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1. Blessings and Woes

| Martin Charlesworth
Series 4: Episode 1
Luke 6:17-26

The beginning of Jesus' teaching mainly given in Matthew. Luke warns that Jesus' disciples would experience opposition and hardship but their reward is in heaven.

The beginning of Jesus' teaching mainly given in Matthew. Luke warns that Jesus' disciples would experience opposition and hardship but their reward is in heaven.

Transcript

Hello and welcome to Series 4 and Episode 1. We're starting to study what's known as the Sermon on the Mount in this Series. This episode is entitled ‘Blessings and Woes’ and we'll be taking our main text from Luke 6.

Introduction and Recap

The Sermon on the Mount appears, first of all, in Matthew's Gospel (Matthew chapters 5 to 7) There's an equivalent section in Luke 6. It represents a change in the material of the Gospels - a change of emphasis - because, up until this point in Jesus' public ministry, we've had a long narrative of remarkable miraculous events, preaching, teaching, healing, casting out evil spirits, as Jesus has travelled primarily around his home district of Galilee, the northern district of Israel.

In Series 3, we studied how the Galilean ministry developed. We studied Jesus' manifesto in Nazareth, recorded in Luke 4 when he spoke in the synagogue and he explained the things that he was going to do. He explained about preaching, about the forgiveness of sins, about healing the sick, about overcoming evil powers and casting them out, and about bringing the year of the Lord's favour. We saw how some of these things began to take place in real life as hundreds (then thousands and, perhaps, even tens of thousands) of people came to hear Jesus and to ask him to pray for them if they were suffering with any sickness or oppression. That's been the main story line that we've been looking at in Series 3.

There have been some other important themes: the gradual increase of opposition of the religious establishment - the Pharisees, the Teachers of the Law, the priesthood, and the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, in Jerusalem. We've seen Jesus going to Jerusalem on occasion. That's another theme that we've looked at briefly. We've also noticed how Jesus has been gathering disciples and followers and, at the very end of Series 3, we took note of the fact that Jesus came to a point where he wanted to consolidate and formulate his team, those who were going to work with him. As recorded in Mark's Gospel (and also in Luke 6, in the passage immediately before the one we're going to look at today), we see Jesus going up on the mountainside with a large group of disciples, spending a whole night in prayer privately, and then appointing twelve Apostles: that they might be with him; that he might send them out; and that he might give them power over all evil; and also to heal the sick. This is the story we've been looking at.

What we are finding now is that Jesus is consolidating his following, his community, and we begin to realise that shortly. It's not going to be just Jesus travelling around on his own with a group of followers with him, but it's going to be Apostles sent out. We'll find out shortly that they go out two-by-two and so there will be more people preaching the message of Jesus, in more places, more of the time because he multiplies his ministry and his influence. So these are the things that have been happening that we've noticed in Series 3.

How to Live as Jesus' Disciples

Now, in Series 4, a whole other dimension of Jesus' ministry comes into view because, up until this point, it hasn't been very clear what kind of life Jesus' followers - his disciples, converts to Jesus - would adopt. What kind of life would they live? There have only been a few hints as to what that means apart from the very basic reality that they would be those people who put their trust in Jesus, who believe he is the Messiah, who believe he can take away their sins, who believe he can heal diseases, who trust in him as their Saviour. That's been fairly obvious in Series 3 but now in Series 4, when we come to what we call the Sermon on the Mount, we find Jesus teaching, very substantially, to his disciples and explaining to them how they should live. This is an incredibly important part of the Gospel material.

Matthew's Introduction

In today's episode, we'll look at a distinctive contribution that Luke makes to this material and then, for the rest of the series, we'll be studying through Matthew 5, 6 and 7. Let's read, first of all, in Matthew 5: 1 to 2, by way of introduction and then we'll move over to Luke 6. Here's Matthew's introduction:

‘Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.’

Matthew 5:1-2, NIV

The idea of it being a Sermon on the Mount is based on the fact that Jesus went up to a higher place in order to give this teaching and notice he began to teach his disciples. This is a really important point: the Sermon on the Mount is aimed at disciples. It's not aimed at the general community of your nation or mine (people in general); it's not a moral code for humanity, as such - it is the teaching of how Christians (or Christian disciples) should live.

More Than An Ethical Code

This raises an interesting question because some interpreters have come up with a variety of different ideas as to what Jesus had in mind with the Sermon on the Mount so I'm going to deal with those, very briefly, now - you may be familiar with one or two of these ideas - and I'll explain the one that makes sense of the context. People have noticed that the standards, the moral standards, that Jesus teaches are incredibly high and some people have said that he didn't realistically expect people to be able to follow this ethical code and that it was given in order to point sin out to people and lead them to come to the cross and to ask for forgiveness. This is one interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. I don't believe this is a fair interpretation because, although the standards are very high, the way that it's described to us by Jesus implies, very clearly, that he anticipated that his believers would follow the principles and the code of the Sermon on the Mount.

Some people have suggested that the Sermon on the Mount is the early church's ethical teaching written back into the mouth of Jesus, as it were, by Matthew particularly. This is unconvincing too. Matthew writes (and Luke also) very clearly to say that the origin of this teaching is Jesus himself - it's not some early church discipleship course just being written into Jesus' life.

Some people think that just as there was a Law of Moses (which we've spoken of on a number of occasions) which was the foundation of that particular Covenant between Israel and God; so there is a Law of Christ and that he is setting up a whole systematic series of laws for Christians to follow. This isn't a systematic series of laws; these are just a few examples of laws and principles that underlie the Christian life - they are examples of how the Holy Spirit will lead us to live. It's not systematic; it's not complete. It's just a framework with a number of very powerful and key examples given, so we shouldn't think of this as a complete system of law.

Some people consider that the Sermon on the Mount was intended only for Jews and for some future time when Jews follow Christ in large numbers and the whole nation turns to him. This is a fanciful idea as well, for a number of reasons, but the most obvious one is that it's addressed to disciples whoever they are and it's addressed universally.

I want to really affirm that the Sermon on the Mountain, and the equivalent passage in Luke 6, is addressed to all Christian disciples, in all eras of the Church. It's actually addressed to you and to me as much as it is to the original listeners, who were the very first disciples.

Context

We're now going to turn to Luke 6 and read from verse 17 through to verse 26. Before we start reading, I want to explain something about the context that Luke makes clear but Matthew does not. Matthew describes Jesus going up onto a mountainside, finding a suitable place where he can address his disciples, and crowds could gather round - so it must have been a fairly level area in order to be able to do that if he was up the side of a mountain or a hill. That's how Matthew describes it but Luke gives us more details. Luke explains that this event took place immediately after Jesus had gone up the mountainside for another reason - a reason that Matthew doesn't tell us explicitly but Luke does. Jesus went up a mountain in order to pray, his disciples were with him but not going up to pray; he separates himself from them overnight, prays to his Father, gathers his disciples together and then chooses twelve to be Apostles. That's the story of Luke 6: 12 to 16 that we discussed at the end of Series 3. From that position on the mountain, Jesus goes down, having gone up the mountain earlier, he now goes down to what Luke describes as ‘a level place’, somewhere on that hillside or mountainside where many people can access him and he can teach them. His disciples are already gathered because they were awaiting his decision about who were going to be the Apostles. He'd just given that decision. There were twelve selected Apostles and many other disciples and that group was travelling with him on the mountain at the time that the Sermon on the Mount was given. This passage we're going to read is a distinctive section that only Luke gives us and I've decided to start with this because this provides the framework for thinking about the context of the whole Sermon on the Mount.

It's called ‘Blessings and Woes’ and you may notice that it's similar to what are called the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount given in Matthew. I'm distinguishing the two because they speak about two different things. The Beatitudes speak about attitudes (we'll discuss that in our next episode) and the Blessings and Woes speak about physical and material realities that come upon people according to their faith and people's response to their faith - something distinctly different. We're going to start here. Let's read the passage before us, Luke 6:17 - 26:

17 He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples (were) there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, 18 who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, 19 and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all. 20 Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. 23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets. 24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. 25 Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.’

Luke 6:17-26, NIV
Teaching for Disciples

This is quite a challenging and surprising passage, let's try and interpret it. First of all, the question arises: who was actually there? Luke identifies two groups in verse 17: his disciples and a great number of people from surrounding districts. His disciples on the one hand, a great number of people seeking healing on the other. Two groups are present on this occasion - and we find Matthew gives an indication that those two groups are there too in his explanation but which group is Jesus addressing? Is he addressing both groups? Luke makes it as clear, as Matthew does.  He says, very emphatically, ‘Looking at his disciples, he said, “ Blessed are you who are poor…”’

The first point of interpretation here that's very important is that this teaching is addressed specifically to disciples - people who have committed themselves to follow Jesus - not to people in general, not even to the masses of people who are gathered in general on that occasion. Jesus looked at his disciples and he started talking to them. Here is a process of discipleship formation: people have committed themselves to follow Jesus and now they are beginning to understand, through his teaching, what some of the implications are for following Jesus. The focus here, in this particular passage, is a distinction between true disciples and nominal Christians, nominal believers - people who have the name of being a Christian but don't live out their faith in an active way. That distinction exists in all the different parts of the world, all different cultures that are represented by those who are reading this right now - we come from all sorts of different cultures. It's certainly true in my own country, the United Kingdom: there are nominal Christians, people who may attend church or fill in a survey form and define themselves as Christian; but there are those who are true disciples, who take Jesus' teaching very seriously and who try to live it out. There's a distinction. It's probably an easily observable distinction in your own culture and country. Jesus addresses this issue at the very beginning because he's aware that it's quite easy, at that time, for people to say, “Yes, I believe Jesus is the Messiah. I believe he is a prophet. I believe he's a healer. I believe he'll save Israel. I believe he'll get rid of the Romans. I believe he'll save us from our sins.” These are easy things to say when popular Jesus was travelling around Galilee performing astonishing miracles on a daily basis but true discipleship and nominal faith are different and the structure of these sayings is such that the blessings are to the true disciples, who are going to suffer some hard times (as we'll describe); and the woes, or the troubles, are going to be to the nominal believers, who look as though they follow Jesus but nothing has changed in their life and, as a result of that, they don't experience any opposition to their faith.

Negative Blessings

In the first part of this passage we see a number of things described, negative, difficult things that could happen to believers. By the way, this is poetic and poetic statements (in Jesus' teaching and elsewhere in the Bible) especially in the form of a proverb, or a proverbial statement, like the ones we've got here, are general truths - they generally apply but they don't necessarily apply in every single circumstance. These are generalisations or general truths. Here are the things that could be suffered by Jesus' disciples: ‘Blessed are you who are poor.’ That's economic poverty, shortage of money, that's what it means. ‘Blessed are you who hunger now.’ Yes, physical hunger. ‘Blessed are you who weep now.’ Yes, real tears, crying, being really upset. ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil because of the Son of Man.’ What Jesus is describing here are the negative circumstances of life that Christians who are true disciples may well experience, to one degree or another, in this life as a result of their decision to follow Jesus. It is, as it says in the final phrase, ‘because of the Son of Man.’ because you identify with Jesus, the Son of Man, the Messiah, then you may suffer these circumstances.

When we look around our world today, we can see quite clearly that those who follow Jesus Christ often experience opposition and sometimes that opposition is significant - it can lead to poverty; it can lead to not being able to get a job; it can lead to economic discrimination in jobs (so you can only get the poorer jobs in your society) and some of you will know what that means in the countries you live in; it can mean that you don't get a promotion in your job because of your faith. There are all sorts of reasons why you might be poor through jobs. You might experience active discrimination, you might experience active persecution, you might even have to leave your home, you might even have to leave your country - causing real poverty to you and to your family as you do that - and many many Christians in the world today have had to do that. You might live in a society that forbids you to actively practice your faith and that causes suffering for you. Some Christians have been put in prison, or camps, or are in police custody or in solitary confinement, as a result of their faith - these are the more extreme examples, but it's all part of this same process. Quite contrary to what we might hope, what the people may have hoped at the time, this incredibly popular and successful mission around Galilee, which was producing followers of Jesus, wasn't a prelude to people living very fulfilled, happy, contented, materially successful lives in Galilee and just spreading out all over the world. No, a spiritual conflict was beginning to develop between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness and all the people who work against the Kingdom of God. We've already seen that the religious establishment are working against Jesus and undermining him - we saw that, very clearly, in Series 3 on a number of occasions. We're going to see, later on, the Roman authorities (the political and military leaders) turning against Jesus and crucifying him. Astonishingly, Jesus identifies at a very early stage of his ministry that the cost of being a true disciple can involve real suffering.

Verse 23: ‘Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.’ The Kingdom of God extends beyond this life; our goal is, ultimately, eternity. Those who believe in Jesus are guaranteed - through his atonement, his forgiveness, the power of his salvation - a place in the eternal world but those who are faithful to him in suffering are offered not just a place in eternal life but rewards - rewards not specified here - rewards that come from the Lord: positions of responsibility and acclaim. We don't know what these things will be in detail but Jesus gives a few hints later on in his teaching which we'll look at.

On the other hand, people who are rich, well fed, laughing and enjoying life, hugely popular, without any criticism or opposition for their faith, are likely to be nominal believers. That's not to say in some cases God may give great favour to believers in certain societies and situations. That's true, but these are generalisations and, in general, if people are nominal Christians (they have a loose connection with the Church, maybe they turn up at church meetings but are not following Jesus, not witnessing to him, not living his life on a day-to-day basis) they won't be experiencing any opposition and Jesus says, “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you.” For those who are true disciples, they must remember that the prophets of the Old Testament were often treated badly and they're going to be treated badly by some people in the world and some people in their societies - they only had to think of John the Baptist, who was imprisoned and then executed for his prophetic role.

Reflections

Let's conclude this episode with a few reflections. Jesus' Gospel challenged the status quo. He didn't offer an easy life and, for those who followed him, opposition was to be expected. But he did promise eternal rewards and this promise re-emerges many times. Ultimately, the hope of Christians is not resting on what's happening now in the world, or now in my country, or now in my life; our hope is in the return of Christ, which we'll talk about much more later on. Jesus teaches explicitly about it - that he'll come at the end of the age, he'll be the judge and then those who truly follow him will be honoured and will enter into eternity with tremendous joy. Jesus refers to that joy here, 'leap for joy', 'rejoice, when you're suffering for your faith' - it's a sign that your faith is true. I want to give that word of encouragement to many of you reading who are experiencing some of these things in your own life even as you read this message; discipleship has eternal rewards. In Luke 9; 23 onwards, and elsewhere, Jesus introduces the idea that if you are a follower of Jesus you take up your cross, you take up a path of self-sacrifice, and he makes it very clear that the path of Christian discipleship is one of self-sacrifice where there is no prosperity Gospel, no certainty of material provision, no certainty of comfort.

Sometimes Christians like to imagine that Jesus wants them saved so that they can have a comfortable and better life, live quietly and happily all their lives. This is very far from the picture that is presented here in the Sermon on the Mount and in Luke's introduction to it in this section entitled ‘Blessings and Woes.’ We should take great encouragement because here is a tremendous perspective on suffering: suffering is for a time, suffering will be overturned by Jesus and suffering will lead ultimately to reward from God.

Jesus is encouraging faithfulness in his disciples. With this in mind, we're now ready to go into the main teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, as recorded by Matthew, and in our next episode we'll look at the Beatitudes which follow on very closely from this teaching.

Thank you for joining us.

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