What does it mean to love one’s enemies? In a recent interview former President Jimmy Carter has stated that Jesus’ command to love our enemies implies his belief that all people will be saved, irrespective of faith in Christ (See here.). This in spite of Jesus’ clear words to the contrary in John 14:6, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man comes to the Father, but by Me.”
This morning’s text answers this question for us. In Matthew 5:43-47 we come to an end of an extended teaching by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount in which He has asserted His divine and kingly authority to interpret the law of God. The six antithesis of Matthew 5:21-48 contrast what has been heard in the past, with what King Jesus declares today.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44 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? Matthew 5:43-47
I. What They Had Heard, v. 43.
Jesus first tells His hearers what they had heard. The first half of what they had heard comes directly from Leviticus 19:18 which states, “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.” There was nothing wrong yet. Jesus Himself had cited this Old Testament command, along with love for God, as one of the two greatest commandments. But the Jews had taken this command as not only commanding love for one’s neighbor, but also implying hatred for one’s enemy. If one cannot “take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people”, it surely must be ok to take vengeance and bear grudges against one’s enemies. That’s the way it was being interpreted in Jesus’ day.
Of course, you have to love your neighbors and fellow Jews, but the foreigners you could despise. Although this may have been implied by the teaching of the Old Testament, Jesus raises the standard for His followers. Merely loving people just like you isn’t sufficient. You must also love your enemies!
II. What Jesus Says We Must Do, vv. 44-47.
Jesus clearly contradicts the wrong understanding of Leviticus 19:18 by commanding love for our enemies. In verse 44, Jesus spells out exactly what this kind of love looks like. Some manuscripts of Matthew do not include all of what we find in verse 44 in the KJV and NKJV, but they are included in Luke’s account of Jesus’ words in Luke 6:27-28. In these words we find out what kind of love Jesus is talking about. He is not referring to erotic or emotional love. The Greek word which Jesus uses is agape, which has the idea of self-sacrificing service to others. It is not a matter of feelings but a matter of the will. If your reaction to Jesus’ command to love your enemies is, but I don’t like them. That’s ok. Agape love isn’t liking, but acting. Notice what verse 44 (or if using another translation, see Luke 6:27-28) says about how we are to love our enemies: “bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”
C. S. Lewis answered the question of how can you love your enemy when you don’t like them. He said,
The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste your time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him…. The difference between a Christian and a worldly man is not that the worldly man has only affections or “likings” and the Christian has only “charity.” The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he “likes” them; the Christian, trying to treat every one kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on – including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the first.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1977), 116.
When we love like this, verse 45 tells us, we will be sons of our Father in heaven! We will fulfill the saying, “Like father, like son.” In the ancient world, unlike today, almost all sons did vocationally what their fathers did. If your father was a carpenter, you became a carpenter, etc. Therefore, to see someone one who was doing a particular job indicated what kind of vocation their father also did. When we love our enemies we are showing ourselves to be sons of God, because He loves His enemies. Jesus gives two examples of God’s common grace to His creatures: He causes the sun to rise on the evil and good, and sends rain on the just and unjust. What amazing grace of our Father, who gives the gift every morning to a world that hates and rejects Him a beautiful, glowing, heat giving, light and life giving sun 93 million miles away! What amazing love of God that He causes it to rain on the yards, flowers, and gardens of those who don’t even acknowledge His existence. There are people worshiping their yards, flower beds, and gardens this morning instead of being at church worshiping God and yet God lovingly has provided the two necessary things for their “hobbies” to flourish: sunlight and water! A. M. Hunter put it his way, “To return evil for good is the devil’s way: to return good for good is man’s: to return good for evil is God’s.”
Not only does God shower His enemies with His common grace, He has also shown His special grace on the cross of Calvary. Listen the words of Romans 5:6-11,
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. (7) For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. (8) But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (9) Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. (10) For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (11) And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.
John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” also wrote “The Look” in which he envisions himself standing at the foot of the cross.
Music and additional lyrics by Bob Kauflin
Lyrics by John Newton
As recorded on Songs for the Cross Centered Life
I saw one hanging on a tree
In agony and blood
Who fixed His loving eyes on me
As near His cross I stood
And never till my dying breath
Will I forget that look
It seemed to charge me with His death
Though not a word He spoke
My conscience felt and owned the guilt
And plunged me in despair
I saw my sins His blood had spilt
And helped to nail Him there
But with a second look He said
“I freely all forgive
This blood is for your ransom paid
I died that you might live”
Forever etched upon my mind
Is the look of Him who died
The Lamb I crucified
And now my life will sing the praise
Of pure atoning grace
That looked on me and gladly took my place
Thus while His death my sin displays
For all the world to view
Such is the mystery of grace
It seals my pardon too
With pleasing grief and mournful joy
My spirit now is filled
That I should such a life destroy
Yet live by Him I killed
© 2001 Sovereign Grace Praise (BMI).
In verses 46 and 47, Jesus issues a rebuke to those who think they are loving people, when in reality they are only selfish people. Some people think they are loving because they love their family who loves them back. Some people think they are loving because they are friends whith people who have the same interests and hobbies as they do. Jesus says that this kind of love is no better than the love of a tax collector (this was not a compliment!). 19th century Baptist preacher John Broadus said, “In loving his friends a man may in a certain sense be loving only himself – a kind of expanded selfishness.”
When Jesus said in John 13:34-35 that our love for one another would be the way in which all the world would know that we are His disciples, He did not mean that we should congregate together merely because we have similar interests. The world can do that. There are stamp collecting clubs, baseball fan clubs, sewing groups, etc. But what Jesus was referring to is people who are loving in a covenant community together, not because they are all alike in every way, but because they share one thing in common: love for Jesus. When people who have no human reason for being together, gather together to worship Jesus and show love to one another in tangible acts of service, the world pays attention. They recognize that there is something different about this group.
Another way in which the world knows we are genuine believers according to our text today is when we love our enemies. This would include anyone, especially those that we don’t like! The question of “Who is my neighbor?” which the lawyer asked in Luke 10:29 becomes irrelevant. Jesus told a story about a Good Samaritan which expanded the definition of our neighbor to anyone who is in need. Here Jesus expands the command to love to include even our enemies! Everyone is now covered!
The question is, who are you going out of your way to love? Remember, I didn’t say like, but love. This means to serve sacrificially by an act of the will. I guarantee you that someone has already come to your mind who you need to show God’s love to. You might not even have realized that you view them as an enemy, but your mind subconsciously has told you that and you need to reach out to that person with the love of God!
James Boice told the story of when Dr. Harry Ironside visited a Presbyterian mission hospital in Ganado, Arizona. There he met a poor Navajo woman who had been nursed back to health through the concentrated work of a Christian doctor and Navajo nurses. She had been cast out by her own people when they thought she was going to die. She was found after 3 or 4 days of exposure. After 9 weeks in the hospital, she recovered enough to begin to wonder about the unexpected care she had received. She said to one of the nurses, “I can’t understand it. Why did the doctor do all of that for me? He is a white man, and I am an Indian. I’ve never heard of anything like this before.”
The Navajo nurse, a Christian, said to her, “You know, it is the love of Christ that made him do that.” “Who is this Christ?” the sick woman asked, “Tell me more.” The nurse called a missionary into the room and together they explained the gospel, and the staff began to pray. Several weeks passed for her to think about it. One of the staff asked her, “Can’t you trust this Savior and turn from the idols you have worshiped to trust Jesus as the Son of the Living God?” As the Navajo woman pondered her answer, the door opened and the doctor walked in. The face of the old woman lit up and she said, “If Jesus is anything like the doctor, I can trust Him forever.” She came to Christ and accepted Him as her Savior.
Can you see what it was that reached her? It was love. It was not man’s love, but it was God’s love manifested in a man. God’s love. This is what you and I are to show forth to an ungodly and rebellious world.
James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 144-145.
What do you think we should do in light of this teaching by Jesus? How about, “Love your enemies, as well as your friends!”? Show God’s love to a lost and dying world, that they may recognize that we are sons of our Father in heaven and might desire to know our Father who is the giver of every good and perfect gift!
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