The Yoke of Jesus
“The reason people find rest by taking Christ’s yoke is that his yoke is a different kind of yoke.”
To people burdened under the weight of sin and the Law , the Lord Jesus Christ came to give freedom and rest. The first words spoken to those who became disciples were these: “Follow me.” And throughout our Lord’s life he traveled the highways of the land of Palestine inviting people to come to him.
Our Lord summarized the invitation to discipleship that characterized his earthly ministry: “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” (Matt. 11:28–30).
The Weight of the Law
To understand our Lord’s invitation, we must understand that those to whom he was speaking were crushed beneath the weight of the Mosaic Law. Our Lord addressed those who numbered themselves among the disciples of Moses and who were the disciples of the Pharisees. Neither Moses nor the Pharisees could give rest from the pressing burden or offer release from the oppressive load that the Law brought. Christ, recognizing that there was no other course to rest and peace than that to be found through submission to himself, came to invite people out of their old discipleship to a new one.
The Law was given by Moses (John 1:17), and because the Pharisees considered themselves the Law’s official interpreters, they promoted themselves as authorities in Israel. In Matthew 23:2, we read that Christ referred to these teachers of the Law and the Pharisees as men who “sit in Moses’ seat.” Claiming the authority of Moses as interpreters and teachers of the Law, they demanded that all in Israel who submitted to Moses also submit to them, and that individuals in Israel recognize themselves not only as disciples of Moses but also of the Pharisees.
When the Law was imposed on humans, it did not bring liberty. It brought bondage. Rather than freedom, it brought oppression. Instead of a sense of release, it brought a sense of guilt and failure. The Pharisees made no effort to bring freedom and liberty. In fact, their system imposed heavy burdens (Matt. 23:4). The Pharisees codified the Mosaic Law into some 365 prohibitions and 250 commandments and required those who followed them to submit to the Pharisees’ interpretations.
Our Lord looked at a nation under a heavy burden, a burden that the Pharisees made no effort to lift from those who were crushed beneath its load. And he came to say, “Come to me . . . and I will give you rest.”
Those who were under the Mosaic Law were said to be yoked to Moses. Those who were under the authority of the Pharisees were said to be yoked to the Pharisees. Christ talked about delivering people from this yoke (11:29). Coming to those who were so crushed, Christ offered them release, liberty, freedom, rest.
Jesus Issues an Invitation
Notice our Lord’s invitation when he said to this oppressed multitude, “Come to me” (v. 28). Moses had offered the children of Israel the Law at Mount Sinai. And Israel responded by saying, “We will do everything the Lord has said” (Ex. 19:8). The people voluntarily submitted themselves to the Law and were yoked to the Law. Later the Pharisees imposed authority over the nation, and the nation voluntarily submitted to the authority of the Pharisees. They had done the bidding of the Pharisees when the Pharisees had said, “Come to me.” But when our Lord came, he stood and said to an oppressed, burdened people, “Come to me.”
This is the same invitation our Lord had given to the first apostles. In Mark 1:16–17 we read that Christ summoned Simon and his brother Andrew with “Come, follow me.” And he did the same with James son of Zebedee and his brother John.
In John 1, we read about another time when Jesus invited people to himself: “When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus” (v. 37). They asked, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” And he said to them, “‘Come . . . and you will see.’ So they went and saw” (v. 38). Again, finding Philip, Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” And Philip followed (v. 43). Here the number of disciples was expanded from the original four because Christ presented himself to them and said, “Follow me.” And they submitted to him and followed.
Much later in Jesus’s ministry after he had completed the call of the original twelve, Christ stood and said, “Come to me” (Matt. 11:28). He was not calling them to a system. He was not calling them to a religion. Nor was he calling them to a tablet of stone or to the traditions of humans. He was calling them to a person, to himself. Discipleship is the response of an individual to a person who stands before believers and says, “Come to me.”
You will notice the universality of this invitation: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened.” In Israel there could not be found one who had found rest through Pharisaism, who had found rest through the multiplied works in which he or she was involved. All were burdened; all were guilty; all were condemned. But Christ opened the invitation to all the burdened and oppressed, none excluded. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened.” And the verse concludes with Christ’s promise, “I will give you rest.”
How Could Christ Give Rest?
But how could Christ give rest? The strange contradiction is that Christ exchanged the yoke of Pharisaism for another yoke. “Take my yoke upon you” is the means by which people find rest. The questioner might ask, “If I must bear a yoke, what difference does it really make whether it be the yoke of Pharisaism or the yoke of Christ? After all, a yoke is a yoke.”
Christ did not say to the distressed, “Come to me, and I will remove all yokes from you and give you rest.” His invitation and the condition upon which people would experience the results were found in taking “my yoke upon you.” To take Christ’s yoke means to submit oneself to the authority of Christ. It means to put ourselves under his rule, to join together with him. He is inviting people to put their shoulders into a new yoke, one in which he is the yoke mate. And he promises that, as they submit to his authority and are yoked with him, they will find rest for their souls.
The reason people find rest by taking Christ’s yoke is that his yoke is a different kind of yoke. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. To the one bound in this new yoke, Christ promised, “You will find rest for your souls.” The yoke to which Christ invited people, when borne as a co-laborer with Jesus Christ, is no burden at all. It is a source of rest, satisfaction, enjoyment, and contentment. Christ is our life and he is our strength. When one is yoked to Jesus Christ, that which is performed is the joy of the true disciple.
The Stronger One Carries the Load
Back in my college days, I observed an incident that made this scripture clear to me. On Sunday afternoons I used to go out to a little rural Sunday school to teach. One such day the superintendent, a farmer, and I were visiting in the community. We saw an old farmer plowing with a team of oxen. As I saw this team, I was somewhat amazed, for one was a huge ox and the other a tiny bullock. That ox towered over the little bullock that was sharing the work with him. I was amazed and perplexed to see a farmer trying to plow with two such unequal animals in the yoke and commented on the inequality.
The man with whom I was riding stopped his car and said, “I want you to notice something. The large ox is pulling all the weight. That little bullock is being broken in to the yoke, but he is not actually pulling any weight.”
In the normal yoke, the load is equally distributed between the two that are yoked together, but when we are yoked with Jesus Christ, he bears the load, and we who are yoked with him share in the joy and the accomplishment of the labor but without the burden of the yoke. The tragedy is that some of us have never been broken in to the yoke.
How then can someone submit to Christ’s yoke? The explanation is in the little phrase “learn from me.” We may paraphrase it, Let me teach you what you need to know. Let me guide you and direct you in your activities. Let me set the direction of your life. “Learn from me.”
The Jews to whom our Lord spoke had been taught by the Pharisees. They were so burdened by the Law that they would not step across a grassy plot on the Sabbath day. The Law said, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. . . . On it you shall not do any work” (Ex. 20:8–10). That law meant a person could not sow in his field, but the Jewish leaders had so interpreted this law that, if someone stepped on a plot of grass and knocked some ripe seed from the pod onto the ground, he was guilty of sowing on the Sabbath day. Pharisaism taught that it was wrong for a man who wore false teeth six days a week to wear them on the seventh, for that was bearing a burden and was thus a violation. The Pharisees taught that it was wrong to use internal medication for healing on the Sabbath day. So the person who broke an arm could put it into a splint; that was external. Or if people had toothaches, they could take a sip of wine to deaden the pain as long as they spit it out and washed out their mouths. If not, swallowed wine became internal medication, and using it made someone a Sabbath violator. The disciples of the Pharisees had learned the burden that the Law imposed. But Christ said they were going to have to unlearn all they had learned. “Let me teach you,” he said.
Time to Decide
If we follow the Gospel record, we will find that from this point on in our Lord’s life, he concentrated not on performing miracles but on teaching the truth that people needed to know about the Father, about himself, about the way of life, and about the way of salvation. The people had to make a decision whether they would continue as disciples of the Pharisees or whether they would submit to Jesus and become his disciples.
It is possible for someone to be saved without being a disciple of Jesus Christ. A believer becomes a disciple of Jesus Christ only when he or she submits to the authority of Christ’s Word and acknowledges Christ’s right to rule.
Many of us have no right to call ourselves disciples. When we’ve heard Christ’s words, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” we have responded and have come to him. But when he prepares to slip a yoke around our necks to join us to himself, we resist, we fight, we back off. We refuse to be brought under bondage to anyone, not even to Jesus Christ. But until we become yoked to him in the sweetest bondage that heaven or earth knows, we cannot be disciples. “Take my yoke upon you” means learn of me, submit to my Word, acknowledge the authority of my person. When we do that, and only when we do that, will we “find rest” for our souls.
Are you restless, child of God? Often distraught, discouraged? Perhaps at the edge of despair? Put your shoulder into his yoke so that he might bear the burden. Learn to walk yoked to Jesus Christ, and you will find rest for your soul. This is his promise.
Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost is distinguished professor emeritus of Bible Exposition and adjunct professor in Bible Exposition at DTS. At age 98, “Dr. P.” continues to teach and to do so without using notes. Follow Dr. P on Facebook.
Adapted from Design for Discipleship © 1996 by J. Dwight Pentecost. Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, Mich. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.