Now, what follows is what every well-read Christian knows as the Sermon on the Mount. Here, however, Luke speaks of the Lord’s “coming down” and standing on a “level place.” What is more Luke’s version is much shorter and different in a number of specific ways. So the question becomes: is this the same sermon that Matthew has given us in chapters 5-7 of his Gospel, from which we get the name “The Sermon on the Mount,” or did the Lord Jesus preach the same sermon or parts of the same sermon more than once? Some of you will have watched Eric Mataxas’ splendid address at the National Prayer Breakfast a few weeks ago. But if you did and you were also present when Eric spoke here last July, you will have noticed that there were many correspondences between his two addresses, even some identical remarks. Preachers often make use of the same material in different sermons, especially if that material is basic to their message. I never do, of course; I’m only speaking of preachers in general! Martyn Lloyd Jones preached his sermon on Aeneas, from Acts 9, more than 80 times and since he preached from bare notes, not once in those 80 some renditions of the sermon was it precisely the same sermon as preached on another occasion. But, it is also possible that Matthew has given us a more complete account of the sermon and Luke more of a summary and that the level place or plateau was located on the lower side of some hill. Some have entitled this sermon as the Sermon on the Plain to distinguish it from the Sermon on the Mount, but the question cannot be settled. Who cares really? It is the timeless power of this sermon, the truth it contains and expresses so memorably that has made it one of if not the most influential address in the history of the world.
v.17 The “them” in the first line is a reference to the apostles. So there are three groups present to hear this sermon: the twelve, a larger group of his disciples, and a large group of other folk, interested in Jesus, but not yet his disciples. The stir over Jesus of Nazareth was such that even foreigners were coming to see and hear him. That simple, explicit historical detail, unaffectedly supplied, that people came from Tyre and Sidon, is by itself virtually formal proof of the fact that Jesus had done some remarkable things indeed!
v.20 It is important to pay attention to those words “on his disciples.” The sermon was addressed primarily to the Lord’s disciples, but others, as he well knew were listening in. So in what follows we will find material that is explicitly relevant to Christians and material that is addressed to the people who are not yet followers of Jesus Christ. The fact is, the truth of the Bible is always relevant to everyone and anyone can hear a sermon about anything and receive great help from it. Christian believers and unbelievers have to live in this world that God made and God made to run according to certain principles and laws and all of us, believers and unbelievers alike, will have to give an account of our lives to God at the end.
“Blessed” is a common biblical term and idea and incorporates all the states of happiness, contentment, and good fortune that men and women wish for in life. Such blessedness that comes from God, the happiness that Jesus is talking about is certainly an inner state or feeling or sense, but it is first and foremost an objective reality, not an emotion. Still less an emotion based on some illusion! Here the blessing is in the present tense, the believer already possesses it. In the following beatitudes of blessings the tense is future and the blessing is yet to come, at least in its completeness. Again it is typical in the teaching of Jesus to understand salvation, eternal life, and the blessing of our lives as something that we already have but will have in far greater measure in the world to come.
“Poor” here, as elsewhere in the Bible, is an economic condition used to describe a spiritual one. Matthew makes that clearer still when he gives the same beatitude as “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Physical poverty is not only a metaphor, however. The poor are far better able to understand their absolute dependence upon God than the rich, which is why Jesus will later say that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle. In any case, the use of the second person – blessed are you who are poor – makes it plain that Jesus is not talking about economic misfortune per se. He is certainly addressing his disciples, only some of whom, in any, were poor in that sense. But for the poor of the world, this is still wonderful news. They may have nothing, but there is a way for them to acquire everything! Jesus is that way.
v.21 Again, it is not physical hunger that is meant. Matthew adds the words understood here: “blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
For the same reason we are certainly right to understand “weep now” in terms not of any and every sorrow of human life, but weeping for sin, for what is wrong, evil, unjust in human life, weeping for man’s ignorance of God, his refusal to follow Christ, and all of man’s suffering that comes from his rebellion against God. Again all who hunger and weep in this world will not, alas, rejoice in the next, but the disciples of Jesus will.
v.22 Again, the reference is not to any suffering but to the suffering his disciples must endure on account of their following Jesus.
v.23 What is obvious about the so-called beatitudes is that they form an exact counter-position to that held by most people. They turn the world’s values upside down. They commend what the world despises and reject what the world admires. Who are the happy? Why, the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the persecuted. What ought to make us most happy? Things that will fully be ours only later, when this world is done or when we are done with this world.
So the command to rejoice in the day of persecution, for it is the sign that you belong to the Son of Man and thus have indescribable happiness awaiting you. Think of a man abjectly poor, laboring under the crushing burden of his poverty, but who receives in the mail a notice that in a year’s time he will fall heir to fabulous wealth. His poverty does not immediately disappear, he does not immediately cease to suffer from the want of things, but that is small reason not to click his heels in the air, give a fist pump or two, and smile from ear to ear! He is rich in every way that really matters! What would you rather be, rich now in the certainty that you will be very poor later and forever or poor now in the certainty that you will be very rich later and forever? Well, so the Christian.
The woes that follow have no counterpart in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, one argument for taking Luke’s version as a separate sermon. Here we read not of the goodness of what the world thinks is bad but of the badness of what the world thinks is good. It does not appear that the Lord is addressing his disciples here as they were not rich, though, of course Christians can be tempted by the desire for money as rich people can be tempted by the possession of it. People who came all the way from Tyre and Sidon might well include a number of folk who were better heeled; free to leave their jobs for several days.
v.24 In the Bible the problem with riches is that they cause people who have them to indulge the illusion that they have no need for God. They insulate people from those very things that drive men to God. “You have received,” is the translation of a verb found on receipts from those days. It is equivalent to “Paid in full.” [Morris, 148; Bock, i, 583-584] You better enjoy your money while you can, the Lord is saying to the rich, because this is all the wealth you’ll ever have and this won’t last much longer. But, of course, we meet some rich folk in the Gospels – Zacchaeus or Joseph of Arimathea, for example – who believed in Jesus and so have both riches in this world and unimaginable wealth of a still great kind in the world to come. The rich are warned, in other words, not excluded as a class. This is not an economic manifesto, but an account of theological and spiritual reality.
v.25 The world is unlikely to congratulate the righteous, so if you receive a great deal of congratulation, beware. It is no guarantee that God thinks similarly of you, and is more likely evidence that he does not.
Very obviously we have a fundamental contrast drawn in the Lord’s famous sermon, a contrast between two groups of people, indeed the only two groups of people that exist in the world: those who have God’s blessing and those who do not. Those who have a right to be happy and those who do not. The British humorist Peter Benchley once remarked that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who are always dividing the people of the world into two kinds and those who are not. But, the fact is, the Bible always divides the people of the world into two and only two groups. And Jesus invariably divided the world of human beings into two: the saved and the unsaved, the righteous and the wicked, or, as he famously put it, those who need a physician and those who do not, by which he meant, those who admit they need a physician and those who don’t think they do. This two-fold division is valid because the Lord never bases his evaluation of human life on the superficial exterior, where the real difference between people is much harder to see, but on the commitment of the heart, where the difference is one of black and white. There are, of course, a great many distinctions that separate people from one another in important and interesting ways: age, sex, race, language, nationality, economic status, politics, even religion. But at the last only one distinction really matters: do you have God’s salvation or do you not? Or, as Jesus puts it here, are you blessed, are you happy or are you not?
Now, the Lord is obviously using that term in a more objective way and means us to understand it in a biblically sophisticated way. For example, no reader of the Bible would deny that there is certainly a way in which Christians are and must be poor and must weep, but there is a great deal of pure pleasure, feasting, and enjoyment of life for the Christian as well. We laugh and tell jokes – though some of you really need to get some new ones, preferably actually funny! –, we take satisfaction in many things, we are enriched in the fellowship and love of others, we delight in our marriages and our children, and so on. In the same way, we acknowledge that followers of Jesus can be sad for many reasons, both good and bad. They can be sad because of some tragedy that has befallen those they love. Jesus himself was sad in that way and we see him being sad in that way in the Gospels. Or they can be sad because they have done wrong; they have failed the Lord in some way. They ought to be sad. We see faithful men and women being sad all through the Bible. Sadness as we know all too well is often the price of love, love for God and love for others. Jesus is not denying the reality of sadness in a believer’s life or hardship or even tragedy when he says that his disciples can be distinguished from the rest of mankind because they are blessed or happy. Indeed, he puts it directly here: happy are you who are weeping! We will also see Jesus weep in the Gospels. The blessedness, the happiness of which the Lord is speaking here is not incompatible with real sadness of a kind. One needs to understand the Lord’s beatitudes or blessings in a Gospel and biblical context.
And when we consider the beatitudes in that way it becomes clear that the blessedness or happiness Jesus is speaking of here is something more substantial than the ephemeral emotional states of our daily human life. He is not talking about the happiness that sometimes marks our lives; he is talking about the happiness that is always true of those who follow him. As Paul once described the Christian as one who is sorrowful but always rejoicing, so Jesus describes here a life that is fundamentally, deeply, permanently happy, even if there are times of sadness inter-mixed. Perhaps you can think of it like the ocean depths, calm waters miles deep, disturbed by the winds only in the few feet nearest the surface.
But this happiness, Jesus says, is a way of describing the true difference between his disciples and everyone else. Unbelievers usually have only the vaguest idea of what distinguishes them from believers and, alas, Christians themselves have often muddied the waters and made that distinction harder for unbelievers to understand. Unbelievers, understandably, tend to concentrate on the distinctions that they can see, that are visible to them which are often among the least significant of distinctions. Christians go to church and they don’t; Christians are goody-goodies, but they are more earthy; Christians are judgmental whereas they are tolerant, and so on. In some times and places unbelievers would describe the difference between Christians and themselves in even more superficial ways: Christians don’t cuss, don’t smoke, don’t drink wine, Christian women wear long dresses, don’t use make-up, home-school their children, and so on.
What unbelievers never think, however, is that they are different from Christians in the way that Jesus describes here: that Christians are happy and they are not, happy with a capital “H.” The very idea offends them. They are just as happy as any Christian. “The Christians I know don’t seem to be more happy than I am!” they say. They don’t think that Christians have a wonderful future stretching before them and that they do not or that Christians have God’s blessing resting upon them but they do not. If they thought that they would be in a fair way of becoming Christians themselves!
But don’t underestimate the Lord’s genius in putting his finger on this particular way of describing the difference between his followers and those who are not. Christians are happy and happy because they are poor, hungry, weeping, and because they must live as outsiders in the world. Happiness or blessedness is fabulously important to human beings. It is not too much to say that it is the vital question of human life: how can I become and remain happy? This is, in fact, something all human beings have in common, Christians and non-Christians alike. They all without exception want to be happy. And with his profound understanding of human nature Jesus begins here. He was an expert in putting his finger on the pulse of human life.
Blaise Pascal, the French man of letters, mathematician, and apologist for the Christian faith, explained Jesus making a point of happiness in this way.
“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same in both… The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”
Pascal’s point is that even when people would argue that they do things for other reasons than their own happiness, that motivation still lies at the foundation. You may grumble that you have to do this or that, you may chafe under your boss and dislike working for him, but in the final analysis you do disagreeable things because you judge that you would be worse off if you didn’t do them and you obey your boss no matter your dislike of him or her because you think it much more conducive to your welfare – that is, your happiness – to have a job than not to have one. There is an ache to be happy in the human heart and that ache is the engine that drives our lives.
Indeed, people become followers of Jesus for this same reason; they have come to believe that their true hope of happiness is to be found in him. As Augustine put it long ago:
“If I were to ask you why you have believed in Christ, why you have become Christians, every man will truly answer, ‘For the sake of happiness.’”
So the first thing we are to do with the famous text we have read this morning is to appreciate that the Lord has put his finger on the great question facing mankind: how and where can I find true and lasting happiness and how and where can I avoid true and lasting woe?
The whole story of human life can be understood as the history of man’s longing for and search for happiness. So much of the misery in the world is the direct result of men and women looking for happiness in all the wrong places and, as a result, finding misery instead. The pursuit of money, of fame, of power, of pleasure has never secured happiness for people and usually has increased their misery and often the misery of others. Ask Whitney Houston. What is more the pursuit of happiness by such means provides no answer to the problem posed by death. But Jesus knows how to make people happy for good. He came into the world to open the way to true and everlasting happiness for human beings and to announce to the world where that happiness can be found for which men and women were made and which they long for and seek. The fact that you crave happiness is surely some evidence that it exists, is it not?
So what is that way that leads to true happiness? Well in a series of arresting statements the Lord turns the ordinary expectations of human beings upside down. We think that being poor would be a cause of sadness, not happiness. But there is a kind of poverty that not only is compatible with happiness, it is the foundation of true happiness. Happiness always comes with it. That poverty is poverty of spirit or humility before God and conviction of sin. When a man or woman acknowledges that he is a sinner before God all manner of happy things become possible that will never be possible for the person who refuses to admit the truth about himself or herself. When a man is hungry – by which Jesus means that he longs for and works for the right things, truly good things, things that God approves – the Lord in his grace and goodness will satisfy his hunger because that’s the way God is and what he loves to do. When a man weeps for what is wrong in his own heart, in the lives of others, and in the world – a world that Jesus also wept over many times – because God loves that kind of sympathy, and concern for others – that weeping will be turned quickly and then permanently to joy. When a man suffers for what is right, as the Lord Christ suffered terribly for what was right, the Lord approves and rewards that loyalty because that is the sort of person he is. Think of that electrifying passage at the end of Acts 5 when the apostles, leaving the court where they had been threatened, insulted, and flogged for preaching the good news about Jesus, rejoiced that they had been counted worthy of suffering for the Name! Rejoiced!
These sorts of things really do go down to the root of things and expose the nature of a person’s life. Look at the world around you. Look at the people around you. People don’t long for the vindication of God’s name. That isn’t important to them. The misuse of God’s name doesn’t grieve them. They are not hungry for more of the presence of God in their lives. If the truth be told they would prefer that the Almighty keep his distance and not intrude upon their freedom to do what they please. They don’t think of their lives in terms of his will and his kingdom. What Christ did on the cross is not important to them. They are not hungry to be better people than they are, more pure, more loving, more faithful, more honest because they want to express their love for God and their thanks to Jesus in ways that really matter.
In fact, unbelievers have never been able to wrap their minds around the beatitudes or the savior’s woes. Their view of life, their hope of happiness rests on a completely different foundation than Jesus has laid here. Do you remember Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard commencement address back in 1978? Many of you are too young to remember that fabulously revealing moment in the recent history of American culture. In those days the great Russian novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature was everyone’s hero in the West. He was a great man who had suffered for his convictions in the Soviet gulag, a brilliant writer whose prose had changed the world, and who certainly had more than a little something to do with the de-legitimation of communism that led to its collapse a few years later. No one had so exposed that system’s inhumanity as powerfully and irrefutably as Solzhenitsyn had.
No wonder Harvard sought him for a commencement speaker. But in his Harvard address he, in effect, said that the Western world was not only the very world that Jesus described in these four woes – rich, comfortable, pleasure-seeking, and self-congratulatory – but that it really believed that it could find its fulfillment and satisfaction in materialism, without reference to God or to human goodness as God has defined it for us all. Now, you might think that everyone would have nodded his head, at least in polite agreement. After all, don’t we all say that we believe that money can’t buy happiness; that people are more important than things; and that it is better to be good than rich? Well, Solzhenitsyn’s speech evoked instead a howl in all quarters of the Western world. Even our so-called evangelical president, Jimmy Carter, took time to criticize it publicly. As many wise people noticed at the time, Solzhenitsyn had struck too close to home; we liked him when he talked about the sins of others, but he had defamed America’s gods; he had warned a whole people that they were leaning on a broken reed. His days as a hero of the West were over in a single, sunny morning in Boston. Jesus, if you remember, suffered a similar fate. Jesus had the same experience. People have a lot invested in their theory of happiness and when it is attacked they strike back.
What seems so familiar to us is something people really do not want to hear. They don’t want to believe that they must become followers of Jesus to be truly and lastingly happy and they don’t want to believe that a life of true happiness must be a life in some important respects poor, hungry, full of tears, and at odds with the prevailing thought and culture. But has anything, anything at all, happened in the two thousand years that have passed from the day Jesus first uttered these words to prove that Jesus was wrong?
His resurrection was to be the demonstration of the absolute truth of these beatitudes and woes. This life is short; it is followed by one that is very long. Anyone who lives his life without regard to that fact and without an honest reckoning with what comes next will face woe infinitely longer than the time he or she enjoys the pleasures of this world, to the extent that he or she can enjoy them without Jesus.
What is it if one enjoys the pleasures of this world – superficial as they are in comparison with the deeper joys of the love of God – if they must come soon to a shuddering end, never to be experienced again? As Bernard of Clairvaux, the great Medieval Christian, observed:
“There is no greater misery than false joys.”
And, on the contrary, how happy are they who are living for what they know to be the right things and have the love of God in their hearts – no matters the trials and struggles of life – when the eternal world, perfect in every way, a kingdom of love and joy – awaits them on the other side?
Take the poorest people in the world – a Bangladeshi who lives in a slum on the outskirts of Dacca or a Somali couple unable to provide an adequate number of calories for their starving children – and compare them to the wealthiest people in the world. How different they seem! How different they are! One hasn’t even a hovel for a home, the other lives in a palace: beautiful, comfortable, a virtual paradise under roof. Large comfortable bedrooms, an indoor swimming pool, huge vanity bathrooms that abjectly poor people would love to have as their home, immense kitchens with multiple stoves and ovens, sinks with fresh, clean water wherever one turns, plumbing that is both sanitary and beautiful at one and the same time. One person rises in the morning hoping against hope to find something to eat and, without hesitation, will eat whatever scraps of food he or she can find, no matter how rancid and disgusting. The other has the finest dishes prepared by his own chef. The one hopes to eat a meal of some kind, though often does not; the other thinks only of what good food he has to look forward to at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I was at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville the last few days and Thursday morning made the mistake of thinking that I needed breakfast before my meeting began. I went to one of the many restaurants in this hotel, the largest hotel in the world, and plush beyond imagination. I had an omelet. I mean I had an omelet, 3 eggs folded over on the plate, period. $23.00. The rich man worries only that he may be consuming too many calories to stay as fit and thin as he wishes to be and grouses like I did about the cost of his food. The other wishes he could have the scraps from those restaurant tables: what a feast they would be for him.
How different these human beings are! Well, says Jesus – using “poor” and “rich” and the like to draw his contrast – that is how different my disciples are from those who are not. It isn’t perhaps as obvious to the eye, but in the ways that matter most and matter forever the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is even greater than that between the poorest man and the wealthiest. And that is why those who are poor, who hunger, who weep, and who suffer opposition for Christ’s sake are blessed and happy and why those who do not are not and cannot be. Only Christ can give true happiness, because his is the happiness that lasts; his is the kind that goes down to the bottom of life and then never ends.
In the American Rockies or the Swiss Alps or the Himalayas, at the very crest, the absolute center of the ridge there is snow that sits on a knife edge. When it melts some molecules of water fall to one side and others fall to the other. They sit side by side upon the ridge, but when the snow becomes water and falls down the mountain side, they move in opposite directions. In North America one molecule that sat next to another on the top of the continental divide ends up in the Atlantic Ocean, another in the Pacific, thousands of miles apart. In Europe one molecule ends up in the frigid waters of the North Sea and the one that had sat next to it in the snow finds itself in the warm waters of the Mediterranean. So close, so seemingly the same in every way at the top of the mountain but one moving to the icy north, the other to the sunny south. Despite so much similarity, they end up a world apart.
Jesus is the knife edge that separates the human souls in this world and depending upon what side of him a person is so will be that person’s journey to the future and so will be his destination. And it is the eventual destination that finally determines whether any human life is happy or not.