“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43–48, ESV)
Here we have the last of the “heard it said” items which Jesus dealt with in His Sermon on the Mount, and in presenting this last one He concluded it by setting a bar that no one but God could meet—perfection. This might seem like an unreasonable thing for Him to say, but He was talking to a people of whom many based their lives upon their good works. In focusing on their good works, Jesus systematically demonstrated to them with one issue after the other how short they had come.
In Leviticus 19 we read, “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.” (Leviticus 19:18, ESV) Notice that only the first half of the comment Jesus referred to is quoted in this verse. The part about hating enemies is not there, but rather it appears to be a construct of the Jewish leaders who had subsequently added to the law or the sayings concerning the law. Jesus reinforced the part that is quoted and He took apart and contradicted that which was not. In fact, He made a very strong statement that this love was even to be extended to their enemies which even included those who were their persecutors. Beyond that they were even to pray for them. It was this love which was to mark them as sons of God who is their Father in heaven.
Jesus went on to say that it is an easy thing to love those who are lovable, but loving those who are not demonstrates a power far beyond that which is common to man.
Most who were listening to Him at this point knew Him as a teacher who had done miracles. They were attracted to Him and His power and they wanted to hear waht He had to say, but they had no idea that He was God become man to save them from their sins. They had no idea that they would turn against Him and insist that He be beaten and crucified. They had no idea that He would submit Himself to their harsh treatment without reviling or verbally tearing them to shreds. They had no idea that His statement that they were to be perfect just as their heavenly Father is perfect was exactly what He was. They had no idea that the man who had no sin was going to bear their sins in order to deliver them from judgment and deliver them to new life.
Jesus knew that there was not one in His audience, just as it is true today, who met God’s standard of perfection, and those who intently listened with softened hearts to His words, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” likely felt themselves lacking. In this we can be thankful that these were not His last words, nor were they the permanent condition in which God left us. This is quickly demonstrated as Jesus continued to speak words which we will look at in the days to come.
But for today, let’s continue to focus on our response in the face of our enemies. Peter, speaking of the example of Jesus who spoke the words above, wrote, “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:22–24, ESV) Clearly Jesus had enemies, and rather those enemies He submitted Himself fully to the hands of His Father to accomplish His perfect result. Verse 21, which precedes these words of Peter reads, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21, ESV)
Paul wrote, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:8–10, ESV)
We are saved because the perfect One did not respond to us as enemies, but loved us with the perfect love of God. And in response to that love we are called to do the same even to those who treat us similar to how they treated God Himself. In this we have no room for arrogance because it is not us who have room to boast, but it is because of Christ in us that we have been saved and are made able to love with the love we have from Him.
Paul, speaking of instruction he received from Jesus wrote, “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10, ESV)
The challenge for each of us in the face of those who present themselves as our enemies is to remember the example of our Lord, to rest in His strength, and even to find joy in His ability to hold us up and strengthen us in times of hardship.