The Lord's Day Morning
September 13, 2009
“Blessed or Cursed? Weal or Woe”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles I would invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 6. We’re going to look at verses 20 to 26 today as we continue to work our way through this Gospel together. Last Lord's Day we looked at verses 12 to 23 and we said that in part, what Jesus was doing as He introduced the Beatitudes, these surprising words of blessing, because the kinds of things He lists in the category of blessedness are not the kinds of things we normally associate with blessedness: poverty, hunger, weeping, friendlessness, persecution. How can these things be blessed? And last Lord's Day we said in part, what Jesus is doing, is He is preparing His disciples for what they are going to face in a fallen world, so that when they encounter poverty, and all His disciples did, and hunger, and all His disciples did, and weeping, and all His disciples do, and friendlessness, and persecution, the reaction is not — “What's happening to me, Lord? This isn't supposed to be how it is!” No, the reaction is, “This is just what the Lord Jesus told me I would face. This is what He prepared me for. This is what He trained me for. This is what He discipled me for. This is what He built me to face.”
My wife's, maybe her favorite part in all of movies, is the part in Apollo 13 when the NASA administrator walks into mission control with a message of doom and gloom. “We've got a disaster on our hands. This could be horrible.” Then Ed Harris, who's playing the head figure in mission control, stands up and pulls his vest down and he says, “I beg to differ, sir. This will be our finest hour.” And you see, Jesus is preparing believers for when they face those moments that absolutely take their breath away and all the lights almost go out, to, with a steady resolve say, “This is what you built me for, Jesus. Now we’ll put to test the grace that You have been working in me because You didn't build me to float to heaven on flowery beds of ease. You built me, if necessary, to traverse bloody seas on the way home to glory. That's what you built me for. And by God's grace, I will do it, trusting and treasuring You.” That's what we said last Lord's Day as we came to these Beatitudes.
Now today, we are going to go back to those Beatitudes again, but this time we're going to couple them with the woes. It's interesting that Luke is the only one, who in the Sermon on the Mount, records both Jesus’ woes and Jesus’ words of blessing. And obviously Matthew gives three chapters to the Sermon on the Mount, Luke's record is shorter, both of them are abbreviations of what must certainly have been a longer sermon that Jesus preached. They are giving you the outlines. They are selecting certain parts of what Jesus says and certain parts of the outline in order to emphasize, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, particular truths. And by grouping the blessings and woes together, what Luke does is he helps you understand what Jesus is getting at.
So as we read today, please note how verses 20 and 24 parallel one another. Twenty is “blessed are you who are poor.” Twenty- four is “woe to you who are rich.” Then look at how 21 and 25 go together. That's “blessed are you who are hungry now” and “woe to you who are full now,” and “blessed are you who weep now” and “woe to you who laugh now.” And then look at how verses 22 and 26 go together. “Blessed are you when people hate you” — “woe to you when all people speak well of you.” Luke is actually helping you understand what Jesus is getting at by grouping the blessings and woes as he does. So be on the lookout for that.
But especially be on the lookout for this, as we ask, “Lord, what is it you want us to learn from this passage?” Jesus is especially concerned that all true disciples of His know what the good life looks like and what looks like the good life, but isn't. He is very concerned that we know what the good life looks like and that we know what looks like the good life, but isn't. That's vitally important in the Christian life, for how we respond both to the triumphs and the tragedies, the joys and the trials of our life, will be directly related to whether we adequately understand what the truly good and happy and blessed life is, and what the world thinks the truly happy, good, and blessed life is, but it isn't. That's one thing He's up to in these blessings and woes so let's pray before we read God's Word.
Heavenly Father, thank You for the Bible. It is a lamp to our feet and a light to our way and we must confess that we need it as much as we need food, only more. For our Lord Jesus Himself reminds us, quoting Moses, that ‘man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’. So Lord, we need this Word more than we need food. So give us spiritual ears to hear it, and help us to taste and see that You are good, and help us to ask and answer rightly, ‘Who is it that we trust and what do we treasure?’ as we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the very Word of God. Amen.
“And he lifted His eyes on His disciples, and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.’”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Come with me in your imagination for just a few moments to an idyllic scene: A well-to-do grandfather in a capacious and well appointed home on a large country estate on Christmas morning. He has four children and fifteen grandchildren and it is their custom every four or five years for all of them to gather at his home, along with his wife, and they celebrate Christmas together. And it is their tradition to get up, and just before breakfast on Christmas morning, to open just one present, and then to enjoy breakfast, and later on in the morning to gather around the family tree and open the rest of the presents. Well that morning, early, the grandchildren had arisen and they had discovered one or two inches dusting of snow on the ground all around them, and they are abuzz with anticipation of getting out into the grass. And so they awaken grandmother and grandfather early and they want to get quickly to the opening of the first present and quickly to breakfast so they can get out quickly into the yard, and so it is done.
As they are gathering around the tree and the smells of breakfast are already wafting through the air, the grandfather does something just a little bit different. Normally it is the custom for the youngest of the grandchildren to begin opening and selecting the first present that each will open before breakfast, but on this morning, the youngest grandchild is bidden to open a tiny box and to display from it what present is held in it. And the youngest grandchild opens the tiny box and a slip of paper is taken out of it, a small slip of paper is taken out, and it simply says, “A story, a parable.” Now this has never been done before in this family and all are wondering what's about to happen and the grandfather says, “My first present to you all this morning is a story, a parable, and here's how it goes:
The happiest children in the world this morning are those who will get no gifts. The happiest children in the world are those who will get no breakfast this morning. The happiest children in the world are the ones who will spend this morning crying. The happiest children in the world are the ones who have no friends and who are bullied by their schoolmates. The saddest children in the world are the ones who have the most presents. The saddest children in the world are the ones with the best breakfast. The saddest children in the world are the ones that will spend all morning laughing and playing with their new toys. The saddest children in the world are the ones with the most friends and who are the most popular.”
Now, I don't have time this morning in my imaginary scene to describe to you the reaction of all fifteen grandchildren, but I can tell you this. The oldest of them, a seventeen year old girl, is thinking to herself quietly, “My granddad has lost it.” But nine year old Jimmy, here's what he's thinking, “Does this mean we don't get any toys?” And I won't tell you what the rest of them are thinking, but leave granddad and the grandchildren aside; we’ll come back to them later.
But do you understand that what Jesus says in His Beatitudes to the disciples and the multitudes gathered to hear Him in the beginning of this great sermon, is no less shocking than what this grandfather in my imaginary story has just told his grandchildren? It would have been no less arresting to the crowd who heard it than that parable, that strange story, would have sounded to those grandchildren. Surely those grandchildren were listening and thinking, “Gee, I wanted a Christmas story on Christmas morning, not Lemony Snicket and A Series of Unfortunate Events. This is dark, Granddad.”
And surely that's how the disciples and the gathered multitudes would have responded to what Jesus was saying in these blessings and woes because what Jesus is doing in those blessings and woes is He's making a mockery of all that the world values and considers blessing. And He is mocking all that the world considers woes. Now that's obvious. You’re smart people, and when you hear it read, you immediately think, “You know, poverty, hunger, weeping, persecution and friendlessness are not in the top five things I want for my life, or for the lives of my children.” And, conversely, you don't think of, well, a full stomach, laughter, many and deep and rich friendships and a relative lack of persecution by the world — you do not number those things among the worst possible things that could ever happen to you. So you understand that Jesus is being deliberately provocative and ironic.
That is obvious, but the question is, “Why?” Why is Jesus talking about blessing and woe in this way, in a way that so obviously cuts against our instincts and our sensibilities? Is it — does He start with “blessed are the poor” because He wants us all to become socialists? He wants us to empty our 401K's and take vows of poverty? Is that what Jesus is up to? There've been some that have interpreted it that way. I think that entirely misses His point in this passage. Very clear, from what everything else that Jesus teaches and what everything else Luke says in this Gospel, that poverty, hunger, weeping, friendlessness and persecution are not in and of themselves blessed states — nor are wealth, a full stomach, laughter, friends, and persecution inherently blessed states. Whether those states are blessed or cursed depends on something else. The key, by the way, is to see these words at the end of verse 22: “on account of the Son of Man.” That's the key to understanding this whole passage. Whether poverty or wealth are a blessing or curse, depends solely on your relationship to the Son of Man. That is one of the keys of understanding this passage.
It's interesting that, of the Gospel writers, Luke was probably the wealthiest of them. Maybe Matthew could have rivaled him. Why? Luke was a physician and even in his day, physicians were, among the professional classes, among the wealthiest. And yet Luke never uses the word “rich” in his gospel in a positive way, though he himself was probably richer than any of the other Gospel writers.
It's fascinating to me. I was doing a word search on this, this week, and I noticed that when you get to the passage in Luke about Joseph of Arimathea —it's fascinating — Matthew tells you what about Joseph of Arimathea? You remember him? He's the guy who helped to bury Jesus. He provided a tomb for Jesus. And Matthew tells you what about him? “He was rich.” It's interesting that Matthew, the former tax collector, would note that Joseph was rich. It is also interesting that when you get to Luke's gospel, he doesn't tell you that. You know what he says about Joseph? “He was a good and righteous man.” And I think that is fascinatingly instructive and it helps you know what Luke is up to here. Luke is not sneaking in a message of socialism into Jesus’ ministry. He's saying that neither wealth nor poverty, in and of itself, is a blessed state apart from a person having the true treasure which is Jesus Christ, the Son of Man. And if you have that treasure, neither wealth nor poverty need be the state of either blessing or woe for you because all your blessings are in Jesus Christ. And so you can meet triumph and disaster and treat both those impostures just the same.
So why then is Jesus juxtaposing these blessings and cursings? Well, the blessings and woes are designed to exalt what the world despises and reject what the world admires. You follow that? The blessings are the things that the world despises and Jesus says, “you are truly happy if you treasure Me, even if you experience what the world despises, and you are truly sad if you don't treasure Me, even if you have what the world admires.” So Jesus is saying these blessings and woes are designed to make fun of what the world despises and help us reject what the world admires.
But you still have to ask the question, “Why? Why are you talking about this, Jesus? Why are you talking this way?” And the answer is pretty simple — Jesus is telling His disciples how He intends us to be different from the world, how He intends us to be distinct from the world, how He intends us to stand out in the world. What will make us distinct from the world? Not our wealth, not our food, not our clothing, not the laughter that we enjoy common with the world, not the friendship that we have with the world, but what we value most will make us distinct from the world.
Now, let me back up and explain this. In the Old Testament, when God wanted to make Israel distinct from the nations, you know what He did? He gave them a special ceremonial law and in that special ceremonial law it requires them not to eat certain foods, not to wear certain kinds of clothing, and conversely, to wear their hair and clothing in such a way that was distinct and they were required to do certain rituals that non-Jews did not do. So, for instance, when it came to food, Jews were not allowed to eat pork and shrimp. Now, Israel's neighbors — some of them lived on the coast of the Mediterranean and they ate lots of shellfish and they had vast herds of swine, so they ate lots of pork. And to tell the Israelites that they could not eat shellfish and pork, immediately set them apart from the people around whom they lived. It made them stand out to those people and those people said, “Well those are the people who don't eat shrimp and pork.” And it also kept the Israelites from mixing and mingling with their Baal-worshipping neighbors because they couldn't sit down on Friday night and have a pork barbeque. And so it helped them to stay distinct from the world.
And He gave them clothing laws. There were certain kind of clothes that they could wear and not wear, and they had to wear their hair in a certain way because anyone could see them and say, “That person is different from me.” And so they could look at other people and say, “That person is not a Jew.” And He gave them ritual laws, like circumcision, that they were to practice, and the nations around them did not practice. So when David sees that hulking giant Goliath and says, “You uncircumcised Philistine!” he is not giving Goliath a compliment. He's dog cussing him because only the pagans are uncircumcised. We’re circumcised. And what did it do? It built a strong sense of the identity of the people of God. It is an identity that remains to this day.
If you have had friends who are from a Jewish home and have converted to the Lord Jesus Christ, you know the trauma that that can induce within the family circles because there are two types of people in the world: Jews and Gentiles. And Jews believe in the one, true God and they do not believe that the Messiah has come yet. And so when an ethnic Jew embraces Jesus as the Messiah, we've got a problem, because there are only two kinds of people in the world: Jews, and those who are not.
Well when Jesus comes, as you know, He abolishes the ceremonial law. He says, “No longer are My people bound to follow those dietary laws and those clothing laws and those ritual laws” even though those laws, many of them, pointed to what? To Jesus Christ — they pointed to Christ — especially the sacrificial system, it pointed to Christ, but it's abolished.
So then you have to ask, “How are God's people going to be distinct in the world without those ceremonial laws?” And here Jesus is, in the Sermon on the Mount, and what is He telling you? He's saying, “This is how you are going to be distinct. This is going to be how you are going to be shown to be different from the world around you. Not your food, not your clothing, not your ritual, but what you value most, is going to set you apart from the world around you. What you treasure most is going to set you apart from the world around you. So let me explain it to you this way, disciple — you are going to be blessed, even when you are poor, because you understand that I am the only real treasure. You’re going to be blessed, even when you’re hungry, because you understand that I am the bread of life. You’re going to be blessed, even when you are weeping, because you know that I came to bring joy inexpressible and fully of glory. You’re going to be blessed, even when you are friendless, because I am the friend of sinners, and I will never leave you or forsake you. You’re going to be blessed, even when you are persecuted for My sake, because frankly, I'm worth it.”
You see what Jesus is saying? Jesus is saying that thing that will make His disciple distinct in this world is what we treasure. And my friends, He has us at point blank range, right in His sights, because so many of us are trying to find our satisfaction and our fulfillment in this life by copying what our worldly friends think that satisfaction and fulfillment is found in, in this life. We think it's found in popularity and friendships. We think it's found in the fulfillment of our ambitions. We think it's found in wealth and success, and we're running after it almost as hard as the worldlings around us, and you know when we do, we look just like them. But Jesus is saying, “Not amongst My disciples. Even if they are poor, they know that in Me, they can have a transcendent happiness that cannot be taken away from them because of their poverty. And even if they are suffering the pangs of hunger, they know that I will give them a fullness that will never ever abate. And even if they are weeping so hard over the providences that have come into their lives that they cannot control their weeping, I will wipe away every tear from their eyes and no one can do it for them but Me.” And so they have come to the point where they have said, “Lord Jesus, You are my treasure, and You can take away everything else in this life and as long as I have You, I have more than enough.” He's saying, “In this hand, I will give you all the treasures that the world admires and seeks and longs for, and in this hand I will give you Me — which is it going to be?” And His disciple says, “I'd rather have Jesus. I'd rather have Jesus.”
One of the old Puritans said that, “If Christ were not in heaven, I would not want to go there. If Christ were not in heaven, I would not want to go there.” Why did he say that? Because he understood that the prize is Christ. You know, there are lots of people that want to go to heaven. There are lots of people that want to go to heaven because they don't want to go to hell. They may not even believe in hell but they want to go to heaven because they’d rather end up in heaven than in hell. But here's the difference — a believer would choose to be in heaven with Jesus over any and all of the joys that this earth has to offer, because the believer understands that true blessedness is not in wealth, and it's not in a full stomach, and it's not in all the laughter this world can provide, and it's not in the friends that this world can provide, and it's not in not being persecuted. True blessedness is knowing Jesus Christ our Lord; knowing Him as our Savior, our Shepherd, our Guardian, our Guide, and our Friend.
And this is what Jesus is saying to His disciples and it's what He's saying to you and me — “Here's how the world is going to know that you are Mine – because you treasure Me more than anything. And when you have to answer the question, ‘What is the greatest satisfaction that I could experience in this life?’ your answer is ‘fellowship with Jesus.’” So with Paul you can say, “I know how to abound, and I know how to be abased. I know how to be rich, and I know how to be poor, because in either state, no one can take my treasure from me. His name is Jesus.” And Jesus is saying, “That's what makes the difference between My disciples and the world.”
You know what? There are still two types of people in the world — you know what they are? Those who treasure Jesus above anyone and anything and everyone and everything else, and those who treasure something or someone above Jesus. Those are the only two types of people in the world there are. And Jesus is saying, “My disciples, the world will know who you are when you trust Me and when you treasure Me.”
Let's go back to the grandfather on Christmas morning. Nine year old Jimmy could not keep his mouth shut. He had to say something. “Granddad, does this mean you’re not giving us presents this year?” “No son, I'm giving you all presents, so are your parents, because we love you and we want to give you the best things we can give you, but I told you that story because your parents and your grandmother and I would hate for you to treasure these gifts more than you treasure the one gift that matters more than anything else — the gift of salvation which is in Jesus Christ. And so this morning, as you unwrap those gifts, you remember, there's a gift that's better than all of these gifts and His name is Jesus. And we want you, whether you have these gifts or not, to treasure Him more than all these gifts.”
And my friends, that's the choice that's before us today. Will you treasure Jesus more than anything else, or will you treasure anything else above Jesus? That's the great question of life. And those who have trusted in Jesus have so tasted and seen that He is good, that they treasure Him more than anything.