I spent the past three months working at a Christian summer camp, and it’s a little bit funny that even though the theme of the year was “spur,” I actually learned more about a different animal-related tool: the yoke. A yoke, for those of you who don’t know, is a wooden piece that fits over the necks of two animals (usually oxen) for the purpose of enabling them to pull a load together. Examples:
Today I want to talk about two yokes that are discussed in the Bible: the yoke of the world, and the yoke of God. (And I’ll talk about another application of the yoke illustration in my next post.)
The Yoke of the World
The yoke primarily mentioned in the Old Testament is a yoke of burdens and/or captivity. Isaiah 58, for example, talks about God’s call for His people to ease the burdens of the afflicted and “break every yoke.” “If you take away the yoke from your midst,” He says, then “you” (that is, Israel) will be blessed. He also uses the illustration of a yoke to represent Israel’s bondage to foreign nations, which He claims responsibility for but also promises to break in due time (e.g. Jer. 28, 30).
In the New Testament, the worldly yoke generally refers to religious tradition that Jewish Christians tried to press upon Gentile converts as necessary for salvation. Peter and Paul condemn this yoke in Acts 15 and Galatians 5, communicating God’s grace and reinforcing that Jesus removed the yoke requiring them to follow the law to the letter. He was the fulfillment of the law, and that yoke, which Peter says “neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15:10), no longer applied.
God’s Yoke: A Mark of Loving Ownership
The alternative to the yoke of the world is, of course, God’s yoke. Romans 6 establishes that we are either slaves to sin, or slaves of righteousness. We serve, either way, but who we serve—who gives us our yoke—makes all the difference.
The verse that started off my study on yokes at camp is Matthew 11:28-30. Jesus says,
“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, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
But wait, yokes are put on oxen for the purpose of work, right? So how does Jesus’ yoke give us rest? Yes, yokes are for work… But an ox that is yoked has an owner, someone responsible for its care and well-being, and God is the best caretaker we could ask for. We must work, but we also have rewards for our labor. Deuteronomy 25:4 instructs that, “you shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” This was to allow oxen to eat of their labor as they worked. The oxen served the master, and in return was fed, cared for, and rewarded.
Now, yokes aren’t especially light—a yoke for two oxen can weigh 60-70 lbs.—but Jesus says that His yoke is easy and his burden is light. How does that work? Well, when we bear the yoke of sin, it brings with it guilt and eventual death, though we may feel like we’re free from the confines of the law. When we take on Jesus’ yoke, however, we gain eternal life and joyous service to His kingdom. Though the yoke places upon us a responsibility to do His will and pursue righteousness, the work is ultimately far less burdensome and far more rewarding than our selfish pursuits under the yoke of sin.
In addition, the primary use of a yoke is to equip oxen to carry large burdens. When a farmer hooked a plow or cart to the yoke of his oxen, the yoke would distribute the weight of the load and make the burden easier to bear. Though the yoke itself is heavy, it actually makes the total burden lighter. Likewise, when we take Jesus’ yoke upon us, He takes the weight of our burdens and makes them easier to bear. If a farmer were not to use a yoke, the ox wouldn’t be properly equipped to handle the load it was given and the weight would prevent the ox from doing its work effectively. It’s the same with us. In Hebrews 12:1 we’re told to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and[…]run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith…” In taking Jesus’ yoke and laying our weight on Him, we are able to run the race and accomplish the work that is set before us.
God’s Yoke as a Defense
There’s one more benefit to God’s yoke. Another element of the care for what is yours is the defense of what is yours, and God’s yoke is for our defense. Jeremiah 5:5-6a talks about the danger that comes of breaking a yoke to go your own way:
“I will go to the great men and speak to them, for they have known the way of the LORD, the judgment of their God.”
But these have altogether broken the yoke and burst the bonds. Therefore a lion from the forest shall slay them, a wolf of the deserts shall destroy them; a leopard will watch over their cities.
If an ox were to break its yoke and wander away from the property of its owner, it would be slain by wild animals; it would be outside its master’s protection. While we remain within the boundaries God has set, we remain under His protection, because His boundaries are for our good. When we decide we know what’s best and break the boundaries, there are consequent dangers. So God’s yoke represents the limits in which we are safe.
While the yoke of the world ensnares and burdens us, God’s yoke equips us, defends us, eases our weight, and reminds us of His loving care for us. So then, let us pursue the work that He has prepared for us.