Question: "What does yoke mean in the Bible?"
Answer: A yoke is a wooden crosspiece fastened over the necks of two animals and attached to a plow or cart. A yoke allows two animals to share a load and pull together. Yokes were used in Bible times primarily with bulls or oxen to plow fields and pull wagons. The animals yoked together needed to be close in size and weight for the cart or plow to pull evenly.
In the Bible the yoke is sometimes referenced metaphorically to describe the weight of a task or obligation. For example, King Rehoboam tried to instill respect for himself by threatening his subjects with “a heavy yoke” (1 Kings 12:11). Breaking a yoke often symbolized freedom from oppressors (Isaiah 10:27) or the beginning of a new phase in life, as when Elisha left his agrarian life to follow Elijah (1 Kings 19:19–21).
People in Jesus’ day readily understood analogies using a yoke. They knew what Jesus meant when He said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30). An “easy” yoke meant that the burden being shouldered was not heavy because Jesus Christ would be pulling with us.
Another place in Scripture uses the imagery of a yoke to discourage Christians from entering into intimate dealings with unbelievers: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6:14–16). To be “yoked together” is to be in a binding relationship. The warning in this passage is that a Christian should not enter a compromising personal or professional arrangement with a non-Christian. Two animals unequally yoked would end up fighting each other and the yoke. When the Israelites chased after idols, they were said to be yoking themselves to Baal (Psalm 106:28; Numbers 25:5). New Testament believers should be separated from the world.
A Christian views the world from a different perspective than does an unbeliever. We become citizens of another kingdom when we accept by faith God’s offer of salvation (Romans 10:9–10). A Christian pursuing God and a non-Christian pursuing the world will be pulling in different directions. Philippians 3:18–20 spotlights this difference in allegiance: “Many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven.”
Christians live to honor and glorify our King, Jesus (1 Corinthians 10:31). Those who are of the world live to please themselves and conform to this world’s standards. When Christians bind themselves together with unbelievers in contractual or covenantal agreements, they are shouldering one side of a yoke. They may believe they are headed toward righteousness and glory for God, but their yokefellows have other ideas. They will pull against each other rather than move the load in the right direction. We should be careful whose yoke we accept and with whom we are yoked together.