Exploring God's Word : The words of Jesus

Strength in Servanthood

When Jesus said ‘Take my yoke upon you and learn from me’ (Matthew 11:29) he wasn’t just saying something about what it means to be one of his followers, but he was saying something about himself and his mission. Indeed, as odd as it might seem to us, there was, I believe, something significant about the fact Jesus was comparing himself, in some sense, with an ox. 

In the ancient world the ox was a highly valuable creature and the mainstay of farming life. It was known, of course, for its great strength and incredible capacity to ‘keep working’ - in fact it could quite literally work itself to death! An ox would always be paired, and yoked together in partnership, with another creature - an image which has often been used to reinforce the truth that we are co-workers with Christ. That being said, there is perhaps something more to Jesus’ self-comparison with an ox than meets the eye, and the ox makes a few surprise appearances in the Old Testament - nowhere more intriguingly than in the book of Ezekiel! Ezekiel’s vision of the four living creatures with four faces is well known; ‘Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle.’ (Ezekiel 1:10). John sees the same creatures in his Revelation and describes each as showing one of its faces; ‘The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle.’ (Revelation 4:7).

Whilst these creatures have been adopted as the four symbols of the gospels throughout church history, they probably speak more deeply concerning the nature of Christ and his earthly mission. It is interesting that Jesus does not describe himself as being like a lion or an eagle but uses the humble imagery of an ox to describe his person and ministry. In short, he had been sent by his Father to complete a work that would demand unswerving obedience; ‘For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.’ (John 6:38). It is then, perhaps, to his great commission that Jesus is drawing attention, and to our role as his helpers. 

Jesus’ mention of an ox, then, speaks of his own understanding of his mission, and is a call to both strength and servanthood. Jesus, like an ox, would stay his course, cut the farrow he was asked to cut and on the cross finally declare that the work given him by the Father was completed. And so, with Jesus as our great example, may we find inspiration and strength to walk the humble path of servanthood and fulfil the things that God has asked of us.