Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 08/14/1994
Luke 6:12 And it was at this time that he went off to the mountain to pray, and he spent the whole night in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also named as Apostles: 14 Simon, whom he also called Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip and Bartholomew 15 and Matthew and Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. And he descended with them and stood on a level place, and there was a great multitude of his disciples and a great throng of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon 18 who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were being cured. 19 And all the multitude were trying to touch him, for power was coming from him and healing them all. 20 And turning his gaze on his disciples, he began to say, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 20 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. 22 Blessed are you when men hate you and ostracize you and cast insults at you and spurn you name as evil for the sake of the Son of Man. 23 Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, you reward is great in heaven; for in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets. 24 But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. 25 Woe to you who are well fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. 26 Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for in the same way their fathers used to treat the false prophets."
We've seen how Luke's purpose in his Gospel is to tell the story of Jesus in such a way as to reveal him as the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the World. So far Luke has done this mainly by showing us a selection of Jesus' deeds and his words in explanation of those deeds, which had a tendency to raise questions. Who do you think you are, forgiving other people's sins? Why don't you fast? Why do you heal on the Sabbath? etc. Now Luke will give us an extended sample of Jesus' actual teaching, in a discourse that is sometimes called "The Sermon on the Plain." We will examine the opening section of it today.
A question about this passage that has to be addressed is that of its relationship to the very similar "Sermon on the Mount" of Matthew 5-7. The two sermons have a great many points in common: the Beatitudes, the House built on the Rock, etc. More than that, the two sermons even have the same three-point outline: The Blessings of the Kingdom, The Behavior of the Kingdom, and an Exhortation to Obedience rather than Foolishness based on the first two points. But there are also some important differences. The sermon in Luke is much shorter over all, though it has some points that the Matthean version leaves out (i.e., the woes). In Matthew, Jesus blesses the poor in spirit in the third person; in Luke, he blesses the poor plain and simple in the second person. In Matthew, Jesus goes up a mountain to preach the sermon; in Luke, he comes down a mountain to a level place (hence "The Sermon on the Plain"). With these differences, how can both accounts of the sermon be true?
There are two logical possibilities to explain these two documents. One is that they are two different accounts of the same sermon. If that is so, then either one of the Gospel writers was confused about the location, or the discrepancy between going up and coming down is solved by taking different spots on the same mountain as a vantage point. In either case, neither account could simply be an accurate summary of what Jesus said, but each is "spun" somewhat by the interests of the writer. I think the second possibility is inherently more likely: that Jesus used the same material with a slightly different application on two different occasions. He was, after all, an itinerant preacher who was speaking in a different town every day or so. It is inconceivable that he did not re-use his material often in that kind of ministry, and he was under no more obligation to say exactly the same thing to every audience than I am when I use the same outline with different groups at different times. A lot of liberal students of the Gospels create a lot of problems in the text simply by making assumptions about Jesus' ministry that are contrary, not only to the doctrine of inspiration, but to plain common sense. He must have said everything once and once only, or if he repeated anything he must have done it verbatim? On what other assumption can you conclude that one of the Gospels must have got it wrong? Give me a break! The alleged "discrepancies" between the two accounts then are mainly the product of unrealistic assumptions about what Jesus' ministry must have been like.
Two important conclusions follow from this line of reasoning. The first is that there is no reason not to see both sermons as accurate summaries of Jesus' teaching. The second is that Luke's version should be studied as a text in its own right and not thought of simply as a condensation or abridgement of Matthew's material. That is the approach that we are going to take in this series. So let us read these words carefully.
The first thing to notice is that this sermon is addressed to Jesus' disciples (vs. 20a, "turning his gaze"), though others were there to overhear it. This is an important observation, because with it the apparent difference with Matthew ceases to be a problem. Luke's version is not recommending poverty as such. Rather, it is the poverty of Jesus' disciples--the poor in spirit--which is blessed.
We should also notice in passing the skill expended on the composition of this discourse as a whole. The woes carefully parallel the blessings: the poor correspond to the rich, the hungry to the full, those who weep to those who laugh, those who are hated and despised to those who are loved and approved. Each series, moreover, is climactic. The emphasis is therefore placed on the last member of each series, how we are received by men. If we are received like the prophets, i.e. rejected and mistreated, for Jesus' sake, we are blessed. If not, if we have the approval of those who persecuted the prophets and will eventually kill Jesus, then we are cursed. So the ultimate point of the whole is not being rich or poor, hungry or full, happy or sad, as such, but it is how we relate to Jesus in a world that is opposed to him and which can be expected to treat us as it did him. Riches or happiness bought at the expense of aligning ourselves with the world against Jesus is a woeful thing because it will lead to our being cursed in eternity, with all that illusory current blessing reversed. Poverty or hunger or sadness that is the result of being on the side of Jesus and the prophets is blessed, for it will be rewarded in eternity with the reversal of all our present distress. We will miss this, the main point of the passage, if we focus on each beatitude or curse separately rather than seeing the two series as wholes as the rhetoric of the sermon intends.
What is Jesus trying to teach us here then? Surely that believers can expect this life to be a struggle, involving the possibility of poverty, hunger, sorrow, and rejection. The pictures of the Christian throughout the New Testament bear this lesson out. We are athletes, farmers, soldiers. The appeal of the New Testament Gospel is not, "Come to Jesus and he will solve all your present problems," but rather, "Come join the right side in the cosmic spiritual War!" We are encouraged to count the cost before doing so. It may involve poverty, hunger, sorrow, rejection, and death. But those who undergo such things for Jesus' sake are blessed anyway because great is their reward in heaven.
The Christian life is depicted as a struggle, but the second point is that the joy of following Christ outweighs the struggle, so that even if we are poor we may consider ourselves to be blessed to be Jesus' disciples. Surely our future reward is one reason why this is true. (The fact that we dismiss it contemptuously as "pie in the sky" shows how secular we have really become.) But the verb "blessed" is in the present tense! Not just "will be blessed," but rather " already are blessed." Being poor with Jesus is a happier condition than being rich without him right now. Being hungry with Jesus is a happier condition than being full without him right now. Weeping with Jesus is a happier condition than laughing without him right now. Being rejected with Jesus is a happier condition than being accepted without him right now. Why? Because with Jesus we already enjoy the forgiveness of sins, a clean conscience, a sense of purpose in life--and best of all, a personal relationship with Jesus himself--right now. A bigger house and fancier car, filet mignon rather than a Big Mac, hilarious personal circumstances, and such popularity that you are elected homecoming queen: all of this amounts to precisely nothing in the scale of value next to the kingdom of God, next to knowing Jesus as your Savior, Lord, and Friend. For what shall it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul?
It follows from all this that the world is deluded about the source of true happiness. Wealth, pleasure, popularity--all are good things, but all of them are empty without Christ. If they are the best you've got, then woe to you!
Whenever Richard Cory went down town We people on the pavement looked at him. He was a gentleman from toe to crown, Clean-favored and imperially slim. And he was always modestly arrayed, And he was always human when he talked. But still he fluttered pulses when he said "Good morning," and he glittered when he walked. And he was rich, yes richer than a king, And admirably schooled in every grace. In short, we thought that he was everything To make us wish that we were in his place. And so we worked and waited for the light And went without the meat and cursed the bread, And Richard Cory one calm summer night Went home and put a bullet through his head. -- Edward Arlington Robinson
Woe to you who are rich! Woe to you who are full! Woe to you who laugh! Woe to you who are well thought of by the men whose fathers killed the prophets! Woe to you who have chosen these things rather than Christ. You are of all men most to be pitied.
Finally, Jesus is teaching us here that there is coming a Day when it will be made plain who has made the right choice. At present the lies of the world succeed because man looketh on the outward appearance. But one day all that will be stripped away and what we know deep down in our hearts even now will be undeniable. Then the true poverty of those who have chosen to live for riches will be revealed. Then the true starvation of those who have chosen to live for their bellies will be revealed. Then the true sorrow of those who have sought happiness in the world will be revealed. Then the true Rejection of those who have lived for popularity will be revealed. Woe to those who have chosen these things! But on that Day, praise God, the true wealth of those who gave up everything for Jesus will be revealed. Then the true fullness of those who were hungry for his sake, the true joy of those who mourned for his sake, the true Acceptance of those who suffered ostracism for his name, will also be revealed. Blessed are those who have chosen the kingdom of God and his righteousness--blessed are those who have chosen the King! Let us therefore chose rightly now, for in that Day we will be stuck for all eternity with the choice that we have made.
Why is there so little of the joy of the Lord in Christians today? It is because to a certain extent we have believed the lies that the Lord was combating here. We are seeking blessedness, happiness, in a place where it cannot be found. We are seeking it in things. We do not lack the joy of the Lord because we have wealth or food or enjoy good times or have good reputations. But we definitely lack it because we look for it in those things, and we most definitely lack it if we have bought those things at the price of compromising our allegiance to Christ and his kingdom and its principles. We are exposed constantly to this lie. Use this deodorant or toothpaste, drive this car, and you will be happy! We know better, but it has snuck in under some of our radars. So let me tell you something from the Lord in this passage: It is a lie! To counteract it, let me simply repeat what the Lord has said to us today:
"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 20 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. 22 Blessed are you when men hate you and ostracize you and cast insults at you and spurn you name as evil for the sake of the Son of Man. 23 Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, you reward is great in heaven; for in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets. 24 But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. 25 Woe to you who are well fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. 26 Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for in the same way their fathers used to treat the false prophets."
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams
Updated 11/28/2004 5:46 PM