Have you ever wondered what Jesus meant by “my yoke is easy”? In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus promises rest for our souls if we take up his yoke, but then in Luke 9:23, Jesus commands that we must take up our cross and follow him. In one passage we are offered rest from our burdens, yet in another we are commanded to carry a burden – our cross.
Whatever could this mean? Is Jesus contradicting himself?
In short, no this is not a contradiction! But let’s take a closer look at what Jesus means by yoke, his yoke, and our cross. These are three very distinct concepts.
What the Bible Means by Yoke
The word yoke is used for the very first time in the book of Genesis, in Genesis 27:40. In this passage, Isaac is speaking to Esau who has just been cheated out of his birthright by Jacob. Jacob has been blessed by Isaac, and though Esau’s life will not be without blessing, his life will be hard, and his blessing will result from toil and hard labor.
For a time, Esau will live under the yoke of subservience. He will serve his brother Jacob. A yoke, then, is most often used as a way of describing slavery to someone or something. But this passage also tells us that Esau’s yoke will one day be broken, and he will not live under Jacob forever.
Leviticus 26:13 is a passage in which God is speaking to the Israelites. He was reminding them that he brought them out of Egypt, breaking the bands of their yoke, so that they would no longer be slaves.
What Did Jesus Mean by Yoke?
In the Old Testament, yoke was broadly used to mean slavery, or subservience. This often referred to slavery of one nation under another nation; a relational yoke such as between Esau and Jacob; the yoke of obedience to commands of kings or God himself; or the literal yoke worn by beasts of burden.
But the New Testament refines the use of yoke to a very specific meaning: slavery to the law. In Romans 7:6, Paul masterfully explains how we were once slaves to the law, but after dying to what held us captive, we are now free to serve in a new way – by living in the Spirit.
But Paul is also clear that we are not free of wearing a yoke! In Romans 6:18, he tells us that Jesus has freed us from the slavery of sin, and instead we have become slaves to a new way of living – living righteously and a life in the Spirit.
The Yoke of the Law Brings Labor
In Acts 15, a council of Jesus’ disciples and early church leaders took place, in which they discussed the forcing of Gentile Christians to adhere to Jewish law. Some believers belonged to a sect of pharisees, and they continued to obey the Law of Moses, even teaching that all converts must follow these laws.
But in Acts 15:10, Peter addresses the pharisees, telling them that they are challenging God and burdening the Gentiles with “a yoke” that they “nor their ancestors were able to bear”.
As Paul points out several times in the book of Romans, the purpose of the law was to point out our sin, our inability to perfectly obey the law, and our need of a Savior.
What is Jesus’ Yoke?
Jesus says this in Matthew 11:28-30: “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 find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and the burden I give you is light.” (NLT).
Each of us are faced with a choice: to bear the yoke of sin and the law, or to bear Jesus’ yoke. We may ignorantly believe we don’t need to bear any yoke, but we are sadly mistaken.
The yoke of the law means living under the burden of having to earn our own way into heaven – an impossible task. Jesus’ yoke is a new law: to obey Jesus’ commands and live life in a new way.
The pharisees’ yoke were teachings that commanded people to rigidly obey the Law of Moses. Their yoke only brought about labor. Jesus’ yoke was his teachings that focused on the heart of the law – God’s love and his desire to be in relationship with us.
What Did Jesus Mean by “Rest for Your Souls”?
Jesus is asking us to bear his yoke and his burden, yet in this yoke we can find rest. This passage is often taught to mean that we will find mental and emotional rest by bearing Jesus’ yoke. Though God does give us this kind of rest, this is not what this passage truly means.
Romans 8:4 tells us that Jesus fully satisfied the requirements of the law on our behalf. Without perfectly fulfilling those requirements, we were doomed to spiritual death and separation from God.
Our soul can rest and have the assurance that Jesus has done that work for us on our behalf. We are saved from judgement and eternal separation from God. This is the best kind of rest!
But there is still a burden to bear.
Take Up Your Cross
Jesus is not simply the way of salvation. He is our salvation. He has done all the work that guarantees our place in eternity. Yet we still have a burden to bear.
In Luke 9:23, Jesus says, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me.” (NLT).
The cross represents death. Carrying our cross daily refers to Jesus’ command to die to self – dying to our flesh and fleshly desires – and becoming more like him.
This is a daily struggle for a Christian. It requires humbling ourselves and our selfish desires before our Savior and Lord – denying ourselves as he did and living righteously and in love.
The Christian life is not an easy life or calling, yet within our very souls we have ultimate joy, peace, and rest in knowing that our salvation has already been accomplished by Jesus Christ.
Our souls find rest, but our flesh gets the cross.
Jesus Over Everything by Lisa Whittle. This book shares eight statements that can help us grow in our understanding of what it means to put Jesus first amid the craziness our days bring, including choices over mood, steadiness over hype, holiness over freedom, and service over spotlight. It gives us a practical and compelling picture of what it means to give God his rightful place in our everyday lives.