by Melissa Brotton  |  24 June 2021  |

“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.” (Matthew 11:29 ESV)

A few years ago, I heard a worship talk on taking the yoke of Christ. The speaker used dry humor to point out that even though the yoke of Christ is light, “a yoke is still a yoke.” I chuckled with the others in our small auditorium, but inside I felt a twinge of nervousness. A yoke, after all, implies there is a burden to bear, some kind of work He wants me to do. The idea of work makes me feel weary. For many years, I’ve been working overtime, and there is not a lot of energy left at the day’s end. The thought of God asking me to take on more seems unbearable.

But wait a minute. He said, “Take My yoke.” My inner composition theorist kicks in as I recognize the meaning of the personal pronoun. This is comparison-contrast mode. All my life I’ve had a certain vision of this verse. The vision is of Jesus placing a yoke over my relatively free shoulders. My vision, I realize, is a holdover from childhood, a time when I didn’t have many burdens. But now, as an adult reader, I see this differently. It’s saying that I’m already yoked to heavy burdens. In contrast, Jesus says, His yoke is easy.

Furthermore, His burden is light. This is sounding better.

Another childhood picture I’ve retained is of a cattle yoke with Jesus’s head in one bow and my head in the other. But Jesus’s invitation is to “take My yoke upon you.” These words sound more like an exchange of yokes rather than asking me to haul a burden with Him.

Is it a shared yoke or an exchanged yoke? Should I be concerned about the difference?

Let’s start by defining yoke. Zugoj (from zeugnumi) is “to join,” or “a coupling” (Strong’s #2218).[1] This could mean joining two beings, like oxen, together, but it could also mean joining someone to a burden. From antiquity, there have been yokes for cattle and yokes for humans.

There are two main types of cattle yokes: head yokes, fastened to the foreheads of bulls at the bottom of their horns, and neck yokes, harnessed with bows, bands, or straps around the neck. The bar across the top of the animals held them together as they worked to plow a field or to drag a heavy burden. It appears that ancient Israelites made more use of neck yokes than head yokes, given the images and allusions in the Old and New Testaments.[2]

Human yokes such as “the milkmaid’s yoke,” are designed with a neck notch to fit across the shoulders and balance a pail of milk on either side. The weight of the buckets is then evenly distributed with centralized pressure on the neck in place of limbs.

God used the yoke as an image when speaking to ancient Israel of their historical bondage in Egypt and also prophetically, alluding to their servitude in Babylon. In Jeremiah 5:5, God made poetical use of the Hebrew term `ol to show how He would break their oppression.

Yoked, not chocked

Jesus tells me He has noticed the burdens I am already carrying, and He’d like to lift those for me. He is the God who joins me where I am. His yoke, then, lightens the burden I am already dragging on my own. In fact, He is going to do the real work while I get all the benefits.

That word, zugoj, again, is “to join,” not “to chain” or “to oppress.” In fact, in the Mosaic law, it was forbidden to oppress oxen while they were working. Oxen were not to be muzzled, so they would be able to graze while they worked. They were not to be paired with different species, which would make the burden lopsided, heavier for one than for the other as they pulled together.

Taking His Yoke

What are some of the burdens Jesus is willing to carry for us? Burdens of impaired relationships, hopelessness, addiction; burdens of guilt, grief and loss.

Chris Williams, a former Mormon bishop, has experienced Christ’s yoke. Returning home with his family after a night out for dessert, his car was T-boned by another driver. From the moment his car came to a stop, Chris felt God’s powerful presence with him, filling him with courage to face overwhelming loss. He watched helplessly as his pregnant wife took her last breath, and then turned to see that 11-year-old Benjamin and 9-year-old Anna were also gone. What about six-year-old Sam? Was he gone too? No, though Chris could not see Sam, he was given mysterious assurance that Sam would make it. In shock, Chris willed that his own life would end. Suddenly, he heard a strong voice beside him say, “Let go!” In that excruciating moment, Chris, knowing he could not bear the burden of this loss, committed his horror and grief into the hands of Jesus.

“I knew who should carry that burden: He who had already endured the soul-crushing press of the pains of all men, including this burden, so that I would not have to bear my infinitely miniscule portion of what He bore. In that instant of grace and revelation, I knew that my Savior lived and that He was immediately present with me in my time of greatest need.”[3]

Sam did survive the accident. Later, at the hospital, Chris learned from a friend that the driver of the other car, an intoxicated 17-year-old, had survived. Chris immediately felt God’s compassion for this teen, and he told his friend that he forgave him. News of Chris’s forgiveness traveled to the press, and once Chris was discharged from the hospital, he allowed for a press conference and, later, a documentary. He later met with the convicted teen driver, Cameron, and told him he thought he should pick a date to put the episode behind him. Cameron and his parents were deeply affected by Chris’s forgiveness. Though Chris still had hard days of grieving ahead, he felt sustained by God’s yoke. “My burden was made light,” he says into the camera, his face filled with peace.

The Yoke of Rest

At last, Jesus says, “Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).

Travis sits on an electrical box in front of his house, grieving the sudden loss of his mother, killed in a plane crash on the eve of his twelfth birthday. He is overburdened with guilt because he has acted out so much since her divorce from his father. Now, he cannot tell her how sorry he is. In tears, he prays, asking God to forgive him for how he treated her. Immediately, he feels a strong impression to take out the birthday wallet from his mother and look inside. He sees a picture of his mother with a radiant smile.

Again, the still, small voice directs him. “Turn it over.”

Travis reads his mother’s handwriting on the back of her photo. “Remember the good times.”

A wave of love washes over him like a divine hug; his feeling of guilt is lifted from his shoulders, never to return.[4]

Ironically, “taking Christ’s yoke,” then, is a power to let go of one’s burdens. This release Jesus offers is strong and swift, an ever-ready gift of the Savior’s sustaining grace for each of us.

[1]  “Zugos” (Strong’s Concordance, 2218). Bible Hub. See also “Zugos.” (Strong’s Concordance, 2218) “Greek/Hebrew Definitions.” Bible Tools.

[2] See, for example, Genesis 27:40, Jeremiah 27:8, and Acts 15:10.

[3] Williams, Chris. “Just Let Go: One LDS Man’s Story of Tragedy and the Power of Forgiveness.” LDS Living (Jan. 5, 2016).

[4] “How am I going to tell her I’m Sorry?” Hope Works: At Home. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. YouTube. (June 1, 2021).

Melissa Brotton teaches writing and literature courses at La Sierra University. Her special areas are nineteenth-century British literature and religious studies. She has published on the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Biblical ecology. She spends a lot of time outdoors, paints, and writes nature stories and poems. 

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