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The yoke of Jesus

By James D. Hernando

“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 11:28,29, NIV).

A picture is worth a thousand words and Jesus loved to use word pictures in His teaching. Often His metaphors depicted something quite common to His hearers, but with an element that was strangely out of place. Above is one of His more memorable sayings in which He calls His disciples to take up His yoke. What do you suppose ran through the minds of the first hearers of this saying when Jesus invited them to take up His yoke?

The yoke was a wooden bar or frame by which two draft animals were joined at the heads or necks for working together. Yokes worn by people were arched wooden frames designed to fit over a person’s shoulders to carry an equally divided load in two sections. The people of Jesus’ day would have been familiar with both kinds of yokes. However, the word would have been filtered through their knowledge of the Old Testament and the picture painted there was extremely negative.

Israel’s burden

When people are depicted as having a yoke placed upon them, it usually has reference to an excessive burden. Most often the burden takes the form of unwanted servitude or slavery. Israel is warned that the day would come when, because they would not serve the Lord, they would wear the yoke of their enemies (Deuteronomy 28:48). The yoke becomes a symbol of Egyptian bondage (Leviticus 26:13), captivity in Assyria (Isaiah 14:25) and in Babylon (Isaiah 47:6). As discipline, God places Israel under the yoke of Babylon and Israel is commanded to submit to it (Jeremiah 27:11,12). Just in case Israel thinks it can throw off or break that yoke, God calls it a yoke of iron (i.e., inescapable, Jeremiah 28:14), one which the Lord alone can break (Jeremiah 28:2,4). This He promises to do when He sets them free from their captivity (Isaiah 58:9; Ezekiel 34:27). Interestingly, the yoke of Israel’s captivity is twice linked to her transgression (Lamentations 1:14; Isaiah 58:6). With this background in mind, let us revisit our passage and explore its implications.

Jesus’ strange invitation

We can well imagine the incredulous look on the faces of those who heard Jesus’ words. How odd to promise the weary and burdened rest and then invite them to take up a yoke. From what we learned above, the word was practically synonymous with an oppressive burden and certainly evoked painful memories of Israel’s sinful past. The oddity continues with the words “my yoke,” since the only one handing out such a yoke in the Old Testament was Yahweh, the Lord. Finally, the yoke is an invitation to relationship, to “learn from me.” While Israel learned the harsh side of God’s discipline from the yoke He placed upon them, Jesus invites them to discover His gentle and humble heart.

The paradox of the invitation

The invitation is more than strange; it is a paradox. The yoke is not a burden; it results in “rest.” What is more, the promise is given, “And you will find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16). Neither is Jesus’ yoke an oppressive bondage or captivity. The promise harkens back in Israel’s history to the rest promised to Israel after the conquest of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 12:10; Joshua 1:13,15). It was the rest enjoyed by a free nation, delivered from the bondage of Egypt. For the disciple of Christ, the yoke is true freedom. One cannot help but recall the words in John 8:36, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

The freedom that Jesus offers, however, is not freedom from all constraints. Rather, as the yoke suggests, it is a controlled freedom that harnesses the power of those sharing the yoke. Finally, the yoke is not the humiliating chastening of God, but a call to privileged partnership with Christ. After all, does not Paul tell us that we are “fellow workers” with God (1 Corinthians 3:9)? Yokes normally were made to be borne by two, and Jesus invites us to share His yoke. Is this not why, at least in part, He describes His yoke as “easy” and “light”? Whatever burden we are called to bear in His service or under His yoke, we do not bear it alone.

The irony of the invitation

When one examines the imagery of the yoke in the Old Testament, a biting irony emerges. Though Jesus offers us a gracious invitation to take up His yoke, it is not a choice of whether or not to bear a yoke, only to decide whose yoke we will bear. Israel was set free from Egyptian bondage to serve the Lord (Exodus 4:23). Jeremiah relates the sad reality that after the Lord broke the yoke of the Egyptians and set Israel free, their ungrateful response was, “I will not serve you!” (Jeremiah 2:20). The very next words describe their idolatry as spiritual harlotry. Israel had refused the freedom to serve Yahweh and wound up back in bondage, this time to a power more enslaving and deadly than Egypt. Likewise those who reject Jesus’ yoke are not “yoke-free,” they simply retain the yoke of sin.

The call of Jesus to take up His yoke is an invitation to the true spiritual freedom of salvation and Christian discipleship. Paradoxically, the freedom comes when we bow our heads and submit to the demands of Christ’s instruction and discipline, which when we consider the alternative is an easy and light yoke indeed.

James Hernando is professor of New Testament at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Mo.

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