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An Encounter with the Bondage Breaker of Legalism (Matt. 11:28-30)

Intro

Wow, what an interesting service last Sunday! I don’t know about you, but it was one of the best, if not the best, services I had at EFC to date. For those of you who weren’t here, due to a really bad storm last Sunday, the fire alarm went off during the sermon, followed by losing electricity (though it came back up shortly) and firemen walking around the sanctuary. I love the way the Lord gets our attention!

I was on the second point, “Be obedient in the impossible.” And I felt here that He wanted our obedience in the midst of the impossible! So I kept preaching through it all. Interestingly, since I could not hear myself think, I resorted to just reading my notes. This is what I was reading: “If anyone was sleepy up to this point, not anymore! A burst of adrenaline blasts through their weary bodies and every concentration is now focused on the catch.” I thought that was hilarious!

I want you to know that that message was something the Lord had really moved in my heart to preach for us at this church and I guess He wanted everyone to listen up! Anyway by the end, the Spirit of God really moved in my heart. Blessing follows obedience. I don’t know about anyone else, but I felt I was being carried by His love. He is not done with this church folks! He has something up His sleeve, so to speak, and wants us to draw near and ask Him for big things. He wants to take us into deeper waters and to experience the net-breaking fullness of His power! AMEN.

On that note, let’s get into another encounter. This one is found in Matt. 11:28-30. It is not necessarily an encounter with anyone in particular, but more of an invitation for an encounter.

I want to start with some questions. Question 1: How many of you would agree with the following statement. The Christian life is best summed up as, trying hard to keep God’s commands. How many strongly agree? How many somewhat agree? Actually in a survey to born-again Christians in the US,[1] 57% of people strongly agreed and 25% somewhat agreed. This means 82% strongly or somewhat agreed to that statement.

Question 2: How many of you would strongly or somewhat agree to this statement: “I feel like I don’t measure up to God’s expectations of me?” 58% in survey (28% strongly, 30% somewhat) said yes. So think about what this means. 82% of Christians think the Christian life is merely about trying hard to obey God and another 58% of people think they are doing a horrible job at it!

This may shock some of you, but this is a WRONG way of thinking.  IT’S A LIE! I ask these two questions because many Christians are trapped in something called legalism. Listen to this one woman share her experience:

“I was plagued with condemnation for the first two years after I came to the Lord. It was preached at our church to pray and read the Word an hour a day, to share your faith each week, and so on. Not to mention being told to not listen to “worldly” music, not seeing “worldly” friends, and on and on the list goes. This was good advice but it was pre­sented in such a way as to become a burden, and I felt like if I didn’t keep up in these areas, I would lose my salvation. My heart was to please the Lord, but feeling judged was really painful.

I tried to make everything look good on the outside, but I just couldn’t do all the things I was supposed to do, and the pressure from others in the church was too much. I saw others trying in their own strength to conform to the image of Christ. I tried to do the same, though I knew I couldn’t do it. Yet I questioned myself. Maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough and that was why I was failing. Ultimately I did that I just couldn’t keep up with it all. The condemnation that I dealt with even after leaving that church was relentless. Finally I learned that all my efforts at changing myself are wood, hay and stubble.” [2]

Does that sound like you? How many times have we perhaps tried to get up to pray, but we only get five minutes in and if someone asked us if we did our quiet time that day, we would say no (because  in our mind, we need at least a solid 30-45 minutes to “count”). Are we driven to redouble our efforts in order to do better “next time”? Or has it ever gone through our mind the thoughts of “man, one day I’m going to settle down and read my Bible every day and not get angry so much or give up this habit or the other…” But right now you feel God looks down at you and shakes His head saying, “Are you in this pit again?”

How do you react if you don’t do the things you feel you should do or need to be doing in order to be a “good Christian”? Do you feel condemned? Do you feel like a failure in God’s eyes? Do you tend to evaluate your spirituality by how regularly you are keeping up with or measuring up to certain standards? Do you feel like God loves you more when you perform certain Christian practices? Do you feel a disheartening sense of disapproval from Him when you don’t? If I were to ask you, “Does God love Billy Graham (fill in the blank of any famous Christian you know) or me more?” and though you may say “He loves us all the same”—deep inside you feel like Man, he must be pleased with her more than he could ever be pleased with me!

If the answers to these questions are a resounding yes bursting through us right now, perhaps we have fallen into something called legalism. The Bible says a lot about legalism and the scope of it can cover a whole year’s worth of messages. But this morning, I want to address this lie that sucks away our freedom and joy in Christian life.  Jesus had something to say to those who are feeling burdened under the weight of legalism and you will find that in our text. He is inviting us to an encounter that can set us free from it.

Turn in your Bibles, if you haven’t already, to Matthew 11:28-30. Now upon first glance, you may be wondering, “What does this passage have to do with legalism?” Hopefully I can show that to you. I want to share this here because it is easy, especially for a lot of us who come from an honor and shame based culture, to fall into.

But let’s begin with a definition. I am going to borrow this from a wonderful book called Breaking the Bondage of Legalism. Here is how the authors define legalism: Seeking to attain, gain or maintain acceptance with God or to grow spiritually by keeping a written or unwritten code or standard of performance.[3] I think because most of us who have grown up in a performance-based culture with our parents can easily fall into a performance based relationship with God.

For some of you, you may relate to this illustration. Imagine a ladder. At the top of the ladder are your parents. You are climbing the ladder to please them. Get the right grades. Pick the right marriage partner. Get the right job. Your knuckles are bleeding and you are sweating getting to the last rung. But as soon as you get there, you find they are three rungs higher. When you become a Christian, instead of your parents being at the top of the ladder, you put God there and there you go trying to please Him and perform for Him, but you never seem to get there. You picture God shaking His head in disgust as you fail.

When you live this way, these are the results. There are four products of legalism.[4] First of all, people who live this way are often in 1) despair. They cannot keep the rules, so their self-esteem plummets and the Father’s love has evaporated from under their feet. Legalists also can become very 2) proud. You can keep some of the rules and think you got it in with God. 3) Judgmental. Because you can’t keep all the rules, you see people as breaking the rules all the time. 4) Control. You have your rules and you try to get everybody in your life to conform to those rules. As long they don’t mess up and break the rules, you are happy. Of course they never do and you hate losing that control. Instead of becoming a dynamic believer which is growing in grace and becoming expansive in your soul and growing richer in compassion and wisdom as the years go by, you become mean, angry, harsh joy-killer Christian.

This is why Jesus was so angry with Pharisees, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. If you notice He is not so angry with the prostitute or the tax collector as he is with the religious elite. Let’s look at Matt. 23: 1-4, especially Matt. 23:4. The same word “burdens” is the same word used here in Matt. 11:28. They were experts in being proud, judgmental and leading people into despair. In fact, they had over 365 prohibitions and 250 commandments (615) for people to make sure they kept the Law. They fought over issues like how far can a man carry his lamp on the Sabbath.[5] Notice that even in the beginning verses of Matt. 12.

So we are not going anywhere good if we are stuck in legalism. So instead of going on about what a relationship is not, let’s take a closer look at what Jesus is offering us in this text.

Let’s start with this:

I.   Jesus invites us to true freedom (Matt. 11:28)

Let’s take this apart a word or phrase at a time. First of all, the What: The invitation is to COME. What a difference from the Pharisees! They said to “DO” and Jesus says “Come to me.” It is a command—a strong appeal on the will of another. It requires turning from your present situation.

Where: The invitation to come “UNTO ME.” It is not a religion or a church or a set of rules or a system, but a person. The call of Jesus is always to come to Himself. This is true to become His child and this is true to stay as His child. Stop for a moment and look at these three verses. Circle how many references are there to Christ? Come unto “ME”…and “I”…Take MY yoke…and learn from ME…for I am gentle…For MY yoke…and MY burden is light.” Get the drift? It is a call to the person of Jesus Christ Himself. He didn’t say, “Go to church.” He didn’t say, “Listen to a sermon.” He didn’t say, “Get some counseling.” He didn’t say, “Read a book.” He said, “Come to Me.”[6]

Actually these three verses sum up what the Christian life is all about. Matt. 11:28 is a call for salvation, but Matt. 11:29-30 is a call for discipleship. I think we know what it is to come to Him for salvation, but the problem occurs when we then think to maintain this relationship is simply about us doing the motions and getting into spiritual disciplines. But what does it mean to live out the Christian life by grace as well? Hopefully we will look into that further today. Who: The invitation is a universal appeal: “ALL.” However there is a condition to this. It is all who are “weary” and “heavy laden.” It is actually cause and effect. So Jesus is saying all those who are weary and as a result become heavy laden. Other translations say, “all who are weary and burdened” (NIV).

The idea of “weary” means “to toil to the point of exhaustion and to expend great effort in hard and disagreeable work.” I like how the Message translates this entire section and even this portion here: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.”[7]

The word “weary” is also in the present tense, meaning the continuous action of futility and all the personal misery that accompanies from trying to please God on your own. You are like a mouse or gerbil in a cage running on the wheel over and over again. Lots of activity, but no progress! It is like sitting in a rocking chair, you have something to do, but you are not going anywhere. Now remember He is not talking about being tired from work or studying or coming home after a workout. He is talking about trying to perform for God in such a way you constantly feel like this is how to make Him happy. He is looking at all the Jews who are burnt out trying to do all the rules that the Pharisees had created to control them.

The next word, “heavy laden” means “to place a burden upon; to load as when placing a load upon the back of an ox.”[8] When our relationship with the Lord becomes static and empty, it becomes like an animal carrying a huge weight on its back.

Illus: “In his book Teaching the Elephant to Dance, James Belasco describes how trainers shackle young elephants with heavy chains to deeply embedded stakes. In that way the elephant learns to stay in its place. Older, powerful elephants never try to leave—even though they have the strength to pull the stake and walk away. Their conditioning has limited their movements. With only a small metal bracelet around their foot attached to nothing, they stand in place. The stakes are actually gone!

Like powerful elephants, many companies and people are bound by earlier conditioned restraints. The statement “We have always done it this way” is as limiting to an organization’s progress as the unattached chain around an elephant’s foot. Yet when the circus tent catches on fire and the elephant sees the flames and smells the smoke, it forgets its old conditioning and runs for its life.”[9]

The Jews had always done this. But Jesus is trying to throw a flame into their midst to cause them to run to Him. This is true of religion too. I know whenever I get caught up in doing and performing for the Lord and shackled beneath them, He will throw a flame into our midst.

Illus: I think marriage has been a huge eye-opener for me of the legalism in my heart. I love to create a system where everything is under my control and my domain. I will take care of Abbie on Monday Jenny and you take care of Abbie on Tuesday. I will take care of Abbie on Wednesday, etc. Everything is packaged neat and orderly. The problem is that I am not living with robots. They are people who will fail me like I will fail them and I will need to grow in my capacity to love, forgive and to have compassion.

This is why marriage, if it is God’s will for you, has a sanctifying power to it. See, before when you were single, if people did not meet your expectations or people hurt you, it would bother you, but there is an element of not having to deal with it because you can always go home and do something else. However, when you are married, if the person in question is your spouse, there they are in your bed or sitting right next to you! You can’t escape it and you are forced almost to struggle and persevere through and if you do, there is so much blessing that comes with it!

And guess what? I do the same with the Lord. I want to try to control Him. I want to read my Bible portions and pray a certain amount and do whatever else I do for devotions and forget that I am supposed to be cultivating a relationship, not just do religious things. And He has a way of getting in your face and causing you to evaluate your relationship with Him sometimes through sermons and other people or from just being in His Word. And sometimes it takes setting some things around us on fire to get us to run to Him!

Look at the last part of Matt. 11:28: “I will give you rest.” This is literally, “I will rest you up!” In other words, “I will rejuvenate you, refresh you. You will cease from labor. I will be your thirst quencher!” This whole verse is a revolutionary concept. Our culture teaches us that we have to work for everything. Failure is not acceptable. We have to earn our significance. We are always pressured to perform. But Jesus says, drop the act and come to Him!

Jesus is always inviting us to Himself. If you ever have a chance, go and visit the Billy Graham Center Museum in Wheaton. One of the permanent exhibits they have there is called the “Cross of the Millennium.”

You can see a picture of it online. It is in a darkened room which when entered your eyes are immediately drawn to this translucent sculpture created by Frederick Hart. According to the Museum’s website, Hart’s “…contemporary masterpiece celebrates the birth, death and resurrection of Christ. The Star of Bethlehem is sculpted into the front of the cross, and seemingly occupying the same space are images of both the crucified and resurrected Christ. Sensitive to light, this unique work of art changes with each new perspective.”[10] What is fascinating about this is that from whatever position you look at it and if you walk around it, Jesus always seems to be looking at you and welcoming you to Himself. That is a good reminder for me. What I need all the time is Him.

Secondly,

II.  True freedom comes from being yoked with Christ (Matt. 11:29-30)

I will explain this “yoke” business in a second. In Matt. 11:29-30, Jesus explains what He means by true freedom and how to maintain it. In these two verses, he is showing us what discipleship is supposed to look like.

Jesus has another command here. The first command was to “come,” but the second one is to “take.” It can also be translated “to lift up.” Wait a minute! Jesus, you just said I can come to you and you would set me be free but now you tell me I have take something? It seemingly does not make any more sense when He says to “take MY YOKE.”

According to one commentary, “A yoke is a heavy wooden harness that fits over the shoulders of an ox or oxen. It is attached to a piece of equipment that the oxen are to pull. Since Jesus was a carpenter and since carpenters in those days produced and repaired farm equipment, Jesus was quite familiar with yokes.”[11] Here is a picture of a yoke:

Does that look like it is shouting liberating freedom to you? To use other terminology from Jesus, He is telling us to take up the cross and follow Him. So Jesus is not saying, “Come unto me and I will remove all yokes.” He is saying, “Drop the yoke of religion and duty and trying hard to obey the rules and come to me just as you are and I will put this yoke on you!” This is because as William Inge says, “Christianity promises to make men free. It never promises to make them independent.”[12]

Jesus says the way to do this is first to “learn” from Him, which is where we get the word “disciple” from. A disciple is a “learner.” The word “learn” refers “to learn by inquiry, but also by use and practice, to acquire the habit of, be accustomed to. It means “to learn, appropriate to oneself less through instruction than through experience or practice.” Illus: It’s like training for a marathon. You can get all the gear, read up on marathon running, attend seminars and conferences, but does that make you ready for the marathon? You need to train up, practice good eating habits and running habits and then run! In other words, experience is the best teacher and Jesus is calling us to experience life with Him as He teaches us how to live.

We will come back to Jesus going on to add that He is “gentle and lowly in heart.” But first look at Matt. 11:30. There is more information about this yoke. He says the yoke is “easy.” “Easy” is not the best translation, because it can be misleading. I mean, he just spoke on the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7)—He raised the standards on how to live! So it is certainly not easy! A better translation would be “my yoke is useful, manageable, that which fills a need and is well-fitting; it is tailor-made! You are not going to fall down under it and neither will it choke you.”[13]

It is also “light” which means “not burdensome, overbearing, light in weight.”[14] Illus: If you have ever worn a rental tuxedo for a wedding or something, you may have noticed that it comes with this stretchable waist band and clip, so that you can adjust it according to your waist size, just for you! It is tailor-made!

In other words, Jesus being a skillful carpenter, so to speak, has a tailor-made yoke, a way to live, just for you. This means I cannot necessarily look at any Christian’s life and try to be just like them. Sure, I can learn from them and be inspired by them, but ultimately, God has His own way of dealing with each of us. He meets us where we are. Obviously whatever the yoke is for you, it will not be contrary to the Word of God, but it might not look like anyone else’s relationship with the Lord.

My mother for example, is a weeping woman. I mean whenever she prays, she is always crying before the Lord. I have rarely prayed with her and not heard her cry. This is how she relates to the Lord. But you may not always have that when you are with the Lord. That’s ok! You may have just as much had a wonderful time with the Lord and not shed one tear. I may cry before the Lord and then go and sin. You might not cry before the Lord, yet you go out of your quiet time on fire for God. I hope I am making any sense here and that liberates you!

Let’s look at that picture of the yoke again. Notice there are two slots here.

Note the following illustration from Dwight Pentecost of two oxen, one huge, and one very small:

There was an old farmer plowing with a team of oxen. As I saw this team I was somewhat amazed, for one was a huge ox and the other a very small bullock. That ox towered over the little bullock that was sharing the work with him. I was amazed and perplexed to see a farmer trying to plow with two such unequal animals in the yoke and commented on the inequality to the man with whom I was riding. He stopped his car and said, ‘I want you to notice something. See the way those traces are hooked to the yoke? You will observe that the large ox is pulling all the weight. That little bullock is being broken into the yoke but he is not actually pulling any weight.’ My mind instinctively came to this passage of Scripture where our Lord said, “Take my yoke upon you, learn of me; for I am …” In the normal yoking the load is equally distributed between the two that are yoked together, but when we are yoked with Jesus Christ, He bears the load and we who are yoked to Him share in the joy and the accomplishment of the labor but without the burden of the yoke.[15]

Do you see what Jesus is saying here? He is the larger ox pulling the weight. You are yoked with Him as He steers and guides and works. Again, Eugene Peterson’ The Message here is really profound in its translation when he says, “Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”[16]

How will you know if the larger ox will not crush or kill or overburden the little one? What if the larger ox yanks itself away suddenly and hurts the little one? This is why Jesus says this in Matt. 11:29: “I am gentle and lowly in heart.” This is the only place in Scripture Jesus describes Himself in His own words.

I will avoid the temptation here to go on my soapbox about the poor portrayal of Christ in typical Christian films and paintings. You know how I hate that! But it is important to understand this in the context. Jesus is saying here, “When it comes to how I deal with you, I am gentle and lowly in heart.” I am not on top of the ladder shaking my fist or my head in disgust. No, I am yoked together with you and wanting you to desperately stop trying to steer and direct this life. I want to be your yoke mate. I will work with you and walk with you. I will not crush you or cause you to fall under the weight of following me. Yoke with Me. Let Me be the lead ox. Go with My flow. Don’t try to figure out or change My direction. Let Me lead you.[17] For I am gentle…do not fear my yoke for I am not like your previous masters. I am gentle and humble. You suffer now because your previous masters are haughty, proud and dominating.”

The end result: “You will find rest for your souls.” This is what we all want: the calm assurance that we are in God’s will and we are growing in His likeness and trusting Him more and more. This is the rest we find in Christ.

Conclusion

As I close here, I wonder if we feel like we are always trying to strive and work at our relationship with Christ and feeling always like we are not getting anywhere is perhaps we do not know what it means to let Jesus be our yoke mate. We are yoked under the weight of legalism and Jesus wants to set us free.

What does this look like practically? Perhaps instead of asking ourselves how many chapters we read or how long we prayed a certain day, we can ask ourselves, “Am I growing in love more than ever before? Love for God and love for my neighbor?”

I cannot tell you what your yoke looks like. For me, I know legalism easily creeps into my heart. But I do know in my walk with Christ, I love variety. One day I will be in my house reading the Word and then closing my eyes and praying. Other days I walk around this sanctuary. Still other days I am just praying through a song. During the summer, I remember one time I went outside here on the big field and prayer-walked around. I am learning to also be praying throughout my sermon preparation as well. But it is not always easy. Some days I know I am sitting on my rear end and not walking with Jesus at all. Other days I know I am trying to steer myself. But He doesn’t leave being my yoke mate!

No one said your eyes has to always be closed (by the way, in the Gospels, Jesus lifts up His eyes to Heaven whenever He prays) when you pray alone. No one said you have to pray to yourself and not audibly.

I am glad most of you are on that Bible Reading Plan. Keep doing it. My prayer for us is that the discipline of being in God’s Word will lead to eventual desire and then delight. Just remember that the end goal is not to check off all the boxes, but to come to a place of desiring and delighting in God’s Word in greater capacity in your life.

Let me close with this story of Abraham Lincoln. He went down to the slave block to buy a slave girl. As she looked at the white man bidding on her, she figured he was another white man going to buy her and then abuse her. He won the bid, and as he was walking away with his property, he said, “Young lady, you are free.” She said, “What does that mean?”

“It means you are free.” “Does that mean,” she said, “that I can say whatever I want to say?” Lincoln said, “Yes, my dear, you can say whatever you want to say.” “Does that mean,” she said, “That I can be whatever I want to be?” Lincoln said, “Yes, you can be whatever you want to be.” “Does that mean I can go wherever I want to go?” He said, “Yes, you can go wherever you want to go.” The girl, with tears streaming down her face said, “Then I will go with you.”[18]

This is what Jesus is saying here. Come to me and come with me. This is a call to be free, but never to be independent. Lord, give us such an encounter today and set us truly free from the bondage of legalism!
—-

[1] Anderson, Neil T., Rich Miller and Paul Travis. (Breaking the Bondage of Legalism Eugene, OR: Harvest House 2003), 9-10.

[2]Ibid.,31-32.

[3]Ibid.,37.

[4] Smart, Dominic. “Legalism and its antidotes”   http://www.beginningwithmoses.org/bigger/ds_legalism.htm  accessed 11 March 2009.

[5]Hagner, Donald A. Vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary : Matthew 1-13, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word,    Incorporated, 2002), 323.

[6]Courson, Jon. Jon Courson’s Application Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 82.

[7]Peterson, Eugene. The Message : The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress, 2002), Mt 11:28.

[8]Keathley, J. Hampton. “The Call to Discipleship: An Invitation to Rest” from http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=1038 accessed 14 March 2009.

[9]Quoted in http://www.preachingtoday.com accessed 13 March 2009, adapted from Hans Finzel, Change is Like a Slinky: 30 strategies for promoting and surviving change in your organization (Northfield, 2004); submitted by Marshall Shelley.

[10] http://www.billygrahamcenter.com/museum/cross_of_mil.htm accessed 14 March 2009.

[11]Barton, Bruce B. Matthew, Life Application Bible Commentary (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996), 229.

[12]http://thinkexist.com/quotes/w._r._inge/ accessed 14 March 2009.

[13]Ibid., Keathley.

[14]Ibid.

[15]Pentecost, Dwight. Design for Discipleship. (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1971), 27-28.

[16]Ibid.

[17]Courson, 84.

[18] Brown, Steve. Preaching Today, #58 http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/weekly/01-07-16/13140.html accessed 14 March 14 2009.

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