“Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me” (Matthew 11:29).
The symbols which are employed in the Scriptures to set forth Divine truth always impress us with their fitness. But the more we ponder them, the more they must impress us also with their marvellous comprehensiveness. It is not too much to say that some of them epitomize the whole system of Christianity, and present it in a flash to the mind. Of the emblems employed in baptism and the Lord’s Supper this is true. They are not simply striking symbols; they are miniature presentations of the vast scheme of redemption, and set forth in one impression truths which it requires a lifetime to comprehend in detail.
The emblem of the yoke is just one of these prolific figures of speech. It condenses and packs into itself the whole gospel, giving us “infinite riches in a little room.” It involves the deepest principles of discipleship, and so gives us that from which we can evolve the most vital suggestions and instructions for Christian living.
Let us consider the relations which are most obviously suggested by this language.
1. The Constraints of Christ
First, these words tell us of the constraints of Christ, — “Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me.”
The strong ox cannot be made serviceable to man except by being brought under restraint; neither can man be of any use to his Lord, or to himself, till his freedom has been restricted. This indeed is a universal principle, extending to all animate and inanimate forces alike. The whole course of discovery and progress has been simply a yoking up of the powers and energies of nature, and attaching them to man’s car. The water-wheel is but a yoke put upon the neck of the river, that it may be compelled to spin and weave for us; the sail is simply a yoke attached to the winds to make them plough the great deeps with the furrows of a nation’s commerce; the telegraph wire is only a yoke for harnessing the electricity, that it may run our errands and flash our thoughts to the ends of the world. Nothing in earth or air or sea is of use to us till it has been restrained and made obedient to our will.
And so, instead of contradicting the general order, Christ by these words lays down one of the most universal of principles. Freedom for service comes through repression of self. We must be narrowed into liberty, and constrained into true power. “Take My yoke upon you, and ye shall find rest to your souls.” Does Christ speak in paradoxes? But who does not know that rest is found in no dead calm of willfulness? Let one be given up to have his own way, and he is certain to be wretched so long as he has a conscience. Between the truth of belonging entirely to God, and the condition of living entirely for self, there can be no accord.
“Our wills are ours we know not how,
Our wills are ours to make them Thine.”
And never can we have peace with ourselves till we find it in submitting to the restraints of God.
I cannot follow this principle into all its applications; but I would ask you to consider it especially in relation to the intellectual constraints of Christ.
When He says, “Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me,” there is a suggestion at once of intellectual restraint. And this is perhaps the hardest of all to be submitted to; for man naturally prefers to be a free-thinker. The fall which threw him out of moral conformity to God threw him out of intellectual obedience also; and ever since, his thoughts have tended to go astray, and his imagination to play truant from the school of God. And this license in thinking and reasoning he claims as an inalienable right, so that many a man who admits the wholesomeness of moral restraints considers himself justified in utterly revolting from intellectual restraints. Hence the constant outcry against the bondage of creeds and the tyranny of theological yokes, as though it were a mighty affront to ask one to believe anything which he is not inclined to believe.
But has not God the same dominion in the sphere of thought as in the sphere of morals? And does not the lordship of Christ extend equally to both? If so, our obedience is just as binding in the one as in the other. And this, for one, I loyally concede. I own myself just as much bound to believe what Christ teaches as to do what He commands; just as truly holden to think His thoughts after Him, in intellectual submission, as to trace His steps after Him in practical obedience. There is an ethics of belief as well as an ethics of conduct; and whoever admits that he is required to bring the wayward passions of his body under restraint to Christ must admit an equal obligation to “bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.”
What if we are called to assent to doctrines which are hard to receive? The practice of a virtuous life is hard, and it often lays on us a necessity for the sternest self-repression; but that fact gives no excuse for our surrender to a liberal and easy-going morality. And why should the severity of truth be deemed a justification for doctrinal laxity? Oh, my hearers, permit me to warn you against a danger too little recognised as such in ordinary teaching, — the danger of unrestrained license in thinking; of the free indulgence of a wanton reason. There are other profligates in the world besides those whose bodies have been stained by impurity. Adultery can lurk in the thoughts, as Christ has plainly taught us, when those thoughts run riot in the lusts of the flesh; but what is it, pray, when those thoughts take license to believe what God has forbidden, and to doubt what He has declared?
I need not remind you that in common usage we apply the same word to marital inconstancy and to religious unbelief, — we call it “infidelity” in either case. And the Bible abounds in similar terms when rebuking unfaithfulness to truth. Love to God is the moral chastity of the soul. But how can the soul love God, and keep itself from unlawful affections, if it assumes the liberty now to think Him out of existence, and now to think Him altogether such an one as itself; now to doubt His instructions, and now to reply against His precepts? “My thoughts are not your thoughts,” saith Jehovah. And until we submit our thoughts to God’s, and bow the neck of our reason to His authority, we can neither attain to a true intellectual freedom nor a true intellectual purity.
How strongly and clearly Christ announces this idea to certain Jews who had believed on Him! ” If ye continue in My word, then are ye My disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Freedom by subjection is the law here laid down; the yoke of discipleship emancipating us from galling errors, and introducing us into the sweet liberty of truth. And why should such conditions be deemed unreasonable? What student rebels against the hard axioms of geometry or the inexorable formulas of mathematics? In submitting to them, he accepts a most rigid limitation to his thoughts; but he well knows that only by such limitation can his mind be broadened and his knowledge enlarged. And, if Christ is an unerring Master, how reasonable it is that we should put ourselves under the most absolute and unquestioning subjection to His teaching? It is thus, He declares, that we shall be made free indeed.
Men will ridicule our freedom, perhaps, as slavish subserviency, and we shall have an equally distinct opinion of their boasted freedom. And it is plain with whom the advantage of judgment will lie, — the one who reckons his position from the truth, or the one who reckons it from his own opinions. “If ye continue in My word” — No man is worth listening to, on questions of Christian faith and doctrine, who is not himself a reverent listener to Christ. If one presumes thus to talk, without being talked to by the great Teacher, the humblest disciple of the Lord will detect the crudeness and incoherency of his utterances. Have you not noticed how soon, when one has become deaf, his speech loses its sharpness of utterance and its fineness of articulation? The tongue cannot retain its cunning without the co-operation of the ear. It is even so with those who are deaf to the word of the Lord, who have unyoked their ears from the instruction and authority of Christ. They may think to speak profoundly and wisely on the great questions of truth and righteousness, but their speech betrayeth them, and they only give proof of how impossible it is for one to be an expounder of the truth who is not first a disciple of the Truth.
“When the world by wisdom knew not God;” “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise that they are vain,” — thus speaks the Spirit concerning that in which the men of this world pride themselves. And so we are not called back from the paths in which our feet have gone astray alone, but also from those in which our reason has wandered. “Let the unrighteous man forsake his thoughts.” Ah, friends, there is a nobler word than “I think.” It is “I believe.” The one is the confession of reason, the other of faith; the one is a declaration of independence, the other the avowal of submission; the one is the language of self-sufficiency, the other the sentiment of filial trust. “Wherefore, gird up the loins of your mind,” says the Scripture. Even in the race of intellect, faith will have the advantage, since it keeps the beaten path, and follows a sure guide, and is held trim and tight by “the girdle of truth.” But reason must explore as it goes, its ungirt robes catching every idle kind of doctrine, and becoming tangled with every obstruction of doubt.
It is considered, indeed, a high tribute to one to say that “he thinks for himself”. But, oh, my Father, leave me not to think for myself amid the mazes and mysteries of Thy universe, wherein I am a stranger. Think for me, and permit me reverently and obediently to follow Thy steps as a child treads in the footprints of its parent. To think for myself would leave me bewildered in this desert, where Thy providence has cast me, to find my way out as best I might. Surely I can never think myself out of this world of darkness into Thy world of light. Therefore, praise the Lord for that true saying of His prophet: “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.” When the passions begin to lead astray towards lawless love, and when the thoughts begin to be tempted to disport themselves in the inviting pastures of doubt and speculation, how blessed it is to be yoked up with the Holy Son of God! His example can hold us back alike from perilous indulgences and from perilous thoughts. He asks us, therefore, to subject not only our affections, but our reason also, to Him. His yoke is easy, since it can save us from that hardest bondage, the slavery of doubt and darkness. His burden is light, since it can lift us from that heaviest of burdens, the weight of sin and disobedience.
2. The Fellowship of Christ
These words speak to us, secondly, of The fellowship of Christ. ” Take My yoke upon you.”
It is a yoke, then, of which our Lord bears one end, so that the weight and strain and pressure may come upon Him, and we be eased of them. If, therefore, there be anything in the requirements of the gospel which is hard to be received. we have to remember that we are only called to bear it with our Master. The responsibility, the severity, the hardship, He has shouldered, before He asks us to take it, and He now simply invites us to share it with Him. This is true, indeed, of all which is laid upon us in the gospel. In enduring trial, we are only called “to the fellowship of His sufferings.” In bearing the weight of the heavy mysteries of faith, it is but “the fellowship of the mystery” which we share with Him. Before we are required of God to accept any of the stern doctrines and responsibilities of His service, we are first “called unto the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” Yoke-fellowship with the Son of God, in other words, is the ground and support of all faith-fellowship, and truth-fellowship, and work-fellowship.
Do you not see that this is the very thing which men most deeply want? What is the demand so constantly heard for an infallible authority? Is it not a cry for some one to bear the heavy end of the yoke of doctrine? Men shrink from accepting a creed on their own responsibility. Before they bow their necks to any confession, they must be sure that they have a trustworthy confessor — one who can command their unquestioning assent, and take the responsibility for their most implicit belief. And while in this out-reaching one is laying hold of Reason, and another of Intuition, while one is resting on Science, and another on [religious authority], we ask men to believe the truth of the gospel only in accord and partnership with One who is so absolutely and unchangeably true that He has dared to take to Himself the name of “The Truth.” When we have conceded His right to this title, what saying of His is too hard for us, what doctrine too severe, what mystery too appalling? With an authority in which one has perfect confidence, faith can become heroic even unto ignominy, and contempt, and excommunication, and such faith, even when misplaced, commands our admiration in this age of doubt.
Therefore, instead of heaping reproach upon these men of science, who have accepted such odious conclusions in regard to the origin of our race, we rather intensely covet their faith for Christ. For if, in obedience to what they regard as the authority of science, they can face the scorn of the civilized world in maintaining that man, now so high in the scale of being, has ascended from the beasts by evolution, how splendidly, if they had Christ for their master, might they stand by that doctrine of His, so odious to reason, that man fallen and ruined by sin can yet ascend to kinship with God by regeneration, being born from above of the Holy Spirit! It is not less faith that is wanted, but an exaltation of Christ as the one central and supreme object of faith, and a transfer to Him who is the only master of all truth of man’s misplaced and wayward trust.
I have spoken of submission to the teachings of Christ. Remember, then, that He does not ask us to believe anything which He does not believe, or to be bound by any stricter creed than that to which He has assented, or to gall ourselves with any severer theology than that which He taught. “It is enough that the disciple be as his Lord,” he says; and we surely ought to ask no more.
Have we sufficiently apprehended the fact that Christ, in asking us to learn of Him, is simply asking us to do as He has done? “As My Father hath taught Me, so I speak,” He says. Though He were the Son of the Highest, He did not insist on intellectual independence, or press His Divine right to think for Himself. “The words which Thou gavest Me I have given them,” He says again. He was a disciple as well as a Son, and He only asks us to take the place which He took, and to be His “disciples indeed.” Do you say that it is hard for you to bear witness to many of the doctrines of the Bible? And I presume it was hard for Christ to do so.
But more than this. He bears the heavy end of the yoke. The responsibility for the truth of His doctrines; their harmony with the justice and mercy of God; the danger that they may repel men’s reason or provoke their enmity, — all these matters which so perplex and trouble us, He takes upon Himself. It is only ours to believe His word; it is His to bear all the weight of mystery and contradiction which that word involves. There is nothing which He has which He does not invite us to share with Him; but it is for our help and our uplifting, and not for our intellectual oppression
Even the cross — that yoke of redemption by which He drew a lost world from its ruin, and lifted it into reconciliation with God — we are to endure with Him. “Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after Me, cannot be My disciple.” Perhaps the heaviest cross to the natural reason is the doctrine of the cross. Not what can be extracted from the doctrine, — the tender peace and the sweet grace of forgiveness, — but the bare truth that Christ “suffered, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.” Grace stained with the blood of expiation, forgiveness founded on vicarious satisfaction, — this has been “the offence of the cross” in all time. But it is not for us to be oppressed and staggered and crushed by it. “The joy that was set before Him,” as He endured the cross and despised the shame, is our inheritance; His the bloody sweat and travail of soul, and “contradiction of sinners against Himself,” and ours the unspeakable privilege of being His co-partners in all this.
Do you not know what a holy bond there is in a common trial or reproach? Souls that have passed through the fire together have become in a certain sense fused. Friendship makes men intimate; suffering alone makes them one. And so it is that the opprobrium of truth identifies us with Christ in the tenderest and closest sense. It was not surely greediness for contempt which led Paul to glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. By it, he tells us, he was crucified unto the world, and the world unto him. That which cut him off from men joined him the more closely to the Lord; that which oppressed him from the human side liberated him towards the Divine. This is, doubtless, the secret of his glorying. Just as when the houses become crowded in the dense and populous city, they begin to climb heavenward for room, piling story upon story, so the more a Christian is pushed by the world’s opposition, by their dislike of his zeal and their contempt of his doctrine, the more he is likely to rise heavenward and Christward in his communion.
Thus it is equally true that the fellowship of Christ sustains us and supports us in maintaining His truth, and that maintaining His truth strengthens and intensifies our fellowship with Him. Blessed yoke of Christ, then, which lifts us up while it bears upon us; which draws us to Christ just in proportion as it with draws us from ” this present evil world.” May it be ours to take that yoke without reluctance; to bear it without repining; to rejoice in it without murmuring; and to march on with it without halting or stumbling.
3. The Service of Christ
These words suggest to us, thirdly, the service of Christ. They are an invitation to co-operation with Him in His great ministry to a lost world. “We, then, as workers together with Him,” is the apostolic phrase. Blessed exaltation! We are not called to work for Christ, or to work under Christ, but to work with Christ. He has gone into heaven, indeed, and is out of sight; but by the Holy Spirit He still joins us to Himself in active, living fellowship. “He does not need our strength,” you may say; but He needs and will have our co-operation. Without us He cannot work to-day in the world; just as without Him we cannot pray in heaven. Have you thought how necessary we are to Christ in all the relations which we hold to Him? “I am the vine, ye are the branches.” If the branches do not bear fruit, there will not be any. The vine is in heaven, out of sight; and, unless the branches are productive, there will be nothing for the world to see to indicate that Christianity is a living fact.
“Ye shall be witnesses unto Me,” says Jesus. And unless we keep up our testimony, there will be silence in the earth. There is not a living voice to speak for Him but that of Christians. “Ye are the light of the world,” He says again. And unless we shine, there will be utter darkness. The only reflectors, on earth, of the light of Christ are His disciples. Angels may serve as messengers; seraphim may act as worshippers; the Spirit may fill the office of teacher and guide, — but all these are invisible beings, like Christ Himself. And thus the only visible exponents of the Divine truth and light are Christians, — the disciples and representatives of the Lord upon earth. Therefore, brethren, you see that it is your obedience and your fidelity, and your zeal and your steadfastness on which the Lord relies for the furtherance of His gospel; and so He can never cease, so long as you are in the flesh, to press His yoke of service upon you.
Never was there a time when the Lord was calling more loudly to His servants to learn of Him; and never a time when His disciples should pray more earnestly, “Lord, teach us,” than now. Vital doctrines are slipping from the hands of those who have been commissioned to hold them fast; old and long-neglected truths are struggling to regain their lost place in the faith of Christians, often, alas! only to be treated as novelties and innovations. In the pride of intellect many are putting their own wisdom before God’s, and are given over to believe a lie.
Nothing is greater than a faithful Christian life; and therefore nothing is more important than Christian truth, on which alone such a life can be built and maintained. Well may the Apostle John have written, ” I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in the truth.” Such a walk is only possible, however, as we are strongly and constantly yoked to Christ, — who is the Truth, — that He may determine our track and restrain our wanderings, and bear up our shoulders, which so often shirk the burden, and slip from the responsibility of His doctrine. And what the apostle names, in the next verse, “fellow-helpers to the truth,” is what the Lord is calling for to-day most loudly. May the Spirit of Truth so enlighten and persuade us that we shall willingly submit our necks to Christ, and covet with all our hearts the constraint and the fellowship and the service of His yoke.
From the book Grace and Glory
by A.J. Gordon, first published in 1872.
This page Copyright © 2000 Peter Wade. The Bible text in this publication, except where otherwise indicated, is from the King James Version. This article appears on the site: https://www.peterwade.com/.
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