What is a yoke used for? In Matthew 11:28–30 Jesus not only describes his yoke, he invites you to take his yoke.
Take Christ’s yoke upon you. Christ calls you to take his easy yoke. The yoke symbolized bondage and toil. The yoke was what the ox pulled against as he plowed. A symbolic yoke, formed by three spears tied together, formed an frame through which those defeated by Rome’s armies passed as they entered slavery. A yoke was used by people to carry burdens. The law, particularly as it was interpreted and applied by the rabbis, became a cruel, unbearable, yoke for God’s people, Matthew 23:4; Acts 15:10. Ultimately the law is a burden because we are sinners, rebels against God. In contrast, the yoke Jesus offers is easy. He opposes the superficial legalism of the Pharisees, see Matthew 12:1–14. He offers himself as the Savior. “This yoke is easy and this burden is light, not because these commandments are no heavy demands to man’s self-love and self-assertion (cf. Matt. 7:13ff), but because it is Jesus who teaches them. For he is ‘meek and lowly in heart.’ He himself is one of the ‘poor in spirit,’ ‘the meek,’ to whom he preaches the gospel. He is the Lawmaker, but he is also entirely dependent upon God, rejected by men, on his way to the cross.” (Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, p. 254). Still, Jesus does require a commitment. His invitation (because it comes from him, it is really a command) is to take his yoke upon you. As the Messianic King he summons you to take his yoke, to be part of his kingdom.
Be Christ’s disciple. Matthew emphasizes the theme of discipleship. Jesus chooses the 12, who follow him. He sends them out, after giving the detailed instructions of Matthew 10. His great commission is given to the 11 disciples, and includes the command to make disciples of all nations. Discipleship with Jesus is a relationship much more profound, and far richer than that between a rabbi and his followers. To follow Jesus is to be a learner. It involves a commitment to a lifetime of a learning process. However, this is not the burdensome toil of the Pharisees, for Jesus describes himself as gentle and humble. Keep on in this process. Never assume that you have arrived, that you no longer need to be seeking your Lord in his Word, that you have come too far to be bothered with turning to him in prayer.
Come to Christ. Find rest for your souls! You need rest from the weight of the ceremonial law. You need rest from the burdensome restrictions of the Pharisaical interpretations of the law. Primarily, you need rest from the guilt and weight of your sin. The word variously translated “labor” or “are weary” refers to laboring to the point of exhaustion. Here the focus seems to be not on the act of work, but on the resulting weariness. Jesus proclaims the rest which the Lord offered to his people, see Isaiah 40:28–31; Jeremiah 6:16; 31:25. This rest involves fellowship with God. “Negatively, the kingdom includes the deliverance from all evil. . . . Positively there corresponds to this the gift of righteousness, which cannot but carry with itself a sense of the highest spiritual delight and satisfaction for those who obtain it. The mind relieved from the burden of sin and assured of the divine acceptance enters upon a state of profound peace and rest, Matt. 11:28, 29; Mark 5:34; Luke 7:50.” (Geerhardus Vos, The Kingdom of God and the Church, p. 72). This is ultimately the rest promised in the new covenant, the peace that comes as a holy God is reconciled to his sinful people, and calls them into fellowship with himself.
Christ invites you to himself. Rest with God was a purpose, a goal that God built into his creation before the fall. God rested and Adam was also to enter that rest. But sin broke that process. Adam was barred from the Garden and from God’s presence. Rest became the blessing that God held out for his people. It was the goal of the journey through the wilderness. 7yJesus speaks as the divine Son of God. Christ’s invitation echoes the gracious call of the Lord to his people: Isaiah 40:1, 2: 45:22; Isaiah 55:1; Jeremiah 31:2, 25. Without blasphemy, without irreverence, he can take upon his own lips the invitation the Lord issues. Because as eternal Son he knows the Father, because as the Messiah he reveals him (Matthew 11:27), he can invite you to himself. Jesus speaks as the humble Messiah. He is gentle and humble in heart. That humility comes to its ultimate expression in his willingness to do the Father’s will, to go to the cross for you, God’s people. It is that humility which makes Jesus’ yoke easy for you to bear. Respond to Jesus’ call. Recognize Jesus as the Messiah the Father has sent. Believe that his meekness and humility laid the foundation for the new covenant, for God’s law to be written in the hearts of his redeemed. Come to him in repentance and trust.
A yoke can symbolize slavery. But as you submit to Christ’s yoke, you find yourself free! A yoke can help you carry a heavy load. But as you take Christ’s yoke upon you, you find yourself, not burdened, but actually lifted up by him. Take his yoke, and live in fellowship with him.