In my book Defeating Pharisaism: Recovering Jesus’ Disciple-Making Method I devote a few pages to the task of helping my readers recognize how that Matthew, a skillful author in his own right, used the literary device of irony in the first four chapters of his Gospel to prepare his readers for the many ironies they will find in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which begins in Matthew 5 and runs through Matthew 7. (See Defeating Pharisaism, pp. 105-109.) While out walking this morning my mind latched onto yet another of the many ironies we find in Matthew’s Gospel as a whole. This one is found later in his Gospel in chapter 11. Here, read this irony-laden passage for yourself:  

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)  

Do you see the irony here: a yoke that brings rest to the one who bears it? Yokes don’t usually do this. Yokes usually mean hard work. Jesus’ yoke—his call discipleship—promises spiritual rest instead of hard, back-breaking, blister-forming labor.  

In another section of Defeating Pharisaism I address this same issue when speaking of the logistical setting of Jesus’ most famous sermon. I’d like to think that giving the following excerpt a careful reading might prove worthwhile:

             In a previous chapter we took note of the fact that many scholars believe Matthew’s reference to Jesus going up on a mountainside in order to teach was intentionally reminiscent of Moses receiving and issuing the Old Testament law on Mount Sinai. These scholars are convinced that the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s story was to establish quickly and efficiently the authority of Jesus, Israel’s messianic king. Therefore, it is held that Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus assuming a Moses-like posture and then delivering a teaching that rang with a special sense of authority (Matthew 7:28–29) was filled with theological and rhetorical significance.[1] 

            If this is true, then we run into yet another occasion where Matthew’s story exudes a very strong sense of irony. However aware of the suggested rhetorical/theological significance of the Sermon’s hillside setting a typical first-century Jewish reader of this Gospel might have been, he or she would not have expected to hear Jesus do anything more than simply reiterate the highly venerated law of Moses. But what Jesus had actually come to do was to establish a new covenant altogether, a covenant that would differ significantly from the one that Moses had initiated. The difference between gospel and law is magnificent, as this quote from Carl Vaught indicates: “Moses went up onto a mountain where the first covenant came to focus in the first Law. Matthew, writing with Hebrew apologetic purposes in view, wishes to remind us of this fact, and thus he sketches a picture of Jesus going up onto a hillside to begin his teaching. However, this time what is at stake is a new covenant; on this occasion, what is involved is a new Law; in this context, what Jesus formulates is the Law the prophet Jeremiah mentions when he says: ‘One day I will write a new law on your hearts’ (Jeremiah 31:33).”[2] 

            Could it be that Matthew (and/or Jesus himself) did invest the hillside setting with this sort of New Covenant significance? If so, we need to recognize the tremendous importance of the teaching we are about to study and to approach it with the same sense of reverence, awe, and appreciation that, on their best days, earmarked the attitude of the ancient Jews toward the law of Moses. 

            And yet, in our case, the sense of reverence, awe, and appreciation with which we approach the Sermon is heightened by the fact that this teaching does not present us with laws written in stone which we must strive to obey in our own strength. No, a big part of what makes the New Covenant “new” (and different) is that an authentic, Spirit-empowered “reading” of the Sermon on the Mount is the process by which God writes his law upon our hearts, the means by which Jesus instills within his followers the grace necessary to actually discern and do the will of God. I am convinced that a sincere, prayerful study of this discipleship teaching, engaged in under the right circumstances (genuine Christian community), has the power to change us at the core of our being. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ way of planting the seed of kingdom life deep within those who have made the decision to follow him. This really is good news! 

Here’s the bottom line: the Christian life can’t be lived by us in our own strength. Only Jesus can live the Christian life. The good news is that his Spirit is available to help us do what we can’t. 

So, are you struggling rather than resting today, spiritually speaking? To be perfectly honest, I began my walk this morning with a sense of spiritual striving and existential angst in place. I finished my walk rejoicing that I don’t have to live the day in my own strength. By his Spirit, Jesus is here to help me. His yoke is easy and burden light. 

God’s irony is good! Right?  

Something to think about.  


[1] For example, see Sinclair Ferguson, The Sermon on the Mount: Kingdom Life in a Fallen World (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 6.  

[2] Ibid.