Unless you live in a pre-industrial society, you don’t think much about yokes because teams of draft animals pulling plows have been replaced by powerful tractors. But if you were a farmer in Bible days, you needed yokes so you could harness your animals and plow your land. Cultivating the land meant growing food to eat and also to sell so you would have money to purchase other things you needed.
Our English word “yoke” goes back to a Latin word that means “to join.” The image of the yoke is used frequently in Scripture and teaches us some important truths that can help us in our Christian walk and work.
“The first duty of every soul,” wrote P. T. Forsyth, “is to find not its freedom but its Master” (Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, p. 28). Once we find our Master and obey Him, we have found our freedom to do what we were made to do and become what we were ordained to become.
Obviously the draft animals must submit to the will of the farmer and accept the yoke, or no work can be done. It wasn’t easy work, but they would be fed and set free at the close of the day and could anticipate total rest on the Sabbath. The godly farmer took good care of his animals.
For lost sinners, submission means salvation and this is the beginning of the Christian life. Saul of Tarsus was like a stubborn animal “kicking against the goads” (Acts 26:14) and refusing to yield to the Lord; but eventually God conquered him. Proud of his own righteousness and his religious zeal, Saul refused to submit to God’s righteousness until he was humbled by the Lord (Rom. 10:1-4); Acts 9:1-19). Until then, Saul had been wearing the “yoke of slaver” (Gal. 5:1), which nobody could successfully wear (Acts 15:10).
The invitation of Jesus still goes forth:
“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” (Matt. 11:28-30)
An “easy yoke” is one that fits well and was designed especially for you, and the “light burden” is one that you can carry successfully because you love Him and therefore find that “his commands are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). “If you love me,” said Jesus, “you will obey what I command” (John 14:15). When we come to Him, we receive the gift of “peace with God,” and when we learn from Him, we find rest in the Lord. You can’t lose.
Submission is not subjugation or slavery but a willing obedience to one who loves us and wants the very best for us. A wife has no hesitation in submitting to a husband who loves her “just as Christ loved the church” (Eph. 5:15-33), and the Christian has no difficulty submitting to other believers in the Lord (1 Cor. 16:15-16; Eph. 5:21; Heb. 13:17) or to civil authority that doesn’t contradict the clear law of God (Rom. 13:1-5; Acts 5:29). Whether we are young or old, we must clothe ourselves with humility toward one another (1 Peter 5:5-6). The wisdom of the world tells us to assert ourselves and get what we deserve, but God’s wisdom tells us to humble ourselves and let God do the judging.
The yoke enables the animals to work together, share the burden and accomplish more. So it is with the spiritual yoke that we Christians wear. If we are sincerely seeking to serve God, “we are God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor. 3:9); if we are serving ourselves or this world, we are tearing apart what God wants to keep together. Paul had many friends who served the Lord with him, but he didn’t see them as his “employees” but as his “fellow workers.” This included Priscilla and Aquila, Urbanus and Timothy (Rom. 16:3-4, 9, 21), as well as Ephaphroditus (Phil. 2:25), and the people who were in Rome when he was a prisoner there—Tychicus, Onesimus, Mark, Jesus, Epaphras, Luke and Demas (Col. 4:11-14) and Philemon (Phlm. 1:1). What a great privilege to serve the Lord and to do it together with Paul!
Over the years, I’ve been privileged to labor together in conferences with some of God’s finest servants, and their submissive attitude has influenced me greatly, although I still have a long way to go. I recall a conference where Dr. J. Vernon McGee was scheduled to be the third speaker, but the first two speakers, inflated by the large crowd (who came to hear Dr. McGee!), took too much time in their preaching. When Dr. McGee was given the platform, he said, “I have changed my text to John 10:8—‘All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers.’” The wave of laughter eased the tension and he went ahead and brought a marvelous message. We all wished he had been given more time.
In Philippians 4:2, Paul names two women who were breaking the yoke because they couldn’t get along with each other, and he asked his “loyal yokefellow” to help the women accept their yoke and serve together (v. 3). What a great name—“Sunzugos, yokefellow”! I wouldn’t really want the name but I would sure like to deserve it. The Greek preposition sun means “together with” and Paul uses it three times in Philippians 4:3—“yokefellow,” “contended,” which is “fellow athletes,” and “fellow workers.” What a fellowship!
We must be careful not to compromise and yoke up with those who are not God’s children. “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14) isn’t commanding us to leave the world (1 Cor. 5:9-11) but to take care of our testimony. The people of Israel “yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor” (Ps. 106:28; Num. 25) and 24,000 people died in the plague God sent. “Do not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together” (Deut. 22:10) illustrates this truth: the ox and ass have different temperaments and different speeds, and being yoked together could only bring frustration and no work would be accomplished. Even more, the ox was a “clean animal” and the ass was “unclean” (Deut. 14:1-8).
(Copyright Warren Wiersbe, All Rights Reserved, May not be copied or duplicated without permission of the author.)
Dr. Warren Wiersbe (1929-2019) was an internationally known Bible teacher, author, and conference speaker. He graduated in 1953 from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. While attending seminary, he was ordained as pastor of Central Baptist Church in 1951 and served until 1957. From September 1957 to 1961, Wiersbe served as Director of The Literature Division for Youth for Christ International. From 1961 to 1971 he pastored Calvary Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky south of Cincinnati, Ohio. His sermons were broadcast as the “Calvary Hour” on a local Cincinnati radio station. From 1971 to 1978, He served as the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago 1971 to 1978. While at Moody Church he continued in radio ministry. Between August 1979 and March 1982, he wrote bi-weekly for Christianity Today as “Eutychus X”, taught practical theology classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and wrote the course material and taught a Doctor of Ministry course at Trinity and Dallas Seminary. In 1980 he transitioned to Back to the Bible radio broadcasting network where he worked until 1990. Dr. Wiersbe became Writer in Residence at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids and Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. In his lifetime, Dr. Wiersbe wrote over 170 books—including the popular Be series, which has sold over four million copies. Dr. Wiersbe was awarded the Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA).