In our last study (5:38-42) Jesus taught that we are not to retaliate against those who hurt us, but we are to respond by doing good. This is certainly a challenging task. It is tempting to respond to evil in kind, especially when the mistreatment comes from an enemy! But in the our text for this morning (Mt 5:43-48), we find Jesus' teaching concerning the treatment of our enemies.
Speaking about Matthew 5:43-48, A. W. Pink wrote, "There has been a strong and widespread effort made to get rid of the flesh-withering teaching of this part of our Lord's ministry. Those professing to be the towers of orthodoxy and the most enlightened among Bible teachers have blatantly and dogmatically affirmed that 'the Sermon on the Mount is not for us,' that it is 'Jewish,' that it pertains to a future dispensation, that it sets forth the righteousness which will obtain in 'the millennial kingdom.' And this satanic sop was eagerly devoured by multitudes of those who attended the 'Second Coming of Christ' conferences, and was carried by them into many of the 'churches,' their pastors being freely supplied with 'dispensational' literature dealing with this fatal error. Slowly but surely this evil leaven has worked until a very considerable and influential section of what passes as orthodox Christianity has been poisoned by it."
As we study this text this morning, we may wish that the Dispensationalists were right in their saying that the Sermon on the Mount is not for us. This is a difficult text. To love our enemies is not natural, human reasoning dictates that you love those who love you and hate those who hate you. And this is precisely where the religious leaders of Jesus' day had come. They had a twisted belief which they thought was based on scripture.
Matthew 5:43 (NKJV) "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'
Jesus was referring to the Rabbinic teaching which was supposedly based on Scripture. But the Old Testament will be searched in vain for any precept which required the Israelites to entertain any hatred toward their enemies. Thou shalt "hate thine enemy" was a rabbinical invention pure and simple.
The Old Testament taught them to love their neighbor:
Leviticus 19:18 (NKJV) 'You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.'
This teaching is clear enough. The problem was that over time it had become twisted. The religious leaders had distorted the truth in order to accommodate themselves. They taught that you were to love only your neighbor.
Who is my neighbor? Some of the schools of the scribes taught that fellow students of the law were neighbors, so it was limited to scribes and Pharisees. Some schools of the scribes and Pharisees taught that it was wider than that. They taught that your neighbor was every blood relative, every friend, or person living in your locality, i.e., in their community. Other schools taught that it was much broader yet. They taught that every Jew was a neighbor, but Jews only! No person could be a neighbor if they were not a Jew. In other words, they had to hate every person who was not a Jew. Some schools were much more liberal. They taught that Gentile proselytes who had joined the Jewish faith were neighbors. This was the broadest school of the scribes and Pharisees. The most common teaching was that only good Jews were considered as a neighbor. Publicans, harlots, or any public sinner was positively excluded.
As a result of this teaching, they had to hate every person that was not what they esteemed to be a good Jew. The command to "love your neighbor" doesn't mean much if you don't know who your neighbor is. The lawyer that tested Jesus questioned Him as to who his neighbor was:
Luke 10:25-29 (NKJV) And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" 26 He said to him, "What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?" 27 So he answered and said, " 'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,' and 'your neighbor as yourself.'" 28 And He said to him, "You have answered rightly; do this and you will live." 29 But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
This lawyer wanted to justify his hatred for publicans and sinners. He wanted to justify his school of thought, so he asked who was his neighbor in order to distinguish between those whom one loved or hated. He expected Jesus to give his narrow view of the meaning of the word neighbor to mean his fellow scribes and Pharisees. He knew the law, and he knew what it meant. This scribe, or lawyer, was "willing to justify himself" as having earned salvation by strictly observing the law of loving God above all and loving his neighbor as himself as he cited it.
Jesus answered this lawyer's question, "And who is my neighbor?" with the parable about the good Samaritan. In that parable the man who loved was a Samaritan and the wounded man whom he loved was a Jew. And the Jews and Samaritans were anything but friends and brothers. They had nothing to do with each other. There were religious and racial animosities. There was no scribal school that interpreted the term neighbor liberal enough to include those hated, detested Samaritans. The scribes and Pharisees considered the Samaritans as the most hated on earth. So when Jesus was asked who was a neighbor, He used the act of the good Samaritan to show who was a neighbor.
We see Jesus' willingness to talk to a Samaritan woman was a great surprise to her. She was so surprised that He would speak to her, a Samaritan, since He was a Jew.
John 4:9 (NKJV) Then the woman of Samaria said to Him, "How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?" For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.
She was shocked. She couldn't understand why the Lord Jesus was talking to her in a friendly way.
The term "neighbor" is used in the Old Testament in a twofold manner: wider and more general, and narrower and more specific. In its common usage, it includes anyone with whom we may come into contact, having respect unto our fellow men. In its specific sense, it signifies one who is near to us by ties of blood or habitation. But anyone who compares Scripture with Scripture should be clear on the Lord's meaning:
Exodus 11:2 (NKJV) "Speak now in the hearing of the people, and let every man ask from his neighbor and every woman from her neighbor, articles of silver and articles of gold."
The reference here is to the Egyptians among whom Israel then lived. "Strangers," along with "neighbors," are represented as those we are to love. In the same chapter where we find the command to love our neighbor, we find this:
Leviticus 19:33-34 (NKJV) 'And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. 34 'The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
So "neighbor" is not restricted to those who are our friends or even those we know.
When God prohibited His people from bearing false witness against their neighbors, and when He forbade them coveting the wife of a neighbor (Ex. 20:16, 17), the prohibition must be understood without any limitation. So, the commandment to love their neighbors, understood correctly, commanded them to love all mankind.
The scribes and Pharisees taught that enemies were to be hated. The word hate in our text comes from the Greek word miseo, which means: "hatred; to detest, especially to persecute." So when the scribes and Pharisees taught that you must hate your enemies, they meant you must detest that person, persecute them, and have no love for them. This was the perverted teaching of the scribes and Pharisees which clearly did not come from Scripture. In the Old Testament, it is clear that God wants us to love our enemies:
Exodus 23:4-5 (NKJV) "If you meet your enemy's ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again. 5 "If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, and you would refrain from helping it, you shall surely help him with it.
Proverbs 24:17-18 (NKJV) Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, And do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; 18 Lest the LORD see it, and it displease Him, And He turn away His wrath from him.
Proverbs 25:21 (NKJV) If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink;
How they could twist these to teach that you are to hate your enemy is beyond me.
In Leviticus 19:18, it qualifies how we are to love our neighbors. It says there that you are to love them "as yourself." This ruled out any kind of superficial and casual application of the word "love". To love someone else as you love yourself is to take great care in loving them. We all certainly take great care in loving ourselves. This phrase, however, was conveniently left out.
The scribes and Pharisees had both taken away from and added to the Scripture. They had limited the meaning of the word "neighbor", which must be properly interpreted to mean every human being. They also added to the text of scripture by saying that you were to hate your enemy. As opposed to their teaching, notice carefully what Jesus taught:
Matthew 5:44-48 (NKJV) "But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, 45 "that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 "For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 "And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? 48 "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
Examining this passage of Scripture will reveal the transformed behavior that Jesus is after in each of us. The point is that Jesus does not want us to act like the world. He wants us to manifest a behavior that is based upon a supernatural principle of divine life. As a result of his fallen nature, man tends to treat others the way he is treated. There is revenge for revenge, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life with a revengeful spirit. That is our fallen condition and the response of man by nature. He desires that we live above the level of mediocrity by the power of His Spirit. He desires for us to live a life that in our own strength we cannot live.
The first thing He says to us is that you should love your enemies. This is a powerful and radical teaching about the inclusiveness of love. The kind of love that Jesus advocates even embraces our enemies.
To those listening to Jesus that day, this must have seemed like an impossibility. How could anyone love his or her enemy? Enemies don't evoke love in anyone. Jesus, however, wanted to make a point that He considered our neighbor to include our enemies. In other words, no one is outside the scope of our love. Or no one should be. We then are called to manifest love to all people.
What Is Love?
Our culture uses the word "love" to mean just about everything except what the Bible means by it. Greek is a language which is rich in synonyms; its words often have shades of meaning which English does not possess. In Greek there are four different words for love. There is the noun storge. This word speaks of the love of family. It is used of the love of a parent for a child and a child for a parent. There is the noun eros.
That word is used to describe erotic love, sensual love, what you feel when you "fall in love," a passionate attraction toward the opposite sex. That kind of love is not even mentioned in the Word of God. And then there is phileo, which means: "affection, friendship, a feeling of tender affection toward someone else." It is used to describe a man's closest and nearest and truest friends.
The word Jesus uses in our text is agapao. This Greek word was rarely used in Greek literature prior to the New Testament. In the New Testament, the word agape took on a special meaning; it was used by the New Testament writers to designate a volitional love (as opposed to a purely emotional love), a self-sacrificial love, a love naturally expressed by divinity but not so easily by humanity. It seems as though the early Christian church took this word out of its obsoleteness and made it a characteristic word for love.
Agape love is a response to someone who is unworthy of love. This concept of love was derived from the cross. God loved the world and gave his Son for it. That was a response to unworthy people, to sinners, to those who were his enemies. That is agape. It is a love that proceeds from the nature of the lover, rather than the worth of the person who is loved. It is a love that gives, a love that seeks the best of the object loved. Agape is a commitment of the will to cherish and uphold another person. It is the only word ever used to describe God's love. It is a decision that you make and a commitment that you have launched upon to treat another person with concern, with care, with thoughtfulness, and to work for his or her best interests.
Jesus never asked us to love our enemies in the same way as we love our dearest friend or spouse or family member. The word he uses is different than the words used for those kinds of love.
The word love, as used by our Savior in our text, could be seen as synonymous with the word mercy. When Jesus said, "Love your enemies" he is talking about a merciful spirit, tenderness of heart which disposes a person to overlook injuries or to treat an offender better than he deserves; while they are cursing, you are blessing. When they come with spite to persecute, you do not respond as they do. You pray for them, do good unto them. This is the love of which Jesus is speaking:
Matthew 5:44 (NKJV) "But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you,
In this verse we find the meaning of "enemy". Clearly, by "enemy" he means people who oppose you and try to hurt you. "Persecute" means: "to pursue with harmful intentions". It might include very severe hostility. The same Greek word for persecute is connected with murder in:
Acts 7:52 (NKJV) "Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers,
In Matthew 5:44, Jesus give us some very specific, very practical examples of what it means to love our enemies. Love blesses those who curse you. The word "bless" in this text is taken from the Greek word, eulogeo, which means: "To speak well of, to bless or invoke a benediction upon, to pray for their prosperity, bless or praise." That means when they speak evil of you, curse you, you speak well of them. You speak of them with a heart's desire for their welfare. You do not bring defamation upon them or their name. You do not stoop to their level. We usually bless those who persecute us, don't we? Ouch!
Love not only blesses, it prays. Jesus said, "pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you". Prayer for your enemies is one of the deepest forms of love, because it means that you have to really want that something good happen to them. You might do nice things for your enemy without any genuine desire that things go well with them. But prayer for them is in the presence of God who knows your heart, and prayer is interceding with God on their behalf. He is not saying that we should pray for them to be struck by lightning or that a house should fall on them. Rather, He is saying that we should pray on their behalf to God. It may be prayer for their conversion. It may be for their repentance. But the prayer Jesus has in mind here is always for their good.
When is the last time you prayed for an enemy? When is the last time that you prayed for someone who mistreated you and persecuted you? This is what Christ did:
Luke 23:34 (NKJV) Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do." And they divided His garments and cast lots.
He was praying for those who had hung Him on the cross; He was unjustly condemned and tortured to death. And he prays for those who did it. This is Christ's example!
Stephen followed the example of his Lord in praying for those who despitefully used Him and persecuted Him:
Acts 7:59-60 (NKJV) And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60 Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not charge them with this sin." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
When we pray for our enemies, we are engaging in a God-like act. We are interceding for them as Christ intercedes for us. We are beginning to see them through Christ's eyes. Prayer changes us. When Cathy and I first moved here, we met another Christian couple that we spent time with, but I really didn't like the man very much. His personality rubbed me the wrong way. While I was at sea with the Navy, I began to pray for him every day, and by the time I returned home I viewed him as a dear friend. Prayer causes our hearts to reach out in compassionate love for others. Perhaps this is why Jesus encouraged us to pray for our enemies. It's hard not to like someone you are praying for.
Jesus tells us that we are to speak well of and pray for those who are our enemies. No matter what they do to us, no matter how they treat us, we are to speak well of and pray for them. That is love!
Jesus goes on to tell us that if we behave in this way, we will be identifying ourselves as His children:
Matthew 5:45 (NKJV) "that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
Some take this to mean that you must first become a person who loves his enemies before you can be a child of God. That is salvation by works, and it is impossible! "That you may be sons of your Father" has the idea of: "love your enemies and so demonstrate yourself to be a child of God". That is, show you are a child of God by acting the way your Father acts. If you are his, then his character is in you, and you will be inclined to do what he does. God loves his enemies - the evil and the unrighteous - by sending rain and sunshine on them instead of instant judgment.
Love your enemies and so show that God is your Father. Why should we interpret it this way? Well, first of all you can't love [agape] if you aren't a child of God. Look at what Jesus says in:
Matthew 5:16 (NKJV) "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.
Notice two things: one is that Jesus speaks to his disciples and calls God their Father. He does not say, "He may become your Father." He says, "He is your Father." Second, notice that when people see the good works of the disciples (like loving their enemies) they give glory to our Father. Why? Because our Father is in us helping us and enabling us to do the good works. If we did the good works on our own so that we could then become children of our Father, the world should see our good works and give us the glory. So Jesus not only says that God is already the Father of the disciples, but this is the very reason that they can do the loving works they do. The light that they let shine IS the light of their Father's love within them.
So when Jesus says, "But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you... "that you may be sons of your Father in heaven", he does not mean that loving our enemies earns us the right to be a child of God. You can't earn the status of a child. You must be born into it. You can't work your way into it. Jesus means that loving our enemies shows that God has already become our Father, and that the only reason we are able to love our enemies is because he loves us.
Another clue in the Sermon on the Mount that this is the way we should interpret this is found in:
Matthew 7:16-17 (NKJV) "You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 "Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.
What Jesus is saying is that you cannot produce the fruit of love in order to become a good tree. You have to become a good tree in order to produce the fruit of love. Becoming a child of God and being transformed on the inside - becoming a good tree - precedes and enables love, not vice versa.
If you take the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, all the commandments assume - they presuppose - that a conversion has happened - a new birth - before we can live righteously, we must be made righteous. We do not earn or merit our sonship or our entrance into heaven. We receive it as a free gift, and then we live in a way that shows who our Father is. Loving our enemies is a proof that the power of the kingdom has entered your life, not a payment for the power of the kingdom to enter your life.
This is how the Christian life starts. It doesn't start by measuring up. It starts by realizing that we don't measure up. We are poverty stricken, helpless as a child, and sin-sick in need of a Great Physician. Then we hear the gospel, the free offer that by trusting him our sins will be forgiven, God will be our Father, and the power of the kingdom will come into our lives, and we will have the help we need to live out the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said:
John 15:5 (NKJV) "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.
We are grafted into the vine by faith in the promises of Christ. And we abide there by faith - drawing on his power and his enabling. So the fruit we produce, like loving our enemies, is not produced in our own strength, but by the strength of the vine. "Without me you can do nothing."
How do we manifest to the watching world that we are truly children of God? It is through our love and concern. Are you manifesting your identity as a child of God? You see, we should show this impartial love because God shows impartial love. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. When you go out in the sunshine in your yard, did you ever notice that the sun is shining on your unbelieving neighbor's yard too? Did you ever notice that the rain falls on his lawn too? That indicates that God manifests His love toward the unbeliever as well as toward the believer. The point is that God blesses everyone. He doesn't just bless those who love Him. He sends His blessing without regard to whether the one receiving the blessing deserves it.
In this case, love is very practical efforts to meet a person's physical needs. Sunshine and rain are the two things that things need to grow so that there will be food for human life. This is the kind of thing Paul had in mind when he said:
Romans 12:20-21 (NKJV) Therefore "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Loving your enemy means practical acts of helpfulness in the ordinary things of life. God gives his enemies sunshine and rain. You give your enemies food and water.
He goes on to say that we must live on a higher level than those around us:
Matthew 5:46-47 (NKJV) "For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 "And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?
The tax collectors were at the bottom of the line where the Jews were concerned. It was much worse than today. One got to be a tax collector in biblical times as positions were auctioned off by the Romans. Those Jews who were especially greedy would bid for the positions. The Romans awarded the job to the one who indicated he could get the most for the government in taxes. Let's assume that the highest bid for a particular area was fifty thousand dollars per quarter. The Romans gave the tax collector the privilege of keeping whatever he collected over the fifty thousand dollars which he had bid for the taxes. So if he could get a hundred thousand dollars, fifty thousand dollars went to the Romans and the tax collector had fifty thousand dollars for himself. You can see what such an approach did to the position. Those who occupied this position were despised Jews. First, they had sold themselves to the Romans. Secondly, they were extortioners of their own people. So they became an example of the lowest kind of people as far as the Jews were concerned.
Please notice that in verse 47, loving your enemy means something as simple and gracious as greeting them: "And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others?" Greeting your non-brothers is one form of the love Jesus has in mind here. That may seem utterly insignificant in the context of threatening and killing. But Jesus means for this text to apply to all of life.
Whom do you greet when you come here to worship? Only those who greet you? Only your close friends? Only those you know? Jesus says, Greet not only those you don't know. Greet those who are at odds with you. Of course there may be more you should do if there is tension between you. But you have no warrant from Jesus to snub someone. "Love your enemy" means something as simple as, "Greet them."
Jesus says here, "For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye?" Does this imply that when we love our enemies God rewards us? I think it does. God's rewards are a motive to obedience. What was it that moved Moses to refuse to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, which caused him to forsake the treasures of Egypt and to suffer affliction with the people of God? The Bible tells us it was because: "he looked to the reward". (Heb. 11:25 -26).
Finally, He tells us to be like our heavenly Father:
Matthew 5:48 (NKJV) "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
The constant call to the Christian is to be like God. It is God's purpose that each of us reflect the image of our Father.
The word for perfect in Greek is often translated: "mature" and simply means to reach a stage of completion. In this context, it has reference to the matter of showing love and mercy; note the parallel passage:
Luke 6:36 (NKJV) "Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.
When we display love and mercy to our enemies, we demonstrate a maturity of character - we are like our Father.
Jesus is telling us that He wants us to be like Him. He wants us to love with the kind of love He has. Our call is to be people who manifest the nature of the God we serve - it is a call to be like Jesus.
The Father's love for His elect began in eternity, when He loved His people enough to send His own Son while they were still enemies:
1 John 4:10 (NKJV) In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
God the Father so loved His dear children that He sent His own Son to take away His wrath upon sin, to be the propitiation for our sins. It was not because we loved God, but that He loved us:
1 John 4:11 (NKJV) Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
Look at the precious admonition there. If we see the love God had for us, then we should love one another. Therefore, we should love our enemies while they are still enemies. While they are still slandering and cursing us and trying to destroy and persecute us, we should be blessing them and demonstrating tokens of love. This is the way to be Christlike. God so loved us; therefore, we should love one another.
We are not called to live on the same level as the world. Indeed, we are called to live on a level that is not only higher, but impossible. The point of what Jesus is saying is that we must live by the power of God. He is asking us to do things that in our own strength we cannot do. The only possible way to truly love our enemies is to live by the power of God. He is calling us to summit our weaknesses to Him and allow Him to pour His strength into us. When we are weak, then He is strong.
Anyone can live in a belligerent, spiteful, revengeful way. It takes a mature child of God to live above the level of this mediocrity and walk in love. Just think how astonishing this love is when it appears in the real world! Could anything show the truth and power and reality of Christ more than this?
Let me close this morning with a question, "Are you acting like our Father who is in heaven? Are you demonstrating to the world around you that you are a child of God?" Anyone can hate their enemies, but only a child of God can love them.