Question: "What is a yoke of bondage (Galatians 5:1)?"
Answer: In Galatians 5:1–15, the apostle Paul discusses the nature of Christian freedom, beginning with an admonition to “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, NKJV). Paul contends that Jesus Christ came to set believers free from a burdensome, legalistic existence as slaves to the law. Therefore, Christians must ensure that they stay free and not get bound up again under a yoke of bondage to the law.
A yoke is a curved bar made from wood or metal that harnesses together two or more draft animals so they can more effectively work as a team. Yokes were also placed around the necks of people like shackles to secure prisoners in place. Thus, wearing a yoke often speaks of slavery and hardship in the Bible (Deuteronomy 28:48; 1 Kings 12:4; Jeremiah 27:8; 1 Timothy 6:1), and removing or breaking a yoke represents freedom (Leviticus 26:13; Isaiah 58:6). The references to being “entangled again” (NKJV) or “burdened again” (NIV) suggest being weighed down again under a heavy load.
When Paul said, “Do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (NKJV) or “Do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (NIV), he was rebuking Christians for their tendency to turn back to legalism, which is the opposite of Christian freedom. One commentator elaborates, “The Christian freedom he [Paul] describes is freedom of conscience, freedom from the tyranny of the law, the dreadful struggle to keep the law, with a view to winning the favour of God. It is the freedom of acceptance with God and of access to God through Christ. . . . In other words, we are to enjoy the glorious freedom of conscience which Christ has brought us by His forgiveness. We must not lapse into the idea that we have to win our acceptance with God by our own obedience” (Stott, J., The Message of Galatians: Only One Way, InterVarsity Press, 1986, p. 132).
Paul depicts our former way of life before salvation as slavery to the law. Wearing a yoke of bondage is a fitting metaphor for this slavery because an animal (or person) bound by a yoke must obey its master. Under the Old Testament covenant, the Jews labored under the law in an attempt to be justified or made right before God (Romans 2:13). But under the New Covenant, God’s grace confirmed by the blood of Jesus gives us freedom from slavery to the law and release from sin and death (Galatians 4:24–31).
Jewish false teachers had infiltrated the Galatian churches, demanding that Gentiles be circumcised (Galatians 2:3–5). The same thing had happened in Antioch of Syria, where Judiazers taught, “Unless you are circumcised as required by the law of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1, NLT). These legalistic Jews were trying to make Christians return to a yoke of bondage by requiring them to observe the Old Testament rules, laws, and ceremonies, especially circumcision.
Paul stood unyielding against these false teachers because the truth of the gospel of grace was at stake: “Listen! I, Paul, tell you this: If you are counting on circumcision to make you right with God, then Christ will be of no benefit to you. I’ll say it again. If you are trying to find favor with God by being circumcised, you must obey every regulation in the whole law of Moses. For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace. But we who live by the Spirit eagerly wait to receive by faith the righteousness God has promised to us. For when we place our faith in Christ Jesus, there is no benefit in being circumcised or being uncircumcised. What is important is faith expressing itself in love” (Galatians 5:2–6, NLT).
Paul contended that under the New Covenant both Jews and Gentiles are accepted into God’s family by faith alone in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21–22; Ephesians 2:8). Before salvation, we lived under a yoke of bondage to the law (Galatians 4:3), burdened by a guilty conscience (Titus 1:15), imprisoned by demands we could not keep (Acts 15:10), and held captive by the fear of punishment because of our disobedience (1 John 4:18).
Paul said in Galatians 3:24, “The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith” (NLT). When Christ came, He set us free from the yoke of bondage by meeting the demands of the law for us: “Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace” (Romans 6:14, NLT).
There is no longer condemnation for those of us who belong to Jesus (Romans 8:1–2) because He took the guilty sentence in our place: “God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us” (Romans 8:3–4, NLT).
The Christian life is characterized by a joyous freedom to follow Christ out of love and not a dreadful life of slavery to following rules. Jesus Christ has lifted the yoke of bondage from our shoulders and placed on them His own yoke, one that describes obedience and discipleship: “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 11:29–30).