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 in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax-gatherers do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Introduction and Review
When we looked at this text last Sunday, I was most concerned to rightly understand verse 45: "Love your enemies . . . in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven." One of the reasons some Christians shy away from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) is because of conditional statements like this. "IF you love your enemies (the way God loves his enemies), THEN you will be his children."
I stressed that this does not mean we can earn our way into God's family by loving our enemies. Rather it means that when we love our enemies, we prove ourselves to be in God's family. "If you love your enemies the way God loves his enemies, then you show that you ARE a child of God. You are seen to be a child of God." Loving your enemy doesn't pay for your birth into God's family; it proves you've been born into God's family.
We closed that message by asking, Well, how did Jesus offer a relationship with himself and his father? How does it get started, so that we have the power to love and can prove that God is at work within us? The answer was Matthew 5:3,
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
We receive Jesus and his kingdom through bankruptcy—by admitting the poverty of spirit. The answer was Mark 10:15,
Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all.
We receive Jesus and his kingdom by admitting that we are as helpless as a little child. The answer was Mark 2:17,
It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.
We receive Jesus and his kingdom by admitting that we are sick and in need of a spiritual physician—namely, Jesus.
In other words the commands of the Sermon on the Mount are not the first things in the matter of our relationship to Jesus and his Father. The first things are free gospel promises that he will be the Forgiver and Healer for our sin-sickness, the Father for our helpless childlikeness, and the Supplier for our poverty stricken heart. All of that we receive by faith. Jesus said to the prostitute who wept at his feet,
Your sins have been forgiven . . . your faith has saved you; go in peace. (Luke 7:48, 50)
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 news that Jesus "came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45); and we hear the free offer that by trusting him our sins we 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,
I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
We are grafted into the vine by faith in the all-satisfying 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."
Now today I want us to think about who our enemies are, and what it means to love them, and how this is possible.
Who Is Our Enemy?
In this text Jesus is responding to a misinterpretation of the Old Testament commandment to love your neighbor as your love yourself (Leviticus 19:18, 34). Verse 43:
You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies.
"Neighbor" Is Not Just Friends and Brothers
One of the reasons we know Jesus thought it was wrong to interpret "neighbor" merely as friend or brother or comrade is that in Luke 10:29, when he was asked, "Who is my neighbor?" he answered by telling the parable of 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.
So Jesus doesn't just say, "I have two commands: one that you love your neighbor and one that you love your enemy." He says, "I have one command: love your neighbor and I mean, even if he is an enemy."
But what does he mean by "enemy"? What kind of enmity does he have in mind? From the context we can see that he means a wide range of feelings from very severe opposition to minor snubbing. Notice some of these. As we do, ask who in your experience comes closest, and be praying that God will use his Word, even now, to give you the heart to love them.
Those Who Persecute You
The first meaning of enemy is found in verse 44,
But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.
So, 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 like the hostility Jesus faced. For example, last December one magazine carried this notice:
In some parts of the world Christians are still being crucified, quite literally so. News agencies report that five Christians have been crucified since July in Sudan, one being an Anglican priest. The detail is supplied that the executioners used six-inch-long nails. In Wad Medani two Catholic converts have been sentenced by an Islamic law court to be crucified. Anglican Bishop Daniel Zindo reports that widows and orphans of slain Christian men are sold into slavery in north Sudan and Libya for $15 per slave. (First Things, December 1994, p. 82)
Another report from February 1993 from David Barrett and Todd Johnson's AD 2000 Global Monitor (no. 28, Feb. 1993, p. 2) describes the situation in China:
There have been . . . reports of increased persecution, rising hostility, and government crackdowns on religion in response to the role of the church played in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. In Beijing, up to 60 Christian meeting points were forcibly closed by authorities between January and June 1992. Many arrests have been made with charges of distribution and of receiving Bibles.
Jesus says, "Yes, love them. Love them. If they kill you, love them. If they take away your father, love them. If they destroy your home, love them. Love your enemies. Be that kind of person. Be so changed on the inside that it is really possible."
Those Opposing You in Less Dramatic Ways
But Jesus also has in mind situations much less dramatic than that. Verse 45b gives another pointer to the kind of hard relationships in which we should love. It says,
He [God] causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
The evil and the unrighteous are people who defy the laws of God. They resist his will. They do not submit to his authority.
A lot of these people do not admit that they are God's enemies. They would resent being told that they are God's enemies. But Jesus mentions them to illustrate God's love for his enemies. And our love for our enemies. So another way to understand "enemies" in this passage is that they are people who are repeatedly going against your desires. They may not call themselves enemies. You may not call them enemies. But they resist your will. They are contrary and antagonistic. In this sense, the enemy might be a rebellious child. He might be an uncaring, non-listening, ill-tempered husband. He might be a cantankerous neighbor that complains about everything you do to your yard. Jesus says, "Love them. Love your enemies. Love them."
Anyone Who Doesn't Love You or Is Not Your Brother
One other illustration of the enemy is given in verses 46–47:
If you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax-gatherers do the same? 47 And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more than others?
Here in verse 46 the "enemy" is any one who doesn't love you. "If you (just) love those who love you, you are not loving the way I just commanded." And in verse 47 the "enemy" is anyone who is not your brother. "If you greet your brothers only, you are not loving the way I just commanded you."
So the point seems to be: don't stop loving because the person does things that offend you, or dishonor you, or hurt your feelings, or anger you, or disappoint you, or frustrate you, or threaten you, or kill you. "Love your enemies" means keep on loving them. Keep on loving them.
What Is This Love?
Now we must ask, What is this love? This time let's work backward in the text.
Something as Simple as Greeting Them
In verse 47 loving your enemy means something as simple and gracious as greeting them: "if you greet your brothers 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 leave this service? 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."
Practically Meeting Their Physical Needs
Second, verse 45 illustrates what love is:
[God] causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
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 quoted Proverbs 25:21f. in Romans 12:20.
If your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon 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.
Praying for Them
Third, verse 44 gives one of the deepest meanings of love for your enemies. It says,
I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who 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. It may be for their conversion. It may be for their repentance. It may be that they would be awakened to the enmity in their hearts. It may be that they will be stopped in their downward spiral of sin, even if it takes disease or calamity to do it. But the prayer Jesus has in mind here is always for their good.
This is what Jesus did as he hung on the cross:
Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)
And it's what Stephen did as he was being stoned:
Falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them! (Acts 7:60)
These are examples of obedience to Jesus command: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
Jesus is calling us not just to do good things for our enemy, like greeting them and helping supply their needs; he is also calling us to WANT their best, and to express those wants in prayers when the enemy is nowhere around. Our hearts should want their salvation and want their presence in heaven and want their eternal happiness. So we pray like the apostle Paul (in Romans 10:1) for the Jewish people, many of whom made life very hard for Paul,
My heart's desire and prayer to God is for their salvation.
Where Does Power to Love Like This Come From?
Now how can we do this? Where does power to love like this come from? Just think how astonishing this is when it appears in the real world! Could anything show the truth and power and reality of Christ more than this?
Let me just give you part of the answer from Matthew 5:11–12,
Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. 12 Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Jesus says that not only can you endure the mistreatment of the enemy, but you can also rejoice in it. Why? Because your reward in heaven is great.
Which means that the command to love your enemy is a command to set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth. The command to love your enemy is a command to find your hope and your satisfaction in God and his great reward—not in the way people treat you. The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life (Psalm 63:3).
Loving your enemy doesn't earn you the reward of heaven. Treasuring the reward of heaven empowers you to love your enemy.