:28-30. If we have to take up His yoke and serve Him in order to have the rest that is salvation, then certainly we must repent in order to be saved.
I was stumped. I really had no answer. But I was about out of time so I said, “Oops. I’m sorry. We are out of time. I guess the yoke is on you.” Everyone laughed. But it really wasn’t funny. It bugged me that I gave no answer to what was an excellent question.
After I got back to Dallas, I discussed the passage with Zane Hodges. The answer was so simple, I was amazed that I had not seen it instantly.
Here is what the Lord said: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” That is verse 28. Then in verses 29-30 He added, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
The solution is recognizing that verse 28 is talking about regeneration and verses 29-30 is talking about discipleship and sanctification.
Coming to Jesus refers to believing in Him (see John 6:35). All who believe in Him have everlasting life. That is, they are to give up their efforts, their impossible efforts (heavy laden) to buy their own salvation, and they are to come to Jesus and find the rest of everlasting life simply by believing in Him.
Taking up Jesus’ yoke and learning from Him is different. That is discipleship truth. Disciples are indeed learners. The rest Jesus speaks of in verses 29-30 is different than the rest He speaks of in verse 28. The first rest is regeneration. The second rest is fulfillment, significance, purpose, joy, and meaning in life. To rest from the aimless and exhausting life of unbelievers we need to follow Christ and serve Him.
Simple, isn’t it.
I was reminded of how simple this is when I read an article by Dr. Shelton Smith on this passage in the December 30, 2016 issue of Sword of the Lord. He wrote, “When you respond to the Lord’s invitation to “come to me” [v 28], you understand that the rest He provides for you is fully and freely given as a gift from Him” (p. 20). He continues, “Next, He put us in a yoke with Himself (vs. 29). Instead of being worn down and exhausted, we then discover that we could never dream how good it would be in the service of God” (p. 21). “God has given us a life, a new day; and when we’re yoked up with Christ, we will walk in newness of life” (p. 21).
When in doubt, pray and keep reading the passage. The correct interpretation is quite often as simple as it is in Matt 11:28-30. We just need to recognize the difference between salvation and discipleship. It is right there in this beautiful passage.