In the last essay we studied Luke 6:1-11, in which Jesus taught about the Sabbath. In this essay we study Luke 6:12-26, which is part of a larger section that we cannot do in one session. The larger section is 6:12-49. It includes the call of the Twelve as apostles (6:12-16), and the so-called Sermon on the Plain (6:17-49).
In 6:12-16 we see that Jesus decided it was time to give some organization to his movement. He decided to pick twelve of his disciples to be apostles. Since it was an extremely important decision, Jesus spent the whole previous night in prayer, seeking the guidance of the Father. The next morning he knew whom he would choose. So he gathered his closer disciples together, and from them he named the Twelve.
The word “apostle” literally means, “one sent with a commission.” In secular circles it was used to describe the function of an envoy, what we would call an “ambassador,” from one country to another. The secular “apostle” represented and spoke for his country. In the case of Christian apostles, they represented Christ and spoke with the authority of Christ. Mark in his parallel of this account, describes a three-fold function of these newly appointed apostles: “to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons” (Mk. 3:14-15). The message presumably was the same message that Jesus preached; namely, the “good news” of the kingdom of God. The apostle Paul added that an apostle was someone who had seen the Lord, and who had been fruitful in evangelistic ministry (1 Cor. 9:1-2).
Paul’s own ministry provides an excellent example of how this office functioned in the early history of the Church. Paul certainly proclaimed the message, worked miracles of healing, and cast out demons (Acts 19:11-12). In other words, he continued the ministry of Jesus. Paul also took authority over the local churches. In his letters he spoke authoritatively to the churches. That is, he expected them to hear him as an authoritative voice. This was true even in the case of the church at Rome, which he had not founded, and where he had never visited.
The Twelve and Paul were not the only Apostles. In addition to them, there were James, the Lord’s brother (Gal. 1:19), Barnabas, Paul’s one-time partner in ministry (Acts 14:14), Andronicus and Junias (Rom. 16:7), and Sylvanus and Timothy (1 Thess. 2:6). Thus counting the Twelve and Paul nineteen people in the New Testament are designated as apostles. So the office of apostle was an authoritative leadership position that only a few persons filled. Scholars debate whether or not the office of apostle exists today. Some believe that anyone who serves in a cross-cultural ministry is an apostle, although I do not think that is a very widely held view. There are those in the Church, especially in certain Pentecostal/charismatic circles, who claim to be apostles. I do not know what they offer as justification for taking that office on themselves.
Coming back to the list of the Twelve, there are four such lists in the New Testament (Mt. 10:2-4; Mk. 3:16-19; here in Luke 6:14-16; and Acts 1:13). The lists differ a little in order. Following Luke’s order, there is Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, James and John, who were the sons of Zebedee, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas son of James (who is the same as Thaddaeus on Matthew and Mark’s lists), and Judas Iscariot.
Next, in 6:17-19, we find the setting for the Sermon on the plain. This sermon is much shorter than the Sermon on the Mount, but it has several similarities. For example, the teachings found in this sermon also appear in the Sermon on the Mount. Both sermons begin with beatitudes; and both end with an account of the houses built on a rock and on sand. These similarities lead many liberal scholars to believe that this Sermon on the Plain is a separate account of the Sermon on the Mount. In other words, they are saying that we have two reports of one sermon.
But there are major differences between the two sermons as well as similarities. For example, this sermon was given on level ground, after Jesus and his disciples came down off a mountain. That difference begs an explanation. If we are to believe this sermon is a shorter account of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, we must say that Jesus and his disciples came only part way down the mountain to a level place on the mountainside, where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount.
We will see another major difference when we study the beatitudes. The focus of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the plain is quite different from those at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Moreover, Matthew has eight beatitudes, whereas Luke instead has four beatitudes and four woes. I believe that these kinds of differences indicate that the Sermon on the Plain is not a shorter account of the Sermon on the Mount, but it is the same basic sermon preached on a different occasion and adapted to a different audience and situation. Preachers in general preach sermons more than once, perhaps many times, adapting them to varying audiences and situations. I believe that is what we have here.
Notice that there are three groups present as Jesus preaches this sermon. There are the Twelve whom Jesus had just appointed. There are the other disciples who are committed to Jesus (from whom he chose the Twelve). And there are those from all around the region who are not yet committed to Jesus.
The Sermon on the Plain begins at verse 20. As I indicated earlier, in this section Jesus sets forth four beatitudes and four woes. Beatitudes in general pronounce certain persons as blessed, and they give the reason why the persons are blessed. Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Thus he was speaking metaphorically about the spiritually poor who, because of their spiritual poverty, inherit the kingdom.
Notice that in the Sermon on the Plain here in Luke Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” Thus it has a totally different thrust. In this sermon, Jesus is directly addressing the economically poor, rather than the spiritually poor, though the announced reward is the same. Then Jesus’ second beatitude addresses the hungry, meaning the physically hungry (v. 21). They will be filled. They will feast at the heavenly messianic banquet. Matthew’s parallel beatitude blesses spiritual people who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The third beatitude in our passage pronounces those who are weeping as blessed, because they will laugh when the cause of the sorrow is removed (v. 21). And the fourth beatitude blesses those who are hated, excluded, reviled, and/or defamed “on account of the Son of Man.” They will rejoice greatly in heaven, because they will receive a great reward, and they will be given the same honor as the prophets who were persecuted before them (vv.22-23). As you can see, these four beatitudes are quite different from the eight beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount.
Some have misunderstood this section, because they think it suggests that poor people somehow automatically go into the kingdom. But that is not what Jesus is saying. The fact that the hating, etc. is “on account of the Son of Man” clearly indicates that Jesus was talking about poor believers, not everyone and anyone who is poor. So the message here in the Sermon on the Plain meshes well with the message of the Sermon on the Mount, where spiritual poverty is emphasized.
Now then, in verses 24-26 we see the four woes. The “woe” form is found in both the Old and New Testaments. And sometimes we see a combination of woes and blessings. For example, in Isaiah 3:10-11, we read, “Tell the innocent how fortunate they are, for they shall eat the fruit of their labors. Woe to the guilty! How unfortunate they are, for what their hands have done shall be done to them.” As you see, Isaiah uses the word “fortunate” instead of the word “blessing.” But the idea of blessing is there. And so is the contrast. “Woe to the guilty!” Coming back to Luke six, the term “woe” is used here by Jesus as an expression of pity for those who are under the judgment of God.
Notice that the four woes are in direct contrast to the four beatitudes and that the results will be the exact opposite. Notice also that Jesus speaks directly to the people he has in mind, just as he did in the four beatitudes. So some of the people he had in mind were in his audience that day, perhaps the Pharisees and scribes who were dogging him day in and day out were among them.
The first woe, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation,” means that their rewards have come to them in this life instead of in the coming kingdom. Again, we must not assume that Jesus was lumping all rich people together, any more than he was lumping all poor people together in the first beatitude. He was speaking of those rich who were in spiritual danger.
In the next three woes, the results are similar to one another. Those who are full now will hunger later; those who are laughing now will weep later; and those who are spoken well of now will later experience the same fate as the false prophets. Although in this sermon Jesus cast these beatitudes and woes in physical, rather than in spiritual terms (in contrast to his beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, which were strictly spiritual) in the end the message is about the same. The poor who are poor in spirit will enter the kingdom of God, and the rich who are focused only on their own comfort and pleasure will not.