Love Your Enemies: Matthew 5:43-48

In this text, our Lord quotes the standard wisdom of the day: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy” (v. 43).  Now as we’ve been noting, Jesus is not in this Sermon railing against the Law.  He is correcting Pharisaic distortions of the Law.  However, many have noted that there isn’t a command to hate your enemy in the Old Testament.  In fact, only the first part of this quotation appears in the OT: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:18). 

And yet, such is the ingenuity of sin that we can take the Bible to get around the Bible.  And this is what Jesus’ contemporaries had done.  They reasoned that they were only commanded to love their neighbor, and they interpreted this as their fellow-Jew.  In fact, the context seems to favor this interpretation, since in just the previous verse, neighbor seems to be interpreted as “brother” (Lev. 19:17): “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.”  “Ah,” they might have said, “We are told not to hate our brother; that must imply that it’s okay to hate our enemy.”

And the wider context of Old Testament history seems also to favor this view.  The Israelites were commanded to clean the Canaanites out of the land of promise – they were to exterminate them.  How is that consistent with loving your enemy? 

And then there is the matter of the imprecatory psalms.  Take, for instance, Psalm 139:21-22, in which David writes, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?  And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?  I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.”  What’s even more amazing about this is that this is just before he asks God to search him and know his heart and “see if there be any grievous way in me” (ver. 23-24). 

What are we to say to this?  Three things.  First, we must understand that there is a difference between the exercise of judicial prerogative and exacting personal vengeance.  We made that point last time, but I think it’s worth pointing out again.  When the Israelites were commanded to kill the Canaanites, this was done in obedience to the command of God to do so.  And God had sent Israel to do this in judgment upon the Canaanites for their sin.  We must be clear: the Canaanites were so bad, so morally despicable, that they were described as being vomited up by the land in which they were dwelling.  God as the Judge of all gave Israel the job of executing his wrath upon these wicked people.  God is a God of justice, and he in certain cases has delegated his authority to men in order to preserve law and order.  We are told that government is from God and the authorities have their power from God to punish wicked men and to praise those who do good.  In the case of destruction of the Canaanites, this was a case where God gave this authority to an entire nation to rid the Land of Canaan of some incredibly wicked people.

Furthermore, because there is this distinction – the distinction between those who are clothed with judicial prerogatives and the private individual – the command that we should love our neighbor is not meant to undermine the job of those who are supposed to uphold justice.  Sometimes that means punishing wicked men, perhaps even putting them to death.  This applies to the imprecatory psalms as well.  If you look carefully at them, you will notice that they are not written by men who are looking to even an old score.  They are not the words of a man who wants to settle a private grudge.  Almost certainly, these imprecations were written by men like King David who were in positions of authority, and who were concerned with the glory of God and the cause of righteousness.  There is a judicial element in these psalms and it’s important that we don’t miss that, or we’ll end up justifying personal vendettas.  They were never meant to do that.

The second thing I want to point out, is that there is not only this distinction between judicial causes and personal vendettas, but we must also acknowledge that it is possible to hate the evil in others and yet love them at the same time.  In fact, we must do so.  It is to be like God, whose wrath is upon rebels who refuse to repent but whose love sent his Son to save sinful men.  We too are to love sinners and desire that they be saved while at the same time desiring that if they do not repent that God will judge them according to their works.  But as John Stott points out, this hatred “is a hatred for God’s enemies, not our own enemies.  It is entirely free of all spite, rancor and vindictiveness, and is fired only by love for God’s honour and glory.”[1]

Thirdly, though the Leviticus passage seems at first to give support to the idea that we are only commanded to love our “brother” – those closest to us – it does not in fact do so.  For a few verses later, God tells the Israelites to love the stranger just as they love their neighbor: “When a stranger sojourns with you in the land, you shall not do him wrong.  You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 19:33-34).  In the Old Testament as in the New, our neighbor is anyone we might meet or who might be in need of our help – regardless of race, social status, or proximity.

What the rabbis had done, then, was to take the legitimate hatred that those in authority are supposed to have against those who commit crimes against society and use it to justify personal animosity against others.  And they replaced sin as the object of hatred with people.  Sin ought to be in the cross-hairs of our hatred, but when we confuse the sin with the sinner, righteous hatred quickly degenerates into unrighteous hatred.  This was not in keeping with the Law; it was a clear distortion of it.  The addition “thou shalt hate thine enemy” was a “parasitical growth”[2] upon the Law of God, and Jesus has come to set the record straight.

How we are to love our enemies (v. 44)

It is wrong to hate your enemy; you must love them.  Now people may look at this, even non-Christians, and say, “What a wonderful word!”  But I want to make very clear that this is not something our culture believes in.  Our culture does not believe it is possible to love your enemy.  And the way some Christians act, you would think they didn’t believe it was possible, either.  But Jesus leaves us no choice: we are to love our enemies.

How are we to do this?  Before we try to answer this question, we need to point out that many modern translations have only the first and last parts of verse 44.  This is simply a matter of textual criticism.  Some manuscripts have the fuller version that appears in the KJV and some do not.  The older and better ones do not, and that is the reason most modern versions (like the ESV) leave some of the words out.  However, even in modern versions, you can find them in Luke 6:27-28, which is perhaps why they eventually found their way into the text of Matthew.  I’m going to consider the longer version, as it appears in the KJV; but if you don’t have one then you can consult the text of Luke.

So how do we love our enemies?  Jesus tells us that we are to love them with our words, our actions, and our prayers.

First of all, we are to love them with our words: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you. . . .”  This is very hard to do, because we are all glory hogs.  We get offended easily when someone says something that hurts us: why?  It is because they have wounded our sense of self-importance, the pleasant image we have had of ourselves has been shattered, if even for a moment.  But if we are poor in spirit, we have lost that sense of self-importance.  We no longer want to live for our own glory, but for the glory of God.  And so we are able to bless those who curse us.

There is also a practical reason to follow our Lord’s words here.  It does us no good to curse those who curse us.  To join them in cursing is to jump on the merry-go-round of evil, and with every imprecation we increase the velocity of hatred until all who are on board are sick to the stomach with their own curses.  Evil words have a habit of coming back like a boomerang and hurting us as much as our enemy.  It is best then to leave cursing aside and let blessing fill our mouths instead.

Our Lord then goes on to say, “. . . do good to them that hate you . . .”  It is not enough to say good things to your enemies, you must do good to them.  We may not think of the parable of the Good Samaritan in this light, but I’m sure Jesus’ audience did.  In that parable, it is a Samaritan helping a Jew.  Now in that culture, Jews and Samaritans hated each other.  They were enemies.  That’s one reason the Samaritan woman was so amazed that Jesus stopped to help her.  “The Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans,” she expostulated.  But here a Samaritan stops to help a dying Jew.  Perhaps most Samaritans would have been glad he was dying; but this man stopped and rendered aid, at his own expense and probably at great inconvenience to his own schedule.  The words of Jesus to his interlocutor are for us: “Go and do thou likewise.”

Finally, Jesus tells us that we are to pray for our enemies: “. . . and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.”  To pray for your enemies is not to pray that God would send them to hell.  It is to pray that God would bless them.  You have blessed them in word and deed, and now you ask God to crown it all by adding his own blessing.

Jesus himself did this; on the cross, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  The first martyr, Stephen, prayed as he was being stoned to death, “Lord lay not this sin at their charge,” a prayer which God clearly answered in the conversion of the apostle Paul.  I think of the prayer of William Tyndale, whose last words were a prayer, as he was tied up to the stake to be burned to death: “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!”  In each case, those who were being persecuted prayed that God would bless their persecutors.

In some sense, this is the pinnacle of love.  It is one thing to refuse to retaliate.  It is another altogether to desire that God would bless them and to truly pray to that end.

Why we should love our enemies (v.45-48)

The reason we should love like this lies in our identity as the children of God: “that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.”  God sends rain on the good and evil; he does good to all in the sense of his common grace.  Not all men submit to him; in fact, we all are by nature enemies of God.  Only God’s saving grace changes that.  And yet, God is longsuffering toward all.  As Paul would put it later to the heathen population of Lystra, “He [God] did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).  Even so, we are to follow his example and love both our neighbor and our enemy.

We need to be careful lest we draw some wrong deductions from this, however.  Yes, God does good to all.  But he is also Judge of all.  This verse is not intended to take away from the fact that all men will stand before his throne someday and give account, and that those who refused God’s will in this life will perish forever.  There is no reason to think that this universal aspect of God’s love means that his saving love extends to all.  This reality is hinted at in the text itself.  Not all are the children of God; only those who love like God loves belong to his family.  Those who refuse to love like God will in the end find themselves outside the family of God, outside the realm of his saving love.

But we should not miss the fact that behind this motivation lies a very powerful encouragement.  Jesus tells us that it is belonging to the family of God that makes the difference in terms of how we relate to our enemies.  It does not lie in us, but in the grace of God in us.  If you belong to the family of God, there is something different about you.  For one thing, you carry the family likeness, which is seen primarily in the character of Jesus Christ.  In other words, when God puts us in his family, he begins to transform us so that we are made to look more and more like our Lord in his character.  We begin slowly, and continue slowly, but the transformation is occurring.  You are becoming more like Jesus, which means that you are becoming more loving.

This is the reason Jesus expostulates with his disciples, “And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others?  Do not even the publicans so?” (ver. 47).  We are not to be content to be like the world – we must be better.  Why?  Because we are better?  No!  It is because we belong to the family of God.  If we belong to Jesus Christ, we have been adopted into his family and regenerated by his Spirit.  He has given us the family name in adoption and the family likeness in regeneration.  It is his power in us that enables us to live in this radically counter-cultural way.

In The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom relates an experience that illustrates how the power of Christ in us enables us to love this way.  It happened several years after she had been released from the concentration camp.   After she came back to Holland, she was led to share her sister’s vision with those who had suffered during the war: the vision that joy in Christ runs deeper than despair.  At first, she shared this with her fellow countrymen, but then later she realized that people in Germany needed to hear Betsy’s message too.  So she went to share God’s truth in the country of her enemies.  At one meeting she met one of the prison guards that had treated her and her sister so cruelly.  She relates:

It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there—the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face. He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein.” he said.  “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!”

His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.

Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give Your forgiveness. As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand, a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.

And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.[3]

I don’t know if Corrie had ever read the words of St. Augustine: “Lord, give what you command, and command what you will.”  But she had discovered the reality of it in her own experience.  May God in his goodness do the same in all of us, through Christ.    

[1] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p. 117.

[2] C. H. Spurgeon, quoted in Stott, p. 117.

[3] Boom, Corrie Ten; Elizabeth Sherrill; John Sherrill (2006-01-01). The Hiding Place (pp. 247-248). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.



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