For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1.
What is a yoke? The dictionary defines it as ‘a wooden crosspiece that is fastened over the necks of two animals and attached to the plough or cart that they are to pull’; and so it is, as we can see from the image above.
In Scripture, however, the word is often used metaphorically for anything which is imposed upon us (with or without our consent) so that those imposing it might exercise control over us and have us serve them in the way they wish. Thus, we find Isaac telling Esau (whose rights as firstborn his brother Jacob has stolen), ‘By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you break loose, you shall break his yoke from your neck‘ (Genesis 27:40). Thus we find God telling Israel, ‘I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect’ (Leviticus 26:13). And thus, when Solomon died, we find Israel coming to Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, and saying, ‘Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you’ (1 Kings 12:4).
Yokes are what control us and brings us into submission and service. So my question today is: Whose yoke do we carry and who is it to whom we submit and serve?
We might be tempted to answer (somewhat indignantly), ‘We serve Jesus, of course; and his is the yoke we carry … The one he talked about in Matthew 11:29.’
But is it? Perhaps, once upon a time, we carried the yoke of Jesus, but might it be that we are carrying a somewhat different one now? That, according to Paul in our text from Galatians 5, was exactly the position into which some of the Christians in Galatia were intent upon putting themselves. They had once been under what Paul calls ‘a yoke of slavery’ but then Jesus had come along and broken that yoke and they had taken upon themselves his yoke instead. Now, however, they were about to cast of that yoke of Jesus and submit again to the old yoke … which, in their case, was of course the Torah – the Jewish Law.
As I have explained in more detail elsewhere in this blog (see the links below), Jesus was recognised as a rabbi and all rabbis had their ‘yoke’. It was their interpretation of the Law and they took that on themselves and imposed it on their disciples. Together, they bore its burden. And the burden was invariably demanding – governing every aspect of daily life – and extremely heavy. It chafed, constantly … and it was meant to. But Jesus, in stark contrast, claimed that his yoke was, in fact, easy (the Greek is ‘chrēstus‘ which might be better translated as ‘well-fitting’) and his burden was light (Matthew 11:30).
So there we find a useful test for us. Is the yoke that we are carrying easy and well-fitting? Is the burden of it light upon our shoulders? If it is not then perhaps we really do need to question whether the yoke that we are carrying is truly the yoke of Jesus, or some other yoke. Let me explain what I mean …
Sixty or so years ago, as a teenager who had already been a Christian for five years, I was ensnared by the Closed Brethren – a branch of J N Darby’s Plymouth Brethren. At the age of eleven I had encountered the Lord Jesus at a Children’s Mission and had begun to follow him and experience the joy of my new life in Christ; but, by the time I was sixteen, I was very dissatisfied with the rather mundane and apathetic goings-on in my local Methodist Church and I had become attracted by the intensity and zeal of a Closed Brethren family who lived in our neighbourhood. It was they who took me with them to their Meeting Room in a nearby town; and it was not long before the ‘instruction’ (indoctrination) began.
I was to have no non-Christian friends and, though I was still living at home with my parents, I was to spend as little time in their company as possible and to use my bedroom as a refuge in which to escape from them …
‘Be not diversely yoked with unbelievers; for what participation is there between righteousness and lawlessness? or what fellowship of light with darkness? and what consent of Christ with Beliar, or what part for a believer along with an unbeliever? … Wherefore come out from the midst of them, and be separated, saith the Lord, and touch not what is unclean …’ (2 Corinthians 6:14-17).
That was the Scripture they constantly quoted to me (from the Darby translation, of course, for any other version was not the true Word of God).
I was no longer to read newspapers, magazines, novels. I was not to watch television or listen to the radio (for they ‘brought the world into the home’) and I was never to set foot in a cinema or theatre for they were the domain of Satan.
At first I found it exhilarating and thrilling to be so different – so much holier – than those around me; and I even rejoiced in the rows with my parents that it all caused because I was actually being persecuted for righteousness’ sake, wasn’t I? But then, as time went on, my yoke began to chafe and it eventually dawned upon me that what I was carrying was not the yoke of Jesus at all but a yoke of slavery for which I had unwittingly exchanged it. I was no longer under grace but under a law almost as onerous as the Jewish Law, and one that, like the Jewish Law, was supposedly necessary to ensure my right-standing with God.
Churches have, of course, always been great at fashioning yokes and putting them on those who would join their fellowship. It happened even in the very early days of the church. At the first council of apostles in Jerusalem, some Pharisees who had become Christians urged the apostles to ensure that all new Gentile converts would be circumcised and obliged to keep the law of Moses; but Peter (bless him!)was having none of it. ‘Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’ (Acts 15:10-11).
And that surely should our stance too. What is there in our lives that is there to buy favour with God? What is there in our lives that is there to win the approval of those in authority in our church? There is only one yoke that we should be carrying and it is the yoke of sonship that I have written about extensively elsewhere (The Yoke of Sonship, The Easy Yoke). That is the yoke that Jesus carried. It is the will of the Father, taken upon himself by the Son out of love for the Father and in glad and joyful response to the Father’s love for him. That is the easy yoke, the well-fitting yoke, the light yoke; and that is the yoke, and the only yoke, that Jesus invites us all – sons and daughters of his Father too – to share with him today.