[Note: This message is informed by William Barclay’s commentary on Matthew 5 posted at www.studylight.org and other sources]
Jay Sekulow is Chief Counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). On his radio program some years ago, he was vigorously protesting the planned construction of a huge mosque near the site of the fallen Twin Towers. A woman called the show and said, “But I thought we were supposed to love our enemies.” Sekulow replied, “See, this is part of the problem. The leaders in New York won’t acknowledge that these Islamic radicals are our enemies.” The woman’s comment implied a sincere question. Jay Sekulow evaded it.
Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). If my enemy is a nameless, faceless Muslim who hates all Americans, obeying Jesus’ words may not seem all that difficult. But if my enemy has a name and face and has personally injured me, the Lord’s teaching may pose a daunting challenge. What if a drunk driver has taken my child’s life? What if a business partner has cheated me? What if a parent or sibling abused me when I was a child?
I hope that you don’t have an enemy, a person with a name and face who has done you a terrible wrong. But if you do, “love your enemies” may be the most difficult commandment in the Bible. What did Jesus mean? What did he expect, and why?
Love Your Enemy
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43-44). The command “love your neighbor” is familiar (Lev. 19:18). But where does the Old Testament teach people to hate their enemies? It doesn’t.
“Hate your enemy” was taught by the Jewish rabbis. It seemed the natural correlary of “Love your neighbor.” Love your neighbor. Hate your enemy. Makes perfect sense, right?
Moses said, “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his [donkey] going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the [donkey] of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it, you shall help him to lift it up” (Exod. 23:4-5). Let’s think of this teaching in modern terms. My enemy’s puppy is playing in a busy street. What am I to do? Scoop it up, knock on my enemy’s door, and hand him his endangered pet. My enemy runs off the highway and gets stuck. What am I to do? Hook a chain to his vehicle and pull him out of the mud.
Love your enemies. One of our struggles with this commandment has to do with the sentimental feelings attached to the English word “love.” The Greek language had four words for love. The word for family love was storge. The word for passionate, sexual love was eros. Neither of these words appears in the New Testament. Warm and affectionate love was philia. The verb form could mean kiss. The participle (the loving ones) described closest and dearest friends.
The last of the four was agape, unconquerable kindness and good will. The verb form appears in the commandment “love your enemies.” It’s impossible and inappropriate to feel for an enemy what you feel for your spouse and children. Love for an enemy is doing him good. Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and do good” (Luke 6:35). “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
Jesus modeled this love at the cross. His enemies were driving spikes into his flesh. And he prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The original text of this verse suggests that Jesus may have spoken these words several times.
Stephen, a deacon in the Jerusalem congregation, was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish supreme court and senate). He was falsely accused of scorning Moses and the temple. His eloquent defense implied that the old order had been replaced by better things. Jesus was the Savior all the Old Testament prophets had written about. The Sanhedrin members were guilty of murder. They had killed Jesus just as their fathers had murdered the prophets. Stephen’s enemies were furious. They dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death: “And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them'” (Acts 7:60). And the Lord didn’t. Saul of Tarsus was among Stephen’s enemies that day. But when Saul met Jesus on the Damascus road and repented, he was baptized and his sins were washed away (22:16).
Although emotion isn’t primary in the meaning of agape-love, the practice of unyielding kindness and good will stirs tender feelings. Someone hurts you deeply. You pray for him. You do kind things for him. What happens? Bitterness melts away, and sympathy takes its place.
Love Your Father
But why should I love my enemies? Jesus says to love your enemies and pray for them “so that you may be sons of your Father who is 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:45-48).
Even godless people treat their friends with some measure of love and respect. The Jews despised the tax collectors who gathered revenue for the hated Romans and gouged their fellow countrymen for personal gain. But tax collectors loved people who loved them. Can’t disciples of Jesus do better than that?
The Gentiles were dogs as far as the Jewish people were concerned. Dogs weren’t usually pets. They were wild, dirty scavengers. A Jew wouldn’t sit at table with a Gentile any more readily than he’d share a meal with a dog. But Gentiles gave their friends greetings in the marketplace. Can’t disciples of Jesus do better than that?
The Hebrew language wasn’t rich in adjectives. For this reason the people of Israel often used “son of” with an abstract noun in place of an adjective. A son of peace is a peaceful person. A son of encouragement is an encouraging person. A son of Belial is a worthless, lawless person. A son of light is an enlightened person.
Jesus says to love your enemies and pray for them “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:45). A son of God is a Godlike man. We must have unconquerable good will because God has it.
Our aim as true disciples is to resemble the heavenly Father. What has the Father done? He gives the evil sunshine. He gives the unjust rain. Sunshine and rain point to a vast array of blessings that give life and sweeten it. Even the ranting, blasphemous atheist may enjoy the richest gifts (e.g., perfect health, a keen mind, a strong marriage, social status, a splendid house, luxury cars in the garage, banquet meals, and closets full of expensive clothes).
God is so good to his enemies that his suffering friends may be driven to distraction. Job lost everything—his health, his possessions, his children, and the respect of his friends and community. Wicked people, however, were enjoying life. Even though they thumbed their noses at God, their bulls never failed to breed, their cows never failed to deliver healthy calves, and their children sang and danced. Job’s friends argued that God would visit the consequences of wickedness on coming generations. But Job had an answer for that: “You say, ‘God stores up their iniquity for their sons.’ Let him recompense it to themselves, that they may know it. Let their own eyes see their destruction, and let them drink of the wrath of the Almighty. For what do they care for their houses after them?” (Job 21:19-21). Wicked people don’t care about the pain of future generations. They are completely selfish.
Why is God so good to his enemies? The answer is summed up in one word: love. It is God’s nature to love. If we return his love, it is our aim to imitate him: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Is Jesus saying that we must achieve the impossible—that we must attain to the Father’s moral and spiritual perfection?
Two observations may give some clarification here. First, the Greek word for “perfect” (teleios) has nothing to do with abstract perfection. A sacrificial victim without blemish is “perfect.” A man who is full-grown is “perfect.” A student with a thorough knowledge of his subject is “perfect.”
The Greek idea of perfection is functional. A thing is perfect if it realizes its purpose and design. A person is “perfect” if he answers God’s creation purpose. Men and women were created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27). We were created to be like God. And God’s love is invincible.
Second, the parallel text in the Sermon on the Plain points to a specific way to imitate God’s perfection. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says, “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 selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36). “Perfect” (Matt. 5:48) and “merciful” (Luke 6:36) seem to be synonymous in these two passages.
Frank and Elizabeth Morris lived in Peedee, Kentucky. In 1982, their son, Ted, was a freshman at David Lipscomb. Tommy Pigage, 26, was drunk. He collided with Ted on the highway and killed him. Ted’s parents visited Tommy in jail. After Tommy’s release he began to visit the Morrises in their home. The bereaved couple called Tommy every afternoon to talk. Frank taught Tommy the Gospel. One night he baptized him into Christ. Frank and Elizabeth had unofficially adopted Tommy as their son. This is what it means to love your enemies.
Some years ago a woman called Jay Sekulow’s radio show. “I thought we were supposed to love our enemies,” she said. Sekulow, who considers himself a Christian, evaded the implied question. How should he have responded?
It’s wrong for government officials to placate Muslim fanatics. And it’s right for Americans to do everything legally possible to thwart their wicked plans. But it’s wrong for Christians to individually retaliate against Muslims for the Twin Towers attack or any other terrorist assault. Instead, I should individually seek God’s grace for Muslims. I should pray for them. I should tell them about Jesus. And I should do them good whenever possible. Muslims are particularly impressed by hospitality. If I have a Muslim neighbor, I shouldn’t shun him. I should welcome him into my home. By God’s grace my enemies may become my brothers and sisters in Christ.