Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’” Matthew 11:28-30 (ESV)
For years these verses have been a comfort and strength to me. In the old way of speaking, I would even say they are “life verses.” Yet, all along I’ve struggled to understand what it means to be “yoked.”
Does Jesus call me to be yoked by him – to take on my shoulders life assignments that he himself has chosen to live out through me? Or does he call me to be yoked with him as a pair of oxen is yoked, sharing the load in a partnership life?
If the yoking Christ offers is like what is put upon oxen, the comfort for me is in receiving that yoking from him as my Gracious Master. It is strength to know that in coming to him I am forever his. It is energizing to think that moving forward with him, he is the strong one and the lead one in our partnership of love and trust.
As wonderful as these truths have been to me, I still wonder if the yoked oxen are the best picture for understanding my relationship to him.
Are oxen yoked the best picture for my relationship with Christ?
Two things I wonder about the oxen yoke image:
- For one thing, Christians have been unable to agree on what that kind of yoke symbolizes. Some have settled on love, others have settled on his role as rabbi to each of his followers, and others have settled on our vital union with Christ spiritually.
- Another thing is that word partnership, which springs to mind when considering two beasts laboring together. The longer I walk with Christ, the more I long for experiential realities of the biblical phrase “in Christ,” and I’m left wondering if “partnership” is a word I can use in reference to my relationship to him. I don’t think I can anymore.
The image of oxen yoked seems inadequate to express my exchanged life experience with Christ.
While we are on friendly terms, and Jesus calls me his friend, he remains my Lord, my Father, my Savior, my Provider, and my Source of everything called life. He is, in the old way of speaking, my “All in all.” So, though our partnership is in the love we share, the mission and practical out-working of my life is one of a willing and glad service to him – not a dutiful partnership with him. What I do, I do because he has first marked out for me the path to walk and then gives me moment by moment the energy and wisdom to walk it.
This understanding of the exchanged life in which his life becomes my own requires that I lay down any pretense of earning his favor or justifying my own existence. I am partnered with other believers, but totally and completely identified with Christ. It is in this context I want to understand the yoke Christ offers me, a naturally “heavily laden and wearied” human being.
There is another kind of yoke
There is another kind of yoke, other than the yoke that links two beasts of burden together in a work relationship. It pictures the relationship I want with Christ and that I believe the Bible calls us to.
It is the shoulder yoke so common in medieval and colonial times and still much in use today in Asian countries (sometimes called a carrying pole).
Can this other type of yoke possibly be discovered in the scriptures?
Two possible biblical streams of thoughts support the idea of a shoulder yoke as the one Christ wants to give us in exchange for the one our fallen world and sinful self puts upon us.
First, the prophets speak of the people of God bearing a yoke of slavery but delivered from it by God himself.
The picture presented is a slave who must carry the goods of his master, bearing the weight of the large burden with the aid of the yoke. Indeed, the slave masters of the world do not care how large the burden is if the slave is able to carry it. In this situation, we are no greater than the animals we make our beasts of burden.
Passages that illustrate this point of view are Isaiah 9:1-7, Nahum 1, and Lamentations 1. For example, in Isaiah 9:4 three descriptions of the Israel’s enslavement to darkness are the following: “yoke of his burden,” “staff for his shoulder,” and “rod of his oppressor.” Perhaps these are three separate things, but clearly the unwelcome enslavement to darkness and the servitude it demands are pictured in all three.
The beautiful thing is that Isaiah 9 goes on to describe a son being born who completely and radically delivers those who are enslaved in darkness. That child we know to be Jesus Christ. He indeed is a Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, and The Prince of Peace. As Isaiah says the increase of his government and of peace does not have an end and that all of God is in his administration of our lives.
So, when I come to Jesus Christ, I come destitute of everything that can save me or is worthy of his holy love. I come weary and heavy laden with the burden of my sin and the expectations of an unbelieving and perversely wicked world. And coming to the Christ, I hear him offering to me (not commanding of me) a life beautifully shaped by his very own life within me by the Spirit of God.
Christ chooses me and shapes a life just for me that is the life he himself wants to live – through my personality, in space and time!
Second, following Christ is based on a willingness to die to self and live to him alone (Mark 8:34-38, Galatians 2:20, 1 Corinthians 1:28-31, and Colossians 3:1-4), taking up the role of a servant to Christ alone (John 8:34; Romans 6).
Taking up one’s cross and following Christ might be considered gladly or fully receiving the yoke he offers us. But equal partnership is not found in death to self, while abandonment is – abandonment of our so-called “right” to direct our own lives and define our own happiness.
The unbeliever is a slave to sin but completely freed from that slavery through faith in Christ. The interesting thing and thought-provoking description that a completely free follower of Christ might then very gladly apply to themselves is “slave of Christ” (Romans 1:1, Titus 1:1, James 1:1).
These two biblical streams of thought lead me to think of the yoke Christ offers us as a shoulder yoke, not the yoke of oxen. And that leads us to life-changing implications.
- My appointed place and role in life is what he has appointed for himself in me. He calls it “My yoke.” That is the only yoke he offers.
- It is “easy.” That is, it is Christ taking the burden of life off me and onto himself. The focus is now on his presence in my life and all vital resources for that life flowing from his Spirit within. The Greek word χρηστὸς (chrestos) is better translated “well fitting,” “suitable,” or even “useful.”
- It is “light.” Christ’s life is fitted to me personally so that it becomes distinctively and very comfortably my very own. As the yoke becomes an extension of the worker’s own shoulders, so the life of Christ in me becomes my own.
The “yoke” of Matthew 11 represents the presence of Christ and his peculiar way of living life and fulfilling his mission in and through me.
The yoke given is his loving choice of how to express his life in me, his laborer so that his work (mission) is finished. Jesus’ life within me carries the entire burden of the life appointed to me by His gracious heart and holy will (Colossians 3:1-4).
The yoke itself is not the burden, and not meant to increase the burdens of labor. His choice for us is not meant to ADD to the burdens but EASE the burdens and make the journey or the work of living out his plan for me entirely and supernaturally possible. “In Christ” means that my life is exchanged for His, not just in eternal, mystical and spiritual ways but in tangible, practical ways. There is no sense in which He carries part of the load and I carry the rest. His life within me is the source of the life I now live (Galatians 2:20).
God gives those laboring and heavy-laden a choice to be yoked by Christ when he calls each of us to come. Without being yoked by his choice to live in us, the burden of sin would be far too great to bear, and we would die trying. Without being yoked by his choice to live out his life through us, the burden of living a holy and God-loving life in a fallen world would be far too great a task to accomplish. It is by grace we are saved, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-10). Being yoked by Him, the Lord and Master of the Universe, our Savior, there is no burden for he himself carries the load. And so, Jesus is my “all in all.”
“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” – Jesus Christ