Please read Luke 6: 12-26 and then pray; Lord I come before you as one who is hungry for your living Word. Satisfy my deepest soul’s desire as I embrace the joy of your reign in my heart and life. In Jesus name, Amen.
Last week it was good to be able to consider together the major turning point in the life of Simon Peter, the details of which are given in Luke 5 v 1-11 – with the miraculous catch of fish. As a result of this miracle and this encounter with the power and holiness of Jesus, Peter left everything to become a dedicated disciple of Christ. He was not the only one. Andrew, his brother, also followed Christ; as did James and John their fishing companions. The number of disciples grew further as Matthew the tax collector came to repent and follow Jesus (Luke 5: 27-31), and by the time we reach chapter 6 of Luke’s gospel, we are presented with the full compliment of disciples. There are now 12 who will also be specially designated apostles (the sent ones), and many others also follow Jesus as we see in 6:17, and Luke will later emphasise the strong commitment of Jesus’s closest female disciples. (Luke 8:1-3)
Jesus had spent a whole night praying to God (v12) and the 12 had been selected and were with him. He came down from the mountain after his all-night prayer vigil had ended, to what is described by Luke as “a level place”. This is still in the mountainous area, but is a kind of plateau. We are then told about a great crowd that gathers on this level plain – and we are given details of what Jesus actually did and taught. This is generally referred to as the “sermon on the plain” as opposed to the “sermon on the mount” which is recorded in Matthew and chapters 5-7. The sermons are similar, but this one on the plain is much briefer with only 30 verses compared to the one in Matthew which has 107 verses and is often referred to as the greatest piece of ethical teaching ever delivered.
Luke introduces this “sermon at the level place” by setting the scene – and it is a great scene – a spectacular scene. I want to highlight 5 things that caught my attention this week as I meditated on this wonderful gospel passage. (Luke 6: 17-26). As we will see these 5 things are deeply related to the grand theme of the Kingdom of God; in particular, who is in the kingdom of God; what type of people make up the kingdom of God and therefore the population of heaven.
The 5 concepts that I want to highlight and which for me have great significance are these;
- The great multitude itself – which Jesus powerfully ministered to and then taught.
- The healing ministry of Christ.
- The hunger of the crowd and the hunger Jesus speaks about which is satisfied through the gift of the kingdom of God.
- The poor (who are blessed) with the kingdom of God
- Those persecuted (for Jesus’s sake) who are to be greatly rewarded and blessed with the Kingdom of heaven/God.
The great multitude; the healing ministry; the hungry; the poor; the persecuted.
Let’s begin with the great crowd itself. I wonder what the disciples made of this epic scene as they came down the mountain with Jesus to this level place. Looking at the vast crowd they may well have wondered what had they let themselves in for! For here was a huge crowd – and it consisted of people who had come from a very wide area to see and meet Jesus. Let’s read verse 17 once again. Many in this crowd had travelled significant distances on foot to get to this place. The Greek phrase used by Luke refers to a great multitude. Some believe this may have been the biggest gathering of people Jesus faced in his ministry. Can you now see why “the level place” was so important? The level area was needed so that Jesus might be able to physically see and address this enormous crowd of many thousands.
Did you notice when we watched the video of the crowds gathered to hear the gospel of the kingdom in Nigeria – the gatherings had to be organised on a great sight which is level. Those gatherings had hundreds of thousands of Nigerians present – at least one had more than a million individuals in one place – hence the need for the greatest speaker system in the world. The level place is important so that all might see, and so that all can addressed and feel included. Incidentally, thousands of those Nigerians walked many miles to get to those great gospel crusades. The majority of them were poor people, but desperately wanted to hear the gospel. They were willing to travel long distances to hear the word of God. Why do I choose to mention the “great multitude” today in this message? I do this for 2 reasons;
Firstly, because I want to emphasise that Jesus attracted huge crowds then and still does now 2000 years later – in fact, the crowds today can be much bigger as illustrated by our African friends. Jesus Christ is alive! Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever! (Hebrews 13:8) He promised He would build His Church and advance His Kingdom and that promise is being kept. Christianity is growing right across the entire globe. All nations are being reached by the gospel. And although in disbelieving western nations the Church is struggling and there is marked decline, in so many other nations, particularly in the southern hemisphere, there is massive growth that far outweighs the decline in the secularised West. The populations of the developing nations are far bigger and they are far hungrier for the gospel and for Jesus. And so, there are great advances in reaching the lost. At the beginning of the 20th century only 9% of Africa was Christian; as of 2013, it was 63% of a total population of 380 million. In China – the growth of the Church is exponential even though so much of the Church meets underground. The are multitudes coming to Jesus Christ around the world, the vast majority of which are from poorer backgrounds. Christianity is not dying out! It is growing through the power of the preached word which is blessed by the Holy Spirit. God’s Kingdom is stretching from shore to shore. Crowds in the 21st century gather to hear the Word and to encounter the living Jesus!
The second reason to highlight “the great multitude” is because I believe there is here, a kind of prefiguring of heaven and what it will be like. When I read that phrase “a great multitude”, my mind is immediately drawn to consider the great and awesome book of Revelation, and all that it reveals about the mighty and vast company and population of heaven. The apostle John’s vision is truly awe-inspiring and is repeated more than once in Revelation;
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9)
There was a great multitude in Luke 6, on a level plain standing before Jesus – the Lamb of God. Surely a prefiguring of the picture of the ultimate scene in heaven. Vast numbers are destined to live with Christ in the very glory of God and of His Kingdom. I am also reminded of the amazing promise given to our spiritual father Abraham who was promised that his descendants would outnumber the grains of sand and the stars in the sky. (Genesis 22:17, 32:12) A vast “numberless” company of people. In Luke 6 though, Jesus brings the Kingdom to the earth, the power and the glory of the age to come is brought into the presence of this great crowd on the plain. How do we know this to be true? Because of the second remarkable thing that was pointed out by Luke – the extraordinary and comprehensive healing ministry of Jesus.
The multitude was extraordinary in size and must have caused a great stir in the hearts of the rookie twelve disciples. But the healing ministry of Christ would fill them with wonderment. Did you notice something important that Luke revealed? If you are not careful – you could miss it – so here it is again;
The huge multitude “had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him because power was coming from him and HEALING THEM ALL.” (Luke 6: 18-19)
The reality of the Kingdom was present in all it’s power and glory in Jesus. All the sick who touched him (God in flesh) were healed. All who he compassionately touched were made whole. Only one touch of Jesus was needed – just the hem of his garment (Luke 8:44-46). Only one word or one touch was needed from him to heal the sick. Notice the emphasis on “the power” that was coming from Jesus – exceptional power to heal and deliver. (also Luke 5:17, 8:46) Power to heal all who were sick or diseased. No exceptions. Remember the gospel writer Luke was a doctor by profession – so healing was his passionate interest. Here, in Jesus, was someone who healed all who came to him in desperation and need.
Again, there is a prefiguring of heaven here because there will be no sickness, pain, disease, disability or death in heaven. That will have no place in heaven! That is all part of the broken sinful old order of things. Sickness has no place in the fullness of Kingdom of heaven, God’s new creation. (Revelation 21:4) The saints will each have new glorified and resurrected bodies which are ready and equipped for eternal life in a spotlessly glorious kingdom. (1 Corinthians 15:42-57) So for example, you can get a Christian like Joni Eareckson Tada who has gone through much of her life as a quadriplegic, paralysed from the shoulders down, and often suffering all kinds of trauma and pain, declaring this;
The first thing I plan to do on resurrected legs is to drop down on grateful glorified knees.
Now the challenge for us to face is this; Jesus gave those 12 disciples that I mentioned earlier, and then 72 others the power and authority to heal and drive out all demons. (Luke 9:1-2, 10: 1 & 9) Jesus’s intention was that His Church would continue with the teaching and healing ministries. The miracles would not cease when Jesus ascended but would continue through the gifting of his Church through the Holy Spirit and through prayer. (1 Corinthians 12:9, James 5: 14-16). We may not see too many obvious miracles in the western Church today, but around the world on many mission fields, on many a level place, there are great healing miracles taking place. Many occurred at the gospel crusades we saw earlier on the video; blind eyes were opened, cripples walked home, crutches were piled high and abandoned, and wheel chairs were left behind. When you read some of the accounts of the miracles happening today in so many countries, particularly the developing nations, it is like being transported back to the NT era and the days of the Acts of the Apostles! God is stretching forth His hand in miraculous signs and wonders among the poorest and the neediest. (Acts 4: 29-30)
This is why I believe in the continuation of the healing ministry. I believe Jesus can and does heal today through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Why do we not see more miracles in our own nation? It is largely because we do not display and advocate the simple child-like trust and belief that the populations in the developing nations display. Our nation has become far too materialistic and secularised – and therefore cynical, sceptical and unbelieving. We are like the people of Nazareth, Jesus’ home town, who would not believe and trust in the carpenter’s son because they were too proud, too sceptical, too resistant to the idea of miracles; What was said in the gospels about Nazareth could be said about 21st century Britain:
And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown, among his own relatives and in his house is a prophet without honour.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith. (Mark 6: 3b -6)
Where there is child-like faith and trust in the healing power and presence of Jesus – there are, even today, miraculous signs and wonders. The kingdom of God comes in power. Heaven visits earth and the good news is preached and demonstrated amongst the poor. Only in the fullness of the Kingdom will all sickness and pain be totally eradicated and forgotten, but now, if we but reached out for the hem of his garment – healing power can be released and transform the desperately sick.
This leads us beautifully on to the core of what Jesus actually teaches about who are the ones in this Kingdom who are going to experience the blessings, the blessedness, the joys and the rewards of the Kingdom of God. What kind of people will populate the kingdom of heaven? What is it that will have characterised their lives? What common experiences will they have shared in this world of sin and darkness and suffering? What marks them out as disciples of Christ and subjects of the kingdom of God?
Three things stand out in this blessed sermon. They are;
Heaven will be filled and populated with the poor, the hungry and the persecuted. You simply cannot avoid that clear conclusion if you take Jesus’ words seriously. Listen again to Luke 6 v 20-23 and the blessings that Jesus speaks about so powerfully.
Let’s start with poverty. What is Jesus describing here? Jesus is not singling out one socio-economic group as the only inheritors of the kingdom. He is rather referring to those who are “poor in spirit”. (Matthew 5:3). Jesus is saying that those who recognise that they are poverty stricken before God, those who possess broken, humble and contrite hearts, those who know their very deep need of God and his forgiveness, those who know themselves to be in great need spiritually – these spiritually poor and needy ones will inherit the kingdom – they will receive it as a gift of sheer divine grace from a forgiving God. The OT refers to them as the humble and the trusting poor. But the notable thing is, and this is so important, a huge proportion of those who are poor in spirit and recognise their poverty and sit humbly before a holy God, just happen to also be those who are physically poor and numbered among the economically struggling and hard-pressed. There are going to be multitudes of poor people in heaven – those poor in spirit, many of whom were also economically poor and disadvantaged in this world of injustice and oppression and greed. What Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth is so applicable and relevant to the majority of Christians who have ever lived;
Read 1 Corinthians 1: 26-31
James also writes:
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him. (James 2:5)
This is confirmed so many times in the teaching of Jesus himself:
At that time Jesus said, I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. (Matthew 11:25-26)
Conversely according to Jesus those who are “rich” either economically, or proud and arrogant, self-righteous and boastful are going to be in trouble, which is why you get the woes. Jesus said, and this is so important for us to understand, that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19: 23-26). Notice that Jesus said it is hard, not impossible for a rich man/woman to enter the kingdom. Riches can be a blockage. Riches can be a hindrance. Riches can be a danger. Riches have to come under the Lordship of Christ. For many rich and wealthy people – riches come before God and therefore before entrance into his kingdom. It is not that there will be no wealthy people in the kingdom, but many will sadly have succumbed to the deceitfulness and power of mammon who is a rival God. Any spiritual life can be so easily “choked by the deceitfulness of wealth”. (Matthew 13:22). If you take the evangelical revival of the 18th century as a classic example, the vast majority of those saved and added to the Church were the humble poor, but there were some wealthy people saved too through the preaching of Whitefield – some who were politicians or who belonged to the landed gentry. So, take note, in a nation like the UK, where there is considerable wealth, it is hard to evangelise because it is hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God.
Also in the kingdom will be the hungry. Again, this does not mean the physically hungry, although it may include them, and Jesus compassionately fed the hungry masses. Jesus is primarily referring those who are not only poor in spirit but who are hungry for God and for His Word – which is the true bread that satisfies. Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Heaven will be populated by those who hungered earnestly for the Word of God. These crowds on the level place which Luke describes came to be healed, but they also came to hear Jesus. (6:18) They came to listen to the Word of God, the word of the kingdom. They were hungry for God’s words of life – eternal life (John 6:68) You cannot possibly claim to love God and not at the same time love and hunger for his living Word – which we refer to as the bible. God and his word go together. True saints are those who hunger for the word, hence the outcry for bibles around the world. There is a need to get the bible to the developing nations in their own languages – hence the vital importance of bible translation ministries. Heaven will be populated by people from a multitude of tribes and nations who will have heard and read and loved the word in their own native languages.
The hunger for the word and for God Himself in the third world puts us to shame. In the West, people want to be filled through their own self-importance, self-identities, their pleasures and pastimes, their material goods and possessions. That is their abundance and prime source of comfort. Not so elsewhere. Others see the Word of God as by far the greatest of treasures and gift – that is what they want to consume and cherish and live out. The bible is worth far more that a block of gold! (Psalm 119:72) These hungry ones, who are so often poor and hungry in physical ways also, inherit the Kingdom which has been built upon the word. (Luke 8:15)
But the Kingdom will also be populated with the persecuted (v22) – those who have been hated, excluded, insulted and rejected because they loved and held onto the name of Jesus. This verse presents us with a perfect definition of persecution. Jesus promised that his followers would be hated and rejected just as he himself would be and indeed was. Persecution would be part of the discipleship package because the world hates God’s light and truth. Today, Christianity is the most marginalised and persecuted religion in the world. The majority of acts of religious hated are directed against those who follow and live for Jesus. The Book of Revelation with all those visions of heaven and its multitude, could easily be called the Book for the Martyrs – because they are mentioned so many times.
Someone has rightly commented that the NT was written by persecuted Christians for persecuted Christians in order to help persecuted Christians. So many Christians today face either soft or harder forms of persecution. The top ten worse countries for Christian persecution at the moment are; Afghanistan, North Korea, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Eritrea, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran and India. Persecution is rife in dozens and dozens of situations. Yet the bible promises that those who endure to the end will be saved (Matthew 24:13, 10:22) and receive the crown of righteousness and of life. (Revelation 2:10, 2 Timothy 4:8). Incidentally, the greatest need of the persecuted is bibles and prayer. That’s what they crave and request the most – the word and prayer. Some of you will be familiar with the epic story of Richard Wurmbrand – otherwise known as God’s smuggler, who ensured that precious bibles got through to suffering Christians behind the Iron Curtain. The bible is everything to the suffering saints. They are ravenously hungry for the Word and desperately thirsty for the life of the Spirit.
Revelation reveals that the persecuted will be rewarded greatly in heaven and fully vindicated for all the pain of the injustices they have faced and endured. Great will be their joy and their reward. (Luke 6:23) It will be unrivalled. The weeping (Luke 6:21b) will be over. They laughter will be sweet.
This is what characterises the great company of worshippers in the Church triumphant in heaven and the Church militant upon the earth. These are things the saints above and below lovingly hold in common. The spiritual bonds in Jesus are deep for the poor in spirit; for the ones hungry for God, his holy word and his righteousness; for the ones who are willing and ready to be persecuted for Jesus’ sake.
I am absolutely convinced that we have far more to learn from Christians in the developing world who are often persecuted for their faith in Jesus, than they have to learn from us. They are streets ahead of us in terms of miracles of conversion, healing and growth. They are now sending the missionaries here! We are the ones now locked into the darkness of paganism. They look far more like the NT Church than we do. Reading their stories of faith and endurance is like reading the book of Acts with the Church’s irrepressible growth and movement forward in the Spirit! They are the ones surging ahead in terms of growth – despite the attempted suppression and the ongoing persecution.
Persecution stimulates growth – it does not stifle it. Compromising with the world and with its decaying morals and values as we have done here in the so-called “sophisticated and progressive West” has only resulted in steep decline and death in our Churches and also in our crumbling culture. If we go for popularity and compromise truth as the false prophets did – there is no hope, only death. (v26) We are here to preach the truth of God’s word not to gain popularity from a world that is passing away. If we wish to be part of that great unnumbered multitude in heaven that rejoices before the throne and in front of the Lamb – then we must grasp what it really means to be poor, to be hungry, and to share in the sufferings of Christ, who is the only true Healer and Saviour of humankind.
Revd Peter J Clarkson (13.2.22)