Friday, February 22, 2013

Does God Hold Us Back? - Matthew 11:28-30

Does God hold us back? Does being a disciple limit and hinder us from doing better, more worthwhile things? Sometimes we think this way, even though we may not admit it. “If only I didn’t have to give so much of my energy and resources to the church...” or “My business would be much more successful if I didn’t have to be completely honest in my dealings…” or “I hate not being able to do what others do for socializing (ie, drink, curse, gossip, tell lewd jokes, etc.)…” And the list could go on.

It seems we have a tendency to bemoan how “limiting” and “narrow” we have become because of our commitment to the Lord. But this attitude comes from wrong thinking, and a look into three Biblical passages will help us see why.

taken from

MATTHEW 11:28-30
28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

G.K. Chesterton once said “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” The Christian life is indeed difficult, as so often taught by no less than Jesus and the apostles. So how could Jesus say, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”?

The Burden of Legalism. Long before Jesus' time, God appointed Israelite priests to teach His laws to the people of Israel. Throughout the centuries, however, religious leaders added more and more rules that good Jews had to observe in order to be “holy.” They called these rules the “fence around the Torah,” or safety measures in order to protect people from breaking the laws. Strict enforcement of these rules led, predictably, to a very rigid and burdensome religion that, at times, bordered on the laughable. For example, Jesus and his disciples were confronted by the Pharisees for not washing their hands before meals. In another episode, religious leaders were incensed at Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath!

The Deceptiveness of Formalism. Emphasizing external conformity to a set of rules made the Judaism of Jesus' day formalistic. Someone could be considered holy just because he/she attended the synagogue, observed holy days, kept aloof from known sinners like lepers, prostitutes and tax collectors, and gave tithes to the Temple. This failed to recognize, however, that holiness is a matter of the heart before it is a matter of external obedience.

A Graceless “Holiness”. True to their formalistic bent, the religious leaders reasoned that in order to protect their holiness, pious Jews had to keep away from people who were considered especially sinful: sick and physically handicapped people, because their condition was (wrongly) seen as God's punishment for sin; tax collectors, because they collaborated with the despised Romans and stole from the people; Samaritans, because their religion was an unholy hybrid of Judaism and pagan religions; and prostitutes... for obvious reasons. And so, they abdicated their God-given responsibility to reach out in love to these groups and lead them to the Lord. Instead of letting God's light shine, they tried to keep it to themselves, in their holy huddle.

A Powerless Religion. Additional rules, external conformity, non-association with “sinners”--all these were intended to help people follow God. But such measures were too superficial to address people's real problem. We are sinners by nature, and are morally incapable of holiness. More rules only leads to more disobedience, more failure on our part. The religious leaders were completely powerless to solve this problem, because God's commandments were always meant to be fulfilled in the power and grace of God. King David and the prophets of old clearly understood this, but the Jews of Jesus' day had forgotten this truth.

“Come to me.” Into this hopeless scene comes Jesus Christ. He disregarded all of the man-made rules, and taught only the perfect commandments of God. But what really set him apart from the other preachers of His day, what really got His rivals angry, was that He claimed to be the solution to sinful man's timeless dilemma. “Come to me... and I will give you rest.” Only He died for the sins of the world. Only He sends the Holy Spirit. Only He hears our desperate prayers for grace in times of need.

Does God hold us back? Does Jesus hold us back? On the contrary, he frees us from the burden of having to earn God's approval. He is changing us from the inside out to be more and more like Him. He gives us the Holy Spirit so that we can find the strength to obey His commandments. Does Jesus make demands of us? Certainly, and formidable ones, at that. But He alone has promised to carry us all the while we are carrying the burdens He has laid upon us.

(to be continued...)

  1. Does God Hold Us Back? 1 John 5:3
  2. Does God Hold Us Back? Isaiah 40

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