“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 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, 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? Therefore you shall be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48
These are some of the most difficult verses in the teachings of Jesus to interpret and apply. They teach the highest standard for living that this world has ever heard.
For the sixth time in this chapter, Jesus challenges what the religious teachers had been teaching. They said, “‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Even though David says he hates the enemies of God in the Psalms, God’s Word never commands us to hate our enemies. Centuries of warfare and oppression, and basic human nature, shaped the tradition that held that neighbors were fellow-Jews, but every non-Jewish person in the world was an enemy.
When a lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” in Luke 10:29, Jesus gave the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus taught that being a “neighbor” has nothing to do with ethnicity or religion. To be a true neighbor is to offer generous, sacrificial love to even the people we might pass on the highway, to people who don’t believe the same things we do, and to people who are culturally very different. Even today, it is a revolutionary call to love.
We are told to love our enemies so we can be “sons of your Father in heaven.” This is the blessing Jesus promised those who live out His seventh and eighth beatitudes as persecuted peacemakers. It is not natural. It takes work. It is a command that will not make sense out of Jesus’ call to discipleship: to take up our cross and follow Him.
The Apostle Paul understood the commitment of being Jesus’ disciple when we wrote in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
When Jesus faced His own cross, He said: “Except a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it is only a grain of wheat. It is when it dies and is buried that it bears fruit.” Then, He prayed: “Father, My soul is greatly troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Save me from this hour’? But for this cause I came into the world.” And so He prays, “Father, glorify Yourself.” A voice from heaven essentially responds: “I have done that before and I will do it again.” (John 12:23-28)
This prayer of Jesus can be paraphrased as: “Father, glorify Yourself and send me the bill. Anything Father. Simply glorify Yourself!” It is our joy to lay down our pride, our grudges, and humbly love people in His name. During the Crusades, Francis of Assisi was nursing a Turk who had been wounded. A crusader passing by on horseback said, “If that Turk gets well Francis, he will kill you!” Francis responded, “Well then, he will have known divine love before he does!”
In verse 48 of the passage, Jesus ends this teaching with, “Therefore you shall be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” The word “perfect” does not mean sinless perfection. It means, “Be mature, complete, all that God created you to be.” As a summary of all His teaching about the spirit of the law, Jesus is teaching that we are to be, even as our heavenly Father, is. Jesus is teaching that as children of God we are to be like our Father God. What is He like?
The Apostle Paul instructs husbands to love their wives “even as Christ loved the church when He gave Himself for it.” (Ephesians 5:25) When Paul instructs these husbands to love, even as Christ loved and loves, and to give even as He gave and gives, he is really teaching the same thing Jesus is teaching here: we are to be - even as Christ is. Is this possible? Loving your wife or someone who treats you like an enemy like Jesus loves is absolutely impossible - it is even ludicrous - unless this great miracle is in place: “Christ in you; you in Christ.” In John 15:5, Jesus puts it this way, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.”
This difficult passage - in fact, this entire chapter - challenges us with this question: “What in our lives can only be explained by the amazing fact that our risen, Lord Jesus Christ lives in our hearts?” It is God’s grace that allows Christ to live in us and for us to live in Him. Following Jesus means we are committed to doing the impossible task of loving everyone freely and radically, in His name, for God’s glory.
What in your life can only be explained by God’s presence? How can you better show Christ’s love to your neighbors and your “enemies”?
Take a moment to pray, thanking God for promising His Son, Jesus, to live inside of us. Ask Him to fill you with His strength, character, and love, so that you can become like your Father in heaven.
This post is adapted from a lesson of the Mini Bible College, an online study of the whole Bible. We highly recommend their audio resources and written materials, available in many languages, to anyone who wants a stronger understanding of the Bible.