Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
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. (Mt 11:28-30)
Some time ago I wrote about this, relating it to the cares and burdens of life. Jesus’ words certainly apply to that. But I’ve been looking at this further because of a question on my heart. Just what is the easy yoke that Jesus says is His? Let’s see if we can find out.
First, let’s find out what the unbearable yoke actually was. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden…” Bible expositor G. Campbell Morgan draws our attention, as always, to the context of Jesus’ words. He was addressing the cities where He had taught and preached. Matthew names three in particular “where most of His mighty works were done”—Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. He is pronouncing woes upon those cities. “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida!… And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell” (Mt 11:21-23). Why? Because He had taught in the synagogues in these cities—as was His practice wherever He went Mk 1:21, see also Lk 4:31, Jn 6:59—and for the most part His teaching and preaching was not received. He had come to proclaim a king and a kingdom, and was rejected. What was left for them but woe upon woe?
Yet it’s quite something, quite the revelation of His heart, that He had no sooner pronounced these woes than He broke out in prayer, overcome with thankfulness that His Father, Lord of heaven and earth, is the kind of God who “hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight. All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him” (Mt 11:25-27). What joy surges into the heart—that God is that kind of God, a God who hides Himself from the wise and the prudent, the high and the lofty, and reveals Himself to the lowly, to “babes.” Babes—not babies but infants (as the Greek makes clear) little ones whose lowliness has opened their eyes. Of such is the kingdom of God.
It’s right then that Jesus gives out His invitation. “Come unto Me, all ye…” Yes, not only those who were little in their own eyes, but those also who were so “wise in their own eyes and prudent in their own sight” that they had rejected Him. Whether they had received Him or rejected Him, they were those to whom He had been sent—“the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 15:24). He had taught in their synagogues and done mighty works in their streets. His great heart of love was burdened for them. “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden…” They were a people under the law of Moses. It has been calculated that the law of Moses contains something like 613 commandments. The very thought is wearying; some years later we find Peter himself calling the Sinai law “a yoke… that neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15:10). He wasn’t being critical of the law God had given; he was simply acknowledging what they all knew by experience—the Sinai law was beyond their ability to bear.
Yet the Pharisees of Jesus’ day strictly policed the people to make sure they observed each and every one of these (going easy on themselves in the process) adding to them countless others of their own making, one of them being that people were forbidden to come to the synagogue for healing on the sabbath day (Lk 13:14). Jesus loved nothing better than to loose people from their burdens on the sabbath, and He had blistering words for the Pharisees because “they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (Mt 23:4). The apostle Paul, himself once a strict Pharisee, later called the Sinai law “a yoke of bondage,” urging the Galatian churches not to be entangled in it again, but rather to stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ had set them free (Gal 5:1).
What then is the easy yoke?
If Paul called the old covenant a yoke of bondage, and if Peter called it a yoke that Israel was not able to bear, then the easy yoke Jesus is speaking of must be the new covenant. But I wonder how many of us, though we are Christians supposedly under the new covenant, find there’s not much difference; we are still labouring and heavy laden, trying as best we can to keep the laws of the new covenant, yet always falling short, or feeling that maintaining our relationship with the mediator Himself is a labourious chore. If that is the case it means we haven’t yet come to know the liberating law of the new covenant.
So we must make a discovery. Here’s a passage of Scripture that I think will help us do that. It’s in Romans Chapter 7. I want to quote from Young’s Literal translation, which gives the tenses more clearly:
Are ye ignorant, brethren–for to those knowing law I speak–that the law hath lordship over the man as long as he liveth?
for the married woman to the living husband hath been bound by law, and if the husband may die, she hath been free from the law of the husband;
so, then, the husband being alive, an adulteress she shall be called if she may become another man’s; and if the husband may die, she is free from the law, so as not to be an adulteress, having become another man’s.
So here is someone in a relationship from which there is absolutely no release—apart from the death of the husband.
Now I must reluctantly state something here—please don’t use this passage to enforce your doctrine that a woman can be released from her marriage only by the death of her husband (or vice versa) and that therefore there are no grounds for divorce under any circumstances. You make yourself a modern-day Pharisee with this teaching, and it is entirely unscriptural in the first place, and has done damage in I don’t know how many lives. I won’t pursue this further here, and in any case, if that is all you get out of this passage, you have entirely missed the point. That is not Paul’s focus here; he is leading up to a wondrous revelation:
So that, my brethren, ye also were made dead to the law through the body of the Christ, for your becoming another’s, who out of the dead was raised up, that we might bear fruit to God;
for when we were in the flesh, the passions of the sins, that are through the law, were working in our members, to bear fruit to the death;
and now we have ceased from the law, that being dead in which we were held, so that we may serve in newness of spirit, and not in oldness of letter. (Rom 7:1- 6)
What a wonder—dead not only to sin, which Paul has shown in the previous chapter, but dead to law as well.
Is this still a bit complex? It could be because there are three laws in operation here. Let’s see if we can distinguish them, bearing in mind that here in Romans 7 Paul is still enlarging on what he introduced in Romans 5:11—the contrast between the two men, Adam the old man, and Christ the new man.
2. The law of sin. (Yes, I know, I’ve put the second one first, don’t give up on me.) In verses 1 and 2, “the law of the husband” is the grievous law by which all those in Adam are as it were “married” to the “husband”—the old man. Paul refers to this law as he comes to the conclusion of Romans 7; it is “the law of sin which is in my members” (7:23). He cries out in the deepest anguish of heart for release from it. But (sorry for the grim news) it is a law from which there is no release but by death (Rom 7:1,2). Remember, of course—this is very important—that Paul is speaking in Romans 7:23 not of his present experience, but of the state he was in before being in Christ. He is using a well-known literary device called the “historical present tense,” in which one speaks of the past as though present.
1. Now the first one. The principle of law. Romans 7 opens with, “Know ye not, brethren, for I speak to them that know (the) law…” I’ve placed the article in parentheses because it’s not there in the Greek. Paul is speaking to “brethren,” born again believers like himself who have the same Father, some of whom were Jews but the majority of whom were Roman Gentiles. They too “know law,” are familiar with law, just as he a Jew knew law, for the Jews had the law of Moses; the Romans to this day are renowned for their system of law. So Paul knows that the believers in Rome will all understand that the law “has dominion over a man as long as he lives.” He proceeds with his illustration of a married woman being bound to her husband as long as he lives—but only as long as he lives. There is no escape from it as long as the husband lives. In fact, instead of delivering “the woman” from the law binding her to the man, the law actually strengthens that captivity and makes it even more severe. What law is this? It is the law of God, but only the letter of law. In his own personal conflict with the law of sin Paul said he had delighted in “the law of God after the inward man” (7:22) but found that all it did was bring him into captivity to the law of sin in his members. That’s what the letter of law does, whether the law of Moses or Roman law or that to which the consciences of all men and women in varying degree bear witness (Rom. 2:15). It has the effect, not of making them righteous, but of awakening the law of sin in them and thus making sin “exceeding sinful” (Rom. 7:13). That’s what the principle of law does; it gives sin “muscle,” as Paul wrote to the church of Corinth. “The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law” (1 Cor. 15.56). This is the yoke under which the Jews laboured and were heavy laden, the law that Peter referred to as a yoke Israel could not bear and Paul called a yoke of bondage. This yoke is broken only by death; all human beings are “under law” as long as they live.
3. That is, all except those who are in the easy yoke of Christ—that is, are “under grace.” “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under (the) law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). This is the law of the Spirit which in the new husband enables those married to Him to “bring forth fruit unto God” (Rom. 7:4). This is the great delivering and liberating law of Romans Chapter 8, “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.” The critically important thing is that the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus does not and cannot rule in those who are still in Adam, the old man. A death must take place first.
Release by death, but whose death?
This is vitally critically immensely indispensably indisputably important. I’ve piled on the adjectives so you won’t miss how absolutely utterly important this is. The only way of release from the law of sin, as well as from the outward principle of law—which actually aggravates sin without imparting righteousness—is by a death. But whose death? Your death, my death, cannot effect this. Whose death then? The death of Christ, Paul says. “…Ye also were made dead to the law through the body of Christ…” Paul has in mind the death of Christ that becomes the death of those who are in the body of Christ.
It was after I’d read the Romans 7 passage many times over the course of many days that one word suddenly stood up off the page of my Bible. Christ. Do you know, dear brothers and sisters, that this is the key word in this whole passage? Christ. It would do us all well to have this word re-quickened to us, for it is almost considered nothing much more than Jesus’ last name. No, Jesus is the Christ—the Anointed One, the Spirit-empowered and Spirit-empowering One! Only He, the Anointed One, could accomplish the death that releases from the former “husband”—the old man. And only He the Anointed One could consequently liberate those bound by law to the old man so that they could become joined, as it were, married, “to Him who was raised from the dead.” Only with the former “husband” deceased are they delivered from bondage to him; only thus may they be joined to Another who is raised from the dead, and find themselves under another rule, another law, another yoke—another covenant.
And so Paul shows that it is only in the body of Christ the Anointed One that this release from the old man and joining to the new man takes place. Only in the body of Christ is the old man put to death and the first yoke broken; only in Him is the new yoke bound in place; only in the body of Christ are we joined to “Him that was raised from the dead, that we might bear fruit unto God.”
So how does one get into the body of Christ?
How then does one get into the body of Christ where this wondrous transition takes place? Simply by baptism. Paul shows in another epistle that it was “in the cloud and in the sea” that the old covenant people were baptized unto (or, into) Moses (1 Cor. 10:2). In accordance with this pattern the new covenant people of God are “baptized into Christ.” There are several references to this in the New Testament (Gal. 3:27, Rom. 6:3, Col. 2:12, 1 Cor. 12:13). None of these, in my view, speaks of water baptism; water has no power to effect this union. (This is why John the Baptist said that One coming after Him was mightier than he, for He would baptize in Holy Spirit.) Let me show how I come to my view:
For by [or, in] one Spirit we were all baptized into one body… (1 Cor. 12:13).
This verse is usually considered only with a view to the functioning of the members of the body of Christ with diverse spiritual gifts manifested by the Spirit. But we must never lose sight of the truth that these Spirit-given functionings in the body of Christ are taking place in a body that has been raised from the dead. And before a body can be raised from the dead a death must take place. Baptism always involves a death. “Know ye not,” says Paul, “that so many of us as were baptized into Christ were baptized into His death? (Rom. 6:3). It’s my conviction based on 1 Corinthians 12:13 that Paul has the Spirit baptism in mind here in Romans 6:3 and the other places where he speaks of baptism into Christ. Baptism into Christ and baptism into the body of Christ are not two separate things.
This is why Paul says in the Romans 7 passage that “ye also were made dead to the law through the body of the Christ…” It is the death of Christ he has in mind; therefore those in the body of Christ (by Spirit baptism into that body) benefit from that death and are themselves made dead to the law, and in that same body also become “another’s, who out of the dead was raised up, that we might bear fruit to God.” It is both Christ’s death and His resurrection that is the lot of those baptized into His body. They are “dead to the law by the body of Christ,” and in that same body of Christ become one with “Him who was raised from the dead,” and therefore are now able to bring forth fruit, no longer unto death (Rom. 6:21, 7:5) but unto God. For they are now serving—the word means to serve as a slave—not in oldness of letter, but in newness of Spirit. What a wonder of the grace of God.
The new covenant yoke
Those words—newness of Spirit. Is not this a marvel? I’m transfixed with those words. We can understand readily enough Paul calling it slavish to try to serve in oldness of letter—that is what labouring and being heavy laden under the old yoke is all about, and it brings forth “fruit unto death.” But to serve as a slave in newness of Spirit? What is this, what yoke is this? This, beloved, is the new covenant! The easy yoke. The yoke of liberty! What joy! What rest unto the soul! This is what Paul means in Romans 6 by being no longer under law but “under grace.” This is a yoke in which there is an empowering—empowering grace, the empowering of the Spirit of Christ the Anointed One. “I can do all things,” says Paul, “through the Anointed One who empowers me” (Phil. 4:13). And apart from Him, apart from the Anointed One, nothing can be accomplished. Nothing.
Christ. It’s all about Him—and those yoked with Him, those who by baptism in Holy Spirit are one with Him who is raised from the dead, those who are serving God together with Him in newness of Spirit—that is to say, in new covenant relationship with Him—thus finding rest unto their souls while bringing forth fruit unto God. For, the new covenant is not just a higher order of moral precepts. The new covenant is a relationship with a Person, the Anointed One Himself, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light.