It is well known that love is at the heart of the message and vision of Christianity. There is perhaps no more popular New Testament verse in the world than John 3:16, where we come to understand that God loves the world and in His love He gave His Son to us so that all who believe in Him will not perish but will have eternal life. The Father’s love for unlovable sinners, like us, is at the very heart of the Christian message.
But that is not the end of Christianity’s vision of love. The love of Jesus is a huge part of that vision. Jesus told his friends that there is no greater love in this world than the love that would cause a man to give his own life in order to save his friends and that is exactly what Jesus did. He died in our place. He took our place and sheltered us from the judgment of God and He did this because of His love. Jesus’ love for undeserving sinners, like us, is at the very heart of the Christian message.
But still, this is not the end of Christianity’s vision of love. In the NT gospels, we see Jesus teaching all of His disciples that we too are to be people of love. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are even commanded to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. Christians are commanded to love. We are to love others, even those whom we might naturally dislike and this too is at the very heart of the Christian message.
The Christian vision of love is incredible and it gives us the idea that God wants love to fill the earth and fuel all of our emotions and actions.
As followers of Jesus we are called to love. We are called to love God in a way that resets our heart and enables us to love others in an extraordinary, unnatural and radical way. This morning we are going to learn three ways that Jesus wants us to understand the call to love: 1. Love your neighbors (V. 43), Love your enemies (Vv. 44-47) and Love like God (V. 48).
Matt 5:43 “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.
I. Love your Neighbor (V. 43)
v. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
This statement is difficult in a way that the previous ones are not. For the most part, the previous statements that Jesus has made in the Sermon on the Mount are easily found in the OT and Jesus’ point is to remind his audience of those OT laws and then to help them understand the deeper purpose of them. The law was given to teach God’s people how do what is right, but it was also given to show them the sin that dwells in their hearts.
The law does two things: it points out what we are supposed to do but it also shows us that our natural inclination is to do what we are not supposed to do. The law shows us how to live but it also shows us our sin.
Here in Matthew 5, Jesus wants to let the law do its thing with us, but in each case he has to address the fact that religious teachers had made a mess of how the people understood the law. In some cases, the religious leaders had softened the law, in other cases they had expanded it out to the point of absurdity. But here in verse 43 it appears that they have done two things: they took out a few words in order to limit their responsibility to their neighbors and then they completely added their own man-made law about how to treat their enemies.
The first part of the verse, “You shall love your neighbor…” is found in the book of Leviticus..
Lev 19:18 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.
This verse comes at the end of a section that is meant to teach God’s people how to interact with one another. God gave them clear instructions that they ought to care for one another, not to steal from one another, not to lie to one another, but to be fair and just and sincere. Then as a summary statement God says, “just, love one another.” The point is that if you love your neighbor you will not be tempted to take advantage of them, or to cheat them, or to overlook their needs. This is how God commanded His people to treat their neighbors.
By quoting this, Jesus is reminding the Jews that their relationship with each other is to be defined by love. But notice that a critical part of Leviticus 19 has been left off; the part about loving your neighbor as yourself. They decided that they would just leave that part of the verse out. The Jews in that day had reduced the command of God from “love your neighbor as yourself” to simply, “Love your neighbor.”
It might seem like a small thing, but if you think about it those two words make a world of difference. Those two words define the quality of our love, they set a standard that is incredibly high. Do you love your neighbor? Do you love your neighbor the way you love yourself?
Not only had they chipped away at God’s command but they also added a second command when they taught the people to “hate their enemy.” Now where did this come from?
If you do a search for the term hate in the Bible you will find it show up quite a few times. Sometimes it refers to the hatred that personal enemies feel toward one another, sometimes it refers to how people feel about the wicked, the idolaters, or those who stand opposed to God.
You’ll find that God hates certain things. He hates divorce, He hates empty hypocritical religion, He hates evil, corruption and injustice. In Amos 5 God tells His people to hate evil, specifically the evil in their own hearts.
But, none of these statements command God’s people to hate their enemies. And yet, this feeling has become so engrained in the thinking of God’s people that they treat it like its a command. Some believe that this problem arose because of the Jews misunderstanding of the command to love their neighbor. Since their neighbors were fellow Jews they decided that the command only applied to the people of God. So, in their minds they were required to love their fellow-Jews, but they were free to hate non-Jews, especially those who were their political enemies.
To be honest, who could blame them? They had been oppressed for years. First by the Egyptians, then the Assyrians, then the Babylonians and now the Romans. It may have been that hatred for enemies had become a mark of patriotism for Israel. Hating one’s enemies came to them naturally, but this is not what God had called them to do. The truth is that God had instructed them to care for their enemies.
Prov 25:21 If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink…(Paul quotes this in Romans 12, which we read last week)
So, this man-made command to hate your enemies had grown up like a rogue weed. It was a parasitic growth that had endured for years and was now widely accepted as the duty of faithful Jews and Jesus wants to confront this hatred in the hearts of His people, even in our hearts.
Our own world is filled with this type of hate. Jews still hate Palestinians. Muslim terrorists still hate the west and Americans most of all, and Americans hate them right back. Racism is alive in our country once again, or to be more honest it never truly left. Racism is a particularly ignorant form of hatred coupled with pride, which makes it doubly sinful. This is not true in all cases, but it is true in some that Republicans hate Democrats and vice versa.
We may think that as 21st century Americans we are beyond the type of petty hatred that Jesus is confronting in this passage, but I just don’t think so. You may think that I’m overstating things, but I think we’ve come to the point where hatred is growing in this country. What most disturbs me about this is that in some cases the church has fallen in lock step with the culture when it comes to this type of hatred.
In this passage, Jesus is confronting our tendency to embrace the natural hatred that flows out of our hearts toward people who are not like us and He is calling us to live radically different lives than the rest of the world. He is calling us to love our enemies.
II. Love your Enemies
v. 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
The context of what Jesus is saying here has to do with religious persecution and those who oppose us on the basis of our faith. IOW, what makes someone our enemy is the fact that they are persecuting us for our faith in Christ. The Jews had been teaching that love should be limited to people like us, who believe like us, but Jesus is calling His disciples to not just love other Christians, but to love even those with whom we strongly disagree about God. He is calling us to love our persecutors.
Jesus is commanding us, that when our enemies insult us to our face we should retaliate with love. When people mock us for our faith we should pray for them. When people want us dead and we should want them to be saved.
Now, before we begin to think that this might just be pie-in-the-sky religious idealism, let me point out a few of the examples of this type of love that we see in the NT starting with Jesus himself. Jesus on the cross in Luke 23…
Luke 23:33-34 And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 And Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Stephen in Acts 7:60…
Acts 7:58-60 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him… 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
This is uncommon love. This is radical love fueled by a profound understanding of gospel realities. The gospel teaches that despite God’s goodness toward mankind, all of us have rejected Him in our hearts. We suppress the truth about Him and we seek to live as though we belong in God’s place. But despite our rebellion against God the gospel tells us that He loves us. Before the foundation of the world, He chose to love us and even while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
We don’t deserve His love, but that doesn’t stop Him from loving us and when this truth takes hold of our hearts, it will begin to change the way we view everyone, even our enemies.
Pray for those who abuse you…
When they make fun of us for our faith in Christ, we approach God and ask that He show them their need of Christ. I don’t know about you but I’ll just be honest and let you know that this is not my natural disposition toward those who make it their aim to persecute me. My natural response is to defend myself, retaliate and turn away from my enemy. But Jesus simply will not let us run away from our enemies, He calls us to love them.
This is not “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” This is not a self-serving ethic, this is not an appeal to proper social order, nor is this virtue for the sake of virtue. Jesus is calling us to love our enemies the way that He loves His enemies, with a divine and unconditional love that looks beyond the shame of this world and toward the glory to come.
Now, where are we going to get the resources that we need to love like this?
The power to love like Jesus flows in the veins of those who have been born again by the Holy Spirit to believe the truth of the gospel. Our very real human effort to love our enemies is the result of God’s grace in us, not the other way around.
Eph 5:1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us,
The Spirit of God works within us to make us more like Jesus. The primary motivation for us to love our enemies, is going to come when we remember that we were once the enemies of God. But in Christ He loved us.
The resolve we need to love our enemies will be found at the foot of the cross; where God’s love put an end to our opposition to God. Our capacity to love our enemies will be directly linked to our understanding of the love of God.
A. The Love of God
v. 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.
Notice that God makes his sun to rise on the evil and the on the good. It’s His and that means that He can do with it what He pleases. He can make the sun shine on Israel while darkness falls on the rest of Egypt. But each day His sun rises to give life to all. We call this common grace but it is anything but common. This is a form of divine love and this is what Jesus is calling us to demonstrate to others.
Christian love, is not normal in any sense of the word, it is radical. He is calling us to view love for others as infinitely more valuable than our own comfort, our possessions, our reputation and our rights. He is not calling us to follow the whims of our emotions, but to consciously choose to serve rather than to demand.
He is calling us to a standard of love that is far more radical than anything that the world of religion, ethics or philosophy have ever developed. Jesus is calling us to love the way God loves. He is calling us to imitate the divine love of God, a love that is most clearly and profoundly seen in the gospel of our salvation.
The One who is here calling us to love radically is also the One who radically loves us.
How does Jesus’ love for us compare to the love found in the world?
B. The Love of the World
v. 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?
To love those who love you is the baseline of love that should undergird any society and before we can feel the force of Jesus’ teaching we have to come to grips with the fact that we start out failing even to love in common ways.
Husbands ought to love their wives and wives ought to love their husbands, this should not be exceptional. Families ought to love one another, siblings ought to love one another, and friends ought to share a mutual love and respect for one another. But instead we see the opposite in most cases.
We hear of spousal abuse and infidelity on a daily basis. Much of our energy at home is spent breaking up arguments between our children. Friends and neighbors go to war with one another and in the evening their story ends up on the nightly news. This is simply the world we live in.
The type of love that Jesus calls common is often viewed as exceptional in our day. But Jesus expects this to be common among His followers. We ought to love one another, but much of the time even this is a struggle.
So what must we do? Our only response is to repent before the lord, seek forgiveness from Him and those we’ve failed to love, and then to learn from Christ what true love looks like in our lives. To love those who love you is good, right and true and as believers in Christ we should set the example for the world in loving those who love us. This is what our lives, families and churches should look like every day. We should be filled with love to the point of overflowing.
Love based on the principle of, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” is not an example of Christian love. Jesus wants us to give without strings attached. He wants us to love without selfish motives. He is calling us to pour our hearts out for others, for our enemies. This is amazing love.
Christ is calling us to love in a way that is out of place in this world, an alien love.
In a blogpost from 2014, Jared Wilson asks, “What if we looked at 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 from the reverse angle? Here is what we would read:
Impatience and unkindness is hatred.
Hate is envious and ego-centric.
Hate is arrogant and rude.
Hatred is insisting on one’s own way;
hatred is irritable or resentful;
it celebrates sin, and it mocks what is true.
Hate is whiny and thin-skinned,
a born quitter.
But hatred ends . . .
Now let’s turn things around and learn what it will look like for us to love like God.
1 Corinthians 13:4 Love is patient and kind; love is not envious or boastful; love is not selfish and rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not short-tempered or bitter; it does not celebrate sin, but celebrates the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
Our love is to imitate the perfect love of God, not the hatred of men.
III. Love like God
v. 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Some teachers will say that this verse is teaching that sinless perfection is the goal of the Christian life. But if that were true, it would put this verse at odds with the rest of Jesus’ sermon and the whole of the NT. The perfection that Jesus is calling for here relates to the perfect love of God that is merciful and gracious. The Love of God is selfless love. It is love characterized by 1 Corinthians 13. It is perfect love and this is the type of love that we are called to show.
At the end of the day Jesus is calling us to imitate the love of the Father in how we interact with everyone, from family and friends, to fellow believers, and even to strangers and enemies. He calls us to love, to do good, to lend with no strings attached. God is the standard of how we are to love others, and God’s love is perfect.
There is not a time when we are more like our Father than when we love our enemies unconditionally.
If we stand up for what is right, if we take our stand upon the Word of God and upon the gospel especially; we will have enemies. Those enemies will want to silence us. They will work to marginalize us. They will be hostile toward us in every way imaginable and Jesus tells us to surprise them with love.
As human beings, we should love our families well. As reasonable people, we should love those who love us. As peace-loving people, we should love our neighbors. As forgiven sinners, we ought to love unbelievers. As beloved children of God we are called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Let’s do that now.