During a recent visit to western New York, I laced up my running shoes and joyfully revisited its pastoral landscapes. I scanned the vast, piercing blue horizon to behold farm after farm of crops growing slowly under the attentive eye of the Almighty.
I didn’t see any oxen on the farms as the miles unfolded, but I started pondering a fitting word from Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “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” (Matthew 11:29-30).
Like me, you’ve probably read this passage many times—but can we agree that this teaching is confounding? Why did Jesus say his yoke is easy and his burden is light?
A Deathly Yoke
Jesus recognized that his listeners would know how a yoke keeps two oxen together as they plow the fields for a new season of crop planting. The stronger ox leads the weaker ox, one row at a time toward the completion of their arduous task.
Humans are unquestionably the weaker ox in this illustration, as we stumble and sin, which raises the provoking question, What am I yoking my life to? Greed? Lust? Judgment? Selfishness? Anger? Pride? The list is lengthy, but ultimately, the decisions we make reveal the presence of competing yokes: the yoke of sin, or the yoke of Christ.
The yoke of sin feels deceitfully light at first, even invisible. It feels good (Hebrews 11:25). But this yoke exacts a heavy toll in time. Paul wrote that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23)—and he could’ve easily substituted “wages” with “yoke.”
To put it another way, the yoke of sin leads to death.
A Free Yoke
Thankfully, Romans 6:23 doesn’t end with death—death doesn’t have the last word. “But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” Paul adds. The yoke that Jesus speaks of in Matthew 11 is a “free gift” to us that requires a willing submission on our part. It leads us to a posture of surrender and trust. “It is to obey the gospel of Christ, to yield ourselves to the Lord,” says Matthew Henry in his commentary.
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What does it mean to obey the gospel? What does it mean to yield to the Lord? It means liberation from the yoke of death as we entrust ourselves to Jesus’ good and perfect yoke of life and freedom. The yoke of Christ is liberating, as the apostle Paul makes clear in Romans 10:5-17: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” he says. Calling on the name of the Lord (v. 13) means rescue from the yoke of death.
A Lovely Yoke
Along with being easy and light, the yoke of Christ is finally and fully replete with an otherworldly love from God to his people:
Such is the nature of all Christ’s commands, so reasonable in themselves, so profitable to us, and all summed up in one word, and that a sweet word, love. (Matthew Henry)
With respect to Henry, I wholeheartedly agree that the teachings of Jesus are immensely profitable to our spiritual health, but we often see them as unreasonable or difficult. However, liberation from the yoke of death means that his teachings are no longer burdens but blessings as they move us toward the life God always intended for us. “Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways!” (Psalm 119:2-3).
Rest for the Soul
You might say that repeatedly vacationing in Western New York has spoiled me. There’s a restfulness about Erie County, and I love to fall back on that calmness after running fast on the roads each morning.
We are a hurried people, always about our business in a frenzied manner. But Jesus invites both you and me to find rest for our weary souls by embracing his death-defeating, freeing, and lovely yoke.