“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 . . . and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).
In the Middle East, a yoke is a frame of wood or iron placed over the neck and shoulders of two animals—usually oxen—pulling a heavy load. The yoke balances the weight and makes it easier to draw.
The yoke was also a symbol of religious or political submission. According to the epic myths of the Babylonians, the human race was created “to bear the yoke of the gods.” Kings also were spoken of as laying the yoke of overlordship over their subjects. Defeated enemies were forced to pass beneath a symbolic yoke of spears or swords. To “break the yoke” was to rebel against an overlord.
In the Old Testament, the yoke symbolizes slavery. When King Rehoboam took the throne of his father Solomon, his subjects pleaded with him to lighten the royal yoke on their necks. The arrogant Rehoboam replied, “My father did lade you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke; my father hath chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions” (1 Kings 12:11). Israel would have to wait for another Son of David to break that yoke.
In the New Testament, Jesus invites us to take upon us His yoke. Why does the Lord use a symbol of forced labor in his invitation to come unto Him?
To begin with, the yoke is a symbol of royal power. By inviting us to bear His yoke, He opens the door to His kingdom. We become the subjects of the King of Kings if we are willing to take His yoke upon us. Also, the yoke symbolizes service. When we take His yoke upon us, we covenant to consecrate our energies and our labors to serve Him.
Additionally, in the ancient and Medieval worlds, university students wore a cloth “yoke” over their robes (today evolved into the academic gown familiar at graduation ceremonies). This yoke symbolized their submission to their master teacher and willingness to be guided. So the yoke also represents learning. We are reminded of the Master’s words: “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me,” which is possibly better translated “learn from me.”
Note also that Jesus tenderly invites us to take upon us His yoke. We are not forced in any way to assume the yoke of Christ. The Adversary, on the other hand, is every minute trying to force us into his yoke. Satan’s is a “yoke of iron” that “brings us down into captivity” (1 Ne. 13:5). Tyrants have served Satan throughout history by forcing free people under the yoke of bondage. Of this tyrannical “hand of oppression,” the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote, “the whole earth groans under the weight of its iniquity. It is an iron yoke” (D&C 123:7-8).
But there is an even heavier yoke of bondage—the bondage of sin. The Lord revealed to Joseph Smith that “The whole world lieth in sin, and groaneth under darkness and under the bondage of sin . . . because they come not unto me. For whoso cometh not unto me is under the bondage of sin” (D&C 84:49-51).
Clearly, we have two choices in life. We can choose not to come unto Him and remain under the yoke of sin. Or we can choose to accept his invitation: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you.”
When we come unto Him, we take upon ourselves His yoke. And in stark contrast to the iron yoke of the Devil, the yoke of the meek and lowly Jesus is “easy” to bear—and it is a blessing like none other.
Remember that a yoke is constructed for two. In order to draw a heavy load and maintain balance, it was necessary to put two animals, side by side, under the yoke. A single animal couldn’t do both jobs.
Now, we have a great responsibility to bear—it is the responsibility to become perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect. That is a crushing burden if we have to carry it alone. If I have to bear that burden by myself—the burden of my own sins and mistakes and shortcomings—I won’t make it.
But if Jesus Christ shares my yoke with me, my burden becomes light. When I take His yoke upon me, Professor Stephen E. Robinson writes, “I become one with Christ, and as partners we work together for my salvation. My liabilities and his assets flow into each other. I do all that I can do, and he does what I cannot yet do. The two of us together are perfect.”
“This is why the Savior says, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matt. 11:28). What heavier load is there than the demand for perfection, the idea that you must make yourself perfect in this life before you can have any hope in the next? What heavier burden is there than the yoke of the law?” (Stephen E. Robinson, “Believing Christ,” Ensign, Apr. 1992, 5.)
When we bear the yoke of Christ, we have a Partner pulling with us who has all power. There is no weight He cannot bear, no burden He cannot remove. So why must we also bear a yoke? Because without some level of effort, we cannot progress to become like Him. We must carry certain burdens in life or we never become stronger. There’s a natural law at work here. A muscle grows only through resistance. A human being grows only when facing opposition. “It must needs be, that there is opposition in all things” or our spiritual muscles atrophy and our capacities wither away (2 Ne. 2:11). So our burdens can be blessings.
At the same time, we are yoked with the Savior.
Bearing the Savior’s yoke, says Elder Lawrence E. Corbridge, “is not hard. . . . We have only two choices. We can either follow the Lord and be endowed with His power and have peace, light, strength, knowledge, confidence, love, and joy, or we can go some other way . . . and go it alone—without His support, without His power, without guidance, in darkness, turmoil, doubt, grief, and despair. And I ask, which way is easier?” (Lawrence E. Corbridge, “The Way,” General Conference, Oct. 4, 2008).
We cannot choose whether to bear a yoke, but we can choose which yoke we will bear. We can bear the yoke of sin, or we can bear the yoke of Christ. Those who think the commandments of the Lord are too restrictive should consider the weight of the alternative yoke of the Adversary. President Brigham Young called upon us to “cast off the yoke of the enemy, and put on the yoke of Christ, and you will say that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.