Great Texts of the Bible
Rest Under the Yoke
Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.—Matthew 11:29-30.
1. Christ saw the people as poor, toiling, jaded animals labouring in the yoke, carrying an almost intolerable load, and in sheer compassion and love He cried to them, and said, “Come unto me, … and I will give you rest.” And this “rest” He proposed to give, not by relieving them of every yoke and burden, but by an exchange of yokes and burdens. He proposed to take away the heavy yoke they were then bearing, and to give them His yoke instead. “The yoke you are bearing,” He said to them, in effect, “is too galling; the burden you are carrying is too heavy; they are more than flesh and blood can bear. Take off your yoke, lay aside your burden, and take Mine instead, for My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
2. So Christ also lays a yoke upon us. But what sort of yoke? Justin Martyr, who lived in the first half of the second century of the Christian era, tells us that when Jesus was a carpenter at Nazareth He used to make “ploughs and yokes for oxen.” It has been suggested that this ancient Church Father derived that curious piece of information from the now lost “Gospel according to the Hebrews.” If we may accept it as correct,—and it comes from very old times,—Jesus was a yoke-maker by trade. Then He knew what make of yoke would be hard to wear and what easy. The easy yoke would be one that would not gall the back of the poor ox on which it was fitted, one, perhaps, that was deliberately eased so as not to press on a tender place. This is what a considerate artisan would be careful to see to; and we may be sure that in His artisan life Jesus would be thoughtful for the welfare of the dumb animals with which He had to do. He is considerate as a Master of human souls. There are some whose slightest commands sting like insults, and others so gracious, genial, and considerate that their very orders are accepted by the servants as favours. It is a delight to serve such masters. Their yoke is easy. Now Jesus Christ is the most considerate of masters. As Milton said, reflecting on the unwelcome limitations imposed upon his service by his blindness, “Doth God exact day labour, light denied?”
In using the metaphor of a yoke, Christ was probably employing an expression which was already proverbial. In the Psalms of Solomon, which are a little earlier than the time of Christ, we have: “We are beneath Thy yoke for evermore, and beneath the rod of Thy chastening” (Psalms of Solomon 7:8); and “He shall possess the peoples of the heathen to serve Him beneath His yoke” (Psalms of Solomon 17:32). “The yoke” was a common Jewish metaphor for discipline or obligation, especially in reference to the service of the Law. Thus, in the Apocalypse of Baruch: “For lo! I see many of Thy people who have withdrawn from Thy covenant, and cast from them the yoke of Thy Law” (xli. 3). Comp. Lamentations 3:27; Sir 51:26; Acts 15:10; Galatians 5:1; Pirqe Aboth, iii. 8. In the Didache (vi. 2) we have “the whole yoke of the Lord,” which probably means the Law in addition to the Gospel.1 [Note: A. Plummer.]
Taking the text in its own simplicity we find three things in it—
The Yoke—“Take my yoke upon you.”
The Lesson—“Learn of me.”
The Rest—“Ye shall find rest unto your souls.”
“Take my yoke upon you.”
1. When Jesus spoke these words He referred to the yoke He Himself wore as Man. That was the yoke of a perfect surrender to the will of God, and absolute submission to His throne. To all who came to Him He said, “Take my yoke; the yoke I wear is the yoke I impose upon you. As I am submissive to government, so also must you be, if you are to exercise authority.” Said the Roman centurion, “I also am a man under authority, having under myself soldiers.” The condition for the exercise of authority is ever that of submission to authority.
At the very beginning of His career Christ had to make His choice between self and God. The significance of the temptation in the wilderness is surely this, that Christ then deliberately chose to walk in God’s way, and with His eyes wide open submitted Himself to the yoke of God’s holy will. That is, indeed, the key of our Lord’s life. Deus vult was His watchword. He pleased not Himself. It was His meat to do the Father’s will, and to accomplish His work. He shrank from nothing which the will of God brought to Him. When it brought Him to Gethsemane and the cross, He said, “The cup which the Father hath given me to drink, shall I not drink it?” And that is the yoke He is commending here to the people, the yoke He had all His life borne Himself.
2. It is not easy at first to lay aside every other yoke and accept the yoke of Christ. The yoke is easy when you have put your neck beneath it; but to bring yourself to that point may involve a wrestle with self that almost tears the heart asunder. The burden is light when you have forced your reluctant shoulders to bear it; but to do that may be the most difficult thing in all the world. There are some things that are easy enough to do, once you have made up your mind to do them; it is making up the mind that is the straining, torturing thing. And easy as may be the burden that Christ imposes, calmly as the soul’s experience may go on when once the soul has settled down to the Christian conditions, there remains for all of us the battle with stubbornness and pride, the coercion of the stiff and resisting will, before we pass into the Christian peace. It is a difficult thing to take up the easy yoke. It is a heavy task to make ourselves carry the light burden. And we need not, therefore, distrust the genuineness of our Christward desires because we are conscious of so much difficulty in driving our rebellious natures to the point of Christly submissiveness.
“How hard it is to be a Christian,” cried Browning in the opening words of his “Easter Day.” To-day some people are trying to make it more easy. So they are discreetly silent about the yoke, and the cross, and the denying of self, concerning all of which Jesus spoke so plainly—while they make the most of the joy, and peace, and comfort of the Gospel. The experiment does not appear to be very successful. Chivalrous souls would be more drawn by the spirit of adventure in response to a trumpet-call to battle than to listen to these soothing songs of ease. But if it did succeed, what would be the value of a Christianity so one-sided, so enervating, so self-indulgent? In fact, I do not see how you can call it Christianity at all. The ship is stranded at the bar of the harbour. What is to be done to float her? You can throw the cargo overboard; but then the very purpose of her voyage will be destroyed. It will be better to wait till the flood-tide, and then the ship will rise in the deep water and sail out to sea, cargo and all. It is vain to float our Gospel ship by throwing cargo overboard. The only wise course is to take Christ’s full message. To have the yoke and the cross as well as the pardon and the peace.1 [Note: W. F. Adeney.]
Is there no difference when you are on your bicycle between bicycling with the wind, when you scarcely feel the wind and go smoothly and firmly down the road, and bicycling against the wind? There is all the difference. In one there is peace and rest, and swiftness and progress. In the other it is beating up, beating up this way and that. You could hardly have a simpler and yet a truer illustration of the difference between being borne by the Spirit along the course of the will of God and trying to beat against the will of God and against the action of the Spirit. It is to fling ourselves into the tide of the Spirit—Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness—to yield ourselves to the action of the Spirit, and to pass down the will of God before the wind. That is peace; that is rest. And there is no other in the world.2 [Note: Bishop A. F. W. Ingram.]
3. Ease comes by practice. When we have fully surrendered ourselves to Christ, the yoke becomes easy and the burden light. To yield to Christ, to obey His conditions, brings us into harmony with the eternal order of things, and makes us realize this; we know, when once we have yielded and obeyed, that we are in the spiritual position—if one may employ the phrase—where we have all along, although perhaps without understanding it, wanted to be; and they who hear Christ’s call and answer to it are sure, so soon as their responsive movement towards the calling Christ is made, that the soul’s questions are settled once for all, the soul’s requirements met and its instinctive, deep-seated capacities filled. It is difficult to force ourselves to the yoke; but once it is taken up, the yoke fits, sits lightly, does not fret or gall. Christ is found to do no violence to the soul. Really to accept Christ’s conditions is to find ourselves where we want to be, set going on the true and satisfying line of life. We give ourselves to Christ—and in that surrender we, so to say, receive ourselves back again, made great and free. Christ’s whole method and spirit of life, once we comprehend and accept it, comes to us as the one right and natural thing.
We know what a galling bondage an uncongenial service may be; we know, on the other hand, what a genuine, an unalloyed delight that work is which is absolutely congenial. We make most of our children learn some musical instrument or other. But to many a boy the hours he spends at the piano are sheer drudgery. His practice-hour is Egyptian task-work to him. He has no taste or aptitude for music. But watch the man with music in his soul at the piano! Watch a Paderewski play! His hands ripple over the keys in a kind of ecstasy. Playing is not task-work to him, it is a rapturous delight. It is congenial work. When sons are growing up and the time draws near when they must face life for themselves, their parents’ great anxiety is to discover what their special aptitudes are, for in the long-run no man can be really happy or useful in his work unless he has some taste and fitness for it. A boy with mechanical aptitudes is unhappy if put to a literary or intellectual calling. A boy with intellectual tastes is wasted if put to mechanical employment. If a man is to be happy and useful he must find a congenial sphere in life. And the law holds good in higher concerns than the choice of a trade or calling. It is valid also in the moral and spiritual realm. If a man is to be at rest and peace, his soul must be in congenial service. And that is why Christ’s yoke is easy—the service of God is congenial service.1 [Note: J. D. Jones.]
At the time of the great Civil War in America, the call went round the land for men to take up the cause of their country’s freedom. The men responded, and it was noticed that men whose lives had been made a very burden to them by all sorts of trifles, men who were always suffering friction and irritation because little things went wrong, men who, perhaps, could not stand any little trial or trouble without becoming almost unendurable to live with—these were the people who, not groaning and making a misery of it, but with a certain exultation of the heart, took upon them the great yoke of their country’s emancipation, and straightway all the little burdens were forgotten, they became absolutely trivial and insignificant, and the burden that they bore was light.1 [Note: C. Silvester Horne.]
Matthew Henry characteristically says that Christ’s yoke is “lined with love”; and St. Bernard cried in his distant day, “O blessed burden that makes all burdens light! O blessed yoke that bears the bearer up!”
“Learn of me.”
1. We understand now why Jesus adds, “Learn of me.” To take His yoke is to be trained in His school. It was a common thing for Jewish teachers to issue such invitations, just as to-day men issue prospectuses. Here, for instance, is a passage from the book of Sirach, written several centuries before the birth of Jesus: “Draw near unto me ye unlearned, and lodge in the house of instruction. Say wherefore are ye lacking in these things and your souls are very thirsty? I opened my mouth and spake. Get her for yourselves without money. Put your neck under the yoke, and let your souls receive instruction. She is hard to find. Behold with your eyes how that I laboured but a little, and found myself much rest.” The disciple must sit at his Master’s feet, and patiently learn of Him, drinking in His teaching, absorbing His spirit, gradually growing into the knowledge and character that He desires to impart. This is required of the disciple of Christ who would learn His secret of rest.
When He says, “Come unto me, and learn of me,” we are not to think merely that we have to learn something; but we have to know that if we learn it in any other way than from Jesus, it is a lost learning.2 [Note: Erskine of Linlathen.]
It must have been at one of the early meetings [with University students at Edinburgh], when he had for text the grand Gospel invitation in the end of the eleventh of Matthew, that Mr. Drummond used an illustration which caught their attention and guided some to the discipleship of Christ. “You ask what it is, this coming to Christ. Well, what does Jesus Himself tell you here? He says, ‘Learn of me.’ Now, you are all learners. You have come to Edinburgh, some of you from the ends of the earth, to learn. And how did you put yourself in the way of learning what is here taught? You went to the University office and wrote your name in a book. You matriculated; and becoming a University student, you went to get from each individual professor what he had to teach. So, with definite purpose to learn of Christ, must you come to Him and surrender yourself to His teaching and guidance.” Sometimes thereafter, when a happy worker had to tell of a new addition to the number of Christ’s disciples, he would pleasantly say that So-and-so had “matriculated.” 1 [Note: G. A. Smith, The Life of Henry Drummond, 300.]
2. Jesus gives us a perfect pattern of submission. “I am meek and lowly in heart.” Here alone in the New Testament is mention made of the heart of Jesus. He whose yoke we take, whose service we enter, whose lesson we learn, is lowly in heart; His love stoops from heaven to earth; His care is for all who are weary with earth’s vain service, all who are down-trodden in the hurry and rush of life. In Him they shall find what their souls need; not freedom from sickness, sorrow, or death, not deliverance from political or social injustice. No; He Himself suffered patiently; He endured these hardships and the agony of loneliness, desertion, and misunderstanding. He gives rest and refreshment to the soul. When meekness enters into the heart and is enthroned therein as a queen, a revolution takes place in that heart. At the gentle swaying of her wand many a Dagon crumbles to the ground. Pride must go, false ambition must go, resentment must go, jealousy must go; all these false gods must go, and take their baggage with them. And when all those have left, the roots of restlessness and worry will be plucked from that heart.
In the meekness and lowliness of Jesus lies great part of His mastery over men; in meekness and lowliness like those of Jesus lies our rest.… The ornament of a meek and quiet spirit is like the dust from flowers in bloom. It insinuates and instils. The meek man is not without opinions, or a stranger to enterprise. He does not live in an untroubled sphere, but he has no desire to see his opinion imposed on any. Children find out the meek; for meekness is the childhood of the soul. Haughty men are never young, the meek never grow old. Most of us have known some. The young are warmed by them, the middle-aged soothed, the old supported. Meek hearts live for ever: they are the stock of an immortal tree. They inherit lives that live after them, they are spiritual children. David says, “God is meek”: Christ says, “I am meek.” The Holy Spirit’s emblem is a dove. The dove comes when you do not stir it. Ask gently in silent prayer. He came thus to Christ, and will to you when kneeling and broken down. Thou, who art Thyself meek and lowly, take pity and create in us Thy meekness.1 [Note: R. W. Barbour, Thoughts, 105, 112.]
3. We must learn humility, because without it there can be no true obedience or service. Humility is the keynote of the Divine music which Jesus came to make in our world. It is because we have lost it that all has become discord. It is the keystone of the arch of the Christian virtues. It is because that is wanting that the whole structure of the Christian character so often crumbles into ruin. We are loth to give meekness that prominent position among the Christian virtues which Christ assigned to it. We often go so far as to put pride in its place, though pride is probably the most hateful of all vices in the sight of God. Without meekness it is impossible to perform any good and acceptable service to our fellow-men, for pride vitiates and stultifies all we do; and it is impossible to love and serve God, for pride banishes us from Him, since it is written: “As for the proud man, he beholdeth him afar off.” True humility, therefore, must be ours if we would obtain rest unto our souls.
The man that carries his head high knocks it against a great many lintels which he who stoops escapes. The lightning strikes the oak, not the grass. If you wish to be restless and irritated and irritable all your days, and to provide yourself with something that will always keep you uncomfortable, assert yourself, and be on the look-out for slights, and think yourself better than people estimate you, and be the opposite of meek and humble, and you will find trouble enough.2 [Note: A. Maclaren, A Rosary of Christian Graces, 154.]
“Ye shall find rest unto your souls.”
1. When we respond to Christ’s invitation and come to Him, we enter into the rest of faith. The very act of trust brings tranquillity, even when the person or thing trusted in is human or creatural, and therefore uncertain. For, to roll the responsibility from myself, as it were, upon another, brings repose, and they who lean upon Christ’s strong arm do not need to fear, though their own arm be very weak. The rest of faith, when we cease from having to take care of ourselves, when we can cast all the gnawing cares and anxieties that perturb us upon Him, when we can say, “Thou dost undertake for me, and I leave myself in Thy hands,” is tranquillity deeper and more real than any other that the heart of man can conceive. “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusteth in thee.” Cast yourself upon Christ, and live in that atmosphere of calm confidence; and though the surface may be tossed by many a storm, the depths will be motionless and quiet, and there will be “peace, subsisting at the heart of endless agitation.”
Two painters each painted a picture to illustrate his conception of rest. The first chose for his scene a still, lone lake among the far-off mountains. The second threw on his canvas a thundering waterfall, with a fragile birch-tree bending over the foam; at the fork of a branch, almost wet with the cataract’s spray, a robin sat on its nest. The first was only Stagnation; the last was Rest. For in Rest there are always two elements—tranquillity and energy; silence and turbulence; creation and destruction; fearlessness and fearfulness. This it was in Christ.1 [Note: Henry Drummond.]
2. This was Christ’s own rest. In reading the story of Christ’s life you are struck by that wonderful self-possession, that quiet dignity of soul which never forsook Him. There is never anything approaching to the agitation which betokens smaller minds. There is that large equanimity which never forsakes Him even in the hour of profoundest distress. Look at Him during the quiet years in the home. Though conscious of the high calling which awaited Him He never showed any impatience during those thirty years. Though He knew He should be about His Father’s business, He first found it in the little home in which He lived. Watch Him, too, when He moves out into the busy activities of His ministering life; you still find the same quiet self-possession and restfulness of soul. He stands absolutely unmoved amongst those temptations and seductions which were set before Him. So, when the crowd thronged round Him while on His way to the healing of Jairus’s daughter, you see His quietness, self-possession, and restfulness of spirit. Even when you come to the final scenes of the agony, there is the same equanimity, for it is equanimity which can detach self from the urgency and the duties of the moment. When you turn to the pages of the evangelists, what is uppermost in the mind surely is this, the thought of the quietness, the dignity, the unrivalled tranquillity, the self-possession, the restfulness of soul which never deserts their Lord and Master. Throughout all, He possessed that restfulness of soul of which He speaks here. And this is the secret which the world has so often longed for. All men are disposed to say at a later stage of their life, “Give us what you will, I do not ask now for joy or happiness; give me the capacity for sweet contentment, give me quietude of soul, give me the power to be at rest.”
We can no more leave the path of duty without danger of ruin than a planet could without danger break away from the path of its orbit. The moral law is as binding and beneficent in its action, if duly obeyed, as the physical law. The yoke is a badge, not of servitude, but of liberty; duty and law are not stern and forbidding, but gentle and friendly; they are but two names for the fostering care of God over all His works. Wordsworth, who with clearer insight than all others caught a glimpse of the face of God beneath the veil of Nature, thus addresses Duty:
Stern Lawgiver! Yet thou dost wear
The Godhead’s most benignant grace;
Nor know we anything so fair
As is the smile upon thy face:
Flowers laugh before thee on their beds
And fragrance in thy footing treads;
Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong;
And the most ancient heavens, through thee, are fresh and strong.
To humbler functions, awful Power
I call thee: I myself commend
Unto thy guidance from this hour;
Oh, let my weakness have an end!
Give unto me, made lowly wise,
The spirit of self-sacrifice;
The confidence of reason give;
And in the light of truth thy Bondman let me live.1 [Note: A. M. Mackay.]
3. This strange gift of rest is at once immediate and progressive. “I will give you rest,” that is, “on your coming to Me”; and “ye shall find rest,” that is, “on your continuance with Me.” The experiment of faith is to issue in an experience of rest which pervades every part of life until the whole is under its dominion, and until the peace of God reigns unhindered in the throne-room of the heart. As the tide setting in from the deep rises steadily until every dry inlet and creek along the coast-line is filled with the ocean’s fulness, so is the experience of Christ’s rest to increase and enlarge in the lives of His people. No man has learned all there is of a language or its literature when he has but mastered the alphabet. And no man finds all that the rest of Christ is who is content with a mere casual acquaintance with the Son of God. For the relationship which is adjusted on our first coming to Him must be strengthened on our side by a constant increase of the area of surrender, answering to increasing light. And it is in this ever-enlarging obedience that rest is increasingly found.
When our surrender is made, the pain of our sacrifice is great in proportion to our former selfishness. It is also harder to bear, or more protracted when there is any looking back. When we have once renounced our self-will and deliberately chosen the Will of God, if we look back we not only expose ourselves to grievous risk, but also we make everything so much harder to accomplish. If we would be brave in the surrender of the will, we must set our faces in the way of the higher life, contemplate the beauty of the graces proposed to us, and deny the former gratifications and appeals of self-love. We shall indeed prove that the surrender of our will and the acceptance of God’s Will is no pleasing action of the soul; but rather that, again and again, as grace increases so love will be tested. And yet, so perfect is the response of Divine love, that habitual surrender of the will to God leads to great peace in the fact that we have no will but His. Thus St. Catherine of Siena was enabled to make so complete a surrender of her own will that our Lord gave her His Will. She had made her communion with such devotion that she was led to pray “that He would take away from her all comforts and delights of the world that she might take pleasure in none other thing, but only in Him.” If we are moved by a like holy desire, we should persevere in the constant surrender of the will; nor let us be discouraged though we have to renew our efforts at ever-increasing cost. New and higher ways of self-surrender will appear, new opportunities of sacrifice will be presented, greater and more interior sufferings will test us, whether our love is equal to really great things; whether we will aspire to the heroism of the Saints in the effort after perfection. “Be ye perfect” is the Divine precept which echoes in the soul inflamed by love.1 [Note: Jesse Brett, Humility, 14.]
4. When we give ourselves up to the Father as the Son gave Himself, we shall find not only that our yoke is easy and our burden light, but that they communicate ease and lightness; not only will they not make us weary, but they will give us rest from all other weariness. Let us not waste a moment in asking how this can be; the only way to know that is to take the yoke upon us. That rest is a secret for every heart to know, for never a tongue to tell. Only by having it can we know it. If it seem impossible to take the yoke upon us, let us attempt the impossible, let us lay hold of the yoke, and bow our heads, and try to get our necks under it. If we give our Father the opportunity, He will help and not fail us. He is helping us every moment, when least we think we need His help: when most we think we do, then may we most boldly, as most earnestly we must, cry for it. What or how much His creatures can do or bear God alone understands; but when it seems most impossible to do or bear, we must be most confident that He will neither demand too much nor fail with the vital Creator-help. That help will be there when wanted—that is, the moment it can be help. To be able beforehand to imagine ourselves doing or bearing we have neither claim nor need.
They tell me that on a farm the yoke means service. Cattle are yoked to serve, and to serve better, and to serve more easily. This is a surrender for service, not for idleness. In military usage surrender often means being kept in enforced idleness and under close guard. But this is not like that. It is all upon a much higher plane. Jesus has every man’s life planned. It always awes me to recall that simple tremendous fact. With loving, strong thoughtfulness He has thought into each of our lives, and planned it out, in whole, and in detail. He comes to a man and says, “I know you. I have been thinking about you.” Then very softly—“I—love—you. I need you, for a plan of Mine. Please let Me have the control of your life and all your power, for My plan.” It is a surrender for service. It is yoked service. There are two bows or loops to a yoke. A yoke in action has both sides occupied, and as surely as I bow down my head and slip into the bow on one side—I know there is Somebody else on the other side. It is yoked living now, yoked fellowship, yoked service. It is not working for God now. It is working with Him. Jesus never sends anybody ahead alone. He treads down the pathway through every thicket, pushes aside the thorn bushes, and clears the way, and then says with that taking way of His, “Come along with Me. Let us go together, you and I. Yoke up with Me. Let us pull together.” And if we will pull steadily along, content to be by His side, and to be hearing His quiet voice, and always to keep His pace, step by step with Him, without regard to seeing results, all will be well, and by and by the best results and the largest will be found to have come.1 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Service, 79.]
Rest Under the Yoke
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Church of England Pulpit, lxi. 414 (H. E. Ryle).