In these days when John Deere and Massey Ferguson are common names on the farm, the yoke has become an unfamiliar implement. Before the tractor was invented however, the yoke had been used for millennia to link oxen, horses or other animals together to plow the fields or to haul heavy loads. Although there are different types of yokes, they are essentially molded wooden beams used to bind animals together so that they work in unison. Often the yoke was molded so that a larger, more experienced animal could be linked with an animal that needed to be trained.
The idea of a yoke would have been well understood by Matthew’s audience, both literally and symbolically. They understood the concept of a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1) The religious leaders known as the Pharisees had taken God’s laws, the commandments given to Moses, and added to their own rules to them, rules that were so strict that they were a burden to follow. In Matthew 11:29-30 Jesus is telling his listeners that what He expected of them was not as difficult as the expectations of the Pharisees. It is not that our load is taken from us when we decide to partner with Jesus, but He helps us to bear it; if we yoke ourselves to Him, He will teach us and share our burdens. If we follow Him, learn from Him and do things His way, we will find rest for our souls. When we come to Jesus, we are free from the law, not the laws of the land we live in, (Romans 13:1) but the extra religious laws like those that the Pharisees imposed. Today, that would be seen as the legalism of some churches—burdens that God had not intended for us.
The Pharisees rejected Jesus because they didn’t feel that they needed Him; they believed that they were already righteous, because they followed the rules so closely. But to those who wanted it, those who felt weary and burdened, Jesus offered the gift of rest. (Matthew 11:28) We need to come to Him, to believe and to accept His gift. Let me emphasize that we are coming to the person of Jesus, not a church or a religion. Following religious rules is not the way to find rest for our souls. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (John 14:6) We can receive this gift of rest from no one else.