The Cross and The Yoke (Part 1)
Tony Renshaw, Heald Green, Cheshire
"And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me"; "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me...", Matt. 10. 38; 11. 29.
Here are two wooden structures, both familiar sights in Israel when the Lord Jesus spoke of them; the cross, and the yoke. He indicates that a disciple is expected to take up each of them. The implications are of vital importance to us.
The cross immediately suggests the thought of death, whilst the yoke suggests the thought of fellowship. If a man was seen carrying a cross in Israel, it was normally safe to conclude that he was going to die, crucifixion being the cruel and barbaric method by which Rome carried out capital punishment. The yoke, by contrast, was the wooden beam lying across the shoulders of two beasts labouring together in the field. Clearly, therefore, when the Saviour calls men to take up these two structures, He is in effect calling them both to submit to the death sentence and to be prepared to walk through life in personal partnership with Himself. In a sense, the cross speaks of death and the yoke speaks of life.
The order of these instructions in Matthew's gospel is significant. It means that there can be no personal fellowship with Christ until the meaning of the cross has been grasped and accepted. We must die to ourselves before we can walk with Him. We cannot have the blessings implied by the yoke until we have bowed unreservedly to the meaning of the cross.
It is noteworthy that, whereas in the first scripture we read "he that taketh not his cross", in the second we read "Take my yoke upon you". That is to say, it is the disciple's cross, and the Master's yoke. The fact that it is the disciple's cross suggests simply that it is what he deserves, a fact which cannot be gainsaid in the light, for example, of Romans 6. 23, "the wages of sin is death". By contrast, the fact that it is the Saviour's yoke, not ours, suggests that He takes the initiative in the offer of fellowship with each of us. It is not that He is willing to share my yoke, but that I am invited to share His. He does not offer to tread my pathway, but desires that I shall tread His. This truth would help to solve many of the problems which perplex young Christians today (and many not so young) expressed in such questions as "am I free to go to such a place?", or "is it all right for me to adopt this course of action?". It is surely relevant to ask ourselves whether in fact it is likely that the Lord would lead us in the direction contemplated as part of the pathway implied by the yoke. The essential difference between the cross and the yoke can be expressed in this way, that the cross will separate me from the world and the yoke will link me to Christ. We cannot have one without the other, and a pause for reflection will convince us that we do not want one without the other.
The Cross. We turn now to consider more closely the meaning of the cross, and will reserve the significance of the yoke for the following study.
Our verse strongly suggests the thought that, in calling disciples to take up the cross, the Master was already bearing one Himself. Doubtless the shadow of Calvary lay across the earthly pathway of the Lord Jesus from beginning to end. He knew all that it would involve of shame and suffering. The scripture before us indicates that He expected His disciples to walk as though they, too, were walking to an increasingly imminent death. A man in Israel who was literally carrying his cross would have said farewell to his dear ones, left his home and abandoned his earthly vocation. All earthly prospects and interests were behind him. Inevitably, he would now be thinking far more about the next world than about this. Unless he was an outright unbeliever, he would be contemplating standing before God and being judged by Him.
In many ways, the Lord Jesus called upon His disciples to cultivate a similar outlook on life. They were to recognize that He claimed priority in their love and esteem over the dearest of earth. Earthly ambitions were to be entirely subordinated to His will. The realities of the next world were to loom much larger in their eyes than the interests of this one. They were to cultivate a definite sense of the brevity of life down here in comparison with the eternal future.
It is both interesting and meaningful that when we move out of the Gospels, we never again find disciples being asked to take up the cross. The truth of the cross, however, remains dominant. Paul, for example, never wrote to his Christian readers asking them to take up the cross and follow Christ, What he did do, however, repeatedly and with great emphasis, was to write and teach them that, so far as God was concerned they had been crucified already, with Christ, Gal. 2. 20. Romans 6, and many parallel passages, make this abundantly clear. The position, therefore, seems to be this, that before the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus, disciples were expected to walk as though they were going to be crucified with Him, whereas after Calvary they were expected to walk as though they had been crucified with Him. Since we twentieth-century Christians fall into the second category, the second aspect of the truth of the cross applies to us. It is safe to assert that our spiritual progress will depend to a large extent on the measure in which we absorb and act upon this doctrine. This study may be brought fittingly to a conclusion, therefore, by quoting two cardinal statements from the pen of the apostle Paul on this great subject.
"But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world", Gal. 6. 14. "If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God", Col. 3. 1-3.
To be followed by "The Yoke"