Sermon Passage: Matthew 5:44
“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” (Matthew 5:44).
The previous verse in this chapter is the cultural interpretation of the Old Testament approach. It is more specifically an explanation of the passage in Leviticus. “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” (Leviticus 19:18). In all six illustrations Jesus said, “It was said,” not “It was written.” There is never an indication or quotation in the Law of Moses that says we should hate our enemies. How could the scribes and Pharisees miss this fundamental truth of the Old Testament?
The crucial issue here is “who was considered to be a neighbor?” The scholars of Jesus’ day debated and argued this often. This question prompted the parable of the Good Samaritan spoken by Jesus in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 10:25-37). When a man was beaten and robbed by thieves, three passers-by were introduced to his need. The priest and Levite simply passed by on the other side. But the despised Samaritan intervened in the man’s need. Jesus proposed the question, “So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” (Luke 10:36). The answer could not be denied. “And he said, ‘He who showed mercy on him” (Luke 10:37).
How did the Jews miss the truth? In the passage found in Leviticus, the phrase “the children of your people” and “your neighbor” were equated. Jews considered only other Jews as neighbors. Gentiles were considered “dogs.” In Old Testament history God commanded the Jews to eliminate the Canaanites. God commanded “that you will blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (Deuteronomy 25:19). The Ammonites, Moabites, and Midianites were never to be treated with kindness (Deuteronomy 23:3, 6; Numbers 25:16-18). God never intended for these commands regarding foreign nations to be a rule of conduct between people! The Israelites took these commands and developed a nationalism. They restricted the word “neighbor” to those of their own nation. Therefore, their “enemies” were anyone who was not a Jew. It is little wonder that the Romans criticized the Jews for being “haters of the human race.”
Jesus consistently battled the traditions of the elders. Israel’s leadership built and maintained strong walls and barriers between themselves and all other races of people. But Jesus broke down these walls and gave us a picture of the heart (appetite) of the Trinity God. The teachings of Jesus startled His audience (Matthew 7:28). He spoke truth that had never before been so succinctly, positively, and forcefully stated! “Love your enemies!”
It is clear that the Jews misread the intent of the Old Testament. There are abundant statements that verify this. For instance, in Deuteronomy the Israelites were instructed to help their fellow Israelites (Deuteronomy 22:1-4). But they were equally instructed to help their enemies in the same manner (Exodus 23:4-5). Job testified about his godly attitude towards his enemies: “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)” (Job 31:29-30). Listen to David’s prayer: “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” (Psalms 7:4-5). God’s standard in the Old Testament does not change in the New Testament!
We can clearly see in Jesus the explanation for this standard. We are faced with the re-occurring statement, “But I say to you” (Matthew 5:44). Obviously, Jesus established a contrast by introducing His statement with the Greek conjunction “de.” Its primary translation is the conjunction “but.” The authority of the statement rests on Him. “I say” is a translation of the Greek word “lego.” But Jesus also included the Greek word “ego” in His statement. This makes a double emphasis on Jesus Himself! Actually, this is the case in all six illustrations. Jesus is the first Kingdom Person, and He set the standard for the motive.
To understand the content of “love your enemies,” we need only investigate the life action of Jesus. Luke was bold in his revelation of those involved in the crucifixion of Christ. He wrote, “both Herod (kings) and Pontius Pilate (rulers), with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together” (Acts 4:27). No one was left out regarding this event. How did Jesus express His heart concerning His enemies? “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). This leaves no question in regard to Jesus intension when He said, “love your enemies.”
The Pharisees and scribes were the prime movers of hatred toward Jesus. What was Jesus’ heart motive expressed toward them? He said it best at the end of His final public message. He called them hypocrites (Matthew 23:13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29). He declared they were blind guides (Matthew 23:16). We might conclude this was an expression of the hatred Jesus felt toward them. However, we must notice that this discourse was not given in their presence. It was an address “to the multitudes and to His disciples” (Matthew 23:1). Jesus warned them about the influence of these leaders. He gave clear expression of His heart at the end of the message: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matthew 23:37). This was not hatred, but was an expression of a broken heart for the tragic spiritual condition of these leaders. It gives content to the statement, “love your enemies.”
Surely this is the love motivation behind the brilliant close of Matthew’s Gospel. Before the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus instructed His disciples that after His resurrection, they were to meet Him in Galilee at the appointed place (Matthew 26:32). Mary Magdalene and the other Mary encountered the resurrected Lord before the disciples. He instructed these ladies to remind the disciples about the appointment (Matthew 28:10). Jesus met the disciples in Galilee at the mountain and revealed to them His throbbing love for the world. It was the “Great Commission.” These disciples were to participate in winning the world, “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). After His resurrection, but before His ascension, He expressed the scope of His love. “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Who would you say is not included in the love of Jesus?
We must equate love with God! We must evaluate and understand love in the context of God’s nature. Love is His appetite, the hunger of His heart! We must see this nature and embrace the person of Jesus who is “the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person,” (Hebrews 1:3). We must not mention or discuss love outside this reality! There are four Greek words translated “love” in the New Testament. The Greek word “philia” is brotherly love and the love of friendship. However, “philia” is love limited by the connection between those we would call friends. “Storgo” is the love within the boundary of those who are family. Romantic, sexual love is highlighted in the Greek word “eros.” There is some dispute concerning the origin of the Greek word “agape.” Some believe this word was in classical Greek and was seldom used. The New Testament, writers under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could not be satisfied to use the above three words for the love of God. Therefore, they adopted “agape” and gave it new content. It is a selfless, self-sacrificing, and never think about yourself kind of love. It is the motive of the heart that is never focused on self. It is an appetite that hungers for what is best for the other person. It does not focus on emotions although emotions may be involved. “Agape” is the love from the inner core of a person.
The problem with “agape” love is that it is impossible for the human being to produce. One might conceive loving family with the content of “agape” love. It might even apply to some friendships. However, the expression of love in these areas, especially in the focus of “eros,” is self-focused. The appetite driving these loves depends on self-satisfaction, emotional appeasing, and self-benefit. But the love of the Trinity God as expressed through Jesus does not fit this category. God’s love is beyond the human element contained in “philia,” “storgo,” and “eros.” We cannot describe God’s love using these three words. Thus, the Greek word “agape” with new content became the expression! Self-benefit is not within the boundaries of God’s appetite. It is love that seeks and works to meet another’s highest welfare. While elements or degrees of “agape” may be within the human effort of love, it is not possible to accomplish the kind of love in the motive and appetite of God. Only the Trinity God loves on the “agape” level!
Carnal humanity tends to base love on their desire for the object of their love. We love people who are attractive, hobbies that are enjoyable, a house or a car because it looks nice and it brings us pleasure. This does not describe God’s appetite! As seen in Christ, The Trinity God, without self-benefit, sacrificed His convenience, safety, and resources to meet our need. The Greek word “charis” also expresses this love, which is translated “grace.” “Grace” is “goodwill freely disseminated by God, especially to the benefit of the recipient regardless of the benefit accrued to the disseminator.” This is the driving appetite of God’s heart!
“Agape” love may involve emotion, but it must involve action. Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth giving fifteen characteristics of love, and they are all in verb form (1 Corinthians 13). Attitude is also involved in love because it begins in the heart. But it is best described and best testified about by what it does. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:7-10).
Jesus words, “Love your enemies,” must have been a knife cutting the heart of every person listening. In this illustration Jesus compared the best humanity can accomplish to what God does. The appetite and desires of humanity are compared to the appetite and motive of God. Do you see how ridiculous such an imperative is? This standard can be accomplished only by God. BUT this is the premise of the Sermon on the Mount. We are “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). We are in an absolute state of helplessness. We were created to be dependent not independent. This design of our core being was purposed to be filled with Him. A merger between the nature of God and the nature of man must take place. This merger creates a new creature, the Kingdom person. Jesus was the first one. He was the action of God’s love; He had the appetite of God.
“Because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5). “No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). “Agape” love was expressed by Jesus in washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17). He was a helpless Man merged with the Trinity God’s heart! Jesus gave expression to the invisible heart of God. He followed this act of self-giving love with a new commandment. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34). The disciples were self-centered men, quarrelsome, jealous of each other, and they argued with Jesus. Yet everything Jesus said to them and did for them was completely and without exception for their good. He called them and us to be this same expression. I must engage His heart as He engaged the Father’s heart. I must merge with Him and have His appetite. Jesus validated this conclusion at the close of this illustration. “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This statement is focused on the appetite of God, His motive. He is love (agape)! We must and can be filled with Him, merged with His heart, and consumed with His appetite.
Jesus, a helpless Man merged with the Father, declared the appetite of the Kingdom person. He calls us to “love” (agape), the sole motive or appetite of God. Immediately the question arises, “Who am I to love?” In the normal Greek words for love, this question is answered. In “philia” love I am to love my friends (neighbor). This is brotherly love or love in friendship. I can easily accomplish this love by eliminating those who are not my friends. The person who may have been my friend now ceases to be such; therefore, I am not required to love him. There is also love for family (storgo). Family relationship may be in this focus; however, there are those we have disowned. The standard of family connection must be maintained, or love is not required. “Eros” love is definitely focused on sexual attraction, which limits my love focus to those who are appealing to me. In each of these situations, the focus is on the question “Who am I to love?”
“Agape” shifts the question. This love is selfless, self-sacrificing and never thinks about itself. Within the boundaries of its expression, self-benefit does not dwell. It sees all the hatefulness and wickedness of a person, feels their stabs and their blows, and may even have something to do with defending one’s self from them. Yet all of this simply fills the loving heart with one desire. How can I help, win, or rescue them from the bondage of their hate and sin? How can they become the godly people they were created to be? So, the question of “agape” love is not “Who am I to love?” It is “How shall I love?”
We are to love everyone; categories are removed for the person who has the appetite of God’s heart. This love is not about feeling but about the expression of this love. God’s love embraces the world (John 3:16). He loved each of us even while we were still sinners and His enemies (Romans 5:8-10). Jesus explained this in great detail in His first illustration (Matthew 5:21-26). Selfish humanity can only think in terms of managing hate and anger. The best management achieved was refraining from murder. But Jesus introduced the appetite of God’s heart, the elimination of anger. It is not simply about the absence of anger but never demeaning or belittling anyone. It is a selfless heart that desires to reconcile with every person. This does not mean we will not have adversaries; certainly, Jesus had them. But we will not be an adversary. We are not to be enemies of those who may be enemies to us. From their perspective, we are their enemies; but from our perspective, they are our neighbors.
The Scottish Reformer, George Wishart, a contemporary and friend of John Knox, was sentenced to die as a heretic. Because the executioner knew of Wishart’s selfless ministering to hundreds of people who were dying of the plague, he hesitated carrying out the sentence. When Wishart saw the expression of remorse on the executioner’s face, he went over and kissed him on the cheek, saying, “Sir, may that be a token that I forgive you” (John Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, ed. W. Grinton Berry [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978], p. 252).
There are so many illustrations of “agape” love throughout church history. The challenge is not to admire the expression of love but to be such an expression of His love. It is impossible for me unless I have God’s heart. I must merge with His appetite and be an expression of His love. The opportunity may not be in the circumstance of an execution, but in daily living with hurtful attitudes and selfish practices. Will I be the expression of the appetite of God?