Life was hard for the early Christians, and it is difficult for some today. So what did Christ mean when He said, “My yoke is easy and My burden is light”?
Being a first-century Christian wasn’t easy. Society, under the sway of Satan, was out to make it hard for followers of Jesus. Although the Roman authorities considered them a sect of Judaism and therefore a legal religion, the early Christians were a convenient scapegoat for just about everything that went wrong.
Hearing about Christians partaking of bread and wine as symbols of Christ’s body and blood, some Romans mistakenly thought Christians were cannibals (BBC). And the Romans noted that these people would not honor the Roman gods. So when natural disasters came, many Romans believed punishment had come upon their community because their gods were not being respected by the Christians.
Explaining this prevailing Roman belief that had continued into the second century, Tertullian wrote: “If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, ‘Away with the Christians to the lion!’” (Apology, 40:2).
So far, it’s not easy to see why Jesus said, “My yoke is easy.”
The clash between Judaism and Christianity
And neither was Judaism fond of the early Christians.
Although Christians were like the Jews in that they accepted the same sacred writings (the Old Testament), obeyed the same 10 Commandments and observed the same annual holy days, they had one belief that most Jews simply wouldn’t accept. The leaders of Judaism and their followers did not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God and that He had come as the promised Messiah.
The Jewish leaders were looking for a Messiah who would restore their nation to prominence. What they didn’t understand was that Jesus would first come to die for the sins of mankind. Then He would come “a second time” to offer salvation to the world and to fulfill the prophecies they had focused upon (Hebrews 9:28).
Although Jesus grew up in a Jewish home and regularly attended the synagogue, eventually the rift between Judaism and Christianity could not be contained. The Jewish religious leaders disagreed with His teaching and were envious of His popularity and had Jesus crucified (Matthew 27:1-2, 18, 20-22).
Then, as Jesus had predicted, His followers began to be “put out of the synagogues” (John 16:2). The purge appears to have been instigated by a prominent synagogue in Jerusalem called the Synagogue of the Freedmen. Men representing this synagogue entered into a public dispute with Stephen, and when they couldn’t “resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke,” they resorted to using lying witnesses as a pretext for bringing him before the council and stoning him to death (Acts 6:9-14; 7:58).
One of the most ardent supporters of this despicable action was a young man named Saul. He “made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison” (Acts 8:3). Being so violently enraged against the Christians, he further “went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2).
At this point, we come to one of the great ironies in history. After experiencing a vision of Jesus and being divinely healed of blindness, Saul himself became a Christian (verses 17-18). The man who had been such an angry enemy of Christians became one, and “immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God” (verse 20).
Saul’s conversion, however, did not always make his life easier. As time passed and Saul’s change of heart became known, “the Jews plotted to kill him” (verse 23).
Warnings of trials and persecution
In the course of his ministry Paul endured three shipwrecks, several imprisonments, 39 stripes on five occasions from the Jews, three times being beaten with rods, and even being stoned and left for dead (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).
Regaining consciousness after he was stoned, he continued his ministry, “strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God’” (Acts 14:19-22, emphasis added throughout).
Jesus had also warned His followers that persecution would come. “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you,” He had said (John 15:20; compare Luke 21:12). This is why He also reminded His disciples, “He who endures to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 24:13).
Persecution of Christians continues today. Much of the world does not have freedom of religion, and many Christians around the world receive harsh treatment.
How did Jesus address this sobering reality?
Jesus’ statement on Christian living
In spite of such difficulties, Jesus 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).
So how does Jesus’ statement square with history and reality in our world today? How could following Christ be easy? How can we receive “rest” for our souls?
Some mistakenly think this passage means Christ freed His followers from obedience to God’s law. But Jesus had specifically said not to think that He had come “to destroy the Law or the Prophets” (Matthew 5:17; see our online article “Jesus and the Law”). As we have seen, the challenges of the Christian life are caused by the hostility of Satan and the world toward followers of Christ. God’s law is beneficial, not a burden (1 John 5:3).
To figure out more about how Christianity can be easy and restful for our souls, we need to understand Jesus’ point of view. As we’ll soon see, Jesus saw things from a much broader perspective than humans generally do.
The burden non-Christians bear
Jesus’ statement “My yoke is easy” is actually a comparative statement. Although most people don’t realize it, living a lifestyle that is not in sync with God’s instructions is a type of bondage. Paul described this as being “in bondage under the elements of the world” (Galatians 4:3). Paul further explained that this kind of bondage enslaves people who do not know God (verse 9).
Peter likewise wrote that people who were “slaves of corruption” were “brought into bondage” (2 Peter 2:19).
The bondage of sin is indeed a heavy yoke or burden to bear. Sin is the cause of pain and suffering.The bondage of sin is indeed a heavy yoke or burden to bear. Sin is the cause of pain and suffering. And unforgiven sin has only one inevitable result—death (Romans 6:23). But when we yoke our lives with Christ—when we make a commitment to follow Him and live by His commands—we can receive “the gift of God … eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Paul warned the brethren at Galatia not to turn back to their way of life before they knew God. He wrote, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1).
Everyone is yoked—committed to or linked with—something. We are either yoked to Christ or yoked to the world.
When we are committed to Christ, we can find peace in our lives. When we repent of our sins and are baptized as the Bible commands, the burden of our sins is lifted because our sins are forgiven (Acts 2:38; see our free booklet Change Your Life!). When we are baptized, we are also granted the Holy Spirit—a precious gift that ensures we will become immortal, glorified children of God (Romans 8:11, 16-17, 23).
Having God’s Holy Spirit within us can have a profound effect upon our state of mind. Paul wrote that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). These attributes of the Spirit truly do make our lives easier and more restful.
Having God’s Holy Spirit doesn’t prevent us from having trials and difficulties that are common to everyone’s life. But it can definitely help us weather the storms of life by giving us hope in a much greater future. Reflecting this perspective, Paul wrote: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
So is Jesus’ yoke easy or hard?
The answer is a matter of perspective. If we focus on trials and difficulties, yes, there will be some that will be hard.
But if we look at the big picture, it is incredibly easier to be a Christian. Why? Because our sins can be forgiven and we can begin to put on the likeness of Christ. And God offers us a magnificent future—eternal life with God. Through God, we can be freed from the bondage of sin and the pain and suffering sin brings.
There are also rewards in this life. As Paul noted, “Godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (1 Timothy 4:8). God designed His laws to be for our good and to produce peace (Deuteronomy 10:13; Psalm 119:165).
With the assistance of the Holy Spirit, Christians throughout the ages have found, as Jesus Christ said, “My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” May we all come to this same perspective!