Sermon on the Plain: The Beatitudes and Woes

Sermon preached on Luke 6:17-26 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 10/03/2021 in Novato, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

Last week we saw that Jesus selected his inner circle of twelve disciples who would also be his twelve apostles that he would one day send out into the world with the gospel message. But first Jesus must train them. And that is what he immediately proceeds to do. As verse 17 shows, as soon as Jesus selects the twelve, he then goes with them and begins to teach them along with a great crowd. His teaching would be applicable to all the crowd who sought to be discipled by Jesus. But we can appreciate how his words here would also especially speak to the twelve. It would tell them of the sort of life that Jesus was calling them into, in how they would need to take up their crosses and follow him.

This famous sermon of Jesus is known here in Luke as the Sermon on the Plain. We only read part of that sermon today, but it extends through the end of this chapter. It is likely Luke’s record of the same sermon in Matthew 5-7 known as the Sermon on the Mount. When you compare Luke’s account versus Matthew’s account, the similarities are abundantly clear, but there are also some notable differences. Luke’s account is much shorter. In today’s passage specifically, we see that Luke has less beatitudes than Matthew’s, yet Luke also records these contrasting woes. Also, Matthew’s beatitudes clearly draw out a spiritual application that is not explicit in Luke’s beatitudes. If in fact, Luke and Matthew are both reporting the same exact sermon, which seems like a likely case, I would note that there are various possible ways to harmonize the two accounts. But that would also tell us that we should not think of either of these accounts of this sermon as an exact transcript of what Jesus said, as if someone was like a courtroom stenographer and giving us a complete record. Rather, both are surely faithful, and divinely inspired, summaries of what was surely a much larger and longer sermon that day by Jesus. So then, today and over the next few sermons we’ll have an opportunity to consider Luke’s divinely inspired account of this memorable teaching by Jesus.

Let us then begin to dig into this Sermon on the Plain. In our first point, we will consider Luke’s emphasis in these beatitudes and woes on one’s outward estate. Compared to Luke’s account, Matthew’s gospel clearly spiritualizes these beatitudes. Where Luke says in verse 20, “Blessed are the poor”, Matthew says instead, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Where Luke says in verse 21, “Blessed are the hungry”, Matthew says, “Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness.”
In light of Matthew’s account, it could be tempting to just spiritualize Luke’s versions. Yet, a spiritual application would not be the most immediately natural way to take Luke’s simple statements. And Luke’s contrasting woes such as, “Woe to the rich” and, “Woe to the full”, also don’t lend themselves to an immediate spiritual application. To be clear, I think Matthew’s spiritual applications can be an extended application of Luke’s beatitudes. But since we are studying Luke today, we should start with the more immediate emphasis and focus of his account.

So then, it’s here we need to make a clarification right away. With a superficial application, you might think Jesus is saying that you are blessed simply if you are poor, hungry, and sad, and you are cursed simply if you are rich, full, and glad. In other words, a superficial reading of this might sound like you can only be saved if you are downtrodden and miserable and you are damned if you have experienced any prosperity or happiness in life. But such a superficial understanding can’t be right, because Scripture has to interpret Scripture. Just because you are poor, doesn’t necessarily mean you are saved. The book of Proverbs, for example, speaks of various sinful lifestyles that will likely result in being poor. In other words, poverty is no guarantee of virtue, and besides, our way of salvation is ultimately only in trusting in Christ alone through faith alone. Likewise, just because you are rich, doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to hell. There are a number of rich people in the Bible who we find commendably presented – Joseph of Arimathea, Job, Abraham, and many more. So, just being rich or poor is not a determination of whether you are saved or not.

So then, what does Jesus mean here when he speaks so simply about rich and poor, etc.? Well, what Jesus seems to be doing is using what can sometimes be called prophetic shorthand, making use of a form of stereotyping. Too often it was the rich and prosperous in this world who were the godless, often because they gained their wealth through dishonest gain. And in reverse, it is too often the godly who live in meager and humble ways, either because the wicked rich have afflicted them, or because they won’t join in their wicked behavior in order to “get ahead”, so to speak, in this life. Or to put it another way, in our fallen broken world, too often wickedness can “pay off” in terms of improving one’s outward estate, whereas righteousness can too often “not pay off” in that way. Still today, it’s the righteous Christians who are so often the poor and powerless in the world’s eyes, who are so often afflicted by these wicked rich. Even wealthy godly Christians are increasingly demonized by the wicked rich and powerful in this world, which can negatively affect their outward estate in this life.

The book of James is an example elsewhere in Scripture where we see similar prophetic shorthand. Surely, in that case, James is following Jesus’ example in talking in such terms. James describes this stereotype in James 2:5 saying, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom?” Again, that is a stereotype, because we know biblically not every poor person is saved, and we know there are rich people who are saved. James himself even commended the example of Job, who was certainly a rich person.

With that more nuanced understanding, realize what Jesus is preparing his disciples for here with these beatitudes and woes. His words imply that to follow him might likely result in some form of poverty, hunger, sadness, and persecution in this life – yet Jesus commends a life that follows him. Yet, to deny Christ in order to secure riches, fullness, gladness, and fame in this life, is not something Jesus commends. Jesus is speaking to his disciples – all of them, and especially the twelve, to think of the two ways before someone. You can go the way of the wicked rich who set their hearts on the things of this world, no matter the cost, and even at the expense of their souls. Or, you can go the way of Christ, seeking the kingdom of God and righteousness, even if it comes with the cost of earthly pleasures here and now. These beatitudes are given to commend the way that Jesus is directing them.

This leads us then to our second point to understand why Jesus can commend this to them and us, when it very surely will mean various hardships in this life. It’s because there will be a dual reversal of these outward estates. The tables will be turned between the godless and the godly. That is the exact point of Jesus’ beatitudes and woes here. Think of the beatitudes. He says these seeming bad states of poverty, want, sadness, and persecution will be reversed. That is why he can say we are blessed even though we are in such a state of misery. The word “blessed” here is a word that speaks of one being in a good state, a state of happiness and contentment and peace. If this state of poverty, want, sadness, and persecution never changed, then it would be hard to call such a state “blessed.” But in light of the reversal, he can call us blessed.

Likewise, this is same for how Jesus speaks woe unto the godless who are rich and satisfied and glad and well-spoken of by the world. When Jesus uses that word “woe”, it is a word that expresses extreme displeasure. You could translate it as “alas”! It is to be in such a bad state that you are profoundly unhappy and discontent. So, you see, if the godless’ outward estate never changed from such a place of prosperity and plenty, then there wouldn’t be any woe in them. But in light of the reversal, he can speak woe unto them.

Think in terms of wealth. The godly might find themselves poor here and now. But Jesus says to have the perspective that they are possessors of the riches of heaven because theirs is the kingdom of God. On the other hand, the godless might have lied, stolen, cheated, even murdered, their way to wealth. But Jesus says you’ve already received your comforts. They won’t have any in Christ’s coming kingdom. As James points out, the wealth of this world is fragile and fleeting. The treasures of this life can tarnish, break, become ruined, or even stolen. But for the Christian who has set his heart on heavenly treasures, they possess something far better and everlasting. And yes, as Matthew points out, to be someone not just outwardly poor, but especially inwardly poor, poor in spirit, is to realize you need God and his grace in your life. It is to come humbly before our Lord and look to him for salvation. It’s to cry to him and say, “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.”

Think in terms of satisfaction, in matters of hunger and want in general. The godly might find themselves hungry right now and lacking things they need. They might not have enough food on the table. Living for Christ might mean they made certain choices and made certain sacrifices and find themselves now lacking. Or their hunger and want might be a result of social ostracism because they profess Christ. Should the cancel culture efforts continue by our world, Christians today might find themselves hungry and in want if they struggle to find a job because culture has so-called canceled them. There is nothing new under the sun. The godless might have plenty of food on their tables and seem like they have everything they need. But Jesus says one day they will find themselves hungry. And Jesus says one day, we Christians will find that we are fully satisfied. And yes, as Matthew points out, we should hunger for righteousness, and know that God will be pleased to fill us with such fruit in our relationship with him.

Think in terms of weeping versus laughing. Jesus speaks of how the godly might weep now. There are several reasons a Christian might weep right now. We might weep over the fallen nature of this world. We might weep over all the troubles and hardship we are facing in this world because we are seeking to follow Christ. We might weep over our sin. We should weep over our sin. But one day we will laugh in joy and celebration when Jesus comes back to wipe away all our tears. One day, there will be an ending of all our tears forever. Yet, right now, the wicked may find themselves laughing. They think they are doing so well. They think their ways are best. They celebrate in their progress and may think themselves top of the world. They might laugh now, but God will have the last laugh. In their wickedness, God will judge them. When they come to know the judgment of God, their laughter will become mourning and weeping.

So then, we see how Jesus says the tables will be turned. In each of these reversals, it goes both ways. It’s like the righteous and wicked will change places. What the godless are outwardly experiencing will be lost and they will experience what the godly are experiencing, and vice-versa. The poor will become rich, and the rich will become poor, etc. This is what Jesus had in mind what we find him saying elsewhere, “The first will be last and the last will be first.”

See how Jesus’ beatitudes and woes here call for faith. Right now, the current life for us disciples of Jesus might involve various troubles and hardships and miseries compared to the life of the unbelieving world. But he wants them to have faith. In the language of beatitudes and woes he provides a contrast that demands faith. Those who follow him do have the real blessed life, even if right now it might not seem like it from an external perspective. And those who do not follow Jesus, are in a terribly sad state, even if it might not seem like it from an external perspective.

This leads us then to our third and final point to recognize there is an already and not yet dynamic involved in all of this. At this point in our consideration, I am surely pointing out the obvious here. But it is worthy thinking about these things in terms of the already and not yet because it informs and reminds our faith about the timing and fulfillment of these things. There are some things of the reversal largely something for the future and we need to keep that perspective in mind. But there are also some aspects that are already here too, and we should appreciate and recognize them too.

Notice then what is already the case. Start with the last beatitude and woe. While the godly may be spoken-ill of today, Jesus points out that they did the same thing to the prophets of old. The implication is that the godly are of God. The world says bad things about Christians but God speaks good things of Christians. That’s why it says in verse 23 that your reward is, present tense, in heaven. The world’s persecutions speak lies of what Christians really are; and what Christians really are is one of those thing we already are enjoying. We are already those who belong to God in Christ Jesus and we already have reward in heaven to our account. In contrast, the world may speak well right now of the ungodly, as verse 26 says, but Jesus points out that they spoke well of the false-prophets of old too. So, this is some of the already for the wicked. Despite the seemingly good reputation to the world, they do not have a good name to God. They are but like the false prophets in God’s eyes. They are already here and now under God’s condemnation, despite how good of a name that they might have here and now before the world.

Another thing that is already here is mentioned in the first beatitude and woe. The godly poor already have the kingdom of God. It doesn’t say that the poor are blessed because theirs will be the kingdom of God. It says theirs is the kingdom. When we become a Christian by turning from our sinful rebellion and putting our faith in Jesus Christ, we become a citizen of Christ’s kingdom. We also become adopted sons of God in that kingdom, co-heirs with Christ of a heavenly inheritance. This we possess already. That is represented here and now when someone is baptized into Christ’s church and becomes a member. That present membership in Christ’s church on earth reflects how as believers we already have a share in the kingdom of God. Whatever poverty we may experience here and now, that truth needs to countered with the riches of heaven that already belong to us as saved Christians. In contrast, verse 24 speaks of what the wicked rich already have. They have already received their consolation. See how Jesus paired the first beatitude and the first woe with something they both already have. Jesus says these wicked rich have already received all that they are going to receive.

So then, let’s observe the not yet in all this. We find in the two middle beatitudes and blessings that language of “shall”. This is future tense, describe what each side will in the future receive. For the godly, they shall not be lacking in the future, but they shall be satisfied. For the godly, they shall not be weeping in the future, but they will be laughing. This future will come at Christ’s return when he comes bringing the consummate kingdom of God. As Revelation illustrates through visions, there will be that wonderful tree of life that has fruit that is always in season. And Revelation says that God will wipe away all our tears. He says we’ll rejoice over fallen Babylon. He says we’ll rejoice at how God’s reign is then manifested. We will celebrate in great joy at the marriage feast of the lamb, and our joy will be unending. But for the wicked, it says here in the future they shall be hungry and they shall be mourning and weeping. There is a Newsboys song that says, “They don’t serve breakfast in hell.” Scripture speaks of that eternal state for the wicked as a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, forever and ever.

As we think of these not yet aspects, we realize that what people experience here and now is just for a short time compared to the eternal final estates. This is why we can see ourselves blessed even if here and now for a little while we suffer for the sake of Christ. And it is why the unbeliever should realize his great woe even though right here and now he enjoys much prosperity; for it is only for a little while. Again, this is Jesus calling us to have faith – to believe in this perspective of the reality of the now versus the not yet. If we take his words seriously, it calls us to respond to make sure that we are his disciples and are found in him on that last day.

In conclusion, I remind you that, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). And that “Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus experienced a mighty reversal from the riches of heaven to the poverty of the cross. But then from that poverty he found reversal himself to the exalted right hand of God. From heaven and back again Jesus came so that we could know this same sort of reversal in him.

Let me address the non-Christians for a moment. If you’ve thought the way of Christ seemed foolish because it would mean giving up too much here and now, then I urge you to not be short-sighted. See that way for the “woe” that it is. But to the Christians, of course we shouldn’t seek out poverty, and hunger, and sadness, and persecution as if those things are virtuous in themselves. But we do set our heart on Christ and his kingdom and his righteousness as the priority of our life. Should we experience poverty, hunger, sadness, and persecution because of that, well, Jesus reminds us how to think about that. He says to see our blessedness.


Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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