The Greek word translated “gentle” here occurs just three other times in the New Testament: in the first beatitude, that “the meek” will inherit the earth; in the prophecy in Matthew 21 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”.
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.
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.
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”. Paul uses the word when he tells us to “not be haughty, but associate with the lowly”, 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. 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. Verse 28 of our passage in Matthew 11 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 or passively finding yourself weighed down by something outside your control, 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.