In his excellent book, Restoring Your Spiritual Passion,133 Gordon MacDonald identifies five different types of people:
(1) Very Resourceful People are the people who stimulate and challenge us in our ministry—our mentors.
(2) Very Important People are those who share with us in our ministry, often our associates.
(3) Very Trainable People are those people who have potential for ministry, whom we can profitably train.
(4) Very Nice People are just that, but add little to our ministry and do very little ministry themselves.
(5) Very Draining People are those who could easily consume most of our time and energy in ministry. These are the takers, who seldom become producers or givers. These are the very needy folk, who drain us of our strength and time.
When I read through Luke’s introduction to the Sermon on the Mount as he records it, I think that there are a wide variety of people present there to hear what Jesus taught. Without too much effort, we could probably find people to fit nearly every category which MacDonald has identified for us. Jesus would, of course, be the “very resourceful person.” The twelve disciples might be the “very important people.” The larger group of disciples might contain “very trainable people.” The large crowd would probably have some “very nice people” and some “very draining people.” I have to think that there is another category which must be added, too, the “very nasty people,” made up of those whose life’s calling seems to be to harass and trouble us. The Pharisees would certainly fall into this category.
The puzzling thing to me is that most of the categories of persons are simply lumped together to some degree by the term “disciple. “We would use the term primarily for the twelve whom Jesus here designates as His apostles (v. 13). The group of those from whom the twelve were selected are called “disciples” (v. 13). I would take it that it was from this group that the 70, who were later sent out by Jesus (Luke 10:1ff.) were drawn. Then, there was the large group of “disciples” who awaited Jesus and His “disciples” as they came down from the mountain (v. 17). In addition, there was the “great throng of people” (v. 17) who came to hear Jesus and for healing.
A number of dispensational scholars have taken the position the Sermon on the Mount was the “constitution of the Millennial Kingdom,” and thus it does not directly apply to the church today. I disagree. It would seem to me that from Luke’s account at least we must conclude that the subject of the sermon (at least verses 20-26) is discipleship. Those to whom the sermon was addressed are the disciples (v. 20a). Our text not only helps to define what discipleship is all about, it also has much to say about the motivation of a disciple. For all of us who would desire (or not desire) to be disciples, this text has much to say. Let us listen well to the words of our Lord, speaking to disciples about discipleship.134
The structure of our text may be outlined as follows:
(1) The Setting of the Sermon, verses 12-20a
(2) The Sermon on the Mount, Part I—verses 20b-26
There are several “tensions” to be found in this text, problems which motivate our study and provide significant clues to the interpretation of the text. Briefly outlined, the “tensions of this text” are:
(1) Jesus appears to be changing horses in mid-stream, from one who enjoyed life and whose disciples did as well (cf. 5:27-39) to one who advocates a “teeth-gritting” endurance of life.
(2) Jesus appears to be teaching that poverty is a blessing and that riches is a curse. Are the poor more blessed than the rich?
(3) Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount differs quite a bit from that of Matthew. Why does Matthew’s account dwell on the “spiritual” (“poor in spirit,” “hunger and thirst for righteousness”), while Luke’s dwells on the physical (the “poor,” “hunger”)?
There are many different views as to how we should approach the Sermon on the Mount. I have already suggested that I believe the thrust of our Lord’s words, at least in our portion of the sermon, dwell on the very present matter of discipleship, not on the future matter of the Millennial Kingdom. This means that the teaching of Jesus here is not remotely related to our daily lives, but is directly relevant to us. I would also suggest that this sermon should be interpreted in the same way (with the same hermeneutics) our Lord taught in Matthew account of the Sermon, in terms of the principles of the law, and not just the precepts. Thus, our Lord’s teaching on “turning the other cheek” is not merely a rule which teaches a mechanical kind of response to a right cross (the term does suggest this, rather than a slap, as we will later point out), but a principle which should govern our relationship with our enemies. The practices advocated here are illustrative of principles, and the principles are primary.
Luke begins by telling us that the day’s events were preceded by a night of prayer on the part of our Lord. Luke gospel has an emphasis on the prayer life of our Lord, which we have already seen. Our Lord was said to be praying when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him (3:21). Our Lord went off to pray after the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and the healing session which resulted (4:42, compare Mark 1:35). Later, Luke said that Jesus had a habit of prayer, “But He Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray” (Luke 5:16).
While there are many important matters which require prayer, what our Lord does is not unusual. From our perspective it would have been, for how many of us spend all night in prayer? And if Jesus found it necessary to do so, how much more so should we pray?
It would be wrong, however, to conclude that Jesus prayed all night just regarding the choice of the twelve who would be chosen as apostles. This was surely on our Lord’s agenda, but I think that there were other matters which He prayed about as well. I would suggest that our Lord prayed concerning the sick and that the great display of His power (vv. 18-19) was in answer to His prayer. I believe as well that the Sermon on the Mount was a matter of prayer. Jesus had to prepare His messages, too, and He did so on His knees. We who preach could surely learn from the Master here! Finally, I suspect that Jesus prayed for His enemies, the Pharisees. In verse 28 Jesus will teach, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
I cannot imagine our Lord failing to practice in His prayers what He preached. It is my opinion that our Lord’s prayer for the Pharisees may have greatly helped Him in preaching His Sermon on the Mount. I cannot conceive of the fact that the Pharisees would not have been present at this sermon. Luke never mentions them (Matthew’s account has references to them, cf. 5:20), nor is it ever mentioned that they were there. They were never absent, however. Recall, for example, that they were there when Jesus healed the paralytic (5:17ff.), and at the reception held by Levi (5:29ff.), and in the grain fields when Jesus was traveling on the Sabbath (6:1ff.). The Pharisees were almost omnipresent when it came to Jesus. They dared not leave Him alone, unchallenged.
A preacher friend of mine once shared that he had a woman in his congregation who felt it was her task to challenge and humble him. Every Sunday she would sit in the front and very loudly disagree with him. Do you think that the Pharisees did any differently? I’m sure that they were there when Jesus preached this sermon. I have no doubt but that they were in disagreement. But Jesus prayer for them, His enemies, enabled Him to overlook them, and not to be distracted by their disruptions.
After His all-night prayer vigil, Jesus called a larger group of “disciples” to Him, from which He chose twelve, designating them as His apostles. These were to be the leaders of the church (remember that Luke also authored the book of Acts). These twelve men were to spend much time with Jesus. They were to be sent out in preaching and healing campaigns. They were to be apostles.
Even Judas was chosen. Luke very carefully informs us that Judas was to become a traitor (v. 16). This indicates that Judas was not initially a traitor. It tells me that Judas did not purpose to infiltrate Jesus’ inner circle as a base of operations. Judas had good intentions.
Some might say that while this was true, Judas was an unbeliever, and that all the rest were genuine believers. There is truth in this, of course, but in a very technical sense, none of the twelve were true believers yet. These men had many positive qualities. These men would become men of faith, spiritual leaders, but there were not so at this point in time. It is not until chapter 9 in Luke’s gospel (chapter 16 in Matthew’s) that the great confession of Peter is found. Consistently the disciples are looking at one another after some great miracle of our Lord and asking themselves, “Who is this … ?” None of the twelve initially fully grasped that Jesus was the Messiah in such a way that we could call them full-fledged believers at the time Jesus appointed them. There was not as much difference between Judas and Peter (say) than we might think. Peter became a rock; Judas a traitor.
Jesus’ actions here teach us some important lessons about leadership. Jesus was in no hurry to “lay hands on” any man as a leader. Considerable time passed before the twelve were designated as leaders. Just as Judas would fail, so there would be men at a later time which would fail as well, though not as unbelievers (cf. Acts 20:29-31). Jesus had no qualms about giving some men greater amounts of His time than others. Jesus gave priority to those who would later prove to be ministers and leaders. These eleven, to use MacDonald’s terminology, were “very trainable people.”
In the immediately preceding section of Luke, the author has developed the theme of the opposition of the Pharisees. With the Pharisees, Jesus has become a very unpopular person. Jesus was challenged because he claimed the authority to forgive sins (5:21). Then He rankled the Pharisees because of those with whom He associated—sinners (5:27-32). Next, they were upset because Jesus and His disciples ate and drank, while they fasted (5:33-39). Finally, the Lord was guilty, in the minds of the Pharisees, of breaking the Sabbath, and Jesus had the audacity (so they thought) to claim the right to do so (6:1-11). The verse which precedes our text informs us that the Pharisees were now the enemies of Jesus, who are looking for a way to be rid of Him. Parallel accounts tell us that the wish to put Him to death (cf. Mark 3:6).
While Jesus was exceedingly unpopular with the Pharisees, He was the favorite of the people. We should probably say, because Jesus was popular with the people, He was very unpopular with the Pharisees. His unpopularity with the Pharisees was very much related to His popularity with the people, something which the Pharisees very much resented. Matthew and Mark tell us that Pilate knew the source of the religious leaders’ hostility was jealousy (Matt. 27:18; Mark 15:10).
The extent of Jesus’ popularity with the people is evident from two major facts mentioned by Luke. First, the large number of people who were there, even in such a remote place. Second, the great distance from which people were coming. Here, we are told by Luke that they came from all over Judea, Jerusalem, and even from the coast of Tyre and Sidon (v. 17).
This popularity of our Lord is an important element in the setting of the Sermon, for it indicates to us the great courage of our Lord in delivering this message. Jesus’ popularity was a rather fragile thing, as later events will indicate. Jesus did not choose to speak on non-controversial matters, however, just to keep the favor of the crowds. When you stop to think about what our Lord is saying in this sermon, it was virtually the opposite of what others taught and believed. Jesus spoke of poverty, hunger, and persecution as blessed, and of wealth, being well-fed and favor as bringing a curse. He taught people to love their enemies, and not to retaliate. He taught that one should give to those in need, knowing that they would never be repaid. These are not very popular teachings. The “health and wealth” teachers of our time know this. Jesus, in spite of His great popularity, spoke the truth, and taught what people needed to hear, not just what they wanted to hear.
There are a number of differences between Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount (6:20-49) and that of Matthew (chapters 5-7).
Luke 6:20-26 And turning His gaze on His disciples, He began to say, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 “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 your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. 23 “Be glad in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your 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.
Matthew 5:1-12 And when He saw the multitudes, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. 2 And opening His mouth He began to teach them, saying, 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. 12 “Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
In the first place, Luke’s account is much shorter than Matthew’s. Second, in the blessings portion which we are studying, the ones blessed are spoken of more in the third person (as if “they,” “them”), while in Luke’s account it is second person (“you”). Matthew’s account is more “spiritual” (“poor in spirit,” “hunger and thirst for righteousness”), while Luke’s is more physical (“poor,” “hunger”). Luke makes a greater emphasis on the contrast of time (“now”). Matthew’s account deals only with blessings, while Luke has cursings (“woe”) as well.
The words which our Lord spoke to His disciples in verses 20-26 contain a mixed message of both blessing and woes. The “woe” section is unique to Luke. Matthew’s account contains only blessings. It is difficult to grasp the parallels which are drawn between the blessings and the cursings unless the two passages are placed side-by-side, as follows: Looking at his disciples, he said:
“Blessed are you who are POOR for yours is the kingdom of God.
“But woe to you who are RICH, for you have already received your comfort.
Blessed are you who HUNGER now, for you will be SATISFIED.
Woe to you who are WELL FED now, for you will go HUNGRY.
Blessed are you who WEEP now, for you will LAUGH.
Woe to you who LAUGH now, for you will MOURN AND WEEP.
Blessed are you when men HATE YOU when they EXCLUDE YOU and INSULT YOU and REJECT YOUR NAME as evil, because of the Son of Man. “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the PROPHETS.
Woe to you when all men SPEAK WELL OF YOU, for that is how their fathers treated the FALSE PROPHETS.
At first reading the words of our Lord are incredible. It would seem as though Jesus has said that all who are poor, hungry, mourning and persecuted are blessed, while all who are rich, well-fed, happy, and honored are cursed. Is it a blessing to be poor, hungry, sorrowful, and rejected? Are all the hurting people of the world suddenly so fortunate, while all of the comfortable, happy people of the world are really cursed?
The answer to these questions is “No!” There is no intrinsic benefit to being poor, nor is there any automatic evil in being rich. Luke is careful in the selection of words which he uses to convey Jesus’ message. Look at them again. Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor … ” He did not say, “Blessed are all who are poor … ”
There is a world of difference between these two statements. Matthew’s account limits the “poor” to the “poor in spirit.” Luke’s account limits the “poor” to the disciples, who have chosen poverty in order to follow Him. So also, those who are rejected and persecuted are treated this way “because of the Son of Man” (v. 22). It is not being poor that is blessed, but being poor for Christ’s sake. There is no intrinsic merit in being rejected and persecuted, but only in being thus treated on Christ’s account (cf. 1 Peter 2:20).
Not all Christians are called to a life of poverty, hunger, weeping, and rejection, but the disciples of our Lord were. Poverty, hunger, weeping and rejection was the life which our Lord chose, setting aside the riches and glory which belonged to Him so that He could become the Savior of the world by dying on the cross of Calvary. The disciples, that is those who followed Him, would have to adopt His lifestyle and suffer His rejection. To identify with Christ as His disciples meant adopting Jesus’ lifestyle. For the eleven this meant poverty, hunger (at times) and weeping, and rejection.
Obedience to God meant this kind of life for many—not all, but many. Note the words of the writer to the Hebrews, speaking of those faith led them to choose suffering now, so that they would receive God’s promised rewards:
And others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (Heb. 11:36-37).
So, too, this was the life which the apostle Paul chose:
To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless (1 Cor. 4:11).
But in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger (2 Cor. 6:4-5).
As Jesus frequently taught, when a choice must be made between money and God, God must come first (Matt. 6:24). Money is not evil, unless it takes the place which only God should have (cf. 1 Tim. 6). The rich young ruler’s money meant too much for him. When forced with the choice of following Christ or being rich, he chose to remain rich (Luke 18:18ff.). In the Lord’s parable of the soils, the thorny soil symbolized the “cares of this world” are that which chokes out the seed of the gospel. Luke tells us that Jesus called them “worries and riches and pleasures of this life” (Luke 8:14). When we must choose wealth or Jesus, being well-fed or Jesus, laughter or Jesus, we must always choose Him.
Does this mean, then, that those who follow Jesus, those who are His disciples, are in for a gloomy, miserable, unhappy life? Not at all! The reason is this: the joy and the blessedness of serving Him is so great that the things we must give up to do so are no great loss to us. These are only great losses if we have invested too much in them, if they mean too much too us. The parable of the “pearl of great price” (cf. Matt. 13:44-46) teaches this truth. Once the man has found the “pearl of great price” he gladly sells all that he has to purchase that of greatest value. We sense no great loss when we give up lesser things to gain the greatest thing. This is what Jim Elliot is remembered for saying, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
This raises an interesting and important point. What is it that makes following Jesus so great a blessing that men will gladly give up riches, comfort and even friends to do so? Luke’s account would supply us with a very strong reason: the blessings which Jesus gives are eternal, while those which disciples may reject are temporal. We can fill in many other answers from the gospel as a whole. Jesus gives the forgiveness of sins, peace with God, the joy of fellowship with Him and of serving Him. Discipleship leads to the greatest blessings, so great that wealth, health, and the praise of men matter not.
Giving up lesser benefits for greater ones is not a principle known and practiced only by Christians. It is a principle practiced by all who are wise. We give up immediate pleasures to save our money to buy something that is of lasting pleasure or value. Runners give up food and even friends to maintain rigorous training, all for the joy of winning the race. Sacrifices are a blessing when they lead to greater blessings. That is what Jesus was saying in this sermon. How blessed were His disciples! True, they would become poor, they would experience hunger, and they would be rejected and persecuted. But in light of the blessings of fellowship with the Son of God these were hardly worthy of being called sacrifices.
We must also ask another question. “Who are those upon whom the ‘woes’ are pronounced?” Notice that Jesus also says here, “Woe to you who are rich … ” (v. 24).
It is my opinion that Jesus is now speaking to particular people, just as he had been speaking to the disciples. (Would this have been a special word of warning to Judas, for example, who would be stealing money from the money bag he carried for the disciples? Cf. John 12:6)
If the “you’s” of verses 20-23 could identify with the prophets of old in being rejected and persecuted by the nation, the “you” of verses 24-26 must be those who could identify with the false prophets (v. 26). I believe that Jesus especially had the Pharisees in mind here. Later on Luke will inform us that “the Pharisees were lovers of money” (Luke 16:14).
The point of the passage is clear. Men must make a decision as to their values and their priorities. We must all choose to forsake some things in the pursuit of others. Not all men must forsake wealth to follow Christ, although all must forsake the love of money. Life involves choices. We must choose what in life to pursue. Every choice has both benefits (blessings) and a price to pay. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news of a gift, the gift of eternal life, which is of infinite value. To have it is worth the loss of anything else. The price is that we must acknowledge our sins and trust only in Christ. We must forsake all other gods and follow Christ alone. If such a choice comes at the price of poverty, hunger, sadness and rejection, it is well worth it, and it is still blessed. May God grant that each of us may be disciples of our Lord. That we may find following Him better than anything else life has to offer. Jesus never minimized the cost of discipleship. He didn’t need to, because it is the pearl of great price. Intimacy with God is the greatest of all blessings. All other “blessings” are but trash in comparison.135 May God’s values and those of the gospel be ours. It is not the pursuit of riches that is wrong, but the pursuit of false riches. Let these words of the Lord of Glory to the church at Laodicea be a guide to us as well:
“‘So because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire, that you may become rich, and white garments, that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see’” (Rev. 3:17-18).
Let us all purse riches, but let those be the riches which only our Lord can give.
134 Initially I had purposed to cover a bigger piece of the Sermon on the Mount, but I have obviously changed my mind. One of the reasons is that verses 20-26 are addressed pretty directly to the disciples of our Lord. In verse 27, however, a broader group seems to be in view, as indicated by the words, “But I say to you who hear…”
135 The whole book of Hebrews is summed up by the word “better.” The assumption is that once men recognize the better from the inferior, they will forsake the inferior for the better. This is precisely our Lord’s argument in this part of the Sermon on the Mount.