In His Beatitudes, Jesus pronounced blessings on those we would least expect. But Christ also declared curses on people that surprise us. Today, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke by contrasting these oracles of weal and of woe.
We are continuing our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. We are in the sixth chapter, and we will look at the same text that we visited last time. In this brief text, we have Luke’s abridged account of the much broader study given to us by Matthew of the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s look at Luke 6:20–26:
Then He lifted up His eyes toward His disciples, and said:
“Blessed are you poor,
For yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
For you shall be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
For you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you,
And when they exclude you,
And revile you, and cast out your name as evil,
For the Son of Man’s sake.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy!
For indeed your reward is great in heaven,
For in like manner 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,
For you shall hunger.
Woe to you who laugh now,
For you shall mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
For so did their fathers to the false prophets.
It is impossible for us to grasp the depth of these words unless we experience the visitation of God the Holy Spirit so that He may soften the hardness of our hearts and give us ears to hear the very Word of God. Let’s pray.
Our Father and our God, we ask that You send help, for without it, our ears are plugged to the words that we just heard. We need the illumination of the Spirit who superintended and inspired this text in the first place, that we may understand it, that we may embrace it, and that we may be changed by it. For we ask these things in the name of Christ. Amen.
The Ellipsis Technique
Last time, we looked at the benediction that Jesus gave to the poor and at the biblical view of the poor, specifically how it’s not a simplistic understanding. The Bible differentiates among four distinct kinds of poor people. I also mentioned that the qualifier in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ sermon is absent in Luke’s account. Matthew said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” where Luke simply records Jesus saying, “Blessed are the poor.” It could have been two different occasions that were being reported.
When we look at the next beatitude, we see a similar lack of qualification compared to Matthew. In Luke 6:21, we read, “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be filled.” In Matthew’s version, however, it is: “Blessed are you who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for you shall be filled.”
The New Testament writers used a technique that is important for us to recognize called “ellipsis.” It is a brief statement that leaves the implications tacitly assumed but not explicitly mentioned. Luke may have been using this technique when he said, “Blessed are those who are hungry” because he didn’t include Matthew’s implication that Jesus was talking about a hunger and thirst for righteousness. Let me comment on that qualifier for a moment.
The Consummate Goal of Being Righteous
We are people who have great ambitions and a desire to succeed. We train diligently to be successful in attaining our goals, or we study relentlessly to achieve a higher station in life. Who among us, however, has the consummate goal of being righteous?
I once spoke to a man I respected as a Christian and asked him what his main goal in life was. He answered by giving me a specified amount of money, a bottom line that he hoped to be worth by a certain age of his life. I was deeply saddened and mystified by that comment. I thought, “How can a Christian define the great goal of his life in terms of dollars?”
Jesus’ priorities were different. On another occasion, He said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all other things will be added unto you.” The word “first” is the word protos, which, in this context, means not first chronologically but first in importance. He said, “If you’re going to follow me, the top priority that should define your life is seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and the rest will be added unto you.” Isn’t this a difficult challenge for us, though? Don’t we seek with great passion everything else but the kingdom of God, everything else except righteousness? We need to have a passion for godliness.
True Hunger and Thirst
It is said of Jesus that His meat and drink was to do the will of the Father. He, of all men who ever lived, hungered and thirsted for righteousness, and He achieved it. Those are strong words, “hunger” and “thirst.” They are words we don’t relate to because if we say that we are hungry or thirsty, people in other parts of the world will laugh at us. There are few among us, to be honest, who have ever experienced the depths of physical hunger or thirst. Few among us have ever been at the edge of starvation, where a piece of bread would be the greatest joy that we could experience.
Vesta and I recently attended the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Rafiki Foundation, and what a marvelous ministry that has been. The Rafiki Foundation ministers to orphans and widows in ten African countries. It was beautiful to see the beaming faces of the women who had been rescued and the children who had come to a sweet understanding of the things of God. They had been saved out of the most abject poverty imaginable. They were orphans who had been adopted into the family of God. We also saw the picture of the Christian hospital at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. As I looked at it, I remembered a story I heard back in the 1950s, right after the end of the Korean War.
In the Korean War, there were many casualties among Korean soldiers and the civilian population. There were multitudes, thousands upon thousands of children, who were orphaned because of the ravages of war. One Christian mission tried to minister to these orphans, and the biggest problem they found was that the children were starving and terrified. So, the missionaries came and gave them food. They spread a wonderful feast for them, and these children ate as if they had never eaten in their lives, and they were fully satisfied.
The thing that absolutely mystified the missionaries was that the children couldn’t sleep at night. When they probed for the reason, they discovered that the children were afraid there would be nothing to eat in the morning. The missionaries assured them there would be food and told them, “Don’t worry, go to sleep.” Nothing worked until they finally stumbled upon a way to give these children peace at night. They gave each child a piece of bread when they put them down to sleep and said, “You are not allowed to eat this until morning.” Having just one piece of bread in their hand got rid of their fear and gave them the comfort and confidence to go to sleep.
Have you ever been so hungry that you needed to take a piece of bread to bed with you to have a full night’s sleep? That is the kind of hunger Jesus was talking about. In the ancient Near East, they had real hunger, the kind experienced in third world nations today, and Jesus placed a benediction on them. He said, “Blessed are you who hunger now.”
Do you see the stark contrast that Jesus sets forth in this sermon? He is contrasting two different life conditions: hunger and satisfaction, grief and joy, poverty and wealth, being despised and reviled by people as well as being honored by them.
Mourning Is Not the Final Chapter
Jesus made another contrast, and it was between “now” and “then,” when the kingdom will be fulfilled. Beloved, we live in a topsy-turvy world where the values of the kingdom of God have been turned upside down. We want everything that we can possibly have now. Jesus is saying, however, that this present world, this veil of tears, this place of want and poverty is not the final chapter of world history.
Jesus came to proclaim the kingdom that He was going to establish. When that kingdom is consummated, there will be no more poverty, no more hunger, no more sin, no more grief, and no more tears. In the meantime, as Jesus said: “Blessed are you who are hungry now because you are going to be filled. Blessed are you who weep now because someday you are going to laugh.” Mourning is not the final chapter of the human experience.
Jesus did not speak judgment against grief, pain, or mourning. In fact, the Bible says it is better to go to the house of mourning than to spend time with fools because foolishness is not welcome there. Grief is a time of sobriety. For many people, it is the only time they think about the eternal things of God. It is one thing to have an attitude on the playground and another to be standing at the side of a loved one’s grave. In the place of mourning, there is no room for foolishness.
Jesus was saying that many people only know pain and tears. He was not saying that anybody who is unhappy or stricken with grief will go to heaven. It is not a universal promise. The elliptical sense of the text is that He is speaking to the people of God—the people who have suffered for the kingdom of God, who are hungry for the kingdom of God, and who weep for the kingdom of God.
Rejoice in That Day
Jesus gave a remarkable benediction when He said, “Blessed are you when men hate you.” How’s that for a life goal: to be hated by as many people as you can find?
During my senior year in seminary, I preached the senior sermon for my class, and it was on sin. Afterward, I was physically attacked by the dean of the seminary, who was so enraged at my sermon that he pushed me up against the wall and said, “How dare you preach that sort of thing!” So, I went upstairs to see my mentor and professor, Dr. Gerstner, who had listened to my sermon. I asked, “Did I misrepresent biblical truths or the Reformed faith?” He slapped his leg and said: “No, you are blessed that people are reviling you. Every Christian from Augustine to B.B. Warfield is rejoicing in heaven at the sermon that you preached.” I sure didn’t feel blessed; in fact, I felt awful. Gerstner, however, had a different view. He said, “Blessed are you when they revile you and cast out your name as evil.”
Jesus did not say that anybody who is reviled, cast out, or hated will be great in the kingdom of God. Many people are reviled because their behavior is repulsive and their character despicable. Jesus was not speaking to Hitler, saying, “It’s a wonderful thing that everybody hates you because you’re going to be great in the kingdom of God.”
Jesus added that people treated this way for the Son of Man’s sake are blessed.
If you are being excluded, hated, or reviled because you are a Christian, then you are under the benediction of Christ and called blessed. He said, “Rejoice in that day.” He did not say, “Smile and be content,” but rather: “Jump up and leap for joy! How great it is for you to be in that situation, for indeed your reward is great in heaven.”
Do not listen to the people who tell you that everyone’s reward in heaven will be the same. The New Testament tells us again and again that there will be a graduation of rewards in heaven. Jesus put the carrot before the donkey. He said, “Work for those rewards.” Even though our entrance into heaven will not be according to our works, the rewards we receive once we get there will be according to our obedience. Some of us will make it by the skin of our teeth, as the Apostle Paul said, while others will have heaped up treasures in heaven. Some people say that everyone’s glass will be full in heaven, but some people’s glass will be a thimble, and other’s will be a five-gallon drum. Jesus promises great reward for those who are abased for His sake, “For in like manner their fathers did to the prophets.”
The Oracles of Woe
In stark contrast to these benedictions, Jesus pronounced the oracles of woe and divine judgment that make up the curse of Almighty God. As I said at the beginning, we cannot hear this unless God the Holy Spirit opens our ears, because we don’t want to hear it. We often view God as a cosmic bellhop, a celestial Santa Claus incapable of wrath or judgment. Do not believe that for a minute. Our God is a consuming fire, and it is a fearful thing to fall into His hands. To experience the curse of God is the worst calamity that a human being could ever experience, and the only person who ever experienced it in its absolute fullness was Jesus Himself on the cross.
The Danger of Wealth
Picking up the narrative in Luke 6:24, Jesus said, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” We need to be careful here. Just as the Bible looks at different kinds of poor people, so the same may be said about the rich.
The Bible says things about the rich that are scary to the rich, but it contains no absolute condemnation of the rich. It does not say that there is something inherently evil about being wealthy. For example, Abraham was one of the wealthiest men in the world, as was Job. Likewise, Joseph of Arimathea was blessed by God. There are countless examples of wealthy people in Scripture who received the blessing of God.
Yet, wealth carries with it a peculiar danger.
When someone is very wealthy, it is easy to focus on the power of his wealth and independence as well as to think that he can live without God. There is an expression that says, “We are not in any trouble that money can’t get us out of.” At times, I’ve said that to my own children. There will come a day, however, when all the money in the world won’t be enough to get us out of trouble—the day of judgment, which the Lord promises is coming soon.
Another myth associated with wealth is one you hear all the time and in every political campaign. That is, the only way a person can become wealthy is at the expense of someone else. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. If a person is wealthy, that is all the proof you need that they are corrupt, selfish, and greedy. The only place I know for sure where someone can get wealthy at the expense of someone else is in a poker game, but that’s not the case in the marketplace.
An example I often use is Henry Ford, who became one of the wealthiest tycoons of his era because he invented the mass production of automobiles. He got wealthy not by tromping on people’s backs but by making automobile transportation affordable to almost every family in the United States through mass production. His wealth brought a boon, not simply to himself but the whole nation. Similarly, Thomas Edison was a wealthy man, and he gained that wealth after hours of sacrifice to make an invention that brought literal light into the darkness of people’s lives.
Jesus was not saying, if you are wealthy, you are doomed. He was saying that it is hard for a rich man to get into the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom because he tends to trust in his own riches rather than in the riches of Christ. If a rich man were smart, he would give away everything he owned if he could buy the pearl of great price, but Christians know that the pearl of great grice is not for sale.
The Danger of Pursuing Pleasure
“Woe to you who are full, for you shall hunger.” Jesus was not condemning having a good meal. In view here is the philosophy of hedonism, which defines good in terms of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The ancient hedonistic paradox discovered by the Cyrenaics, however, says that if you seek more pleasure and fail, you will be frustrated, but if you achieve your goal of pleasure, you will be bored. If your life is defined strictly by the pursuit of pleasure, you are doomed either to frustration or boredom. It is an old story: the more you get, the more you want. The wealthy man asks himself, how much wealth do you need? Answering his own question, he says, “Just a little bit more.”
Jesus was saying, “If you are full now, that is because all you are concerned with is your belly, and the day is coming when you will starve. You can laugh now, but the hour is coming when you will mourn and weep. Woe to you who see life as a game, who are cynics, who make fun of the things of God.” Do you realize that you are opening up yourself to the curse of God? You can laugh at a joke, but if you laugh at the things of God, you have made a date with the house of mourning.
The Danger of Man-Pleasing
“Woe to you when all men speak well of you.” Watch out for the person of whom everyone speaks well. Why? The only way to have everyone speak well of you is to wear two faces and be a man-pleaser, to make sure that you please everyone around you. If you are a man-pleaser, the Bible says that you cannot please God. I promise you, if you’re going to be a disciple of Christ, all men will not speak well of you. To be a Christian, you must do as your Lord did: make yourself of no reputation.
It is one thing to lose your money and another to have your home foreclosed. Those things can be recovered, but what happens when you lose your reputation, when your name is no good?
“Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets.” False prophets were the most popular men in Israel. Jeremiah said that the judgment of God is coming, to which the false prophets responded, “We want peace,” but there was no peace.
Some churches say that God loves you unconditionally—their congregations will be full. Isn’t it something to live in a place where God does not require anything? No repentance or faith; He loves you unconditionally. I cannot find that in the Bible. God loves you in the Beloved: His Son, whom He loves unconditionally, but you have to trust in the Son to receive the ultimate blessing of God.
Where are you today: under the benediction of God or under His judgment? My prayer is that nobody listening to this will ever hear God say to them, “Woe!” Let’s pray.
Father and our God, we thank You for Your grace, mercy, and forgiveness by which all the blessings in Christ Jesus are given to us. Give us confidence and hope in those promises of the future, that we may despise the present ills we suffer for a better hope in You. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.