One of the most commonly used phrases when bringing a rousing sermon home about having a personal relationship with our savior, is the words of Jesus Christ himself, when he said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you…for my yoke is easy, and my burden in light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
And with every ‘most common’ passage or verse, it also seems to be the most commonly misunderstood, misquoted and misread. I’ve heard dozens of different interpretations, such as it being taught that the life of a Christian is easy, trouble free, unburdened from sickness, poverty, etc. While others say it was just speaking of the Civil/Ceremonial portion of the Mosaic Law. But what is the Yoke of Christ?
Every Christian teacher and pastor has spoken about the yoke, and will use a pretty similar illustration. The ‘yoke’ was a tool to bind oxen and other beasts of burden together so that they could perform their work role in relative unison. It was a means of control, and it was often heavy, rough hewn and would most likely have been incredibly uncomfortable to the animal it was attached to.
The yoke’s primary role was control. It kept the animals in step. It kept them chained or roped to the implement they were pulling, whether that was a plow, or carriage, so that they could not wander off. They could not escape it, it ruled them completely and they were in complete subservience by it. The only escape from this yoke was death, or when the master took it off the beast.
So when our savior says, “Take my yoke…for it is easy, and my burden light.” we are left with two responses. The first, is relief! The second, is what are we being relieved from? Some say we are relieved from the troubles of life! From poverty, sickness, disease, and even death.
Others say it’s a relief from certain parts of the Mosaic Law, but not all of them. And others yet say it’s a release from all responsibility, accountability and consequence. That we are free to do anything, immorality, and beyond, with no concern or consequence. None of these options are right, or true.
Teaching the Yoke of Christ can be done simply by looking at what it is not.
The Yoke Christ referred to several times was Religion. Now I know – so many will instantly say, ‘But religion is good, and they aren’t all the same!” So to be even more clear, we are talking about man-made religion, or traditions. Religion that was pure, but then defiled by mans implementations, is the heavy yoke. Consider again the rebuke of the Lord about this very topic found in Mark 7.
Jesus begins by berating the Pharisees saying, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, ‘you honor me with your lips but your heart is far from me.’” Or in other words, you are putting on a show, but I can see through it. In another passage, Christ illustrates this by saying, “In that day many will say, Lord Lord…did we not prophesy in your name, did we not do many works?” and His response? I don’t know you…It was a show. Lip service. There was no relationship, only religion. A form of Godliness (self righteousness) but no true power. (Relationship of the Holy Spirit that transforms)
In Mark, Jesus continues, “In vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines (God’s commandments) the commandments of men. You leave the commandments of God and hold to the traditions of men.” (Mark 7:7-8)
This yoke of religion had become so heavy, so overwhelming and even completely unachievable, that even Paul, who before his conversion was one of the most zealous keepers of the Traditions of his Fathers, by his own mouth, exceedingly above all his peers, (Galatians 1:14) could not keep the traditions, or bear the yoke. Paul had been so zealous to keep the traditions, that he was the Nero before Nero – so much did he persecute the Christian church, he had them put to death for his religion, and it’s yoke.
But even that same man, Paul, recounted in the Council of Jerusalem, in Acts 15, just how impossible it was to really keep that burden, and demanded to know why the Jews of that day thought they could yoke the Gentiles with the same burden (Religion) when they couldn’t even bear its requirements?
Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ac 15:10).
What is the Heavy Yoke?
Nothing prepared me for a deep dive into Rabbinical Judaism of the ancient days. This of course is not an anti-Semitic message, but when you ask just how heavy was the yoke Paul spoke of in Acts 15, not even Scripture prepares you for the depth of the Traditions of Men. Paul called them the Traditions of our Fathers, or Elders. Christ called them the Commandments of Man.
My first introduction was the book, Biblical Literalism, A Gentile Heresy. I read this in 2019 and still marvel at some of the epiphanies, while I toss away other things I can’t yet agree with and may never. But a year later, it inspired me to practice what I preach. To know the real history and background of the things we read about, but we often have no clue or concept of the early BC Jewish mind, or even those 1st Century Jewish minds that led to the stoning of Stephen, and many others.
In reading through ancient writings, known as the Rabbinical Teachings or Interpretations of the law, the scroll of heaven opens up before me! It’s the only phrase I can think to describe how vast the law was. The law stretched to every aspect of human life, as far from the East is to the West!
So superstitious were they, that in the Talmud and Halakhah, the two major documents of Judaic Law interpretations, men were not able to pair (trim) their nails with their teeth (primarily for germ/disease control) but more importantly, they could not, however they trimmed them, trim then in order. Trimming them in order could bring about poverty, death of their children, sickness and disease. etc.
And so much of the ancient traditions dealt with Shabot, or the Sabbath, as we see illustrated in Jesus’ life in Scriptures multiple times, such as His disciples not washing their hands before they ate, and picking food from a field on Sabbath. One portion dealt with the clothing a woman could wear on Sabbath, and so thought out was it, they she could not plait, or braid her hair, or wear bands or straps in her hair on the Sabbath.
Not because they were prohibited, but because it says, she may be tempted to take her decorations off, to show her friends, and thereby break a law of Shabot, that you were not able to carry a certain weight or quantity of items more than 4 ells, or roughly, 3.5 feet. If she moved 3.5 feet while carrying those items in her hand, she was ‘culpable’ as the text declares.
In another place, it declares how much ink may be carried, only enough to paint one eyebrow or create one letter. If enough ink was carried to paint both eyebrows, or two letters, they have violated the laws of Shabot and were culpable.
Culpable means deserving blame, something that could have resulting in beating, and it more extreme circumstances, stoning, this is how serious Shabot was to the ancient Jewish mind.
For perspective, there are over 613 commandments in the Old Testament of our Bibles, the first books known as the Torah. From those 613 commandments, the Rabbinical teachings have created thousands upon thousands of interpretations, precedence and declarations about how those commandments, and laws, are to be applied. This is the heavy yoke of tradition.
For instance, spend a little time asking Google, “How many laws are there in the United States?” The most common answer you’ll get, is “No one really knows.” There are laws that have hundreds of laws that describe and tell us how and when that original law applies. Some examples are the Internal Revenue Code, that has 3.4 million words. The U.S. has over 20,000 laws governing gun ownership and usage.
On the federal level there are over 4,450 crimes that can be charged, each of which having various degrees of severity, multiple laws per level of severity governing the charge, and the punishment of the charge.
And just stroll downtown and observe how many laws people break every minute of every day. Crossing the road out of a designated crosswalk? That car was doing 26 in a 25 zone? Did that man just drop his soda cup on the ground?
Some states, cities and counties have their own ordinances, hundreds and thousands that stack on top of all the Federal laws, with their own fines, repercussions and punishments for violators. You can break a dozen laws in a minute, and not even know it, yet be culpable. This is the weight and heaviness of the Law, and Religion.
And this by nature can only continue to grow, and it can only continue adding more laws, more regulations, more demands, and commands and traditions. Congress never takes away old laws, they just create new laws meant to better interpret old laws, or fill gaps where old laws may have missed something. Yet the burden never lessens, it only grows. And this is why lawyers demand so much money per hour.
Not because they have to buy nice suits or spend a lot of time in court. In fact, lawyers spend less time in court than any other duty they have. A lawyers time is consumed with reading the law, understanding the law, interpreting the law, and finding ways to get around it, or apply it, depending on the side of the case they are on.
The Easy Yoke of Christ
Jesus Christ, my friends, and dear ones, is nothing like that. This is the very opposite of what God came, manifest in the flesh, to represent. The Word of God (John 1:1) that become Flesh (John 1:14) embodied what the law was supposed to be, Love, and that Love comes in the Holy Spirit. Consider the passages in Hebrews 10:1-18.
Scripture declares that this Law was a shadow of the good things to come (relief, Christ) but was not the image (realization) of that Good thing. That sacrifices for sin with bulls and and goats served only to remind us of Sin, but could never truly wash away those sins.
By verse 9, it declares of Christ saying, “Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He who takes away the first (Religion, Law of Man) that he may establish the second. (Law of Christ) Through the offering of His body, a perfect lamb, all scarifies forever were done away with. He even says the priests DAILY make sacrifices, but it would never be enough. There wasn’t enough blood, or animals to slaughter, that would be the scape-goat of our sin or remove the yoke. But finally, in verse 15-16, Scripture declares that the Holy Spirit bears witness to this truth, saying, “This is the covenant I will make with them (you and me) after those days, declares the Lord, I will put my laws on their hearts and write them upon their minds.“
All the traditions of the fathers are to be done away with, that the second may be established. But what is the second? Love.
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”Matthew 22:36-40
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2
The easy yoke of Christ, is Love. Not some mindless love that just says be happy and you have Love. But rather, the boundless Love of Christ who gave himself as a ransom for those he loved. You and me. Is that so hard a burden? Is that a heavy yoke?
Consider the staples of God’s commandments. Can you commit adultery and claim to love your spouse? Can you murder a neighbor, but say you love your neighbor? Can you steal from a friend and say you love them? Can you rail on a brother, but say you love them?
You just simply cannot – and this is what it means to have the Law written on your heart – that it would be a Spirit led fruit in your life, not a bogged down, lip-service, religious burden or obligation, one that creates zealotry and self-righteousness. When you truly align and take on Christ’ yoke, these things will be in you. (though we always struggle with flesh that wan’t to override the Spirit)
In conclusion, I leave you with the great example of Love from 1 Corinthians 13. Love bears all things. That is the Law of Christ. The easy yoke is knowing that Christ paid all your penalties for sin. He bore the culpability of all the Law, and all the traditions of man, and religion.
Those condemnations were nailed to a cross. And the yoke we are asked to bear, is to love one another, the way He loved us – with boundless grace, mercy, and kindness. Willing to lay our lives down for one another if need be. Not to be divided based on mans traditions, but united in the Spirit, by the hope of our calling, in the unity of Faith, that Christ was our redeemer, not our traditions.
Our yoke should be a Spirit led conviction, that with what Christ did for us, we should strive with every fiber of our being to first love God, and then to Love one another, as He Loved Us! This pierces my heart as I have failed so many times to show this kind of love!
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Co 13:1–13). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.