Take Up Your Yoke and Follow

Take Up Your Yoke and Follow April 11, 2016

yokeHistorians should not entertain the possibility that Jesus predicted in advance exactly how he was going to die, foreseeing that it would be by crucifixion. And so too historians cannot view Jesus as having called his followers to take up their crosses behind him.

But there is a third option between accepting the Gospels’ depiction, and the alternative that all such material is simply invented from scratch after the fact, to make it seem that Jesus had predicted his death, and spoke of the way of Christian discipleship in reference to it.

According to Matthew 11:29, Jesus is supposed to have used the image of a yoke in reference to following him and practicing his teachings.

If Jesus did in fact say something of this sort, then it would have been natural for Christians after he was crucified to look back and see his reference to taking up a wooden beam across one’s shoulders and following him as a prediction of what would happen to him, and of what it would mean to follow him thereafter.

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Since the cross was a well-known instrument of Roman execution, couldn’t Jesus have said “take up your cross and follow me” without having concrete foreknowledge of his own crucifixion?

    Like, if I were leading a group in some big heist Ocean’s 11 style, I might say, “Everybody who wants in on this, make sure your hair looks good for the mug shot, afterward,” emphasizing the risk involved. I know that incarceration is a real and common possibility given what we’re about to do without having prophetic foreknowledge that I’m going to end up in jail.

    • It’s possible, but mug shots are a given in a way that crucifixion was not. Of course, it may have been common enough that this would still be historically plausible, much as a gangster could predict that he would “get the chair” and have that turn out to be true, even though lethal injection and other possibilities could in theory have been mentioned.

      I have a sense that someone has researched whether people referred to crucifixion in much this way, but the details aren’t coming back to me at the moment…

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        “Get the chair” was actually my first thought, I couldn’t figure out a scenario where I wanted to do something where I’d say that to someone, whereas an Ocean’s 11 style heist would just be grand.

        But, yes, the sort of research you mentioned could be helpful. If Jesus thought his apocalyptic activity could end with him up on a cross, or even if it was just metonymy for political opposition, I wouldn’t automatically rule that statement out because it has to be prophetic in a supernatural way.

  • Thomas Peters

    Seems to me that Phil’s objection is to the statement that “Historians should not entertain the possibility that Jesus predicted in
    advance exactly how he was going to die, foreseeing that it would be by
    crucifixion.” It may be unlikely that Jesus precisely predicted his death, but it is still at least *possible* that he did. Seems to me that a good historian is not going to dismiss that possibility outright, which is what the literal meaning of your statement implies.

    • John MacDonald

      It seems to me that Jesus would have had to have been crazy to go in front of the Jewish high council and start spouting blasphemy, and go in front of Pilate and claim that he was the king of the Jews, unless Jesus thought it was part of God’s plan for him to die. Why would Jesus start asserting things that anyone knows would get him killed, unless he thought he was supposed to die? Jesus’ life-sacrifice in God’s plan seems to be exactly what Jesus is petitioning against in the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. God didn’t offer Jesus a reprieve, so he went ahead with the plan. Jesus kept the ultimate nature of God’s plan “secret” from the disciples, because they thought Jesus was to be a normal Davidic king, and they wouldn’t have understood the atonement theology behind what he was doing. Here is an interesting article by Julie M. Smith on how we can see atonement theology in the gospel of Mark: http://byustudies.byu.edu/content/narrative-atonement-theology-gospel-mark

      • John MacDonald

        The disciples quite clearly didn’t think it was part of the plan for Jesus to be crucified, or they wouldn’t have clashed with the arresting party: “But one of those who stood by drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. (Mark 14:47).”

      • Thanks for sharing this!

    • I may have worded my statement less well than I could have. Jesus certainly would have envisaged at least the possibility that he could die. But a historian is bound to regard a very precise prediction of precisely what happened as a retrojection by the later church of a prediction onto Jesus, or at the very least a revision of an actual prediction rewritten in light of what happened.

  • Johannes Richter

    Wouldn’t it be too much of a stretch to go from an “easy yoke” and “light burden” to as hard a burden as the cross. It seems more likely that Jesus would have had, if not his own, then the fate of other insurrectionists in mind – i.e. forsaking loyalty to the Empire as readily as loyalty to one’s family, and indeed any attachment to life itself (Matthew 10:37-39). The “yoke” was about living under the law, while the cross points to how much of you this imperative – though easy to bear – might ask.

    But the two images don’t seem mutually interchangeable in a way that does not violate Jesus’ criticism of the heavy burdens legalistic interpretations of the law placed on people (Luke 11:46).

    • This is a good point – although Jesus in both sayings depicts followers taking up a wooden crossbeam, in one it is a comparatively light burden, in the other it is a challenge. An interesting question is whether that difference outweighs other similarities…

      • Johannes Richter

        Perhaps the similarity happens to highlight the difference that Jesus made, in bearing both – whether Jesus saw it ahead or his disciples in hindsight. Bearing his yoke is precisely what makes the cross bearable.

        “Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, don’t lay hold on the action by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be carried; but by the opposite, that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it, as it is to be carried.” – Epictetus