What is the Yoke?
Paul wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1, ESV)
What is the biblical yoke?
The yoke figuratively represents the burdensome nature of slavery. It is a symbol of servitude (either by choice or forced). It suggests restrictiveness, yet this is but one aspect of the yoke. A yoke for the most part is an idiom (something known to a specific culture or era). Of the sixty-one times “yoke” is used in the Bible, all are metaphorical (apart from seven uses).
Stick with me, this gets good.
In the first century the yoke had taken on a unique meaning, a cultural meaning. The Jewish culture was a discipleship culture, a “we” culture (vs our “me” culture). Our western mindset focuses on “What does the scriptures teach me about me? Who am I? What do I do? The eastern mindset, “What does the scriptures teach me about the nature and character of God?” Disciples would attach themselves to a Rabbi, following close, listening and learning. The Rabbi would teach the disciple their interpretation and application of the scriptures. The phrase “sitting at the feet of a Rabbi” was cultural. Remember Paul said he was educated “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3). When Jesus taught in Matt 5-7, what does the narrative say, “after He sat down… He opened His mouth and began to teach them.” (5:1) And in Luke 10, Mary is found at the feet of Jesus “listening to His word” (v39). Jesus allowing and championing for it (seen in the “Martha, Martha” conversation) was a radical move on His part – accepting a woman disciple so boldly.
Most Rabbis were “Torah Teachers.” These Rabbis spent most of their time in the synagogues, reading and teaching the written Law of God and taught only accepted interpretations (passed to them by their Rabbi). These teachings were called the “yoke of Torah” or the Rabbi’s Yoke.
In Jesus’ day, Jesus’ world, every Rabbi (and Pharisee) had one. It was their collection of teachings. It was their theology and perspective on the scriptures: Who God is and what it means to walk with Him. Their disciples would accept it and emulate it, taking on the “yoke” (teaching) of their Rabbi.
Over the many years, many of the Rabbi’s (primarily Pharisees) inflated and added commands, making following them rather rough. To fulfill every command (interpretation) was difficult. Each Rabbi having their own emphasis.
Consider now, Jesus’ words in Matt 11 “”Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (vv28-30). In essence, consider my summary “Let ME be the one to show you who the Living God is – what He is like – what it means to follow Him!” Think now, how many times Jesus continued to point to the Father (i.e.) “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (Jn 5:19) And Jesus speaks only how and what “to say” from the Father (Jn 12:49). He speaks with authority from the Father.
Now THAT is a YOKE!
There was a smaller group of Rabbi’s – known to have s’mikhah – (pronounced Smee-KAWK … Hebrew throat slur). “Walking in the authority of God.” These Rabbis with s’mikhah (authority) could make NEW interpretation, application AND pass legal judgments. Many scholars believe Jesus had taken on the authoritative Rabbinical role.
Matthew makes note, “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” (The Torah Teachers in the synagogue). (Matt 7:28-29). Many times, the narrative speaks of people’s amazement at His authority.
Remember multiple times Jesus said, “You have heard it said – But I say to you…” Especially in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus gave clear instruction, often quoting the Law, yet reaching beyond the interpretative mandates. Some teachers of the Law would step as close to the “line” of law, assuming to not break it – “You can look and lust, but don’t touch.” Jesus said, “It all begins in the heart” (summary).
Those hearing His words had never heard the scriptures explained like He did, with NEW insights, application – with authority. Jesus spoke of covenant – the NEW covenant – passing legal judgments. Authority indeed.
Jesus commissioned His disciples: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20, NASB, emphasis mine).
Swinging back to the beginning, regarding Paul’s words in Galatians 5:1 – Paul originally taught those in the region of Galatia the gospel is of grace through faith and not of works – Christ had set them free from Jewish ceremonial laws and regulations, those regulations heaped on its followers. Metaphorically, he had reached over and took the heavy burdened yoke off – yet they again had reached for the “yoke of slavery.” (See also Acts 15:10 “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” ESV)
Fascinating note: When researching the actual yoke and the training of an ox for more understanding, I found that fitting the ox with the yoke: It is BEST that the ox raises its head up into the yoke for the most comfortable and profitable fit. This comes with time and trust, that the animal is willing to voluntarily lift their head to the master. If forced down, the fit could cause irritation, causing the ox to lean, favoring one side, and possibly altering the direction of their steps. A “harnessed heart” is a true lifting of the head to the Master.
May we too be mindful of the yoke we raise up into – be it the yoke of Jesus. Being His disciple; following close, listening, learning, and taking on and emulating His teaching.
In Him, DeDe (“Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love & good deeds.” – Hebrews 10:24)
Resources: “Rabbi and Talmidim” (except from “In the Dust of the Rabbi”) by Ray Vander Laan. “The Yoke” By Archdeacon Allan Paulsen. “The Yoke” The Messianic Prophecy Bible Project (Free.messianicbible.com). Prof Kristi McMelland, Professor of Biblical Culture, “Jesus & Women: In the First Century & Now“. The ESV Commentary. Barnes Notes on the NT: Galatians. Bible Background Commentary (Acts 15:10). And any other geeky place I forgot to jot down.