Go to pretty much any gym in America, and you’ll probably overhear a conversation about weight. I don’t mean losing weight. I mean deadlifting it, bench-pressing it, curling it, squatting it. You’ll hear conversations like, “What you lifting, bro?” “380, brah.” And whether you’re in the conversation or just observing from the smoothie bar, you’ve probably picked up on the competitive compulsion to be the one who can lift the most. “410 for me, brah.”

There was a group of people in Jesus’ day who were also obsessed with lifting weight. It just looked a little different. Jesus described these individuals in Matthew 23:

“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”
— Matthew 23:4

They were called Pharisees, and they were the religious leaders of the day, basically self-proclaimed life coaches telling the Jewish people what to do. Jesus’ chief accusation against them was this: they were obsessed with weight! Only their weights (or burdens) weren’t dumbbells. They were lists of rules, endless boxes to check off in order to prove oneself worthy. But over time their lists kept growing and growing, and, as Jesus observed, these religious teachers were really only concerned with watching others struggle under the crushing weight so that they, the teachers, could prove their own superiority. They had definitely missed the point. Not to mention, in reality, they weren’t any closer to perfectly following the rules than the people they were leading. And Jesus called them out on it. He said, “They preach, but do not practice.” It was all like a big game of Simon Says to them, and this game had been going on for a very long time.

Then Jesus came onto the scene and completely flipped the script. Jesus, who was the spiritual equivalent of Mr. Universe, could’ve really dropped the weight on the people. And rightly so! He would’ve been able to lift any burden and keep every rule, but Jesus was a very different teacher than the others. Just listen to his invitation for students:

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

How completely different from the elitist poser Pharisees! If the people would come to Christ as their teacher, follow Him as their mentor and master, he would actually lighten their load. He wasn’t obsessed with lifting weight, he wanted to liberate them from it. Jesus’ goal wasn’t to crush the people, but to give them rest. Rest for their souls.

Christ revealed the fullness of this when he died for us. The Teacher laid down his life for his students, to save us. To save us from sin, as well as from religious legalism. And everything he preached along the way pointed back to the heart of the matter. It was never about a list of rules. It was always about pursuing God with your heart. Just like someone who can bench-press obscene amounts of weight may not actually be a physically healthy person. It was always supposed to be about loving God, not trying to carry the most weight. And to punctuate that point, God, through Christ, demonstrated just how much he loves you. Rules won’t save you, but his love will.

So the next time you find yourself trying to carry the load of religious legalism or prove you’re the one who can keep all the rules the best, ask yourself, “Which teacher are you following? The one who wants to crush you or the one who wants to free you? The one who wants to condemn you or the one who truly loves you?”

For God so loved the world that He gave His only son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
— John 3:16