The easy yoke and light burden
Believe it or not, the Bible was not written to you. It was written with you in mind, but it was not written to you, sitting at your kitchen table in Marshalltown, Iowa, in 2021. No, it was written over thousands of years to people who lived far away in a much different culture than we live in today.
So, I wanted to take one of the often misunderstood texts and sayings of Jesus and look at it from the cultural perspective so we can see what it meant to the original audience, and then, understand how it applies to us.
“Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” – Matthew 11.28-30.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that passage preached where the pastor immediately makes the connection to an ox yoke. While that is one way that the word “yoke” can be translated, it has another meaning that I believe should be used in this passage.
A rabbi’s teaching was called his “yoke.” Whatever he taught was bound to that yoke, and whatever was not taught was loosened from that yoke. During the time of Jesus, the religious leaders were teaching extra rules that were heavy burdens heaped on the people. On top of the law from the Old Testament, they had made up an abundance of new laws to help “clarify” those other laws. What that amounted to was a teaching, or yoke, that was too much for people to carry.
Here we see Jesus speaking to a weary and beaten down group of people. He calls all those who were weary and burdened from the teaching of the religious leaders to come to Him, and He would give them rest. When Jesus says “Take up my yoke and learn from me,” something doesn’t make sense if we are still talking about an ox yoke.
The word for easy here is translated as “good” in other sections of the New Testament. It is the Greek word for “chrestos,” which is very similar to the name for Christ which was “christos.” I’m not sure if Jesus is playing on His own title here or not, but either way, He is saying that His yoke is good and not intended to weigh people down with heavy burdens.
There are two different words that get translated as our English word “burden” in this passage. The first is speaking of the burdens that are placed by the religious leaders. Those are literally a heavy load that is too much to carry. The second is when Jesus says that His burden is light. This is intentionally a different word because it has a drastically different meaning. This other word is a metaphor for the obligations that Jesus lays upon His followers, especially those that lead to salvation.
So then, when we understand the usage of the original language, what we see is Jesus saying that His teaching is good, and the burden that leads to salvation is light.
What was Jesus’ teaching in a nutshell? Love God, and love people. That is how Jesus summed up the entire law of the Old Testament. What is the burden that leads to salvation? Trust and believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that only through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ can we be redeemed.
This is a far cry from the original imagery of someone putting on an ox yoke. That image makes it look like the responsibility is on the person to work hard enough. It makes it seem like if you put on Jesus’ yoke, and you pull really hard with His light load, then maybe you can have a chance at getting into heaven.
That is not the imagery that Jesus is actually giving us. Rather, He is saying that His teaching is easy, and the burden that leads to salvation has already been done by Him on the cross. All that is left to do is to trust in Christ, and rest in that peace.
Steve Bensema is the Pastor for
Cornerstone Church in Marshalltown.