Tag Archives: yoke

Is It Always Bad To Be Yoked?

yokes
Image found at Wikimedia.org and is owned by Cgoodwin. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

I was surprised to discover that I haven’t written here since last August. I had intended to write a series of articles based on the material presented by Chosen People Ministries Scott Brown.

I attended a full day discipleship training class, and since Brown is a Messianic Jew (however you choose to define the term), I was curious. It was free and it was on Saturday (I was interested in Brown’s apparent lack of Shabbos observance), so I went.

As my previous essay indicated, the study was inspiring.

I’m recovering from some sort of stomach bug so I’ve got some “down time” this weekend.

Thumbing through Brown’s study material, I came across a page that I found disturbing, especially when presented by a man who evangelizes young Israeli Jews every winter in New Zealand (their warm months).

He started that part of the lesson with some historical perspective. Remember, this is about making disciples. He said that “The Rabbi’s set of teachings was called his yoke (of Torah)”

Then he said that just about every use of the word “yoke” in the Bible has a negative connotation.

Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? –Acts 15:10

It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. –Galatians 5:1-2

Except this one:

Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” –Matthew 11:29-30

Unless otherwise indicated, all Bible quotes come from the NASB translation and the emphasis is mine.

Next, Scott described discipleship as a yoke equating it to labor. The juxtaposed this labor with Yeshua’s (Jesus’) yoke that gives rest. He cited John 21 and Hebrews 4, specifically verses 9 and 11 to illustrate said-rest.

I know he was talking to a bunch of Lutherans so he was appealing to his audience, but a number of other Bible verses (notice he was only quoting the New Testament) popped into my head, chiefly Psalm 19:7-14:

The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether.
They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them Your servant is warned;
In keeping them there is great reward.
Who can discern his errors? Acquit me of hidden faults.
Also keep back Your servant from presumptuous sins;
Let them not rule over me;
Then I will be blameless,
And I shall be acquitted of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
Be acceptable in Your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.

There are any number of other Psalms and Proverbs praising the law. If I had taken that quote from a Jewish Bible, the word you read as “law” would likely be “Torah.”

No, I’m not advocating a sort of Torah observance for Christians, but no matter how many times I encounter it, I never fail to be amazed by the dissonance the church creates when it comes to “the Law.” Even though it was instituted by Hashem (God), even though He fully expected His laws and precepts to be obeyed by Israel, and even though He punished Israel for disobedience to the Torah, by the time we get to the beginning of the book of Acts, “the law” is bad.

I once asked a Baptist Pastor why God created the law if it was a bad thing. He immediately answered that it was to illustrate to the Jewish people how impossible it was to keep. I guess this was one of the setups for Jesus being later born, killed, and resurrected, in order to show how, compared to the Torah, his yoke was light. Far fewer expectations (supposedly).

See my series of reviews to find out why the New Covenant doesn’t replace the Torah or anything else.

Every Sunday without fail I take my 87-year-old Mom to church and sit with her. She’s a life long Lutheran, so I found a nearby church. The people are nice and the Pastor’s sermon’s aren’t bad (though I don’t always agree with everything he says). I take notes, but I don’t speak with him or anyone else about my opinions. I don’t even write about them here.

But at church today, Pastor was fired up about the start of the Advent season and the month long lead up to Christmas.

Even when I was going to church for myself, I always avoided the Christmas service for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the crowds.

I don’t have that luxury this year. Mom will want to go and I’ll be taking her. Then it hit me that she’ll expect to go to Easter services too, which presents even greater problems.

I have to say that in a created universe, there’s no such thing as coincidence, so I can only believe that God is working on something in me by having me be in that church.

However, one of the consequences is learning to keep my mouth shut. Occasionally, my poker face slips, especially last week when the Youth Pastor took over sermon duties. Maybe that’s why I’m there, to realize that my religious opinions don’t make me a better person.

But within my private thoughts, I will still maintain that God didn’t switch from plan A to plan B and replace Israel with the church.

Hopefully, I’ll come back sooner this time with another “chapter” on this commentary.

Oh, here are twenty positive quotes about the Torah.

The Yoke We Must Bear

An implement taken from the pastoral life served as a metaphor in rabbinic literature, itself the product of city life. That implement was the yoke, which in linking animals to the plow and to one another made farming possible. For the rabbis, there were two yokes. The first was the yoke of Heaven: the acceptance of the existence of God as one and unique and the proclamation that there was no other. The second was the yoke of commandments: the acceptance by a Jew that the same God had enjoined the people to follow a particular path and to live a particular kind of life. The commandments were both ceremonial and ethical; their specificity grew out of a specific concept of God. Thus the yoke of Heaven created a particular kind of yoke of commandments.

“The Yoke of Torah,” p.50
from Chapter Three: “Know Where You Came From; Know Where You Are Going”
Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics

After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?”

Acts 15:7-10 (NASB)

I have no doubt that God desires that all human beings, not just the Jewish people, acknowledge the “yoke of Heaven,” that is, accept “the existence of God as one and unique and the proclamation that there was no other.” After all, this is the very first commandment that God gave the Children of Israel at Sinai:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

Exodus 20:2

Most Christians don’t realize this is a commandment because it reads more like a declarative statement, but it is a commandment. However, as I said above, God desires “all flesh” to bow before him, not just “Jewish flesh”. The question is how?

That’s not much of a question for most of us. The vast, vast majority of church-going Christians have a fairly good idea of what they think they need to do to serve God. So do the vast majority of religious Jews. But somewhere in between is a group of Jews and Gentiles who are affiliated, to one degree or another, under the banner of “Messianic Judaism.”

Of course, and I’ve written many times on this before, it becomes somewhat problematic to think about a non-Jew having involvement in a Judaism as such. This is one reason why the other branches of Judaism consider Messianic Judaism to be a form of Christianity with a thin Jewish overlay. For their part, many Christians see Messianic Judaism as “too Jewish” for their taste and this “yoke of commandments” seems rather “legalistic,” though they misunderstand the role of Torah and the mitzvot in the lives of Messianic Jews (and Gentiles).

But as indicated above, the yoke of Heaven and the yoke of the (Torah) commandments are metaphors used to describe the relationship between humanity and Deity. These yokes then, are the connection between who we are as living creations of Hashem and the Creator Himself. The first is awareness and acknowledgement of the very existence of God and our willing proclamation of that fact, and the second, which our writer from the Pirke Avot commentary calls a particular path for the Jewish people, is a living response or extension of the first yoke, but only for the Jew.

Apostle Paul preachingOf course the commentary I’m citing doesn’t take into account the role of Yeshua (Jesus) as Master, Messiah, and Mediator of the New Covenant, so it could be said, at least by some non-Jews, that in coming to Messianic faith, the Gentile takes on board both yokes, just as does the Jew.

But what yoke was Peter talking about in Acts 15:10?

Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?

Peter certainly couldn’t have been dismissing the yoke of Heaven as a requirement of becoming a disciple of the Master, since without a basic acknowledgement of God as Creator and Sovereign, everything that follows is meaningless. But there’s only one other yoke to consider: the commandments, that is, the Torah of Moses.

Now many, most, or all Christians will consider “the disciples” to be all disciples, Jewish and Gentile, and thus reach the conclusion that Peter was advocating for doing away with the commandments (and replacing them with grace). But they miss the fact that in verse 7, Peter identifies the object of his statement as “the Gentiles,” thus he is talking about the yoke of the commandments as being too great a burden to place on them, that is, on us, the non-Jewish disciples.

All of Acts 15 is an attempt to answer the question, “What do you do with a bunch of Gentiles who are being invited to become disciples within Judaism?” Since even a brief inventory of the Tanakh (what Christians call the “Old Testament”) describes the rather difficult history of the ancient Jewish people relative to their obedience to God, I think Peter is justified in saying that the mitzvot are a yoke which neither their (Jewish) fathers nor they (the Jews present at this legal proceeding, and by extension, Jewish people in general) could bear.

This isn’t to say that God expected any Jewish person to perfectly and flawlessly perform the mitzvot. God doesn’t expect the unreasonable out of flawed human beings. Certainly King David, “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22), was less than perfect, and yet even in light of his many human mistakes, he continually and passionately pursued God. James, the brother of the Master, said that “works without faith is dead” (James 2:17, 2:26), so obviously both are required in a life acknowledging the yoke of Heaven and of the mitzvot.

In reading the continuation of the Acts 15 narrative, we see James and the Council ultimately ruling in favor of Peter’s (and Paul’s) interpretation of scripture that the Gentiles should be exempt from many elements of the yoke of Torah. As I mentioned, the yoke of Heaven is a minimum requirement for anyone oriented toward God, so no one can be made exempt from this requirement.

In fact (citing Acts 15:28), it (that is, this decision) seemed “good to the Holy Spirit” that only a limited subset of mitzvot be applied to the Gentile disciples, rather than test God by laying a stumbling block in their path and causing them to repel from coming to faith.

But if God provided two yokes for the Jewish people, the yoke of Heaven and then a path to live out their faith in the yoke of the commandments, what about the rest of us? Actually, I attempted to answer that question, not by providing an exhaustive list of “do this” and “don’t do that” (which seems to be the standard expectation), but rather a higher level conceptualization of humanity’s overarching relationship with God.

Orthodox Jewish manThe Jewish people continue to bear a greater level of responsibility in their obedience to God because of their unique covenant status, but God in His graciousness and mercy, granted access for the Gentile to the Holy Spirit and the promise of the resurrection to come without requiring that we shoulder the same “burdening yoke” (though that yoke is also “perfect for restoring the soul”; see Psalm 19:7).

As I’ve mentioned many times before, I don’t think Acts 15 is the end of the story, and I believe that oral instruction must have accompanied “the letter” as it made its rounds (perhaps eventually being formalized in that document we have called the Didache).

Just in living my own life day-to-day, I find that I have my hands full simply “doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with my God (Micah 6:8).” If we can master loving our neighbor as ourselves, as James the Just said, we “are doing well” (James 2:8). This is what James called “the royal law” and part of what the Master called “the greatest commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40). Since this “royal law” is linked to loving God, that brings us full circle back to the yoke of Heaven.

Maybe if you think you have completely mastered the yoke of Heaven, you, as a Gentile, feel you have merited also taking on the yoke of Torah. If you have mastered even that first yoke, then I envy you, for it seems that I and the believers I know have fallen short on some aspect or another in attempting to pull this “plow”.

If humility is about seeking a balance between the extremes of thinking too well of ourselves and thinking too poorly, where is that balancing point for the Gentile in Messiah? It may not be along the same path as the one God placed before the Jewish people.

One final note. As was said in the very first quote at the top of the page, a yoke not only links an animal to the plow but it links two animals to each other. If I say that the yoke of the commandments links Jewish people to God and to each other as Jews, I believe the yoke of Heaven links all of the faithful together, Jew and Gentile alike. So in this, I am not creating a barrier between Jewish and Gentile believers in Yeshua, rather, I am showing you by which yoke we are linked, for we are all yoked by Heaven.