Jesus often calls us to do difficult things in light of the gospel. They seem so difficult because they are so contrary to our human nature. They aren’t ‘natural’ things to do. Sometimes, if we are honest, they seem impossible, especially when we are in the moment that we are being called to do that hard thing (rather than when we are thinking about it or writing about it!)
Matthew 5: 43-48 is one of those times where Christ calls us to do something seemingly impossible. Jesus’ words here are striking:
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 and pray for those who persecute you, 45 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. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus calls us here not to love our spouse, our family, our children, our best friends, those closest to us, but rather to love our enemies. Enemies here are those who would persecute us, malign us, or otherwise cause us harm in some way because of our faith in Jesus Christ. Love those who hate you; love those who disagree with you; love those who mock and shame you. Those actions usually aren’t returned with love!
As I read this, I am tempted to exchange the word love for mere platitude. I would like to define love here as not returning fire; when I am mocked, I just don’t respond, kind of roll my eyes, but not respond and go the other way. I would like to define love here as not doing harsh things in return, not mocking in return. While this isn’t a bad place to start, Christ here is calling us to much more.
The word love used in this passage, when Christ says ‘love your enemies’, is a command, an active verb, and is the word that is often used to describe the Father’s love for the Son, the Son’s love for the Father, and for their love of all people. It is a word calling Christ followers to love their enemies with a generous, warm, costly self-sacrificing for the other’s good. Jesus says go and love your enemies like this; love them like I loved you and laid down my life for you. Go love those who persecute and malign you with this type of love, the same type of love that I and the Father have for you.
How? How can we love enemies in this way? I think this passage gives us a help and a reminder:
- God loves them (v. 45)
God, as the Creator of all things, loves all things that He has created, which includes every person. God loves every man and woman because He created them, and created them all in the imago dei. This means that every single person has value, dignity, and worth because they are all made by God. He fashioned them in their mother’s wombs. And while he will judge all those who do not repent and trust in His Son’s work for their salvation, He LOVES them and desires that they would come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). This is why He shows all people common grace. He causes the sun to rise for all people, not just His church. He causes rain to fall for the just and the unjust, so that all can eat what the land produces. If God loves all people, then we as His sons and daughters should as well.
- Loving your enemies is a genuine test of whether you love Christ (v. 46-47)
Building off verse 45, Jesus then tells us that if we don’t love our enemies we might not understand the gospel ourselves. Everyone loves their own. Even the tax collectors and the Gentiles (the two groups Jews would have despised the most) love those who love them. The test of real love, of genuine discipleship, is whether you can love those who don’t love you. We know this because of verse 48. Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus calls us to love with a perfect (mature, complete) love like God loves. And God loved YOU when YOU were his enemy. God sent His Son Jesus to take the wrath and punishment you deserve for your sin and rebellion against Him.
We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). But God, in His great love and kindness, sent His Son to die in your place. God loved you so much, that while you were His enemy and dead in your sin (Ephesians 2:1), He sent His Son to die for you and to give you His Son’s righteousness. He also loved you enough to reveal the glory and goodness of the cross to you, so that you could understand the gospel, repent of your sin, and believe in Christ for salvation. If God has loved you this unimaginably when you were his enemy then you as a Christ-follower can and should love in the same way.
If we cannot love those who mistreat us, then do we truly understand the love of God offered in the gospel who loved us in our sin and rebellion?
So, when you are persecuted, mistreated, or maligned by someone, love them. Love them in spite of their words and actions. Love them because God does, and because God loved you when you were His enemy. Loving them will show the beauty of the gospel that has transformed your life, and it might show them the love of God as well, that God has loved them enough to send His Son to die for them.