"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
June 05, 2015
The Yoke of Christ: Implications on Grace
by Jeff Lindsay

"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." (Matthew 11: 28-29)

In the sometimes fruitless discussions we have with those who claim our faith isn't Christian because we teach keeping the commandments of God, sometimes it helps to consider seemingly unrelated scriptures from a different angle to add a fresh perspective to the dialog (if it is real dialog).

Verses that might seem more direct and to the point, such as Christ's direct answer of "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments" (Matthew 19: 16-17; an incident important enough to be included in multiple Gospels) often have already been neutered by pastors and teachers of those who are challenging us.

For example, they may have been taught that Christ's reply to the rich young man who wanted to know what to do to gain eternal life was just sarcasm, aimed at teaching the impossibility of pleasing God through obedience. It's an appalling response, in my opinion, but one that has blinded some sincere people.

"Take my yoke upon you" from Matthew 11 might be a helpful passage in future discussions on the complex topic of salvation, faith, and works. I think we LDS defenders rarely bring it up in that context, but it could be useful.

The easiness of the way that Christ speaks of should resonate with those who have been taught that salvation is easy, for it is, but the image of putting on a yoke and taking on a genuine burden, light and easy though it may be, is one that can help clarify what Christ is asking of us and how we must respond to Him.

Standard commentary on this passage indicates that the yoke is a symbol of the teachings of Christ, so taking His yoke upon us means accepting His teachings. To us, that includes all that He has taught and given us, including His commandments.

The image of the yoke reminds us that while the decision to come unto Christ may be immediate and instant, the commitment to pull for Him under His yoke is life-long, and it's a decision that bearers of the yoke can retract at any time.

A yoke can be taken off as easily as it is put on, or one pulling a burden can stop moving forward at any time. The yoke is tied not just to which master we follow, but what we do after choosing that master: we move forward, carrying our burdens for Him, light though they may be.

If we stop moving forward, we have rebelled. The yoke is a symbol of a commitment, a relationship, even a covenant to serve.

To those who object that salvation is not by works and taking on a yoke sounds a lot like work of some kind, it might be helpful to recall that we cannot escape one basic reality: we are either serving God or somebody else. We are hitched to somebody's team in this life, like it or not, and bear somebody's yoke.

Those who refuse to take on the light and easy yoke of Christ are weighed down by the much heavier yoke of sin and selfishness. Those who reject light serve darkness, in spite of the common illusion that they serve no master at all.

So the real question is whom shall we serve? The choice of serving Christ fully and properly is one that involves bearing burdens, taking covenants upon ourselves and making sacrifices for His cause, and though it may seem difficult at times, it is a liberating service that brings joy. It is vastly easier than any alternative — in the long run.

Christ actually gives two commandments in this passage of Matthew 11. First, be calls us to come unto Him. And then we are to take His yoke upon us and learn from Him.

Believing in Him, acknowledging Him, looking to Him is the first step. It is not the completion of His plan for us. But it is a wonderful beginning. First, we have faith in Christ and come unto Him. Then we follow, serve, obey, and endure to the end. Thus, the yoke.

The union of these two commands seems to fit well with an ancient rabbinic teaching related to the symbol of the yoke. Jon Levenson in Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985, p. 84) writes:

What, precisely, did the rabbis think happened when one recites the Shma [or Shema Yisrael, referring to Deut. 6:4]? We find an answer in the reply of the Tannaitic master Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah to the question of why Deut. 6:4-9 is positioned before 11:13-21:

so that one might accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven first; afterwards, he accepts upon himself the yoke of the commandments.

“Heaven” in Talmudic language is usually a more delicate way of saying “God.” Rabbi Joshua sees the Shma, therefore, as the acclamation of God’s kingship. Only in light of such an acclamation do the mitsvot [the commandments of the Torah] make sense.

In light of the biblical ideas, we can say that one must first accept the suzerainty of the great king, the fact of covenant; only then can he embrace the particulars which the new lord enjoins upon him, the stipulations.

For Latter-day Saints, we first exercise faith in Christ to come unto Him, and then we take upon us His yoke as we covenant to follow Him and keep His commandments.

This view of Christ's words in Matthew 11:28-30 is not unique to Mormonism. Alexander McClaren, a famous "non-conformist" Scottish minister of the Baptist faith (1826-1910), wrote something on this passage relatively close to LDS perspectives. Speaking of the two adjacent commands, "Come unto me" and "Take my yoke upon you and learn of me," McClaren wrote the following in his Expositions of Holy Scripture:

‘Come unto Me,’ being translated out of metaphor into fact, is simply ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.’

And still further, we have here, not only the initial act by which companionship and union with Jesus Christ is brought about, but the continual course by which it is kept up, and by which it is manifested. The faith which saves a man’s soul is not all which is required for a Christian life. ‘Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me.’

The yoke is that which, laid on the broad forehead or the thick neck of the ox, has attached to it the cords which are bound to the burden that the animal draws. The burden, then, which Christ gives to His servants to pull, is a metaphor for the specific duties which He enjoins upon them to perform; and the yoke by which they are fastened to their burdens, ‘obliged’ to their duties, is His authority, So to ‘take His yoke’ upon us is to submit our wills to His authority.

Therefore this further call is addressed to all those who have come to Him, feeling their weakness and their need and their sinfulness, and have found in Him a Saviour who has made them restful and glad; and it bids them live in the deepest submission of will to Him, in joyful obedience, in constant service; and, above all, in the daily imitation of the Master.

You must put both these commandments together before you get Christ’s will for His children completely expressed.

There are some of you who think that Christianity is only a means by which you may escape the penalty of your sins; and you are ready enough, or fancy yourselves so, to listen when He says, ‘Come to Me that you may be pardoned,’ but you are not so ready to listen to what He says afterwards, when He calls upon you to take His yoke upon you, to obey Him, to serve Him, and above all to copy Him.

And I beseech you to remember that if you go and part these two halves from one another, as many people do, some of them bearing away the one half and some the other, you have got a maimed Gospel; in the one case a foundation without a building, and in the other case a building without a foundation.

The people who say that Christ’s call to the world is ‘Come unto Me,’ and whose Christianity and whose Gospel is only a proclamation of indulgence and pardon for past sin, have laid hold of half of the truth.

The people who say that Christ’s call is ‘Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me,’ and that Christianity is a proclamation of the duty of pure living after the pattern of Jesus Christ our great Example, have laid hold of the other half of the truth. And both halves bleed themselves away and die, being torn asunder; put them together, and each has power.

That separation is one reason why so many Christian men and women are such poor Christians as they are — having so little real religion, and consequently so little real joy.

I could lay my fingers upon many men, professing Christians — I do not say whether in this church or in other churches — whose whole life shows that they do not understand that Jesus Christ has a twofold summons to His servants; and that it is of no avail once, long ago, to have come, or to think that you have come, to Him to get pardon, unless day by day you are keeping beside Him, doing His commandments, and copying His sweet and blessed example.

Believe in Christ and accept His grace with joy. Then serve Him in a covenant relationship to the end of our lives, in growing joy and devotion. Recognize, too, that the yoke we put on can be taken off, and we can wander away under another yoke that easily slides onto our necks once the easy yoke of the Savior is taken off.

Next week, I'll discuss how taking the yoke of Christ upon us also points us to the temple. I'll also mention a fascinating passage from one of the early Christian fathers who urged the Greeks to replace their pagan mysteries with the mysteries and sacred rites of Christianity which he likened to taking the yoke of Christ upon us in order to become more like Him in the presence of the Father.

For more from Jeff Lindsay, see Mormanity at http://mormanity.blogspot.com and his Mormon Answers section at http://jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/.


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About Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra. He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.

He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.

Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications. Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.

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