Here are the resources that I talked about in my video on Matthew 11 EASY Bible study:
Free printable of the passage from Matthew 11 (that I used in the video):
My annotated sheets from the video:
Last, my paper from school on the history of the "Yoke"
My Yoke is Easy
by Ashley Krause
The words Jesus spoke from Matthew 11:28-30 are familiar to most believers: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Did you just glance over this passage? Or did you take time to read and register every word? For the busy 21st century Christian westerner, these words from Jesus are all too common - yet not truly heard. Not truly pondered. And not truly known. The familiarity of this passage keeps one from asking hard questions like what is the nature of this yoke? What did Matthew’s original audience know about yokes? Why would Jesus offer his listeners rest and then tell them to come under His yoke (seemingly contradicting)? A closer look into this passage, specifically defining ‘yoke’, and examining the history behind this object will shed light upon this familiar passage. Jesus exhorted his listeners to not only come to Him, but also to take His yoke upon them. For Jesus’ original audience, a yoke would have been a common and familiar object because they lived in an agrarian culture. 2,000 years later, modern readers have a faint idea of what a yoke looks like and what it’s purpose is. In very simple and general terms, a yoke is “a beam crossing over and holding two things together” (Ottenheijm 8). More specifically the yoke Jesus was referring to was “a cattle yoke, which bound animals to a plow, often together so they could work in tandem” (Richards 641). This is generally the extent of how much modern readers know about a yoke. But knowing more details about yokes, oxen, and plowing can be helpful in clarifying this passage. Yokes commonly accommodated two animals. They were made out of wood carved into a long beam. This beam would go on top of the animal's neck. Commonly, two skinny U-shaped wooden bars or rope were tacked into the long wooden beam from underneath (Rabinowitz). The animal's head would go between the U-Shaped wood/rope with the beam resting on top of the animal's neck; the head of the animal was framed within the yoke. “In Israelitre society, the leading animal of burden was the ox,” (Borowski 123) and oxen would commonly be yoked for agrarian purposes like plowing. The oxen would have “walked in front of the plow usually in the yoke which is attached to the beam” (Hirsch 90). The yoke of oxen would therefore be able to pull a “cart, plow, or other vehicle” because it was harnessed and “connected to the halter of the yoke itself” (Rabinowitz). As the ox pulled, “the point of traction [was] designed to be above the animal...” the yoke would “pull against the arch of vertebrae” (Borowski 122). Plowing was not easy. “One of the characteristics of soil tillage is that it takes a great deal of energy” (Fick 111). This is why two oxen were yoked together. The two could bear the heavy load in partnership. In ancient times, “it was doubtless hardly sufficient to plow the fallow land once only, but it had to be gone over three times” and sometimes even up to four times in the winter, spring, summer, and late summer (Hirsch 90). Archeologists have even found “the presence of so-called “traction pathologies” in the lower leg and foot bones” (Potts 211) of cattle. This suggests “chronic load-bearing or pulling” which proposes that “the cattle were regularly harnessed and used for pulling ploughs and/or sledges in early agricultural communities” (Potts 211). Even archeology sheds light on the difficulties that the cattle went through as they yoked and plowed for most of their lives. The Isrealites, being farmers, knew the hardships and strains oxen went through in order to plow the ground. As Jesus taught, he connected spiritual truths to farming. He was deliberately painting a picture for his listener’s minds: “take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” Matthew’s original audience not only knew about the yoke because of their agrarian culture, but also because of the common use of the term in their Hebrew Bible. The word yoke “occurs 68 times in the Septuagint” (Ottenheijm 12) and was commonly used as a powerful image within metaphorical language. Yokes were often associated with the ideas of “ burden, obedience, subordination, and servitude” (Ottenheijm 8). The first place yoke appears in the Bible is Gen 27:40 when Esau was demanding his father Issac to give him a blessing (after Jacob stole it). Issac declared that Esau would serve his younger brother Issac but one day “break [Jacob’s] yoke from [Esau’s] neck.” In this passage a yoke is used metaphorically to represent a burden and servitude. This metaphor is used all throughout scripture. In Leviticus 26:13 the LORD declared that he had brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and had “broken the bars of [their] yoke.” In Deuteronomy 28:48 Moses declared that if Israel would walk in disobedience God would “put a yoke of iron on [their] neck until he has destroyed [them].” The Israelites did walk in disobedience, and through Jeremiah God declared “I have put upon the neck of all these nations an iron yoke to serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon” (Jer 26:14). The language in the OT surrounding yoke “is often used figuratively of bondage and of the burden borne by slaves... The image is used powerfully by the prophets to portray the fate of disobedient generations” (Richards 641). Not only is the metaphorical use of yoke within the Hebrew Bible strong, but also in other literature during Bible times. In a survey done that studied the usage of the term yoke in ancient literature such as “LXX, 1 Enoch, the Sibylline Oracles, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, and tannaitic literature” there was “an overwhelming stream of metaphorical usages of the term ‘yoke’ with an undeniable political aspect” (Ottenheijm 53). The term yoke within this literature and the Hebrew Bible has a strong connotation with oppression. To be under a yoke did not have a positive overtone attached to it and commonly implied submission and slavery. In the NT, the term yoke is mostly used in a different metaphorical way - having to do with the law. In Acts 15:10 Peter declared to the apostles and elders “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?” Peter said this after the leaders were demanding that the Jewish law be put upon the Gentiles. Peter declared that it was only through God’s grace that men could be saved. The law had become to them a yoke and burden. In Galations 5:1 Paul declared “for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” This yoke of slavery was the law for the Galations because they were tempted to live under the law rather than the blood of Jesus for their righteousness. In both of these cases, again, yoke has a negative connotation to it of slavery and bondage. Another way scripture metaphorically uses yoke is with the idea of ‘yoking’ oneself to something or someone else. Numbers 25:3 says, “So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.” This portrays the idea of pairing or combining two things together in unity. In this case, Israel yoked herself to an idol and this did not please God. In the NT, Paul uses the same metaphor but with believers yoking themselves to unbelievers. He says “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor 6:14). Paul was alluding to the OT law which “forbids mating different kinds of animals (Lev 19:19) and even plowing with an ox and a donkey together (Dt 22:10)” (Richards 641). Yoking oneself to another (or to an idol) portrays the idea of connection and intimacy. When two people are yoked together they will therefore go in the same direction - either in a God honoring way or in a destructive way. Grasping what a yoke looks like, is made of, and what the literature during Jesus’ day said about yokes expounds Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-30. It’s interesting and bewildering why Jesus’ invitation for rest would be paired with an invitation to take his yoke upon oneself. “It has long been unclear to many readers what it means to say: "my yoke is easy”... After all, how can “taking up one’s cross” or “being hated by all” not feel burdensome? How can a ‘yoke’ be easy and give rest?” (Mitchell 324). If many of the OT texts and ancient literature about yokes are negative/oppressive and if the nature of a yoke is directly linked to carrying heavy loads then how could this be used metaphorically to connect to the rest Jesus offered? Jesus said “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus flipped the idea of a yoke upside down when He said that His yoke was easy. Some commentators have suggested that the term used for easy “lies outside of the normal range of meanings for the term χρηστός” and more likely means “‘good,’ ‘beneficial,’ or ‘useful’ ”(Mitchell 325). Even so, for Jesus to call a yoke easy, good, beneficial, or useful was radical. He was ushering in the Kingdom of God, and this was yet another teaching that did not make sense to those who did not have ears to hear or eyes to see. The context of this verse sheds even more light into the meaning of this radical teaching. Jesus had just denounced the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum for not repenting after He graciously did mighty works within them. Because of the arrogance in these cities, Jesus pronounced woe. Capernaum is where Jesus did most of his ministry, and due to their presumptuous boasting (Matt 11:23) the Father hid “these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children” (Matt 11:25) (Piper). Earlier in the passage, Jesus said that John the baptist was the greatest, “yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt 11:11). The major theme that Jesus weaved into His teaching at this point in His ministry was humility - the recognition of one's utter weakness and nothingness before God, and the ability to repent and recognize the need for Jesus as their savior. Within Matthew 11, the theme of humility in the kingdom of God reaches its climax when Jesus declared that “all things have been handed over to me by my Father” (Matt 11:26). Directly following this, Jesus says “I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt 25:29). Jesus, who had received from the Lord of heaven and earth all things, in sheer grace asked all to come to Him to receive rest and to learn from his gentleness, humility, and lowly heart. In this passage Jesus is disclosing that He is the Messiah and is speaking to the humble children “who ‘labor’ to find truth and assurance of salvation, and who feel ‘heavy laden’ by religious observances (Matt 23:4)... Jesus offers his Messianic ‘yoke,’ that is, the restful assurance of redemption through attachment to him” (Bacchiocchi 301). “Take my yoke upon you” is the perfect metaphor for salvation and sanctification. As one yokes themself to Jesus, they are accepting His call to humility and submission. Coming under His yoke is the ability to humbly recognize that without Jesus, no one can come to the Father (Mat 11:27). “It is to personally accept Jesus as Messiah. Such an acceptance is an ‘easy’ and ‘light’ yoke...” because Christ offers “the rest of Messianic redemption to which the law, and more specifically, the sabbath, had always pointed” (Bacchiocchi 303). To be yoked with Jesus means that one finds true rest for their soul through Jesus’ redemptive work alone, and to be yoked with Jesus means that one joins Him in His salvific work through faith and belief. The releasing of soul depravity “is not something we do; it is what comes to us when we cease to do. His own meekness, that is rest” (Tozer 115).
Not only is being yoked with Jesus a one-time occasion (salvation) but also a lifelong journey (sanctification). Often in ancient farming “an older, more experienced ox would be teamed up (yoked) with a younger, less experienced ox. The older ox in the yoke is the “strong authority” who, through the yoke, teaches the younger ox” (Benner 54). Jesus is the strong authority who carries and pulls most of the weight. He is the teacher and asks those who come to Him to learn from Him (Matt. 11:29). Jesus is looking for disciples who are willing to be yoked to Him for life and are willing to partake in His Kingdom work. In the gospels, and all of scripture, it is clear that life may not be easy for those who follow Him. For yoked oxen, plowing is hard work. It is difficult and at times exhausting. The yoke “may hurt at times. It may chafe at times. It may seem heavy at times. But a recognition that it comes from the χρηστός κυριός allows the bearer to continue to work and that work satisfies” (Bates 19). The question “how can coming under Jesus’ yoke be easy and restful?” is clear. Jesus offers rest for our souls through His work on the cross. This soul-rest remains even as life gets hard. When the walls of life cave in, “the needed grace will come as we learn that we are sharing this new and easy yoke with the strong Son of God Himself” (Tozer 120). Jesus’ teaching was revolutionary. It was, and still is, only truly understood by those with the heart of a child - those whom God chooses to reveal Himself to. Only in God’s kingdom is a yoke easy and light - and He offers this to any and all who with a childlike faith come to Him.
Works Cited Bacchiocchi, Samuele. "Matthew 11: 28-30: Jesus' Rest and the Sabbath." Andrews University Seminary Studies (AUSS)22.3 (1984): 10. Bates, Clark. “The Paradox of the Easy Yoke: A Survey of Χρηστός in Greek Literature and the Interpretational Implications for Matthew 11:30.” The Expository Times, vol. 131, no. 1, Oct. 2019, pp. 9–19. Benner, Jeff A. The ancient hebrew lexicon of the Bible. Jeff A. Benner, 2005. Borowski, Oded. Every Living Thing: Daily Use of Animals in Ancient Israel. AltaMira Press, 1998. Fick, Gary W. Food, Farming, and Faith. SUNY Press, 2008. Hirsch, Emil, and Wilhelm Nowack. “Plowing.” JewishEncyclopedia.com, 2011, www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12212-plowing. Mitchell, Matthew W. “The Yoke Is Easy, but What of Its Meaning?: A Methodological Reflection Masquerading as a Philological Discussion of Matthew 11:30.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 135, no. 2, 2016, pp. 321–340. Krause 8
Ottenheijm, Eric, and Annette Merz. “The Term ‘Yoke’ in Matthew 11,28-30 as Elucidated by the Theories of Bildfeld & Hidden Transcripts.” Reverence & Resistance, 2011, dspace.library.uu.nl/bitstream/handle/1874/209810/MZwart_MasterScrFin.pdf?sequence =. Piper, John. Matthew 11:25–30 // Part 1 // God Hides Salvation from the Proud. Desiring God, 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=RK5QbwI2KUM. Potts, Daniel T. A Companion to the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Rabinowitz, Louis. Yoke, 2008, www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/yoke. Richards, Larry. Expository Dictionary of Bible Words. Regency Reference Library, 1985. Tozer, A. W. The Pursuit of God : [The Human Thirst for the Divine]. First Moody Publishers edition., Moody Publishers, 2015.