One thing to get straight right from the start is that when the Bible speaks of the heart, whether Old Testament or New, it is not speaking only of our emotional life but also of the central animating center of all we do. It is what gets us out of bed in the morning and what we daydream about as we drift off to sleep. It is our motivation headquarters. The heart, in biblical terms, is not part of who we are but the center of who we are. Our heart is what defines and directs us. That is why Solomon tells us to “keep [the] heart with all vigilance, for from it flows the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). The heart is a matter of life. It is what makes us the human being each of us is. The heart drives all we do. It is who we are.
When Jesus tells us what animates Him most deeply, what is most true of Him — when He exposes the innermost recesses of His being — what we find there is: gentle and lowly.
And when Jesus tells us what animates Him most deeply, what is most true of Him — when He exposes the innermost recesses of His being — what we find there is: gentle and lowly.
Who could ever have thought up such a Saviour?
Gentle and Lowly
The Greek word translated “gentle” here occurs just three other times in the New Testament: in the First Beatitude, that “the meek” will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5); in the prophecy in Matthew 21:5 (quoting Zechariah 9:9) that Jesus the king “is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey”; and in Peter’s encouragement to wives to nurture more than anything else “the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4). Meek. Humble. Gentle. Jesus is not trigger-happy. Not harsh, reactionary, easily exasperated. He is the most understanding person in the universe. The posture most natural to Him is not a pointed finger but open arms.
“… and lowly …”
The meaning of the word “lowly” overlaps with that of “gentle,” together communicating a single reality about Jesus’ heart. This specific word lowly is generally translated “humble” in the New Testament, such as in James 4:6: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” But typically throughout the New Testament this Greek word refers not to humility as a virtue but to humility in the sense of destitution or being thrust downward by life circumstance (which is also how this Greek word is generally used throughout the Greek versions of the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms). In Mary’s song while she is pregnant with Jesus, for example, this word is used to speak of the way God exalts those who are “of humble estate” (Luke 1:52). Paul uses the word when he tells us to “not be haughty, but associate with the lowly” (Romans 12:16), referring to the socially unimpressive, those who are not the life of the party but rather cause the host to cringe when they show up.
The point in saying that Jesus is lowly is that He is accessible. For all His resplendent glory and dazzling holiness, His supreme uniqueness and otherness, no one in human history has ever been more approachable than Jesus Christ. No prerequisites. No hoops to jump through. In “The Person and Work of Christ,” B.B. Warfield, commenting on Matthew 11:29, wrote: “No impression was left by his life-manifestation more deeply imprinted upon the consciousness of his followers than that of the noble humility of his bearing.” The minimum bar to be enfolded into the embrace of Jesus is simply: Open yourself up to Him. It is all He needs. Indeed, it is the only thing He works with.
Verse 28 of our passage in Matthew 11 tells us explicitly who qualifies for fellowship with Jesus: “all who labor and are heavy laden.” You don’t need to unburden or collect yourself and then come to Jesus. Your very burden is what qualifies you to come. No payment is required; He says, “I will give you rest.” His rest is gift, not transaction. Whether you are working hard to crowbar your life into smoothness (“labor”) or passively finding yourself weighed down by something outside your control (“heavy laden”), Jesus Christ’s desire that you find rest, that you come in out of the storm, outstrips even your own.
“Gentle and lowly.” This, according to His own testimony, is Christ’s very heart. This is who He is. Tender. Open. Welcoming. Accommodating. Understanding. Willing. If we are asked to say only one thing about who Jesus is, we would be honoring Jesus’ own teaching if our answer is gentle and lowly.
A Yoke of Kindness
This is not who He is to everyone, indiscriminately. This is who He is for those who come to Him, who take His yoke upon them, who cry to Him for help. The paragraph before these words from Jesus gives us a picture of how Jesus handles the impenitent: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! … I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Matthew 11:21, 24). “Gentle and lowly” does not mean “mushy and frothy.”
But for the penitent, His heart of gentle embrace is never outmatched by our sins and foibles and insecurities and doubts and anxieties and failures. For lowly gentleness is not one way Jesus occasionally acts toward others. Gentleness is who He is. It is His heart. He can’t un-gentle Himself toward His own any more than you or I can change our eye color. It’s who we are.
The Christian life is inescapably one of toil and labor (1 Corinthians 15:10; Philippians 1:12-13; Colossians 1:29). Jesus Himself made this clear in this very Gospel (Matthew 5:19-20; 18:8-9). His promise here in Matthew 11 is “rest for your souls,” not “rest for your bodies.” But all Christian toil flows from fellowship with a living Christ whose transcending, defining reality is: gentle and lowly. He astounds and sustains us with His endless kindness. Only as we walk ever deeper into this tender kindness can we live the Christian life as the New Testament calls us to. Only as we drink down the kindness of the heart of Christ will we leave in our wake, everywhere we go, the aroma of heaven, and die one day having startled the world with glimpses of a divine kindness too great to be boxed in by what we deserve.
That notion of kindness is right here in our passage. The word translated “easy” in His statement, “My yoke is easy,” needs to be carefully understood. Jesus is not saying life is free of pain or hardship. This is the same word elsewhere translated “kind” — as in, for example, Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted” (also Romans 2:4). Consider what Jesus is saying. A yoke is the heavy crossbar laid on oxen to force them to drag farming equipment through the field. Jesus is using a kind of irony, saying that the yoke laid on His disciples is a non-yoke. For it is a yoke of kindness. Who could resist this? It’s like telling a drowning man that he must put on the burden of a life preserver only to hear him shout back, sputtering, “No way! Not me! This is hard enough, drowning here in these stormy waters. The last thing I need is the added burden of a life preserver around my body!” That’s what we all are like, confessing Christ with our lips but generally avoiding deep fellowship with Him, out of a muted understanding of His heart.
This high and holy Christ does not cringe at reaching out and touching dirty sinners and numbed sufferers. Such embrace is precisely what He loves to do. He cannot bear to hold back.
His yoke is kind, and His burden is light. That is, His yoke is a non-yoke, and His burden is a non-burden. What helium does to a balloon, Jesus’ yoke does to His followers. We are buoyed along in life by His endless gentleness and supremely accessible lowliness. He doesn’t simply meet us at our place of need; He lives in our place of need. He never tires of sweeping us into His tender embrace. It is His very heart. It is what gets Him out of bed in the morning.
This is not how we intuitively think of Jesus Christ. Reflecting on this passage in Matthew 11, the old English pastor Thomas Goodwin, in his book “The Heart of Christ,” helps us climb inside what Jesus is actually saying.
Men are apt to have contrary conceits of Christ, but he tells them his disposition there, by preventing such hard thoughts of him, to allure them unto him the more. We are apt to think that he, being so holy, is therefore of a severe and sour disposition against sinners, and not able to bear them. “No,” says he; “I am meek; gentleness is my nature and temper.”
We project onto Jesus our skewed instincts about how the world works. Human nature dictates that the wealthier a person, the more they tend to look down on the poor. The more beautiful a person, the more they are put off by the ugly. And without realizing what we are doing, we quietly assume that one so high and exalted has corresponding difficulty drawing near to the despicable and unclean. Sure, Jesus comes close to us, we agree — but He holds His nose.
This risen Christ, after all, is the one whom “God has highly exalted,” at whose name every knee will one day bow in submission (Philippians 2:9-11). This is the one whose eyes are “like a flame of fire” and whose voice is “like the roar of many waters” and who has “a sharp two-edged sword” coming out of His mouth and whose face is “like the sun shining in full strength” (Revelation 1:14-16); in other words, this is one so unspeakably brilliant that His resplendence cannot adequately be captured with words, so ineffably magnificent that all language dies away before His splendor.
This is the one whose deepest heart is, more than anything else, gentle and lowly.
Goodwin is saying that this high and holy Christ does not cringe at reaching out and touching dirty sinners and numbed sufferers. Such embrace is precisely what He loves to do. He cannot bear to hold back.
We naturally think of Jesus touching us the way a little boy reaches out to touch a slug for the first time — face screwed up, cautiously extending an arm, giving a yelp of disgust upon contact, and instantly withdrawing. We picture the risen Christ approaching us with “a severe and sour disposition,” as Goodwin says.
This is why we need a Bible. Our natural intuition can give us only a God like us. The God revealed in Scripture deconstructs our intuitive predilections and startles us with one whose infinitude of perfections is matched by His infinitude of gentleness. Indeed, His perfections include His perfect gentleness.
It is who He is. It is His very heart. Jesus Himself said so.
Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 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.
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