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“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”
There is no doubt that the Bible teaches us to love our neighbor. Leviticus 19:18 says,
“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.”
This is at the root of the second greatest commandment, as Jesus affirms for us that the Law of God instructs us to “love our neighbor as yourself.” In fact, the Bible tells us that all of the second tablet of the Law, all of the 10 Commandments that cover how we relate to others, can be summed up in this Second Law. Paul writes in Romans 13:9,
“For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
As indisputable as it is that the Law expects us to love our neighbor, we see from the Rabbinical traditions that things were amended. At first, teachers removed the words “as yourself.” Since they were the chosen people of God who understood and sought to live in obedience to the Word of God, they saw no reason to love their neighbor as they loved themselves. They were better than their neighbors. So yes, they would love their neighbor, but a Pharisee’s highest love was loving and pleasing himself. This self love is demonstrated in his prayer, “‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men…” (Luke 18:11).
Next the religious leaders redefined who exactly was a neighbor. When we understand the change they made we suddenly realize how serious and shocking it was for Jesus to tell a Jewish audience that the Samaritans were their neighbors. The people had been taught for generations that a neighbor was a fellow Jew in good standing in the community who was well liked. If a person was a Gentile, he was not your neighbor. If he was a Jew, but had a bad reputation, he was not your neighbor. In fact, if he was a fellow Jew but you just didn’t like him, he was not your neighbor. The only people you had to love were people just like you who you already liked.
To make their point, the teachers added a phrase. They added to the Law, “Hate your enemies.” Literally, they said it was acceptable according to God’s Law to detest personal enemies, even to the point of being able to treat them badly.
But what does God’s Word really say? Jesus answers that question in verse 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,
Jesus confirms what the Word of God has always taught without contradiction. Not only are we commanded to love our neighbors, but we are even commanded to love our enemies. This is not just a New Testament teaching. It comes from the Old Testament. Consider these examples:
Exodus 23:4-5 says:
If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, and you would refrain from helping it, you shall surely help him with it.
We are to demonstrate care for our enemies by being compassionate even to their animals.
Job 31:29-32 finds Job confessing:
“If I have rejoiced at the destruction of him who hated me, or lifted myself up when evil found him (Indeed I have not allowed my mouth to sin by asking for a curse on his soul); if the men of my tent have not said, ‘Who is there that has not been satisfied with his meat?’ (But no sojourner had to lodge in the street, for I have opened my doors to the traveler);
He tells us that he has been an example of righteousness because he has not spoken badly about his enemies. He has even been hospitable and opened his doors to those in need, even if he does not know where they are from or who they are.
Proverbs tells us:
He who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished. (Prov 17:5)
Do not say, “I will do to him just as he has done to me; I will render to the man according to his work.” (Prov 24:29)
If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. (Prov 25:21)
And then there is Psalms 7:4-5:
If I have repaid evil to him who was at peace with me, or have plundered my enemy without cause, let the enemy pursue me and overtake me; yes, let him trample my life to the earth, and lay my honor in the dust.
Treating people badly, even if they are our enemies, is dishonorable according to God’s Word. We are told over and over again to love our enemies and we see here in the Scriptures that this love is not simply an emotion or a feeling. It is a definable set of actions that we take toward other people – people that we do not like, but who we are commanded to love.
It is important to make a note here, that just as with the lesson from last week about our rights (Matthew 5:38-42), we are not talking about criminal matters, or even military matters, where the enemy is a law-breaker seeking to harm us or an army trying to conquer us. These teachings refer specifically to civil matters and to personal relationships. Jesus is clarifying for us what the Word of God tells us about dealing with disagreeable people on a personal level.
We must admit that there are those we have a personality conflict with, others who we just cannot seem to get along with – friends, family members, co-workers. But beyond our personal feelings for people, Jesus says we must love our neighbors and our enemies alike.
How do we measure this kind of love? From our study on Sunday mornings we see that love is measured by the cross of Christ. 1 John 3:16 tells us:
By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.
His love is demonstrated for us by His laying down His life for us. And if we are to love others, that involves laying down our lives for them. It is self-sacrifice. This does not only mean that we die for them, it means we die to self for them. We put our self-interests aside and seek to please others.
Romans 5:7-8 makes it clear what this kind of love looks like:
For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
It is often times unthinkable to us to imagine dying for a stranger. Finding someone in danger and putting our lives between them and the threat. But the kind of love God has shown us and that we are to imitate is a love that will lay self aside even for a stranger and an enemy!
Here in our text, this kind of love is not an emotion or a feeling. It is an action. Jesus tells us how 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
To bless, from the Greek word “eulogize”, is to praise, to say good things about (true things!). We love our enemies not by feeling good about them, but by saying good things to them. We praise those who are cursing us. We minister grace to them with our words. We are nice. We are gentle, compassionate, caring. We love them with our words.
Further, we are to do good to those who hate us. Doing good also involves speaking but goes even further. It means saying good, helpful things about our enemies to other people. It also means to treat them with excellence and honor.
But wait a minute? It is so much easier to slander our enemies, to gossip about them, to tell others how hatefully and sinfully they have treated us. But Christ forbids this! We are not to slander. We are not to lie about others or to others. We are also not to gossip, even if what we are saying is the truth, if we are saying it in order to hurt them then we are sinning with our tongues. Loving our enemies means that we say encouraging things to them and good things about them to others.
But Jesus takes it one step further. We are also to pray for them. These enemies may be spitefully using us, and even persecuting us, yet our response is to talk to God about them! To pray, not for their destruction, but for their salvation.
Psalm 35:12-15 says:
They reward me evil for good, to the sorrow of my soul. But as for me, when they were sick, My clothing was sackcloth; I humbled myself with fasting; and my prayer would return to my own heart. I paced about as though he were my friend or brother; I bowed down heavily, as one who mourns for his mother. But in my adversity they rejoiced and gathered together; attackers gathered against me, and I did not know it; they tore at me and did not cease.
David had enemies. They rewarded him evil for good. But when they were sick, he did not cry out for them to die and be judged. He wore sackcloth and ashes and mourned for them and prayed for them to be well. He even fasted and thought of them as if they were a friend, or a brother. They still sinned against him, but he never wavered from doing what was right according to God’s Word.
Jesus tells us in verses 45 through 47 that the only way that we can love like this is to follow God’s own example.
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. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?
We prove that we are sons and daughters of God, His children and heirs, when we love like He loves. Of course God’s highest love is for His Son and for His Elect. Jeremiah 31:3 shows us this love:
The LORD has appeared of old to me, saying: “Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you.
His love for His children is an everlasting love. And yet, it can also be said that God has shown common grace, a lesser form of love, to all of His creation. He takes care of the evil and the good, the just and unjust – sending sunshine or rain on them not based on what they deserve but on His own will and good pleasure to care for His creation. Daily provisions come from His hands for all of His creatures.
Psalm 145:9, and 15-16 show us this love in action:
The LORD is good to all, And His tender mercies are over all His works.
The eyes of all look expectantly to You, And You give them their food in due season.
You open Your hand And satisfy the desire of every living thing.
God takes care of all. He is good to all. He has mercy on all to some extent. If it were not for this mercy, though it does not bring salvation to all, it does spare them immediate judgment and wrath, which is all we really deserve left on our own without His grace.
Jesus’ point is that if we are to follow God’s example of love then we must do more than the minimum required of us. We must do more than the least that is expected. After all, if we only love those who love us, what kind of love is that? If we love those who hate us, that gives us a greater understanding of what love really is. Love is a decision of our will to treat someone else with dignity and respect no matter what they have done or said to us or about us.
Even tax collectors – the most hated people in society during Jesus’ time, and ours – even the most despised know how to love those who love them. But who loves the tax collectors? Jesus does! He even called one to be one of His Twelve Disciples – Matthew.
We see then that Jesus clarifies the Word of God for us. He shows us that we are expected to follow God’s example. After all, God does love His enemies. Remember Romans 5:8?
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
In coming to the conclusion of this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sums up all of these six points about the Law and our motives and actions towards others. In verse 48 we find the most important verse in this whole sermon. In fact, it is the verse that all the rest of the Sermon hinges upon.
Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
If we do what the Law requires of us, we will be perfect! There is just one little problem. Who can keep the Law perfectly? Only Christ. We cannot. We do not. The Bible tells us that if we break one small commandment we have broken the whole law. So how can we be perfect?
The truth here is the truth that the Law was given to teach us in the first place. On our own we cannot obey the Law, we cannot please God, we cannot earn salvation, we cannot be perfect. On our own without Christ we can do nothing to help ourselves, save ourselves, or even find any way to please God in anything we do, think, or say.
So what does Jesus mean when He tells us we will be perfect? The word perfect means “to reach the intended use or end.” Something that is perfect is doing and being exactly what it was intended to be without fault. It is whole, without defect, blameless, and complete.
We understand that only God is good and perfect. Psalm 18:30 tell us:
As for God, His way is perfect; The word of the LORD is proven; He is a shield to all who trust in Him.
Everything about God is perfect. He is perfect. His Word is perfect. What He does and says is perfect. Yet we are not perfect. So how can we be perfect? This is what Jesus tells us our goal should be. In order to prevent pride and self-righteousness, Jesus knows that the Word of God teaches us that it is only by God’s work in us that we can ever hope to be perfect.
Further down in the same Psalm we read:
It is God who arms me with strength, And makes my way perfect. (Psalm 18:32)
God can and will make us perfect so that we can think, say, and do the things He expects us and has created us to do. He has already begun the process! His saving us is how He makes us what we should be and how we reach our completion.
Philippians 1:6 assures us that He has begun the work and will finish it:
…being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ…
If we have repented of our sin and trusted in Christ, then in our past, He has dealt with every imperfection and shortcoming by forgiving all of our sin. In Hebrews 10:14 He explains it by saying:
For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.
By the offering of Christ for us He has begun this glorious transformation where we will one day be perfect. But what about the present? What about now? How can we love the way He commands us to love knowing that we are still imperfect? Paul sympathizes and says that we are to keep moving forward, to keep growing in grace, to keep pressing on to reach the goal. Philippians 3:12 says:
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.
For now, keep going, Keep imitating God. Keep trying! In the future, at our glorification, we will one day be perfect just as Jesus is perfect. In the mean time, in the present, we must press on. And for our lesson tonight we see that the biggest step we can take in being imitators of God is to do what Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:
Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us…
Imitate God by walking in love, not only love for people we like. Not love for those who love us back. But walk in love by loving like God loves us – without condition. Love even your enemies, not just by deciding to feel or think differently about them. Love them by taking action! Bless, do good, and pray for them.
When we treat even our enemies this way we are proving that we are sons and daughters of God and will one day be perfect because of the work He has begun in us and will bring to completion when Christ calls us to be with Him forever.