Yokes

Milkmaid (Danish, Wikipedia)

Milkmaid (Danish, Wikipedia)

At church today we had a discussion rather than a sermon. The text we were looking at was Galatians 5:1 “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” A lot of the discussion centered around the word “yoke”, its meanings and symbolism. I was looking at the Greek and began to wonder about t his word, so I did a little study when I got home and this post reflects some initial thoughts about what I found out.

The first thing I noticed (while I was still at church) was that the word (ζυγὸς, zugos) is also used in Revelation where it is translated as “scales” or “balance”. Seemed odd, to say the least! But then I realised that there was, in fact, a lot of similarity between a yoke (the kind used by milkmaids, as in the picture) and a balance or scale: both consist of a horizontal bar with things hanging off each end.

That was the problem that started me thinking, because a lot of what was being said was based on the kind of yoke that links two animals together. That kind of yoke is different, so the question became: Could ζυγὸς also mean that kind of yoke? I had to wait to get home to find out the answer, which is yes, it can. In fact, I realised that there was a verse that used yoke in this way: 2 Corinthians 6:14 “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” But was that the same underlying word? Yes, it was.

Looking ζυγὸς up and going beyond the New Testament to include classical and other early Greek usage, the meanings are, in fact, quite broad, or at least they look like that to us at first glance. They include: The cross-piece that links the arms of a lyre together to which the strings are tied; the spar on a ship’s mast; a line of people moving in single file (that is, a file rather than a rank); both types of yoke (also a metaphorical use based on this); a balance.  So one must ask, what is the linking idea behind all of these uses?

The answer is that they all have to do with some sort of bar or line, usually one that goes across something. The lyre is obvious, the spar also and one can see how that also works for the balance and the one-person yoke. The yoke that links two animals, while different, is still basically a cross-bar with loops at each end.

So, it turns out that all of the ideas shared this morning work with one or more of the definitions of ζυγὸς. But that raised another question: Just because a word has all of those meanings, even if we restrict ourselves to those that could translated as yoke, does that mean that Paul included all of them in Galatians? Here, I think, the answer is no. Clearly Paul does use the idea that a yoke can join two things, as he does in the Corinthians passage quoted above, but is he doing so here? The idea was floated out that Paul might be saying that we can be yoked to the Law (slavery) or we can be yoked to Christ (freedom). I do not see this as Paul’s thought here. I do not say that Paul would not have agreed with such a thought, just that it was not in his mind here.

In this passage, I think Paul is using the idea of a yoke that is more like the milkmaid one in the picture. He has been talking about the Galatians apparent desire to obey the Law, which he sees as not only wrong, but dangerous and deadly. He has set out his allegory of Sarah and Hagar as types of the old and new covenants. For Paul, the Law is bondage, slavery, a tremendous burden. Then he gives them the choice: Christ has freed you from bondage so you are free and do not need, indeed should not even consider, picking back up the yoke and impossible burden of the Law again.

But if we don’t, how will we know how to live? What is to stop us from going off track? Surely as Christians we should do all that the Law requires? No, Paul says, that is not how it works. We don’t try to keep the Law in order to be good, we are good and so find ourselves keeping the Law! Look a bit further on and we find this: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other,to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (verses 16, 17). If we walk, that is live, in the Spirit, then the Spirit will prevent us from just doing anything we want, that is, the things that bubble up from our natural desires. His job is to oppose these things and keep us on the path. Do we trust Him to do this? If we seek to keep the Law, and that includes making our own laws, our own definitions of what Christians “should” do or not do, then we betray our fundamental lack of trust in the Spirit and in God’s promises.

Christ took our burden when He went to the cross. He gave us the Spirit in part to keep us from picking our burden back up. Let us not grieve Him by doing so, but thank Him by enjoying the freedom He has given us.

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