(im)possible commandments

Luke 6.12-49

Jason Procopio

Jesus has begun his ministry—he’s healing people, he’s teaching them, he’s greatly annoying the Pharisees and the other religious leaders… And when we find him at the beginning of today’s passage, in verse 12, we see him beginning to structure his ministry more fully. He calls twelve men to be his disciples, to join him in his ministry full-time, to learn from him. After this they all come down together to a place where a large crowd is waiting for him, to be taught by him and healed by him. So Jesus heals them of their various illnesses, and begins to teach them.

What Luke records for us in verses 20 to 49 seems to be a kind of abridgment of the Sermon on the Mount, which we find in Matthew 5-7—indeed much of the same content is here. It’s not surprising that they’d be similar; teachers often repeat themselves. (How many times have you heard me say the same things more than once?)

So here’s what we’re going to do. Rather than take them piece by piece and go through his teachings over several weeks, we’re going to see the whole passage today. And then afterwards, we’ll see a problem there—a problem we’re always faced with if we take Jesus’s teaching seriously—and we’ll see how the Bible solves that problem. We need to remember that Luke doesn’t repeat everything the Bible says to make sense of these things: we need to read this passage in the light of the whole of the biblical narrative.

So let’s get started. The first thing we see is that Jesus separates people into two categories: those who are “blessed”, and those who are not.

1) Blessings and woes (v. 20-26)

20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: 

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 

21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. 

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. 

22 “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! 23 Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. 

24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 

25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. 

“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. 

26 “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets. 

So at first glance, it seems that Jesus is simply encouraging those he has in front of him. There are people in the crowd who are poor, who are in need, who are suffering, and he wants to encourage them that just because their situation seems dire, all is not lost. At the same time, he has people who are rich, who are happy (and perhaps just curious)—so he seems to be encouraging them to not count on their riches for their security or happiness, because those things can be lost. 

That’s all true, and most people would stop there. But there’s more going on here than we see at first glance.

These “blessings” we see are not requirements for entering into the kingdom of God. A lot of people have heard Jesus say, “Blessed are the poor; blessed are the hungry; blessed are those who weep,” and so on, and they say, “Okay… So I’ll get rid of all my money, I’ll go on fasts to feel hungry, I’ll be generally sad all the time, and then I might be a really spiritual person.” This is part of the reason Christians are seen as a generally joyless bunch.

That’s not what he says—these blessings are not requirements for entering the kingdom; they are affirmations that those who are already in the kingdom are blessed. 

V. 20:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours IS the kingdom of God. Not “will be”—“IS.” 

V. 22:

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 [on account of Jesus]! The only people who are hated on account of Jesus are those who belong to Jesus and live for him.

The reason he’s addressing these issues here is because in Israel in the first century, if you were a follower of Christ, there was a good chance your life would become drastically more difficult than before. People would reject you; you’d lose business; you wouldn’t be able to pay bills. You might even be killed. Very often, in many places in the world still today, to be Christian was to be poor and hungry and suffering and persecuted. 

So he’s reminding his followers that it’s worth it: if you’re poor, remember that the whole kingdom is yours! If you’re hungry, remember that a day’s coming when you will be satisfied. If you’re weeping now, remember that a day’s coming when you will laugh. If you’re persecuted now, remember that God is holding for you a reward that is invaluable—because you belong to him. 

Now, this isn’t generally the situation for most Christians today. It’s hard to be a Christian in France, but not that hard. No one’s killing us because we’re Christians; our suffering is pretty slim in comparison. We have more tendency to be relatively well-off; to have enough to eat every night; to be mostly happy (which is easy when you’ve eaten well and have a roof over your head); to have a good reputation with others.

While being rich or full or happy or well-reputed is not bad in itself, there is a contrast with the blessings he’s just pronounced. Those who are “blessed” are those who belong to God—theirs is the kingdom of God. But it’s very tempting for those who have all these other things—riches and fullness and happiness and reputation—to count on those things for their satisfaction.

And the problem is that they are all fickle and temporary. These things change. Bad things happen. You make a bad investment and lose your money; you get sick or lose certain things and you go from happy to sad; or heaven forbid, someone finds out you’re a Christian and your reputation changes drastically. The point is that because all of these things are temporary, they make very poor gods. They will always disappoint.

The mark of a Christian is being satisfied enough in God that if all those things are taken away—if you suddenly find yourself poor or hungry or weeping or persecuted—you realize that you haven’t lost a single real blessing: because you know what’s coming next.

2) Love your enemies (v. 27-36)

27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. 

32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. 

Again, people approve of this stuff…or at least they do in theory. They hear “Love your enemies,” and they see the kind of universal acceptance, the tolerance of those who oppose our worldview, that they hope they have. But in reality, it’s not so easy.

Enemies fight against you. They abuse you. They take from you. A few months ago the lock on our front door broke, and we called a locksmith to come do an emergency repair. And we got swindled—he charged us more than double what he should have.

The natural reaction at that point is not to say, “I love him!” The natural reaction is to be angry—“How dare this man swindle me like that!” We can like the idea of “Love your enemies,” but in practice it rarely happens: hating your enemies is much more natural.

But Jesus says what motivates the Christian’s love, and we always conveniently skip over it. V. 35:

35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. 

What motivates our love is the reality that the love we are called to give to others is the love we have first received from God. Love received produces love given. 

John says in 1 John 4.10:  

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

God showed us his love by sending Jesus to take our sin on himself and to be punished for that sin in our place. We love our enemies because God loved us. We are kind to those who do us wrong because God is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. We are merciful because our Father is merciful. If we know how God has loved us, we will want to show love to others.

3) Relationships (v. 37-42)

The next part is similar, but it goes in the other direction. V. 37:

37 “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” 

He’s talking about the reciprocity of relationships—if we don’t judge (that is, if we don’t treat others with disdain for their acts or beliefs), we won’t be judged; if we show compassion, we will be shown compassion. Compassion tends to be contagious; if we show love to someone else, they don’t tend to respond in the same way.

That doesn’t mean we’ll never need to tell someone else that what they’re doing isn’t in line with God’s will—but our compassion will come in and color those discussions. They’ll see we’re more interested in them than their sin, that we really do love them; and we’re all more apt to calmly discuss a disagreement when we know the person in front of us genuinely loves us, even if we don’t change.

People are also much more ready to speak about their sins when the person in front of them is honest about his own sins. V. 39: 

39 He also told them a parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? 40 A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. 41 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 42 How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.

There are Christians who have a kind of radar for what they perceive to be sins. For a while there was a guy in the church who seemed to think his mission was to spot other people’s sins and expose them. Nearly every week he came to me with a problem he had with someone in the church committing what he thought was sin. (Often, he was wrong—it was simply a kind of cultural behavior he didn’t like.) I tried to reassure him, but at the same time I tried to help him turn that critical eye on himself—because when he spoke of these people, it wasn’t with love, but disdain. When he spoke of what they were doing, he’d nearly always say, “Well, I’d never do that!”

There are Christians like this everywhere. They have a sixth sense for spotting problems in others, but they almost never examine themselves in the same way.

But the gospel tells us that we are all sinners; we all need our brothers’ and sisters’ help to notice sin in our own lives, and we all need help to put those sins to death. If we are going to help our brothers and sisters to become holy, we must be just as determined to become holy ourselves—because we all have the same illness, and we all benefit from the common solution: the cross of Christ.

4) Good fruit from good trees (v. 43-45)

V. 43:  

43 “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. 45 The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. 

Up to this point, most everyone would agree with nearly everything Jesus has said. That will change here, if we take what he says seriously.

Often we try to work on the “fruit”—on outward behavior. We want to be a certain type of person, so we’ll try to behave in a certain way. So we’ll make a list of those acts we consider “bad”—Christians are great at making that kind of list. We’ll put down speaking badly to others, drinking too much, sleeping around, looking at porn, and so on. We’ll try to simply not do those things, and often we’ll succeed.

But there are three big problems. The first is that if we’re honest, unbelievers manage to not do these things too, often better than us. Unbelievers can speak kindly to others; they can control their alcohol intake; they can control any desires they have that may abuse or exploit others. They don’t need God for any of those things.

The second problem is that we’ll almost definitely make mistakes in our list. We’ll include behaviors that aren’t sinful at all, but simply that I don’t like; and we’ll forget all kinds of things that we think are fine, but which go against the character and will of God. (That’s what we saw last week, with the Pharisees who obey the Law to the letter, but who forget the heart of the Law.)

The third problem is that all of those things, all those external acts, come second.

Look at what Jesus says (v. 45):

The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good…

If we want to like a “good life”—a life which truly glorifies God—it’s not enough to do the right things; we must have the right treasure. The most important thing is not what we do, but what we love.

You see, Jesus isn’t after the fruit; he’s after the root. Or to use more “ordinary” language, he’s not after our behavior, but our hearts. He doesn’t just want us to do what we should do; he wants us to love what is truly lovely; to desire what is truly desirable; to rejoice in what is truly joy-giving.

What we do is very important, yes—but it comes after. It is out of the good treasure of our heart that we do good. It’s only when we love what is truly good that we are able to do what is truly good.

5) The house built on a rock (v. 46-49)

46 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? 47 Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: 48 he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.” 

It’s a simple lesson, even a child can understand it. We are all building something with our lives: we all invest ourselves in something, and we build our lives on that. So Jesus likens the lives we live to a house we build. He doesn’t get into what kind of house it is—whether it’s big or small or made of brick or wood. Jesus is concerned with the foundation. 

And there are only two choices offered to us: we can build our house on solid rock, or we can build on sand. If we come to Jesus, and hear what he says, and do what he says, we’ll build our lives on a solid foundation: the only solid foundation. If we don’t, then at one point or another, everything’s going to crumble underneath us. 

Now, how can Jesus make such an assertion? How can he be so arrogant as to claim that his way is the only way, and if you don’t do things his way, eventually everything you’ve built is going to collapse? 

Jesus can make such claims because he doesn’t ever claim to be a good teacher; he is Lord. He is God. So as God, as the Creator of all things and all people, whichever way he says to live is the best way. So he calls us to build our lives on what he says, and not on whatever we may feel is right.

The Paradox

Now I know we’ve seen a lot of information here; but both experience and the Bible tell us we need to go just a little further.

Generally we fall into one of two camps when it comes to Jesus’s teachings. 

Person A will hear his teachings and say, “I can never do this! I can’t love my enemies! I can’t not judge those I disagree with! These things are impossible.” 

And then there’s Person B. Person B will hear what Jesus says and feel reassured, because it’s seems like they’re already this kind of person. Person B will say, “Excellent! This is what I do anyway. I’m compassionate, I’m accepting, I’m forgiving, I’m generous… Thanks for the encouragement Jesus!”

Both of them are wrong.

The first parts of this passage contain what we could call “moral teachings”—love your enemies, don’t judge, etc. Almost everyone is able to do these things, or at least make it seem like we are: anyone can act selflessly, show tolerance toward others, be generous, and so on. But these things only come after.

What is more important for Jesus is not what we do, but where it comes from—that our love and compassion and generosity come not from a general desire to do good, but from our good treasure.

And the Bible says over and over again that this “good treasure” we are called to have is God himself.

On every page of the Bible, we find reasons why God is worthy of being our greatest treasure, and able to satisfy the desires of our hearts.

If we wanted to summarize this whole passage in a single sentence, we could do it by saying, “Love what God calls you to love, and do what God tells you to do.” So here’s the paradox: the second half of that sentence is possible; the first half isn’t. Cherishing God as our treasure is impossible for us.

At least from a natural point of view, fully obeying what Jesus tells us to do in this passage is impossible, because it’s not just about our behavior, but about our heart. It’s not just about what we do, but about what we love and feel… And we can’t change that ourselves.

We can’t choose to love God more than anything, because naturally we have no love for him. And if we don’t love him as he calls us to love him, we won’t do what he calls us to do.

Jesus commands us to have new hearts and new treasures, which produce holy behavior…but we can’t produce those hearts ourselves.

And that is where the good news of the gospel comes in.

Ezekiel 36.26-17:  

26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 

On our own, because we are born in sin, the only things we naturally desire are sinful—even if they seem good, they do not come from a desire to glorify God. And so rather than forcing us to solve that problem for ourselves (because we can’t), God solves that problem for us. He comes in, and completely independent of our own desires or impulses, he gives us a new heart. He puts his Spirit in us, and causes us to obey his rules—he causes us to love what he loves, to desire what he desires, to treasure what he treasures.

He gives us a new heart; he gives us a new treasure; and out of the good treasure of our heart we are finally able to really and truly do good.

And so when we look at this text, there are two things we need to hear God saying to us loud and clear:

1. Trust the Spirit’s power to change your heart.

A lot of you beat yourselves up by how little you love others; by how easily and quickly you judge others. It’s not bad to be disappointed by these things; but I almost want to ask, “What else did you expect?”  

You can’t do this on your own. And the good news is that you don’t have to. 

Only a good tree bears good fruit. Only out of the good treasure of our hearts can we produce good. And if you have faith in Christ, then he has given you a new heart. You would not believe in Christ without that new heart.

So even if it’s hard to believe, trust the Spirit’s power to keep nurturing that heart. If he started this work in you, he will complete it.

And if you find yourself trying to live this way, without desiring God as your treasure, if when you look inside you really can’t tell if the Spirit’s done anything in you… Then ask him to do it. Jesus said that no one who comes to him in faith will be turned away. If you want him to do this work in you, then ask him to do it, and trust him to do it.

That’s the first thing: trust God to do in you what needs to be done.

But don’t stop there. So many people who believe these things say, “Okay, God will do in me what needs to be done,” and they just wait. But Jesus gives us commands here. He commands us to do certain things, to live a certain way. So:

2. Do what he tells you to do.

Any mature Christian will tell you that this is their experience: in the moment, when they are faced with a choice to obey God’s commands or to disobey his commands, it feels as if they are the ones doing the work. This is the way human experience works—no one feels as if someone else is making them do anything. But when they look back some time later, they realize all the various ways, great and small, in which God was at work in them to bring about that obedience.

Here’s the mystery of holiness, brothers and sisters: what God told us in Ezekiel 36, that he will give us a new heart and cause us to obey him—that takes place through the call. The promise of Ezekiel 36 is accomplished through his commands. 

So here’s the deal: he promises to do his part, and he absolutely will. And he calls us to do ours. If you have faith in Christ, if you have placed your trust in him for your salvation, then do what he tells you to do. Obey his commandments. Hear his words and do them. Build your house on the rock. And when the flood rises, the stream will break against that house and be unable to shake it, because it will have been well built.