Tough Text Thursday: Matthew 5:44

“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:44

When we are the one who has harmed someone, these words ring true and seem tender. But, when we are the one who has been harmed, these words ring troubling and seem tough.

Love them? But, they did [fill in the blank]. And, maybe they’ve never even apologized or changed.

In the Bible, love is often a feeling. But rather than being a feeling that promotes action, it is often first an action based upon obedience to God that results in a feeling. This explains why the Bible commands husbands to love their wives and wives to love their husbands rather than commanding them to “feel loving.” This further explains why Jesus even commands us to love our enemies in Matthew 5:44.

Jesus’ command to love our enemies is probably one of his best-known statements, even among non-Christians. It’s also a command that’s easy to skim over because we’ve heard it so much before. But we shouldn’t skim over this revolutionary idea.

Loving your enemies was and still is scandalous in many ways. Why? Because our sense of justice tells us that loving an enemy is unsafe, unjust, and unhelpful. It makes no sense. Love, at least in the way we usually think of it, requires a kind of mutuality between two people. How do we love someone who wants to hurt us?

Context of Jesus’ Words

The command to love your enemies comes within Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, beginning in Matthew 5. In the sections before, Jesus has repeatedly said, “You have heard that it was said _____, but I say to you _____.” In verse 43, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’” then he goes on in verse 44 to say, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

It seems here that Jesus was quoting a common statement in that day about the rightness of having “hate” toward your enemies. Perhaps it was a popular colloquialism in that day, not unlike a well-known bumper sticker or marketing slogan in our day.

The “love your neighbor” idea comes from Leviticus 19:18, which says, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” Nothing about hating there. Plus, if Jesus thought this verse implied hatred of enemies, he probably wouldn’t have quoted it later in Matthew 22:39 as one of the greatest commandments. 

Where then did the idea come from? We definitely see the idea in the Old Testament that God is a God of justice who is capable of justly judging those who reject him. We also see this in the New Testament with, for example, what happens to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts when they lie to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1–6).

But these are always God’s doings. While people and institutions may be used by God to carry out his justice, they are never allowed to take it into their own hands, and they are never commanded to “hate” anyone.

Still, it would be easy for some to make a kind of inference that God wants us to hate our enemies, especially with our natural human tendency toward anger and hatred. Probably what happened, then, is that there was unauthorized add-on to the command to love one’s neighbor—John Piper calls it a “misinterpretation” of the command. There is evidence that some Jewish groups read the text this way, and it is not hard to imagine the human heart saying, “If I am supposed to love my neighbor, I should hate my enemy.” This is typical human thinking.

But Jesus is not interested in fallen human thinking. He is interested in calling us to repentance and to living as children of his kingdom, or, as he says in the next verse, “sons of your Father who is in heaven.”

So wherever the idea to hate your enemies came from, it’s clear that it was a distortion of Scripture.

On Loving Our Enemies

Verse 45 of Matthew 5 helps explain what Jesus means in verse 44. He says that loving our enemies means living like God the Father, who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” The being that God is patient and long-suffering with all people, whether they are righteous or not (Exodus 43:6, Numbers 14:18). Theologians call this common grace.

In Jesus’ day, the Jews had many enemies, such as the Romans and Samaritans. Jesus’ answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” in the Good Samaritan story of Luke 10:29–37 is that Samaritans are your neighbor. Even your enemy can be your neighbor. So don’t be too quick to divide people up into neighbors and enemies.

But the enemies Jesus speaks of are not only political enemies. As I said in my sermon on Luke 6, who are your enemies?

Don’t let this live in an ethereal, ideological, philosophical world. Right now in your mind, see the face of your enemy, the person who has done you the most harm, the most damage, the most evil, the most injustice, has caused the most grief, the most stress, the most anguish, the most strife, and Jesus says, “Love.” The call to love extends to every type of enemy we may face.

In the context of this passage, then, Jesus is saying that our love should be like the common grace of God. This love goes beyond tolerating. It actually seeks the good of the enemy. Paul says, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:20–21). That is the idea here, too. Overcome evil not with more evil, but with goodness and love.  

Mars Hill Pastor Justin Holcomb sheds more light on this in his post, “Love Your Enemies,” writing,

In light of Matthew 5:21–22, Christians do well to realize we are more murderous and hateful than we are perfect and holy like God. All of us are guilty of cosmic treason against God and sin against our neighbor. But because of the work of Christ, God has radical mercy on his enemies who repent.

Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:43–46 is shocking in its radical expectations. We are already guilty of violating the law to love God and love our neighbor. How much more do we fail Jesus’ radical call to love our enemy? This should drive us to repentance. And when we repent, God always gives forgiveness and grace.

Therefore, part of our response should be thankfulness at the mercy given at the cross where Jesus died a murderer’s death in our place.

What about Justice?

Some might wonder, is Jesus denying the idea of justice here? Are we just supposed to love everybody no matter what they do to us or to others? Is the popular picture true that the God of the Old Testament was a God of strict justice and wrath, and Jesus is the opposite, overlooking all that and loving everybody?

Not exactly.

First, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is not prescribing how the world should live together in peace and harmony. It describes life in the kingdom of heaven that has broken into the world as we know it, directly challenging the “normal” human way of living. Part of its purpose is to stir up and challenge a world where hatred is often the norm. So, that must be remembered.

Also, Jesus doesn’t give us isolated teachings to do with them whatever we want. As with any text, this one must be viewed in light of the entirety of Scripture. We have to take all of what Jesus said together. For example, in Matthew 23, Jesus rips into the scribes and Pharisees, calling them “children of hell,” and in Revelation 19 Jesus comes riding on a white horse to slay his enemies. Passages like these show that there was more to Jesus than, “Let’s all just love everybody.”

The call to love is also not a general call to weakness or passivity. Justice is real, and justice will be done. Love does not mean ignoring evil and pretending like it doesn’t exist. We need to be stirred by injustice. But what true love does is recognize that vengeance is the Lord’s (Romans 12:19).

This does not mean that we sit back and wait for some ethereal form of justice from God. He can and does uses humans and institutions to bring justice in this world and this life. We can be thankful for God-ordained means of justice in the world such as governments, courts, police forces, and the military (Romans 13:4, for example). Sometimes, we as individual believers will make use of these like Paul does in Acts 22:25–29, and other times we may be mistreated for the gospel.

On a more personal level, sometimes love means letting things go. Love “covers a multitude of sins,” as 1 Peter 4:8 says. Other times love requires us to confront. If someone is doing something that will be their undoing and destruction, the most loving thing in the world is to confront them. One commentator writes that Jesus’ concept of love is not “simply being nice to people” and “allowing error to go unchallenged”—sometimes love means “controversy and rebuke.” But, it is doing so with hope for the person being confronted, without bitterness, in an effort to not defeat them but to bring them to repentance. The issue is never our victory as much as God’s glory.

This takes wisdom and discernment. Since our own hearts are so prone to pride and anger, we must be sure that our desire to rebuke is truly a prompting of the Holy Spirit and therefore an act of love, and not one of vengeance that would be better left in the Lord’s hands. So we are not called, as John Calvin writes, to imitate God’s judgment upon sin, because that belongs to him alone. Rather, we are called to “imitate his fatherly goodness and liberality.” Love is our response to injustice; it’s not vengeance. Believers are marked by a life of love and are known as Christ’s disciples by their love (John 13:35).

The point of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:44 is to challenge conventional wisdom, “to live on a level above that of ordinary decent people,” and to take our cues not from the culture but from our Father in heaven. This does not mean we ignore injustice and avoid confrontation. But it might mean that, in some situations, we keep our mouths shut and leave it in the Lord’s hands. Other times, it doesn’t mean this. But no matter what, the heart that is led by the Holy Spirit is led not by hatred, but by love, which bears all things, believes all things, and hopes all things.

Lastly, this allows us to in the end leave people in the hands of God. There is a day when we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ and give an account for our life. Loving someone today does not negate or diminish the reality of that tomorrow. It gives them an opportunity to know him today.