It is something that is easy to say and nearly impossible to do: love your enemies. In this article, we hope we can help unpack the meaning of two critical passages that guide us in this area: Matthew 6:44 and Luke 6:27. We will seek to understand the presenting issues and context that brought about that statement from our Lord Jesus and discover the meaning for our lives. “What are the real ways that believers can love their enemies?”
What Does 'Love Your Enemies' Mean in Matthew 6:44
"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." -Matthew 6:43-45
In this passage, Jesus is seated before a crowd and teaching the Word of God that is being fulfilled in His own person. John Donne (1572-1631), the poet-preacher of St. Paul’s, London, wrote of Matthew 5: “All the articles of our religion, all the canons of our church, all the injunctions of our princes, all the homilies of our fathers, all the body of divinity, is in these three chapters, in this one Sermon on the Mount.”1 The Sermon on the Mount, on a hill north of Galilee, has been called a radical re-interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures by Jesus. As the late Dr. John Stott wrote, In each antithesis (‘You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …’) he rejected the easy-going tradition of the scribes, reaffirmed the authority of Old Testament Scripture, and drew out the full and exacting implications of God’s moral law.2 So, we can say that the presenting issues we observe in the text have to do with a misunderstanding of loving one’s enemies. This remains a challenge for our generation, as well.
'Love Your Enemies' Meaning in Luke 6:27
The other contextual factor that exists in Jesus’ statement in the sermon on the mount is pride, position, and power. These are people who are under the oppressive regime of the Roman empire. This humbling situation is magnified by the appointed Jewish governors and other public officials who are seen as turncoats. These, like Matthew, and Zacchaeus, were tax collectors. They and other unscrupulous figures who use their delegated authority from Rome to fleece their own people represent an existential threat to Israel’s identity. This undesirable state creates a culture of suspicion, intrigue, concealment, treachery, and sabotage casting a shadow on unity, and turning a nation into a divided people. How easily a unified people become “Balkanized” (broken into competing groups, divided) when pride and self-interests supersede love and a common heritage in God.
We are also concerned with Luke 6:27: “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
The passage in Luke 6 refers to Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plains.” The Lord Jesus had descended the mount after a night of prayer. A crowd awaited. They wanted more teaching, more application for living, more understanding, and, thus, more hope. Jesus began to teach a message very similar to the Sermon on the Mount. Dr. Luke’s “Sermon on the Plains,” is shorter than the Sermon on the Mount. According to David E. Holwerd in The Lectionary Commentary, “Luke’s sermon is much shorter (30 verses to Matthew’s 107), and it contains only four beatitudes compared to Matthew’s eight.” Yet, both of these divine sermons have the same goal. As David Holwerda wrote of Luke 6:17-26: “Thus both the beatitudes and the woes [of the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plains] are intended to shape the lives of disciples who live in this world as citizens of God’s kingdom.”
3 Lessons on Real Ways to Love Your Enemies
In both Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:27, Jesus calls for believers to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We can learn how to apply Jesus’ command in our own lives by following the fullness of the teaching. In both passages, Jesus provides the theological necessity for loving our enemies, as well as the blessed consequence of obedience. These three components of our Savior’s sermons provide practical ways that we can love and forgive our “enemies.”
Lesson 1: Remember the Concept of “Enemy” Is Not a Permanent State but a Temporary Position
There was nothing wrong with the Old Testament teaching of recognizing the enemies of God. But the casual, easy interpretation by the Pharisees and the Sadducees led the people of Israel to see all the Gentile nations as prominent and perennial enemies. Hatred of others is a useful tool used by ungodly authorities to create a unity based on rage, roots of bitterness, and the past sins of others. Jesus taught that we, who were enemies of God, are now called friends of God, through Jesus Christ. Moreover, those who persecute us today may, in God’s grace, become those who protect us tomorrow. Therefore, we are taught by Jesus in the same passages to pray for them. We must always remember Saint Paul; he was the persecutor of the believers – the enemy of the Saints — who became the great Apostle to the Gentiles. Always remember that life in the community of man is not divided into the 'Hatfield’s and McCoy’s.' We are in no permanent position of hatred and enmity with others. Because of the love of God in Christ and the transforming power of the gospel, many who curse God today will be preaching His Word tomorrow.
Lesson 2: We Must Realize That We, Too, Were Once Enemies of God
The Lord Jesus says that when we love our enemies, we prove that we are His children. Yet, His children—that is, you and I—are children by holy adoption. God adopted His enemies to be His sons and daughters. Think on what is, perhaps, the most famous verse in the Bible: John 3:16. Read beyond verse 16 to consume the fullness of the meaning:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John 3:16-18)
God saves because we need saving! If we look upon those who oppose, hurt, or persecute us as irredeemable, unchangeable Creatures of the Black Lagoon that are undeserving of our love and our forgiveness, then we must quickly run to the cross! Meditate on the truth that is proclaimed throughout all of the Bible and personified in the person of our Lord: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8)
Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield (1851-1921) of old Princeton reminded us that the greatest truth of John 3:16 is that God pursues those who rebelled against Him that He might bless them. David was a type of this kind of searching love when he returned to Jerusalem. “And David said, ‘Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake’” (2 Samuel 9:1)? We might hate the wicked ways of those around us as they represent an affront to God’s holiness. However, those living without Christ are not unreachable. Pray for them. Pray that God will help you to love them and forgive them as you remember how God loved and forgave you.
Lesson 3: We Love Our Enemies So That We Might Please the God Who Loved Us
Jesus emphasizes the reality of reward in loving others. Luke 6:35-36 states, “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” The practical implication of this teaching is clear: There is great reward in loving our enemies and forgiving them for their sins against us.
Several years ago I wrote a book called Hit by Friendly Fire: What to do when other believers hurt you. The thesis of the book is simply is this: as Jesus forgave those who crucified Him, the cross of Christ was transformed from an instrument of shame to a sign of salvation. Such radical gospel transformation is, now, the operating hypothesis for the people of God. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones taught, we should not be surprised when unbelievers are converted to Christ. We should be surprised when they are not. The gospel is, like C.S. Lewis’ Aslan, “on the move!” When faced with the enemies of God, it is best to take those who have hurt us or even persecutors and leave them at the foot of the cross in prayer. To continue hating, resenting, or holding a grudge against another person is to remain on the cross. There is no transformation in such scenarios. There is only greater pain.
When we follow the rich, life-giving teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, we become spirits set free, free from yesterday’s pain, free from the ugliness of sin that stains and infects our relationships, free from the life-crippling burden of unforgiveness. To love as Christ loved us is to receive and share the reward of such love: new life.
There is no reason for you to remain on a painful cross of unlovingness, or in the shame-shrouded tomb of lifelessness. Christ loves you. He forgives you as you come to Him. You come down from the cross, out of the tomb, and are, like the Lord, renewed to eternal life. And that is not only how to love your enemies, but also why we must love them. There is no other alternative for one who knows such love in one’s own life. This is why Paul writes, “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13, NKJV).
- John R. W. Stott and John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 8–9, 25
- David E. Holwerda, “Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 332.
- Milton, Michael A. 2011. Hit by friendly fire: what to do when fellow believers hurt you. Darlington, England: EP Books.
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MICHAEL A. MILTON (Ph.D., University of Wales; MPA, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; MDIV, Knox Theological Seminary; Cert. in Higher Education Teaching, Harvard University) serves as the Provost and James Ragsdale Chair of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine College and Seminary. A Presbyterian minister (PCA, ARP), Milton has penned more than thirty books, hundreds of articles in journals, magazines, opinion columns, and newspapers. As president of the D. James Kennedy Institute and Faith for Living, Milton has served as a public theologian. His work has been cited on numerous national media outlets as he provides historic Christian insights into faith and life in a changing world. Dr. Milton's record of ministry includes seminary chancellor, president of three seminaries, senior minister of one of America's historic churches, founder of three congregations, and a Christian academy. A composer and artist, Mike and Mae Milton reside in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Learn more at michaelmilton.org/about. [from a press release by McCain& Associates.]
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