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What Did Jesus Mean By “My Yoke Is Easy to Bear”? Going Beyond the Surface Meaning of This Verse

Have you ever found, at points throughout your life, all roads kind of leading or pointing to a particular topic, or even a certain bible verse?  It just keeps popping up and you eventually can’t ignore it any longer?  That’s what’s happened subtly over the past year or so with this verse.

Jesus issued an invitation to the people following Him:

“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 [NLT: easy to bear], and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30)

This verse has been one that I’ve mentally skimmed most of my life, picking up the gist but not really internalizing.  And that’s because I’ve never really been completely sure I knew what to make of the last part.

The part about rest, gentle, etc., I was following.  But then I questioned whether the last part contradicted other things Jesus said about following Him being hard…about having trials in this world, counting the cost, and the narrow, difficult way (e.g. John 16:33; Matt. 7:14; John 12:25).

But after having this verse shoved in my face enough times recently, I’ve spent more time meditating on it, and wanted to share some thoughts that may help modern readers apply it in their lives.

What should we understand about yokes in the bible?

In the largely-agricultural society of Jesus’s time, this statement would have been much better understood.  I grew up on a farm, but it’s not like we were yoking oxen together to get work done.  And in today’s world, I think we may even have an instinctive negative reaction to the idea of a yoke…as though we’re coming into bondage somehow, driven and overworked, with no personal agency.

So what should we know about yokes?  A yoke was used to bind two animals together and spread out the weight and effort of a hard task.  By evenly distributing the weight and helping them pull together, it ultimately made the job easier on both.

The animals yoked together need to be well-matched, of equal strength, size, temperaments…getting along and pulling together.  Other places say you’d put an older experienced ox and a younger, untrained one, to teach it.  Both are likely true, depending on the farmer’s need.  And you can easily see spiritual parallels in either scenario.

Yokes actually come up a lot in the bible.  They’re mentioned over 50 times, and most of the uses are figurative…denoting slavery, servitude, or the general influence of (or submission to) an authority—for instance, there’s a lot about breaking “yokes of bondage”, particularly in the Prophets.  The bible also sometimes metaphorically uses a yoke to describe the weight of a task or obligation.

What did Jesus mean about His yoke being easy to bear?

At face value His statement makes sense, particularly when contrasting His teachings with the centuries of exile and oppression that the Israelites had faced, as well as the hundreds of exacting physical rules and rituals the Jews had created for themselves out of fear of inadvertently breaking God’s commands and incurring His wrath.

Beyond that, though, there are some interesting angles concerning yokes that can deepen our understanding of this verse and how we can submit to Jesus’s “yoke” in our lives…let’s briefly explore these.

A yoke is created for work, not rest

I think that sometimes Christians key into Jesus’s focus on freeing us from the bondage of slavery, the truth making us free, and similar verses, and assume that we’re “in the clear”…that Jesus took care of everything and we can just coast through life.

But make no mistake—we are called to do God’s work.  Jesus spoke frequently of doing His Father’s work while on the earth, and that didn’t end with His resurrection.

He said, “My food [what sustains and keeps Him alive] is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work…Lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!  And he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, that both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together” (John 4:34-28).

This was a common theme He spoke about.  Right before giving His disciples power and sending them out to preach, heal, cast out demons, and proclaim the gospel, Jesus saw how much need there was and exclaimed:  “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Matt. 9:37-28).

Who are those laborers?  Matthew 20 directly connects this to God’s people who are called throughout the millennia, right up until His second coming.  Then in Mark 13, Jesus brings this home with the parable of a man going to a far country, who gave authority to his servants “and to each his work”, which the man expected to see diligently completed when he returned.

In a similar parable about servants, Jesus describes a wise and faithful servant who was given rule over the household, to provide food in due season.  He exhorts us to good and faithful work, saying, “If the master returns and finds that the servant has done a good job, there will be a reward” (Matt. 24:46, NLT).

As a resurrected Jesus ascended to heaven, His very last command had to do with the work that His ekklesia needed to pursue.  He told them, “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them…teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).

So clearly, Jesus expected His followers to take the initial work He accomplished (redeeming mankind from sin through His sacrifice and resurrection), and continue the next phase of that work—teaching and living God’s commands in our daily lives, and growing in the grace and knowledge of God.

While it’s God who calls people and opens their hearts to conversion—and He can obviously do it without us—He has specifically told us that we are responsible for playing a role in this process.  Paul reinforced the need for Christians to offer ourselves to God as workers who discern and correctly preach His word, so our labor would not be in vain (II Tim 2:15, I Cor. 15:58).

It’s easiest for our minds to shortcut to more physical, tangible types of work…proclaiming the truth, caring for the needy, serving our brethren.  All of that is important.  But it’s critical that we don’t neglect the INNER work that Jesus is looking to accomplish in (and with) us.  The Father and the Son are looking to completely tear down our carnal minds and hearts, transforming us into their image—into beings that reflect the thoughts and character of God, and bear spiritual fruits (Rom. 12:1, Gal. 5:22).

So if we go back to Jesus’s statement that His yoke was easy to bear and His burden was light, we see that His solution for yoke-weariness was not to cast off yokes entirely and go sit under a tree to relax.  It was not to stop working.

Instead, it was that we should yoke ourselves to Him—to walk in step and labor with Him until the job is finished.

Read next:  Burnt Offerings to Living Sacrifices: What Worshipping a Holy God Requires of Us

A yoke EASES the burden of work—it does not remove it

To build on the first point, a yoke is used specifically to lighten the burden for the workers, while still accomplishing the task.  It’s not a magic wand, but rather a tool to amplify the workers’ combined effort.

I’m not sure if Jesus was implying that He’s yoked in with us, or if He’s the farmer and we’re yoked to our fellow believers.  Or, heck, if He IS the yoke, lying across our shoulders to ease our day-to-day work and increase its yield.

Honestly, any or all of these interpretations of the analogy can work when it comes to taking Jesus’s yoke upon us.  I’ll mostly focus more on the analogy of Him being yoked in with us.  But I will note that, if He’s the farmer in this analogy, He is ensuring we’re yoked together with our fellow believers correctly so we can pull together, and that we are well-matched or that the stronger can help the weaker (Gal. 6:2, Eccl. 4:9-10).

But first, what is the “burden” that we are to carry?  The word Jesus uses (G5413) can be translated as a task or service (so, in other words…work).  However, it can also imply an invoice or bill, adding the idea of something that you’re responsible for—giving us responsibility for completing the task, but also bringing to mind the debt or “wages” that our sins incurred before they were wiped away by Jesus’s sacrifice (Rom. 6:23).

Jesus only used the word twice outside of our anchor verse about His “burden being light”.  Both times, He referenced the burdens that the Pharisees and other religious leaders had bound on the people (Matt. 23:4, Luke 11:46).  So He was clearly contrasting the relationship He wanted with His people and what He expected, with the requirements their human religious leadership put on them.

If Jesus’s yoke is “easy” to pull, what does that mean?  The word He uses (G5543) is also translated in other ways throughout the New Testament as better, good, gracious, and kind.  Those feel like rather bland words in today’s society (“How was your day?” “Eh, pretty good”), but actually show up in our lives in very powerful ways.

This word “good” is used to describe God’s goodness, grace, and longsuffering, with which He sent His Son to die for our sins—yours, and mine, individually (Rom. 2:4, I Pet. 2:3).  While the word used is a little different, “good” is also used to describe Jesus as our Good Shepherd, who knows us by name, watches over us and searches for us when we get lost (John 10).

The thing is, we want Him to take the burden from us entirely, but He instead offers help…comfort, peace, understanding, forgiveness, protection, advocating for us before the throne of God.  He pulls with us, yoked alongside us and adding His strength, bearing part of the load—let’s face it, often way more of the load than we realize.  He gives us the holy spirit as a helper, to enable and guide us in walking the straight and narrow path.

So even when Paul tells the Galatians that “each shall carry his own load” (the same word used for “burden”), he doesn’t literally mean each of us by ourselves, with no help.

Instead, after reminding readers of all the inspiring and dedicated faithful people through the centuries, Paul exhorts us:

“Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross…and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2)

Looked at through the lens of our anchor verse in Matthew, another way of reading this line could be, “Let us yoke ourselves in with Jesus and pull together toward the finish line, looking to Him to bear our burdens and lighten our load when it becomes too much for us”.

We must be careful who & what we’re yoked with (both spiritually & physically)

As I mentioned at the beginning, the yoke analogy could apply to us being yoked in with Jesus, but also with our fellow believers (with Jesus as the farmer)—all striving together to follow Christ’s example and do His work.

The apostle Paul uses the analogy when calling one of his companions “my true yoke-fellow” (Phil. 4:3 KJV).  This shows the trust and effectiveness that can be found when we’re yoked in with those pulling in a similar direction.

If I’m being honest, I don’t usually think about my relationship with brethren this way.  I tend to view it more as having relationships, supporting each other, praying, fellowshipping, encouraging.  (And don’t get me wrong, those are all true, and good.)  But I hadn’t really pictured it as me and the other person yoked together and pulling in the same direction to achieve a singular goal.  That kind of sounds “duh” when I type it out, but the mental image clarified something for me that I’d been ignoring.

Paul also offers a caution on the opposite end of the spectrum, warning against being “unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (II Cor. 6:14).  Some people misunderstand this as saying that we should basically have nothing to do with unbelievers.  But that’s not Paul’s point.

Remember, yokes are a symbol of authority and submission in the bible.  You wouldn’t yoke a donkey and an ox together, because they’re mismatched, can’t pull the load evenly, and may want to pull in different directions.  When Paul says not to be yoked with unbelievers, he is telling us not to enter into serious commitments or ties—marital, business, relational, societal—that would pull in the wrong direction or cause us to veer off the path.

We should also be careful not to CREATE unnecessary yokes for ourselves or others around religious ritual, requirements, etc.  For instance, there was division in the early church about whether new Gentile converts to the faith had to be circumcised, but it was determined that they didn’t need to bear this “yoke” (Acts 15:10).

In a similar vein, I find it interesting that there’s a ton of connective tissue in themes and even word usage with “yokes” in the book of Galatians.  The lens of Paul’s letter is showing us a church that was losing sight of Jesus’s call to follow Him in faith, and instead was turning back toward works and rituals as a supposed path to salvation.

After exhorting them to rely on the promises and grace of God rather than trying to justify themselves by strict obedience, Paul states:

Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke [servitude, obligation, coupling] of bondage…You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace…

For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh [human nature], but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:1, 4, 13)

This all brings us back to the question of what yoke we’re choosing to submit to, and whether we’re pulling in the same direction as our Savior.

Read next (another ox metaphor):  Kicking against the Pricks: Stubbornness vs. Submission

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened…”

A yoke is a commitment.  When we accept the yoke that Jesus offers, we’re locked in.  He cautions that “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).  Commit and submit.

The yoke makes true independence impossible.  We can’t just decide to go our own way once we’re tied into the yoke, as they did in the period of the judges when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25).  There is a narrow path we must walk, a row we must plow.

But that also means we don’t have to do it alone.  And in fact we CAN’T do it alone.  Jesus’s yoke is an enabler.  With it, we can do more than we ever could have done on our own—sharing the burden and pulling together to accomplish the difficult work of planting and producing fruit.  As Paul says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).

Jesus tells us that His yoke is easy to bear, and His burden (work, debt) is light (Matt. 11:28-30).  John echoes this statement, telling us that that if we love God, we will keep His commandments, “and His commandments are not burdensome” (I John 5:3).

Do we truly see it that way, or do we secretly view God’s commands as a burden, a checklist we must complete to avoid penalties, but designed to keep us from the good things in life?

Jesus’s statement in Matthew shares very close DNA (in both theme and word usage) with Paul’s letters to the Romans (“don’t use grace as an excuse to sin”) and the Galatians (“grace is what saves you, you can’t be justified and earn salvation through perfect obedience”).  These are two ditches we must avoid—both of them a burdensome yoke that is NOT the one Christ invited us to accept.

There is a pressure to submit to a yoke that is not Christ’s, that will pull us away from His path.  As we come into this Passover season and examine ourselves, it’s worth asking…what have I yoked myself to that is NOT Jesus Christ?  Ambition?  Pride?  Lust?  Politics?  Selfishness?  Binge-watching the latest season of Drive to Survive?  The list can go on and on, but ultimately, the decisions we make reveal the presence of competing yokes: the yoke of the world, of distraction, and of sin, versus the yoke of Christ.

He invites us to break that yoke of bondage and willingly tie ourselves in with Him.  He promises that if we remain faithful to His teachings, it will set us free (John 8:31).  Free of the fear of failing.  And free of the sometimes-crushing burden of feeling like we have to do it all ourselves.

“Then Jesus said, ‘Come to Me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will fnid rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light” (Matt. 11:28-30, NLT)

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1 Comment

  1. Lily D.

    Thank you; I understand more fully, and I am enriched by this article. I love God’s Word.

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