Gentle and Lowly
“I am gentle . . .”
The Greek word translated “gentle” in Matthew 11:29 occurs just three other times in the New Testament: in the first beatitude, that “the meek” will inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5); in the prophecy in Matthew 21:5 (quoting Zech. 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 Pet. 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’s 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 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” (Rom. 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. 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.”1 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.
Matthew 11:28 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 actively 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’s own teaching if our answer is, gentle and lowly.
If Jesus hosted his own personal website, the most prominent line of the “About Me” drop-down would read: Gentle and Lowly in Heart.
Intrinsic to Christ’s Heart
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” (Matt. 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 Cor. 15:10; Phil. 2:12–13; Col. 1:29). Jesus himself made this clear in this very Gospel (Matt. 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 Rom. 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 nonyoke. 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.
His yoke is kind and his burden is light. That is, his yoke is a nonyoke, and his burden is a nonburden. What helium does to a balloon, Jesus’s 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.
- B. B. Warfield, The Person and Work of Christ (Oxford, UK: Benediction Classics, 2015), 140.