Today’s word from God is one of those admonitions that can be deeply challenging. Even though I believe it’s sorely needed right now, it’s not one of those that gets a lot of attention. So rather than dive right into it, let me begin on a lighter note.
On the little family farm where I spent much of my early life, we had a couple of plow horses that I dearly loved. Their names were Nellie and Molly, but my grandpa sometimes called them by other names when they were being less than cooperative.
Special Memories ~
There was always something special about being around the barn. It didn’t matter what “Pa” was planning to do when we headed out there. Whatever it was, I wanted to be as close to it as possible. I loved the unique sounds associated with work in the barn, but I especially loved the smell of the horses and the leather harness that connected them to whatever implement Pa was going to use. There were two large leather collars and other hardware that he hung around each horse’s neck that kept them together as they worked. Sometimes, if Pa was using an implement like the spike harrow that had a little seat on it, he’d let me ride on it. It really didn’t get any better than that.
Pa never referred to the harness he used as a yoke, but whenever I’d see one of those pictures of oxen with a large wooden apparatus on their necks, I’d think of Molly and Nellie. The mechanism he used wasn’t the classic definition of a “yoke,” I suppose, but the principle was the same. In any case, I had little reason to think much about the concept until it came up during our recent pilgrimage to Israel.
A Different Approach ~
I was fascinated to learn that throughout Jewish history, rabbis have dealt with the concept of a “yoke” quite differently than the way we pragmatic Westerners approach it. We might think of its practical benefits, like how a yoke enforces some degree of cooperation and control, and how it increases productivity. The rabbinical scholars, on the other hand, were concerned with more important issues than farming methodology.
To a Jewish rabbi, his “yoke” was the composite sum of his own unique way of understanding, interpreting, and applying the Old Testament Scriptures. Rabbis developed their own personal and particular approach to the Scriptures, especially the Torah. Each rabbi had points of doctrine and views on the commandments that he tended to emphasize. When a young Jewish male wanted to pursue God more seriously, he would choose a particular teacher and ask if he might be allowed to be taken under the rabbi’s yoke. If accepted, unwavering devotion to the rabbi’s teaching and a commitment to obey his injunctions was expected. The yokes offered in Jesus’ day were incredibly burdensome. Consistent obedience to the multitude of demands and restrictions was virtually impossible, and violations were harshly punished. Adding to all of that was the hypocrisy of those who were authorizing the ordinances.
Against that backdrop, Jesus stepped up and turned the tables on the whole corrupt process. He offered an invitation that stood in stark contrast with what the religious elites of His day were doing. Instead of waiting for others to beg to be taken under His yoke (His ‘teaching’), Jesus invited anyone and everyone who felt burdened down and weary from trying to fulfill the impossible demands being heaped on them to leave it all and come to Him. He said:
Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 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. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matthew 11:28–30 NKJV).
No Harnesses Involved ~
This invitation isn’t about being hooked together like oxen and horses. Jesus’ invitation isn’t to get into some kind of harness with Him so our load will be easier to pull. Instead, He’s calling us to abandon the impossible task of fulfilling the Law of God by our own human efforts and commit wholeheartedly to Him. The life offered under Jesus’ yoke is also quite beyond our ability to fulfill on our own, and it’s incredibly counterintuitive to our nature. But the difference is that it is laced with love and grace, and it comes with the assurance that His presence and power will never be taken from us. And when we fail, there is the promise of forgiveness and restoration.
Current Implications ~
Now this is where it begins to get more difficult. The issue of yokes isn’t something we can leave in the dusty annals of Jewish history. Jewish rabbis weren’t the only ones with a yoke that they wanted to draw others into. The enemy also employed the concept and Paul addressed it in his second letter to the church in Corinth. We would do well to consider his admonition and the unique way in which he delivered it. He began by issuing a straightforward directive. Then he proceeded to reinforce the basis for his declaration by asking the same basic question and assuming the same answer in five different contexts. He said:
- Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers.
- For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness?
- And what communion has light with darkness?
- And what accord has Christ with Belial [Satan]?
- Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever?
- And what agreement has the temple of God with idols?
- For you are the temple of the living God… (2 Corinthians 6:14–16 NKJV)
- Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers.
Applying Apostolic Authority ~
Believers in Corinth seemed to have forgotten Paul’s incredible closing affirmation, and they were guilty of adopting pagan philosophies, principles, and practices. Behaviors and toxic ideas that God had expressly forbidden were being accepted and approved by those who had claimed to have accepted Jesus’ yoke. As a result, the church’s testimony was tarnished, and Jesus’ teaching was diluted, the Gospel was perverted, and the truth was obscured. Paul’s authoritative Apostolic response was simple and unambiguous – “Stop it!”
But in a culture already obsessed with divisiveness, we must endeavor not to sound like some kind of crazed, hyper-religious separatist. In light of that, we should begin by emphasizing what this admonition not to be unequally yoked is not based on:
- It is not based on religious or denominational sectarianism.
- It is not racial.
- It is not political.
- It is not economic.
- It is not ethnic, tribal, or based on nationality.
- It has nothing to do with skin color
- It has no social element or class distinction
- It is not about personalities or individual likes or dislikes.
A Deeply Personal Issue ~
At its root, this issue is about the authenticity and authority of the Word of God and whether we’re willing to be guided by its values and principles. This is an intensely personal issue. It is not a call to examine or evaluate others and make judgments about whether they’re living out their commitment to the yoke of Jesus to our satisfaction. It is, after all, His yoke, not ours, and the maintenance of it is His job, not yours and mine. Our only task is to honestly look at our own lives and see whether we might have been seduced into embracing the enemy’s deceitful lies.
One thing is clear, our land is filled with churches and professing followers of Jesus that advocate, promote, and defend things that God declared to be an abomination. There is a reason why we are experiencing more hatred, debauchery, violence, and depravity than we would ever have imagined. Neither the cause of these problems nor the solution to them lies in the realm of politics. We must look deeper than that and ask the hard questions about our own compromises.
May God help us to take this difficult, but vital issue seriously, and in light of it, may the profound implications of Paul’s concluding declaration sink deep into our souls . . . For you are the temple of the living God.
“TWEETABLES” ~ Click to tweet and share from the pull quotes below. Each one links directly back to this article through Twitter . . .
- “Jesus’ invitation isn’t to get into some kind of harness with Him so our load will be easier to pull. He’s calling us to abandon the impossible task of fulfilling the Law of God by our own human efforts and commit wholeheartedly to Him.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “The life offered under Jesus’ yoke is beyond our ability to fulfill on our own. It’s incredibly counterintuitive to our nature. It’s laced with love and grace & comes with the assurance that His presence & power will never be taken away.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “This issue is about the authenticity and authority of the Word of God & whether we’re willing to be guided by its values & principles. Our task is to look at our own lives. Have we been seduced into embracing the enemy’s deceitful ideas?” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “Our land is filled with churches & professing followers of Jesus who advocate, promote & defend things that God declared an abomination. There’s a reason we’re experiencing more hatred, debauchery, violence & depravity than ever imagined.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
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