The Lord’s Yoke Fits Just Right
Most Christians are familiar with these words spoken by Jesus to His disciples: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30, KJV). But what, exactly, did He mean when He said, “My yoke is easy”? Is it even true?
After all, elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus calls His disciples to leave everything and follow Him (Luke 14:25-33), to deny themselves and take up the cross (Mark 8:34), assuring them they will suffer as He suffered (Matthew 5:10-12; 10:24-25), and urging everyone to enter through the narrow gate and walk the straight path (Matthew 7:13-14). How is coming under a yoke like this “easy”?
Let’s deal with the meaning of “easy” first. Then we’ll ask the question: How does this apply to us today?
What Does ‘Easy’ Mean in the Greek?
The Greek word used here is chrestos, and in the context of the Lord’s words in Matthew 11, the Louw and Nida lexicon defines it as “pertaining to that which is pleasant or easy, with the implication of suitability — ‘pleasant, easy.’” Even more specifically, the Greek scholar C. L. Spicq explained that chrestos here refers to “a well-conditioned yoke, one that is not rough and does not hurt or chafe the neck.”
So, Jesus is not saying that following Him is necessarily easy, as if there would be no suffering or hardship or trials or pain for His followers. That will be true in the age to come. But in this age, in the here and now, Jesus was quite clear: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b NIV)
But Jesus is saying at least two things here in the verses that we quoted.
Freedom From Legalism, Self-Righteousness and Self-Condemnation
First, when we truly come to Him we receive rest from the oppressive laws of man and from legalistic religious systems. We can see this from the immediate context, where the verses that follow in the next chapter contrast the ways of Jesus the Messiah with the ways of religious legalism.
And what, exactly, is legalism?
It is laws without love. Standards without a Savior. Rules without relationship. It is the attempt to change someone’s nature from the outside in.
As a result, it produces either self-righteousness, where we learn how to excel within the system by rigid outward conformity, or self-condemnation, since we know that we never truly measure up.
Either way, what legalism does not produce is spiritual rest, that deep sense of affirmation and assurance that all is well with your soul, that you are loved by God and in right relationship with Him.
When we truly come to Jesus with all our baggage and sin and problems and truly learn of Him, we are changed from the inside out, and the burden of sin is lifted off of our shoulders. We can take a deep breath and realize that we are free, and in that freedom is rest.
We Feel His Pleasure as We’re Empowered by His Spirit
Second, Jesus is saying that the yoke He has for us fits just right.
Put another way, the calling He lays on us is suitable for us — it is tailor made for us individually. Not only so, but He gives us adequate grace to carry the burdens that He lays on our shoulders.
In this context, I’m reminded of the famous quote from Chariots of Fire, where Eric Liddell explains to his sister Jenny why he will run in the Olympics first before going on the mission field: “I believe that God made me for a purpose: for China,” he says. “But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure. To give it up would be to hold Him in contempt. You were right, it’s not just fun. To win is to honor Him.”
I love those words: when I run, I feel His pleasure.
It really is that simple.
God created us and called us for a specific purpose. And when we align ourselves with His purpose for our lives, we feel His pleasure.
Whether it means going on the mission field or designing software programs. Or raising a big family or piloting a 747. Or praying all day or winning an Olympic medal.
When we take His yoke on our shoulders, it fits just right.
We may have to crucify our flesh along the way. We may have to resist many temptations. We may have to overcome a multitude of distractions.
But when we put His yoke on our shoulders and give ourselves to His purposes, we feel His pleasure. In fact, we even feel the wind at our backs, since He equips and empowers us to do His will.
From the outside, though, it can seem impossible.
His Yoke Was Made Just for Us
I look at some colleagues and friends and wonder to myself, “How on earth do they do that?”
How on earth does that homeschool mom with 6 kids do what she does without pulling out her hair? How does that pastor sit and patiently counsel people all day and still smile? How does that businessman juggle multiple companies and manage all those budgets without stress?
But I also know people look at my life and my schedule and the attacks I endure and wonder, “How does he do it?”
The answer is simple. God made me for this! It’s not hard, it’s a joy! I’m not withering, I’m thriving! And I do feel the wind at my back.
As expressed by Paul in terms of his own life (which puts us all to shame), “I worked harder than all of them [meaning, all the other apostles]—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10b). God’s grace enables us to fulfill God’s calling, even if it means imprisonment and martyrdom.
To say it again. We may have to crucify our flesh, which often has other plans for our lives. We may have to serve and submit in silence as part of our preparation for future service. But even then, when we humble ourselves and get low — which is the Lord’s yoke for that moment — He gives us grace.
So, surrender your goals and purposes for your life and lay them at the foot of the cross. And tell the one who bought you with His blood, “Here I am, at your service, Lord. I gladly take Your yoke on my shoulders, knowing that it is made just for me.”
After more than 50 years following Jesus now, I can tell you firsthand: if you live like this, you will never have a regret.
Dr. Michael Brown (www.askdrbrown.org) is the host of the nationally syndicated Line of Fire radio program. His latest book is The Political Seduction of the Church: How Millions Of American Christians Have Confused Politics with the Gospel. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.