“And they all lived happily ever after.” We all like stories with a happy ending. We read them to our children and grandchildren. But, as grown-ups, we know that such stories are not true. Living happily ever after only happens in the realm of make believe.
Or, does it? In what is perhaps His most well known teaching, “The Beatitudes,” Jesus presents the qualities that make for a happy or blessed life. As Luke reports the teaching, four times Jesus pronounces blessings on people with these four qualities and four times He pronounces woes on people with the opposite qualities. To be blessed is to have inner joy and happiness because God’s favor is upon you. To have woe is to have sorrow and pain because God is against you. Thus Jesus is showing us how to be supremely happy or supremely miserable.
Stated that way, you may wonder why anyone would choose to be supremely miserable, especially when the offer of supreme happiness is set before him or her. But things aren’t quite that simple, because the happiness Jesus offers often entails short term trials and pain, but eventual and eternal joy, whereas the world offers short term gratification, but fails to take into account the eternal perspective. As Leon Morris observes, “Jesus promised His followers that they would be absurdly happy; but also that they would never be out of trouble” (Luke [IVP/Eerdmans, p. 127). Due to the blindness of sinful human hearts and the deception of sin, many in the world pursue happiness in ways that seemingly will succeed. But Jesus boldly asserts that those who follow the world’s ways will come up empty. He draws a distinct line and challenges us to come over to His side. As William Barclay states, “The challenge of the beatitudes is, ‘Will you be happy in the world’s way, or in Christ’s way?” (The Daily Study Bible, Luke [Westminster], p. 77).
Before we examine this first section of Jesus’ teaching, we need to touch on several matters. The most obvious question is whether or not this sermon in Luke 6 is the same as the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew 5-7. The bottom line is, we can’t know for certain. There are solid commentators on both sides of the issue. Luke’s version is much shorter than Matthew’s (30 verses compared to 107), and there are some differences in the parts that overlap. Both versions are obviously summaries of longer messages that Jesus delivered. Both begin with a set of beatitudes and end with the parable of building the two houses, although there are differences in many of the details.
The most obvious difference is that Matthew 5:1 reports that Jesus went up on a mountain to deliver this sermon, whereas Luke 6:17 states that He descended to a level place. Those who like to look for contradictions in the Bible are quick to pounce on this as an example. But even if the two accounts are the same sermon on the same occasion, it need not be contradictory. Jesus had gone up on the mountain alone to pray. He descended to meet with His disciples and with the multitude. There easily could have been a plateau on the mountain that was large enough for the multitude to gather on. From Luke’s perspective, Jesus descended to this level place. From Matthew’s angle, Jesus went up on the mountain to teach. It just depends on how you look at the event.
So the sermon could be the same sermon at the same locale, but with variations in how it was reported. Or, it could be that Jesus taught the same material with slight variations on more than one occasion, as almost every preacher has done. We can’t know for sure, but neither view involves us in contradictions. I’m inclined to the view that both sermons are the same, although reported from different slants.
The sermon in Luke falls into three sections: in 6:20-26, Jesus draws a distinct line between His followers and others and pronounces blessings on the former and woes on the latter; in 6:27-38, Jesus spells out the primary ethic of His kingdom, the practice of love; and, in 6:39-49, He emphasizes the importance of obedience to His teaching. He addresses the sermon primarily to His disciples (6:20), but obviously there are appeals to outsiders as well. The blessings are aimed at encouraging and strengthening Jesus’ followers in the face of mounting and inevitable opposition and persecution, but they also serve to draw in outsiders with the intriguing promise of future reversal. The woes warn believers of dangers to avoid, but they also confront unbelievers with the future consequences of their current behavior. The entire sermon shows Jesus’ disciples (i.e., all Christians) how we should live. But it also shows unbelievers and hypocrites their need for repentance because of the huge gap between their behavior and Jesus’ teaching.
With that as a brief overview, let’s focus on 6:20-26, where Jesus sets forth the contrasts of blessings and woes on four groups of people. Since He specifically is addressing His disciples, we should see the primary intent as giving encouragement and instruction to believers. God will bless them though the world may hate them. But they must be on guard against the world and its mixed up values. But there is also a secondary application for those caught up with the world. Jesus is warning them of a coming reversal when they will be left empty if they do not repent. Jesus is teaching:
To live happily ever after, live decisively for God’s kingdom and reject the world’s values.
The theme of happiness is stressed in the series of blessings and woes. The idea of living decisively comes through in the clear line Jesus draws between the two ways of God’s kingdom versus the world’s values. The aspect of living happily ever after is underscored in the future focus of the blessings and woes.
Jesus draws a clear line between two groups of people, so that you must identify yourself with one group or the other. You can’t straddle the line. On the one hand are those who are poor, who hunger now, who weep now, and who are despised by men because of their identification with Jesus. These folks are blessed because of both present, but mainly future, rewards. On the other hand are those who are rich, who are well-fed now, who laugh now, and who are acclaimed by men. These are under woe because of what awaits them.
Immediately we are faced with some interpretive problems. Is Jesus extolling poverty in a material sense or should we take it spiritually, in line with Matthew’s “poor in spirit”? Is Jesus commending hunger above a healthy diet? Is He promoting weeping and sadness above laughter and joy? Is there some virtue in having people hate you? How should we understand Jesus’ words?
In the first place, we would be wrong to interpret these words to refer in blanket fashion to the financially poor, the physically hungry, the emotionally grieving, and those hated by their fellow men. The Old Testament urges compassion toward the deserving poor, but it also heaps ridicule on those who are poor because they are lazy or foolish. Augustine pointed out how the poor Lazarus laid his head on the rich Abraham’s bosom. Later in Luke, some wealthy women are favorably mentioned who helped support Jesus and the apostles (8:1-3). And, Jesus welcomes the rich tax collector, Zaccheus, into the kingdom (19:1-10).
So Jesus is not issuing a blanket approval on everyone who is financially poor, nor a blanket condemnation on everyone who is financially rich. The same can be said of the other groups. God graciously gives us food to meet our needs, and there is no inherent virtue in going hungry. The Bible commands God’s people to be filled with joy and praise, and Jesus is not contradicting that here. There are many of God’s servants who are commended and thought well of in the Bible. So there is nothing inherently wrong with these categories as such. We would be mistaken to understand Jesus to be teaching that simply by being in these categories a person is somehow blessed or under woes to come.
So how should we take Jesus’ words? One key is to remember that Jesus is talking to His disciples. Luke has already mentioned twice that these men left everything to follow Jesus (5:11, 28). A second key is that these men are suffering “for the sake of the Son of Man” (6:22). Jesus compares their ill treatment to that of the prophets in Old Testament times (6:23). Thus Jesus is talking about godly people who have given up opportunities to further themselves in the world in order to follow Him. In other words, there is a definite spiritual underpinning to Jesus’ categories.
This spiritual slant is further supported by Luke’s previous use of the terms. In Mary’s song (1:46-55), she praises God who has “filled the hungry with good things, and sent away the rich empty-handed” (1:53). Jesus cited Isaiah 61:1 when He preached in the synagogue in Nazareth, that the Spirit had anointed Him “to preach the gospel to the poor” (4:18). These terms, “poor, hungry, and those who weep,” are not exclusively spiritual, in that those who are destitute of life’s essentials are often much more aware of their spiritual need before God. Those who are rich in this world’s goods often do not sense their desperate need for God. But the terms are primarily spiritual in that Jesus did not come to offer Himself on the cross to deliver men from physical poverty, hunger, and grief. He came to deliver sinners from their spiritual poverty, spiritual hunger, and grief over sin. One writer explains,
The hungry are men who both outwardly and inwardly are painfully deficient in the things essential to life as God meant it to be, and who, since they cannot help themselves, turn to God on the basis of His promise. These men, and these alone, find God’s help in Jesus. They are not an existing social or religious group…. They are believers who seek help from Jesus because of their own helplessness. (L. Goppelt, cited by Darrell Bock, Luke [Baker], 1:575).
Leon Morris (p. 127) explains further,
He is not blessing poverty in itself: that can as easily be a curse as a blessing. It is His disciples of whom Jesus is speaking. They are poor and they know that they are without resource. They rely on God and they must rely on Him, for they have nothing of their own on which to rely…. The rich of this world often are self-reliant. Not so the poor.
And so when Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor,” He is referring to those who have recognized that the greatest need in life is spiritual, not material. Rather than pursuing a life of accumulating the world’s goods, these people have recognized their spiritual poverty before God and have come to Him, often at the expense of worldly success. When Jesus says, “Woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full,” He is referring to those who are living as if this world is all there is. They are not rich toward God by laying up treasures in heaven (Luke 12:21). They are living for selfish pleasures and comforts and they are relying on themselves to gain these things. In light of eternity, it’s a foolish way to live.
When Jesus blesses the hungry and pronounces woe on the well-fed, He is not speaking primarily in physical terms. The main point is spiritual. Those who are physically hungry are truly blessed if they come to God in their need and learn to rely on Him for all their needs as their caring Father. Those who are physically well-fed are truly to be pitied if they ignore their spiritual starvation and need for God, who sustains us both physically and spiritually.
When Jesus blesses those who weep now, He is referring to His followers who suffer in this wicked world because of their identification with Him. They will get the last laugh because God will welcome them to His sumptuous banquet table. Those who laugh now are like the rich man in Jesus’ parable, who say to themselves, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?” (Luke 12:19, 20).
When Jesus blesses those who are hated, ostracized, insulted, and spurned for His sake, He compares their treatment to that of the godly prophets. The reason for their ill treatment is that they have stood for God’s truth and righteousness, which sinners, especially religious hypocrites, hate. Jesus’ disciples who are so mistreated should rejoice and leap for joy, because they have great reward in heaven. But Jesus compares those who are well-spoken of to the false prophets. It’s never hard to gain a following: Just flatter people and tell them how wonderful they are. They will flock to hear you and buy your books. You will be famous and successful on earth, but rejected in heaven.
One reason Jesus paints with these broad strokes of black and white, with no gray, is to draw the line and make us examine ourselves. Which side are you on? I immediately want to say, “Lord, how about someone who isn’t poor or rich? I’m just kind of middle class! How about someone who isn’t starving, but I’m not a glutton? I’m not going around weeping, but neither am I a comedian. People aren’t throwing rotten eggs at me, but neither am I Mr. Popular. Isn’t there room for a guy like me in the middle?” Jesus replies, “No, you’re either decidedly for Me or you are decidedly against Me. There’s no middle ground.” He forces us to get off the fence and decide: Are we living for this life and its temporary pleasures or are we living for Jesus and His eternal kingdom?
The kingdom Jesus speaks of is both a present reality and a future promise. To the poor who have followed Him, Jesus says, “Yours is the kingdom of God.” They presently possess it. In this sense, the kingdom means living decidedly under the lordship of Jesus, obeying His commands, living with the aim of pleasing Him. But, the kingdom is also a future promise, in that Jesus plainly taught that He would return to reign on the throne of David and to rule the nations with a rod of iron. In this sense, Jesus’ followers all mourn at the present reign of darkness under the prince of this world, and we long for the soon-coming day when, according to His promise, there will be a new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13).
So, if you want to live happily ever after, you must see that there are two and only two ways to live. You can live for the things and pleasures of this world, which are destined to perish. Or, you can submit yourself to Jesus Christ and live for His present and coming kingdom. Every follower of Jesus, not just the super-dedicated, will be in the second camp. There is no middle ground, sort-of Christian, with one foot in the world and one in Jesus’ kingdom. You must get off the fence and declare yourself to be on Jesus’ side.
Jesus’ teaching here presupposes and demands an eternal perspective. Without that, His words are nonsense. Why be poor, hungry, sorrowful, and hated in this life if that’s all there is? Critics of Christianity will often scoff, “You believe in pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die.” The proper response is, “Absolutely! And you’re a fool not to believe it!” The Bible is abundantly clear that the hope of the believer is with God in eternity, not in this short life on earth (see 1 Cor. 15:19, 32; Heb. 11:13-16, 35-40). As Charles Simeon put it, “He alone is happy, who is happy for eternity” (Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], 12:345).
Jesus here boldly asserts that there will be some startling reversals in eternity. He often taught this with the aphorism, “The last shall be first, and the first last” (see Matt. 19:30; 20:16; Luke 13:30). The world, the flesh, and the devil deceive us by offering us instant gratification through the pleasures of sin. We look around at other sinners who seem to be having a good time in life and we wrongly conclude that we’re missing out. The psalmist was there when he looked on the easy life of the wicked and concluded that he had turned from sin to God in vain. What got the psalmist back in focus? “When I pondered to understand this, it was troublesome in my sight until I came into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end. Surely You set them in slippery places; You cast them down to destruction” (Ps. 73:16-18).
D. L. Moody observed, “This life is all the heaven the worldling has, and all the hell the saint ever sees.” The believer knows that there is a God who will judge the world, and so he adopts a pilgrim mindset. We desperately need to recover this eternal perspective in our day. While I realize that the Four Spiritual Laws booklet has been greatly used to lead many to faith in Christ, in my judgment it focuses too much on the abundant life here and now and not enough on the hope of heaven and the fear of hell. But the emphasis of the Bible is clearly on the latter. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). You can’t straddle the line. Followers of Jesus focus on the life to come, not on the fleeting pleasures of this present world. That’s the only way to true happiness.
Leon Morris (p. 126) observes, “Together with the following woes, these beatitudes make a mockery of the world’s values. They exalt what the world despises and reject what the world admires.” Clearly Jesus is saying that the values of His followers are radically different than the values of the world. There should be clear line between the believer and the person of this world in terms of how we think, what we do, what we seek after, and how we use money.
Yet, sadly, all too often there is no discernible difference between professing Christians and their worldly neighbors, except that the Christians go to church services. The worldly guy is living for personal peace and increasing affluence; so is the Christian. The worldly guy seeks pleasure vicariously by watching immoral, profane TV shows and videos; so does the Christian. The worldly guy spends his money to increase his own comfort and pleasure; so does the Christian, except for the two or three percent average that he gives. The worldly guy thinks that all good people who do the best they can will get to heaven; shockingly, so do vast numbers of those professing to be Christian. A recent Barna Report asked, “Can a good person earn his way to heaven?” Those responding “agree strongly” or “somewhat agree” included 22% of Assembly of God, 30% of nondenominational, 38% of Baptists, 54% of Lutherans, 58% of Episcopalians, 59% of Methodists, and 82% of Catholics (reported in “Viewpoint,” Reformation & Revival Ministries May/June, 1998). Christians must think biblically.
These poor, hungry, sorrowful, and rejected people Jesus refers to have abandoned the world’s support system and have cast themselves totally on God for their daily bread, for their personal and emotional needs, and for their eternal well-being. The world’s rich, well-fed, happy men of acclaim are trusting in themselves and their own accomplishments. But, as Darrell Bock writes, “An attitude of independence from God is the road to destruction” (Luke [Baker], 1:582). The follower of Jesus trusts in Him totally for sustenance, joy, approval, and salvation. We live to hear from Him some day, “Well done, good and faithful slave;... enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21).
A question I often ask people who come to me for counsel is, “Do you want God’s blessing in your life?” Of course, we all instinctively want to answer, “Yes, of course I do!” But before you answer so quickly, stop and think about it. How you answer that question will make a huge difference in how you live. The person living for God’s blessing has deliberately decided to reject the world’s values and to live under the lordship of Jesus as King. Turning his back on this fleeting world and its pleasures, he is living in light of eternity. Letting go of self-sufficiency and self-confidence, he has cast himself on Jesus both for salvation from God’s judgment and for sustenance in this life. So, ask yourself, “Do I want God’s blessing on my life?” It’s the only way to live happily ever after. Jesus tells you how to have it: Live decisively for God’s kingdom and reject the world’s values.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1998, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation