The Yoke of Christ

Arthur Pink

"Come unto Me all you who labor and are heavy laden—and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). As we have previously intimated, this was not a general invitation, addressed indefinitely to the careless and giddy masses—but rather is it a gracious call unto those seriously seeking peace of heart and yet are still bowed down with a conscious load of guilt. It is addressed to those who long for rest of soul—but who know not how it is to be obtained, nor where it is to be found. Unto such Christ says, "Come unto Me—and I will give you rest." But He does not leave it at that: He goes on to explain Himself. In a previous article it was pointed out that in verse 28 our Lord makes the bold affirmation, that He Himself is the Giver of rest; and in what follows He specifies the terms upon which He dispenses it—conditions which must be met by us if we are to obtain the promised rest. Though the rest is freely "given," yet it is given only to those who comply with the revealed requirements of its Bestower.

"Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart—and you shall find rest for your souls" (Matthew 11:29). In those words, Christ made known the conditions which we must meet—if we are to obtain the rest of soul which He graciously bestows.

First, we are required to take His yoke upon us. Now the "yoke" is a figure of subjection. The force of this figure may be easily perceived if we contrast in our mind, oxen running loose and wild in the field, and then harnessed to a plow where their owner directs their energies and employs them in his service. Hence we read that, "It is good for a man—that he bears the yoke in his youth" (Lam. 3:27), which means that unless youths are disciplined, brought under subjection and taught to obey their superiors, they are likely to develop into sons of Belial—intractable rebels against God and man. When the Lord took Ephraim in hand and chastised him, he bemoaned himself that he was like "a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke" (Jer. 31:18), which was a sad confession for him to have to make.

The natural man is born "like a wild donkey's colt" (Job 11:12)—completely unmanageable, self-willed, determined to have his own way at all costs. Having lost his anchorage by the Fall—man is like a ship which is entirely at the mercy of the winds and waves. His heart is unmoored—and he runs here and there to his own destruction. Hence his imperative need for the yoke of Christ—if he is to obtain rest for his soul.

In its larger sense, the yoke of Christ signifies complete dependence, unqualified obedience, unreserved submission unto Him. The believer owes this to Christ—both as his rightful Lord, and as his gracious Redeemer. Christ has a double claim upon him. First, he is the creature of His hands: He gave him being, with all his capacities and facilities. But more—He has redeemed him, and thereby acquired an additional claim upon him. The saints are the purchased property of Another, and therefore does the Holy Spirit say to them, "You are not your own, for you are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your bodies and in your spirits, which are God's" (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20).

"Take My yoke upon you," by which Christ connoted: surrender yourself to My Lordship, submit to My rule, let My will become yours. As Matthew Henry rightly pointed out, "We are here invited to Christ as Prophet, Priest and King—to be saved, and in order to this, to be ruled and taught by Him." As the oxen are yoked in order to submit to their owner's will and to work under his control, so those who would receive rest of soul from Christ are here called upon to yield to Him as their King. He died for His people—that they should not henceforth live unto themselves, "but unto Him who died for them and rose again" (2 Corinthians 5:15). Our holy Lord requires absolute submission and obedience in all things—both in the inward life and the outward, even to "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5). Alas that this is so little insisted upon in a day when the high claims of the Savior are whittled down in an attempt to render His Gospel more acceptable to the unregenerate.

Far different was it in the past, when those who occupied the pulpit kept back nothing which was profitable for their hearers, and when God honored such faithful preaching, by granting the unction of His Spirit, so that the Word was applied in effectual power. Take the following as a sample: "No heart can truly open to Christ, which is not made willing, upon due deliberation to receive Him with His cross of sufferings and His yoke of obedience: 'If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me...Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me' (Matthew 16:24; 11:29). Any exception against either of these is an effectual barrier to union with Christ. He looks upon that soul as not worthy of Him that puts in such an exception: 'he who does not take up his cross, and follow after Me—is not worthy of Me' (Matthew 10:38). If you judge not Christ to be worthy of all sufferings, all losses, all reproaches—He judges you unworthy to bear the name of His disciple. So, for the duties of obedience—called His 'yoke'—he who will not receive Christ's yoke—can neither receive His pardon, nor any benefit by His blood" (John Flavel, 1689).

"Take My yoke upon you." It is to be carefully noted that this yoke is not laid upon us by another—but one which we are to place upon ourselves. It is a definite act on the part of one who is seeking rest from Christ and without which, His rest cannot be obtained. It is a specific act of mind—an act of conscious surrender to His authority—henceforth to be ruled only by Him. Saul of Tarsus took this yoke upon him when, convicted of his rebellion (kicking against the goads) and conquered by a sense of the Savior's compassion, he said, "Lord, what would You have me to do?"

To take Christ's yoke upon us signifies the setting aside of my own will and completely submitting to His sovereignty, the acknowledging of His Lordship in a practical way. Christ demands something more than lip service from His followers, even a loving obedience to all His commands, for He has declared, "Not everyone who says unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of My Father which is in Heaven." And again, "Whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them—I will liken him unto a wise man, who built his house upon a rock" (Matthew 7:21, 24).

"Take My yoke upon you." As our "coming" to Christ necessarily implies the turning of our backs upon all that is opposed to Him, "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him" (Isaiah 55:7) —so the taking of His "yoke" upon us, presupposes our throwing off the yoke we had worn formerly, namely, the yoke of sin and Satan, the yoke of self-will and self-pleasing. "O Lord, our God, other lords besides you have ruled over us"; confessed Israel of old: then they added, "but we worship you alone" (Isaiah 26:13). Thus the taking of Christ's yoke upon us denotes a change of Masters, a conscious and cheerful change on our part: "Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?" (Romans 6:13, 16).

"Take My yoke upon you." It may sound very much like a paradox, to bid those who labor and are heavy laden and who come to Christ for "rest" to bid them take a "yoke" upon them. Yet in reality it is far from being the case. Instead of the yoke of Christ bringing its wearer into bondage—it introduces him into a real liberty, the only genuine liberty there is. Said the Lord Jesus to those who believed in Him, "If you continue in My Word, then are you My disciples indeed—and you shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free" (John 8:31, 32). That is His unchanging order. First, there must be a "continuing in His Word"—that is, an actual and constant walking in the same. As we do this, He makes good His promise, "and you shall know the Truth". That is, know it in an experimental way, know its power, its blessedness. The consequence is, "and the Truth shall make you free"—free from prejudice, from ignorance, from folly, from self-will, from the grievous bondage of Satan, from the power of sin. Then it is that the obedient disciple discovers that the Divine Commandments are "the perfect law of liberty" (James 1:25). Said David, "I will walk at liberty—for I seek Your precepts" (Psalm 119:45).

By means of the yoke, two oxen were united together to plow. The "yoke," then, is a figure of practical union. This is clear from, "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?" (2 Corinthians 6:14). Here the Lord's people are forbidden to enter into any intimate relations or associations with unbelievers. We are prohibited from marrying, forming business partnerships—or having any religious union with them. As 2 Corinthians 6:14 intimates, the "yoke" speaks of a union which issues in a close communion. And this is also what is in view in the text we are now considering. Christ invites those who come to Him for rest, to enter into a practical union with Him so that they may enjoy holy fellowship together. Thus it was with one of old concerning whom we read, "and Enoch walked with God" (Gen. 5:24). But "can two walk together except they be agreed" (Amos 3:3)? No, they cannot: they must be joined together in sameness of aim and unity of purpose—that of glorifying God.

"Take My yoke upon you" said Christ. He does not ask us to wear something He has not Himself worn. O the wonder of this! alas that our hearts are so little affected thereby. "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!" (Phil. 2:5-8). Yes, the One who was equal with God "made Himself nothing." He who was the Lord of glory took upon Him "the very nature of a servant." The very Son of God was "made of a woman, made under the Law" (Galatians 4:4). "Even Christ pleased not Himself" (Romans 15:3). As He declared, "I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me" (John 6:38). This, then, was the "yoke" to which He gladly submitted: complete subjection to the Father's will, loving obedience to His commands. And here He says, "Take My yoke upon you". That is—do as I did, making God's will yours. Make His precepts the regulator of your life.

"Take My yoke upon you." John Newton pointed out that this is threefold. First, the yoke of His profession, which is a putting on of the Christian uniform and owning the banner of our Commander. So far as faith is in exercise, this is no irksome duty—rather it is a delight. Those who have tasted for themselves that the Lord is gracious, are so far from being ashamed of Him and of His Gospel—that they are desirous and ready to tell all who will hear—of what God has done for their souls. It was thus with Andrew and Philip (John 1:41, 43): and it was thus with the woman of Samaria (John 4:28, 29). As another has said, "Many young converts in the first warmth of their affections have more need of a bridle than of a spur, in this concern." No Christian should ever be afraid to show his colors; nevertheless, he should not flaunt them before those who detest the same. We shall not go far wrong if we heed that injunction, "Be ready to give an answer to every man who asks you a reason of the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear" (1 Peter 3:15). It is only when, like Peter, we follow Christ "afar off," that we are in danger of denying our discipleship before others.

Second, the yoke of His precepts. "These the gracious soul approves and delights in—but still we are renewed but in part. And when the commands of Christ stand in direct opposition to the will of man or call us to sacrifice a right hand or a right eye; though the Lord will surely make those who depend upon Him victorious at the last—yet it will cost them a struggle. So that, when they are sensible how much they owe to His power working in them, and enabling them to overcome, they will, at the same time, have a lively conviction of their own weakness. Abraham believed in God, and delighted to obey—yet when he was commanded to sacrifice his only son, this was no easy trial of his sincerity and obedience: and all who are partakers of his faith are exposed to meet, sooner or later, with some call of duty, little less contrary to the dictates of flesh and blood' (John Newton).

Third, the yoke of His dispensations. That is, His dealings with us in Providence. If we enjoy the favor of the Lord—it is certain that we shall be out of favor with those who hate Him. He has plainly warned us of this: "If you were of the world, the world would love his own. But because you are not of the world—but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (John 15:19). It is useless to suppose that, by acting prudently and circumspectly, we can avoid this. "All who will live godly in Christ Jesus, shall suffer persecution" (2 Timothy 3:12). It is only by the unfaithfulness, by hiding our light under a bushel, by compromising the Truth, by attempting to serve two masters—that we can escape "the reproach of Christ." He was hated by the world and has called us unto fellowship with His sufferings. This is part of the yoke He requires His disciples to bear. Moreover, whom the Lord loves, He chastens. It is hard to bear the opposition of the world—but it is harder still to endure the rod of the Lord. The flesh is still in us and resists vigorously when our wills are crossed, nevertheless, we are gradually taught to say with Christ, "the cup which My Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?" (John 18:11).

"And learn of Me—for I am meek and lowly in heart." Once again we call attention to the deep importance of observing our Lord's order here. As there is no taking of His yoke until we "come" to Him—so there is no learning of Him (in the sense here meant) until we have taken His yoke upon us—that is, until we have surrendered our wills to His and submit to His authority. It is far more than an intellectual learning of Christ, which is here in view, namely, an experimental, effectual, transforming learning. By painstaking effort, any man may acquire a theological knowledge of the Person and doctrine or Christ—he may even obtain a clear and admiring concept of His meekness and lowliness. But that is a vastly different thing from learning of Him in such a way as to be "changed into the same image from glory to glory" (2 Corinthians 3:18), which is what our Lord here alluded unto. To thus "learn" of Him we must be completely subject to Him and in close communion with Him, daily drinking in His spirit.

"Learn of Me." And what is it, blessed Lord, that I most need to be taught by You? How to do that which will make me an object of wonderment and admiration in the religious world? How to obtain such wisdom that I shall be able to solve all mysteries? How to accomplish such great things in Your name that I shall he given the pre-eminence among my brethren? No indeed! Nothing whatever resembling this, for "that which is highly esteemed among men—is abomination in the sight of God" (Luke 16:15). What, then, Lord?

This: "Learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart." These are the graces I most need to cultivate; these are the fruits which the Heavenly Gardener most highly values. Of the former grace it is said, "the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God" (1 Peter 3:4). And of the latter the Lord has declared, "I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit" (Isaiah 57:15). Do we really believe these Scriptures? Do our prayers and strivings indicate that we do so?

"For I am meek." What is meekness? We may best discover the answer, by observing the connections in which the word occurs in other verses. For example, we read, "Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men who were upon the face of the earth" (Num. 12:3). In view of what precedes, and follows—this has reference to the mildness and gentleness of the spirit of Moses under unjust opposition, who instead of returning evil, prayed for the healing of Miriam! So far from being weakness (as the world supposes), meekness is the strength of the man who can rule his own spirit under provocation, subduing his resentment under wrong, refusing to retaliate. In 1 Peter 3:4 the "meek and quiet spirit" has to do with the subjection of a wife to her husband (vv. 1-5), her chaste behavior, which is to be "coupled with fear" (v. 2), even as Sarah "obeyed Abraham, calling him Lord" (v. 6). It is inseparably connected and associated with gentleness: "the meekness and gentleness of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:1); "gentle, showing all meekness unto all men" (Titus 3:2). In 1 Corinthians 4:21 the "spirit of meekness" is placed in sharp contrast from the Apostle using "the rod."

Thus we may say, that "meekness" is the opposite of self-will and self-assertiveness. It is pliability, yieldedness, offering no resistance, being as clay in the hands of the Potter. When the Maker of Heaven and earth exclaims, "I am a worm, and no man" (Psalm 22:6), He had reference not only to the unparalleled depths of shame into which He descended for our sakes—but He also alluded unto His lowliness and submission to the Father's will. A "worm" has no power of resistance, not even when it is trodden upon. Just so, there was nothing whatever in the perfect Servant, which opposed the will or dispensations of God to the slightest degree. Thus, this beautiful grace, like all other moral excellencies, was found in its purest form in our glorious Exemplar. Behold in Him the majesty of meekness, when He stood silent, like a lamb before her shearers, committing Himself to the righteous Judge. Contrast Satan, who, in the fierceness of self-assertiveness, is represented as "the great red Dragon"; whereas the Lamb stands as the symbol of Him who, though the most exalted of beings, is the meekest and gentlest.

The meekness of Christ appeared in His readiness to become the Covenant-head of His people, in His willingness to assume our nature, in His being subject to His parents during the days of His childhood, in His submitting to the ordinance of baptism—to the wonderment of John the Baptist; in His entire subjection to the Father's will, in the whole course of His obedience. When He was reviled—He reviled not again. When He was smitten and spat upon—He made no retaliation. He did not count His life as dear unto Himself—but freely laid it down for others. How the pondering of these things, should melt our hearts before Him. How they should condemn and fill us with shame. How they should drive us to our knees. How they should show us how little we have learned of Him. That which we most need to learn of Him—is not how to become great and self-important—but how to deny self, how to mortify self-will, how to become teachable and gentle, how to be servants—not only His servants—but the servants of our brethren.

"For I am meek and lowly in heart." As meekness is the opposite of self-will and self-assertiveness; so lowliness is the reverse of self-esteem and self-righteousness. Lowliness is self-abasement, yes, self-effacement. It is more than a refusing to stand up for our own rights—it is taking our place in the dust. Though so great a Person—yet this grace was pre-eminently displayed by Christ. Hear His declaration, "The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto—but to minister" (Matthew 20:28). And again, "I am among you as He who serves" (Luke 22:27). Behold Him performing the most menial duties—girding Himself with a towel, washing, and wiping the feet of His disciples. He was the only one born into this world who could choose the home and the circumstances of His birth—what a rebuke to our poor, foolish pride, was the choice He made! Ah, my reader, we must indeed learn of Him—if humility, this choice flower of Paradise is to bloom in the garden of our souls. O that it may be so for His name's sake.