What Does It Look Like to Rest in God?: insights about the easy yoke from Dallas Willard

Renovation of the Heart

One of the most striking aspects of the writing and teaching of Dallas Willard is his ability to open up with fresh perspective what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. One of Willard’s most powerful contributions to disciple is found in his explanation of Jesus’ well-known invitation:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Willard refers to our discipleship response to this invitation as living in “the secret of the easy yoke” in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines. As I recently re-read Renovation of the Heart, I came across this basic description of what Willard sees as the essence of discipleship in the easy yoke of Jesus. I hope it speaks to you as much as it did to me.

Jesus heard the soul’s cries from the wearied humanity he saw around him. He saw the soul’s desperate need in those who struggled with the overwhelming tasks of their life. Such weariness and endless labor was, to him, a sure sign of a sou not properly rooted in God—a soul, in effect, on its own. He saw the multitudes around him, and it tore his heart, for they were ‘distressed and downcast’ like ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (Matthew 9:36). And he invited such people to come and become his students (‘learn of me’) by yoking themselves to him—that is, letting him show them how he would pull their load. He is not ‘above’ this, as earthly ‘great ones’ are, for he is meek and lowly of heart (Matthew 11:28-30).

His own greatness of soul made meekness and lowliness the natural way for him to be (Philippians 2:3-11). Being in his yoke is not a matter of taking on additional labor to crush us all the more, but a matter of learning how to use his strength and ours together to bear our load  and his. We will find his yoke an easy one and his burden a light one because, in learning from him, we have found rest to our soul. What we have learned is, primarily, to rest our soul in God. Rest to our soul is rest in God. My soul is at peace only when it is with God, as a child with its mother.

What we most learn in his yoke, beyond acting with him, is to abandon outcomes to God, accepting that we do not have in ourselves—in our own ‘heart, soul, mind, and strength’—the wherewithal to make this come out right, whatever ‘this’ is. Even if we ‘suffer according to the will of God,’ we simple ‘entrust our souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right’ (1 Peter 4:19). Now, this is a major part of that meekness and lowliness of heart that we also learn in his yoke. And what rest comes with it!

[From Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 209.]

Too Long Delayed?: Kenneth Bailey on the parable of the young women in Matthew 25

This past Sunday in my message, “Keep Your Lamps Lit,” I mentioned some insights from Kenneth E. Bailey about the parable of the ten young women and their lamps related to the wedding banquet. If you’re not familiar with Bailey’s work, particularly his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies on the Gospels, I strongly recommend you take a look.

Bailey, a New Testament scholar who lived most of his life in the Middle East, describes the scene of Jesus’ parable in this way:

The scene focuses on preparations for a wedding banquet that is to take place in the home of the groom. A great crowd of family and friends fills the house and pours out into the street in front of the dwelling. As the crowd is gathering, the groom and several close friends are making their way to the home of the bride, which is assumed to be across town or in a nearby village. From there the groom collects his bride and escorts her back to his family home, where the crowd awaits and the marriage feast will be held….When she [the bride] was ready, she would be placed on the back of a riding animal, and the groom, with his friends, would form a disorganized, exuberant parade. This happy group would take the longest possible route back to the groom’s home deliberately, wandering through as many streets of the village as possible so that most of the populace could see and cheer them as they passed. 

“In traditional village life in the Middle East, weddings would take place during the seven months of the hot and cloudless summer. At the groom’s home some of the crowd would therefore wait in the street as they anticipate the arrival of the meandering wedding party.”[1]


[1] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 271-272.

Left Behind?: R. T. France on the rapture in Matthew 24

This past Sunday in my message, “The Unknown Hour,” I made a side comment about verses 40-41 and the rapture. The verses are:

“Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.” (Matthew 24:40-41)

I basically said that while some take Jesus’ teaching in these verses to refer to the rapture, a close reading of this specific text doesn’t really support that. In case someone had further questions about this, I thought I’d share the wise words of biblical scholar R. T. France on these verses in his wonderful commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.

What could be more normal and unthreatening than working on the farm or grinding grain? Yet in those routine situations there will be a sudden crisis which will result in one being ‘taken’ while the other is left behind. But where are the unlucky (or lucky?) ones ‘taken’ and for what purpose? The verb is paralambanō rather than a simple lambanō, and if the compound is more than just a stylistic variation, it might be understood to mean ‘take to oneself’ (as in 1:20; 17:1; 18:16; 20:17). If the passive verbs are understood as ‘divine passives,’ that would mean the God has taken selected people to himself, leaving the rest to continue their life on earth. Some have therefore suggested that this passages speaks of a ‘rapture’ of the faithful to heaven before judgment falls on the earth. This is not the place to investigate the complex dispensational scheme which underlies this nineteenth-century theory, but it should be noted that insofar as this passage forms a basis for that theology, it rests on an uncertain foundation. We are not told where or why they are ‘taken,’ and the similar sayings in vv. 17-18 about people caught out in the course of daily life by the Roman advance presupposed a situation of threat rather than of rescue; to be ‘taken’ in such circumstances would be a negative experience, and Matthew will use paralambanō in a similarly threatening context in 27:27. The verb itself does not determine the purpose of the ‘taking,’ and it could as well be for judgment (as in Her 6:11) as for refuge. In the light of the preceding verses, when the Flood ‘swept away’ the unprepared, that is probably the more likely sense here.

The different fates of two apparently similar people (as also the different fates of Noah and his contemporaries) raise the issue of ‘readiness’: what is it that will determine who is and who is not ‘taken’? The example of Noah suggests that it is not purely arbitrary, and the rest of the discourse will explore the basis of the division between the saved and the lost, which reaches its climax in the separation of good and bad in the judgment scene in 25:31-46. For the moment saved and lost live and work together (as in the parable of the weeds, 13:30), but when ‘that day’ domes, the separation will be made and will be final.

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 940-941.

Keep Choosing God: a word from Henri Nouwen

Over the past month I have been reading Henri Nouwen’s book The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom. This is one of Nouwen’s most personal books, taken from his journals during a time of great challenge and even depression in his life. I really appreciated the entire book, which struck a chord for me in what has been an extended challenging season for me as a pastor navigating through the pandemic, racial and political tensions, and various other things. The last entry in the book is titled “Keep Choosing God.” It was a wonderful conclusion to the book that I found very meaningful. I share it here in its entirety in hopes that it will be encouraging to you as well.

You are constantly facing choices. The question is whether you choose for God or for your own doubting self. You know what the right choice is but your emotions, passions, and feelings keep suggesting you choose the self-rejecting way.

The root choice is to trust at all times that God is with you and will give you what you most need. Your self-rejecting emotions might say, ‘It isn’t going to work. I’m still suffering the same anguish I did six months ago. I will probably fall back into the old depressive patterns of acting and reacting. I haven’t really changed.’ And on and on. It is hard not to listen to these voices. Still, you know that these are not God’s voice. God says to you, ‘I love you, I am with you, I want to see you come closer to me and experience the joy and peace of my presence. I want to give you a new heart and a new spirit. I want you to speak with my mouth, see with my eyes, here with my ears, touch with my hands. All that is mine is yours. Just trust me and let me be your God.’

This is the voice to listen to. And that listening requires a real choice, not just once in a while but every moment of each day and night. It is you who decides what you think, say, and do. You can think yourself into a depression, you can talk yourself into low self-esteem, you can act in a self-rejecting way. But you always have a choice to think, speak, and act in the name of God and so move toward the Light, the Truth, and the Life.

As you conclude this period of spiritual renewal, you are faced once again with a choice. You can choose to remember this time as a failed attempt to be completely reborn, or you can also choose to remember it as the precious time when God began new things in you that need to be brought to completion. Your future depends on how you decide to remember your past. Choose for the truth of what you know. Do not let your still anxious emotions distract you. As you keep choosing God, your emotions will gradually give up the rebellion and be converted to the truth in you.

You are facing a real spiritual battle. But do not be afraid. You are not alone. Those who have guided you during this period are not leaving you. Their prayers and support will be with you wherever you go. Keep them close to your heart so that they can guide you as you make your choices.

Remember, you are held safe. You are loved. You are protected. You are in communion with God and with those whom God has sent you. What is of God will last. It belongs to the eternal life. Choose it, and it will be yours.

Henri Nouwen, “Keep Choosing God,” from The Inner Voice of Love (New York: Image Books, 1998), 113-115.

Bibliography for “Scandalous Jesus”

When I conclude a sermon series, I usually share resources I utilized in my study and preparation for sermons. Here is the bibliography for our recent series, “Scandalous Jesus,” which is the ninth part of an extended walk through the Gospel of Matthew.

Bibliography for “Scandalous Jesus” [Gospel of Matthew, part 9]

Kenneth E. Bailey. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008.

Jeannine K. Brown and Kyle Roberts. Matthew. The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018.

Michael Joseph Brown. “The Gospel of Matthew.” In True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, edited by Brian K. Blount, 85-120. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007.

John Calvin. A Harmony of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Volume 1. Trans. By A. W. Morrison. Calvin’s Commentaries. Ed. by David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972.

James D. G. Dunn. Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.

John Chrysostom. Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew. NPNF, series 1, vol. 10. Ed. by Philip Schaff. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994.

R. T. France. The Gospel of Matthew. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007.

Craig S. Keener. Matthew. IVPNTC. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997.

Scot McKnight. “Matthew, Gospel of.” In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, 526-541. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992.

Manlio Simonetti, editor. Matthew 14-28. ACCS. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002.

Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr. Gospel Parallels: A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels, 5th edition. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992.

S. Westerholm. “Pharisees.” In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, 609-614. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992.

N. T. Wright. The Challenge of Jesus. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999.

________. Simply Jesus. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.