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.
We will take at least two weeks on this text and the command that we love our enemies. Today we try to get the big picture of the Sermon on the Mount and how its commandments relate to the whole ministry of Jesus. Next week we will move in on the specific command to love our enemies and see how it looks in practice.
How the Great Commission Helps Us Understand This Love Command
Let's step back for a moment and let something Jesus said at the end of his life wave a banner over this commandment to love our enemies.
One of the last things Jesus said after he died and rose from the dead and before he ascended to heaven was this:
All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18–20)
Now this is extremely important for understanding our text today in Matthew 5:43–48 about loving our enemies.
Jesus says, go everywhere and make disciples. This includes bringing them to faith and allegiance in Christ expressed in baptism. And it includes teaching them to do all that he commanded—verse 20: "teaching them to observe all that I commanded you." And he said to do this to the end of the this age—"I am with you always to the end of the age." This is important because there are many teachers in the larger church today who in fact deny the "all" in this command—"Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you."
Does Not Negate Grace
Some say that the commandments of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) are not for this age. They are like the Old Testament Law coming before the cross and should not be part of the normative teaching of the church in this age. The main motive here is the fear that law will be mixed in with grace and we will contaminate the gospel of free grace by the teachings of Jesus that make love a condition for finally entering the kingdom of heaven. The assumption is that wherever you have conditions, you don't have grace. And wherever you have grace, you don't have conditions. So they have developed elaborate justifications for not taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously.
Is Not an Isolated Ethical Teaching
Another group of teachers goes in the other direction and denies the "all" of Matthew 28:20 by affirming only the ethical commandments of Jesus, and leaving out of account the crucial things he did and said that prevent his commandments from becoming mere ethics. This group prizes the Sermon on the Mount, but really does run the risk of cutting it off from the gospel of salvation by grace through faith.
So one group tries to protect the gospel of salvation by grace through faith by putting the ethical teachings of Jesus into a special category that doesn't apply to us today. And another group tries to rescue the ethical teachings of Jesus even though they don't think the other deeds and words of Jesus about salvation and faith and grace are essential.
I think Matthew 28:20 steers us between both of these views, and says we should observe ALL that Jesus commanded us—and that we should do this as long as this age lasts, not just for some distant future time or past time—because all authority belongs to Jesus and he will be with us to the end of the age. So when I read the Sermon on the Mount, I take it to refer to me and my family and this church, and all people Christ wants us to disciple among all the nations. And, until I see otherwise from the Word, I assume that the Sermon on the Mount does not contradict the way of salvation that Jesus and his apostles taught.
The Context of This Command: Six Statements
So let's go back and look at the command to love our enemies in its context—both the nearby context and the bigger context of the gospels. Matthew 5:43–44 is the last of six statements in the Sermon on the Mount that begin, "You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you." The series of six statements begins in 5:21. Just before this series, in 5:20 Jesus says,
For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Then come the six statements: "You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you." I take this to mean that Jesus is explaining in these six statements what the righteousness looks like that he requires beyond what the scribes and Pharisees require.
- Verse 21: "You have heard that the ancients were told, 'You shall not commit murder' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court."
- Verse 27: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery' 28 but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart."
- Verse 31: "And it was said, 'Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce'; 32 but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery."
- Verse 33: "Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, 'You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.' 34 But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool."
- Verse 38: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' 39 But I say to you, do not resist him who is evil."
- Verse 43: "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."
So what Jesus is doing here in these six commandments is showing his disciples how some of the scribes and Pharisees applied the Old Testament teachings, and then, over against that, what he was calling them to do—something different, or something deeper.
So when verse 20 says, "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven," he was saying, "There is a way of life—there is an authentic, deep, unhypocritical way of life—that you must live if you want to arrive in heaven." He is not saying: I have an impossible standard of righteousness that you can never meet, and so stop trying to meet it, and trust in my righteousness. That's not what he is saying. He is saying, "If you will come to me, and trust in me, and receive the power of the kingdom, and be cleansed on the inside by the forgiveness and love of God that I offer, and bank your hope on all my promises, and let my ransoming death cover all your failures and imperfections, then you WILL be able to live this way (not perfectly, but powerfully), and your life will be the light of the world that proves you are the children of God."
Evidencing Conversion, Not Earning Salvation
In other words, Jesus is assuming that something very profound has happened to people who live the way the Sermon on the Mount calls us to live. Let me try to show you why I think that, and what it is that has to happen to us so that we can live this way and surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees—not to earn our way to heaven but to show that God has graciously and powerfully changed us and promised us heaven.
Look at verse 44–45:
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.
Now someone might take this to mean that you must first become a person who loves his enemies before you can be a child of God. But it may also mean: love your enemies and so prove yourself to be what you are—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—in sending rain and sunshine on them instead of instant judgment.
"Let Your Light Shine Before Men"
I think that is, in fact, just what it means: love your enemies and so show that God is your Father. Why do I think that? Several reasons. Let me just give two from the Sermon on the Mount. One comes from Matthew 5:16,
Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is 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.
The Basis for the Golden Rule
The other reason I think Jesus means that loving our enemies is not the cause but the evidence of our having God as our Father comes from Matthew 7:11–12.
If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!
So here again Jesus tells his disciples that God is their Father—even though they are imperfect in their love (he calls them "evil")—and that he stands more ready to give us the help we need than we are to give our own children help when they ask.
Then—and this is the crucial point—in verse 12 Jesus draws this conclusion from his teaching about the love of God's Fatherhood in verse 11:
Therefore, however you want people to treat you, so treat them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
The word "therefore" is crucial here. It means that the golden rule is based on the loving, prayer-answering, Father-heart of God. God will answer your prayers and take care of you . . . THEREFORE, love others the way you want to be loved. In other words, Jesus makes our love for others the result or fruit of God's fatherly love for us, not the payment we make to become his children.
So when Jesus says, back in Matthew 5:44, "But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, 45 in order that you may be sons of your Father who is 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 can be born into it. You can be adopted 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 and has met our needs first.
Good Trees Bearing Good Fruit
Another clue in the Sermon on the Mount that this is the way Jesus is thinking is found in Matthew 7:16–17,
You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the 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.
What the Sermon on the Mount Assumes
If you take the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, all the commandments assume—they presuppose—that a profound conversion has happened—a new birth—before our righteousness surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. We do not earn or merit our sonship or our entrance into heaven. We receive it as a free gift and gracious promise, and then we live in a way that shows where our treasure is and 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.
The Sermon on the Mount and the command to love our enemies are not isolated ethical teachings. They rise up out of a great foundation of grace in the life and ministry of Jesus. Let me close by making sure we see the outlines of that foundation. This is where we get the power to love our enemies. This is how we become the children of God.
The Great Foundation of Grace in Jesus' Life and Ministry
The very first word of the Sermon on the Mount—and this is no mistake—is, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." We don't enter the kingdom of heaven because of the moral resources that we bring; we enter by confessing with tears our poverty of spirit.
In Mark 10:15 Jesus said, "Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all." It is a gift to the poor in spirit who are broken and childlike and have no airs of self-sufficiency.
In Mark 2:17 Jesus said, "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 enter the kingdom poor in spirit, helpless as a child, sick and in need of a spiritual physician.
This is what Jesus was doing when he ate with tax collectors and sinners—he was pursuing the poor and the helpless and the sick. And the self-sufficient murmured, "This man receives sinners and eats with them" (Luke 15:2). And when they said that, Jesus told them the parable of the prodigal son. And the point was: I don't eat with sinners because I like sin. I eat with sinners because I am the love of God welcoming home poor, helpless, diseased sinners—forgiving them, cleansing them, making them new, and sending them out to love in the power of God.
Which is why he could say to the priests and elders in Matthew 21:31, "Truly I say to you that the tax-gatherers and harlots are going into the kingdom of God before you."
How can this be: sinners and harlots going into the kingdom of God? The bottom line answer Jesus gave: "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). He came to die for them—for us.
The Sermon on the Mount and the command to love our enemies are not isolated ethical teachings. They grow up out of a great foundation of grace in the life and teaching of Jesus. This is where we get the power to love—that he loved us while we were poor and diseased and helpless and enemies, and gave himself for us.
Now who are our enemies? And what does loving them actually look like? That's what we will look at next week. Lord willing!