Love your enemies: the astounding command Jesus modeled for us

Here is the cartoon that accompanies this post.

Lesson of the thunderstorm

Imagine the village carpenter on the side of a mountain collecting would for his next project. In the distance, he can see a thunderstorm rolling in. As he watches, it sweeps across the fields and into the village. His spiritually attuned mind immediately realizes the lesson: God blesses everyone with rain–both the wicked and the righteous, the guilty and the innocent. To everyone, He shows mercy and grace.

What would life be like, he thinks, if all of us humans could act like that toward each other? We tend to show mercy and grace to warn our family and others who love us and whom we love in return. We hold back from those who ignore us or seem determined to interact with us antagonistically.

Now the thunderstorm is over, and the parting clouds reveal a warm sun. The people and animals of the valley seem to welcome its light and heat as much as they did the needed rain. The carpenter smiles to himself: God is so consistent in his willingness to bless everyone.

Sermon on the Mount: locus of the command

Later on, when carpenter has turned preacher, he challenges his disciples to think of and remember this same lesson. Despite the certain prospect that they will be persecuted, insulted, and mistreated for the sake of his name, Jesus exhorts them:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:44-48).

Does Jesus practice what he preaches?

With regard to the command to love our enemies, when we ask whether Jesus actually practiced this difficult principle, we can immediately affirm that he did, and we can offer any number of examples. What follows is only a sampling.

1)      He invested time in trying to reach is enemies with his message.

Although the scribes and Pharisees revealed quite early in the ministry of Jesus their animosity toward him, he still reaches out to them, accepts their invitations, and tries to persuade them. For example, Jesus agrees to attend a dinner at the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). Ignoring Simon’s lapses in offering hospitality and friendship, Jesus still tries to show him his need to experience the forgiveness that would prompt a loving response like the sinful woman had shown. Jesus is gentle in the way he explains Simon’s need, acknowledging that his sins were relatively fewer and understating his hurtful behavior in the words, “he who has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47).

2)      He reasoned with his enemies regarding spiritual truths.

Well aware that the Pharisees believed performing miracles on the Sabbath violated God’s prohibition of work, Jesus made an argument from lesser to greater:

If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:11-12).

Rather than just ignoring his detractors, Jesus reached out to them, trying to persuade them with sound reasoning.

3)      What about the denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees?

Even the famously harsh blows to the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:1-39; Mark 12:38-39; Luke 13:34-35; Luke 20:45-46) should not be understood as an expression of Jesus’ hatred toward his enemies but as the kind of blunt confrontation that friends do when only a desperate intervention seems appropriate. If we read these verses imagining Jesus as heavy with grief rather than filled with rage, I believe we are closer to what really happened.

4)      His intercessory words from the cross.

Jesus asked for the Father’s forgiveness of those who crucified Him (Luke 23:34). This is the ultimate proof that Jesus practiced what he preached with regard to loving his enemies. Instead of denouncing his murderers, he pleaded to God for mercy. Apparently, his attitude toward his opponents, ultimately shown here, was enough for many of them, later on, to become convinced that they were wrong, to repent, and to join the rest of his followers (see Acts 6:7; Acts 15:5).

Tips for loving your enemies

How can we follow in the footsteps of Jesus along the path of forgiveness of our enemies? Here are a few practical tips.

1)      Do not seek revenge when your enemy mistreats you.

Paul urges us, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord” (Romans 12:19, quoting Deuteronomy 32:35).

2)      Do not rejoice when something bad happens to them.

As Proverbs 24:17-18 says: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice, or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from them.”

3)      Treat your enemy kindly.

In the very next verse (Romans 12:20), Paul quotes Proverbs 25:21-22: “If you enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Heaping burning coals seems to mean that you will make your enemy burn with shame.

4)      Maintain a forgiving attitude toward them.

Jesus says, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25). He tells the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-35) to illustrate this point.

Just before this parable, he tells people to be ready to forgive his brother 77 times (Matthew 18:21-22), and on another occasion tells the disciples, “If your brothers or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them” (Luke 17:3-4).

5)      Pray for them, asking God to bless them with insight and a tender heart.

Interceding for people is a tremendous responsibility God has given to us, and interceding for enemies is included in that responsibility. Mirroring the attitude of Jesus on the cross, the martyr Stephen, even as he was suffering a fatal stoning, cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

The goal of loving enemies

Abraham Lincoln was once criticized for his proposed policy of treating the Southern rebels kindly. He replied, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” That should be our goal in loving our enemies: to turn them into friends so that together we may bury the former animosity.

God’s purpose is to unite the entire universe under one head, Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:10). We cannot stand against this great purpose. We must cooperate with His will, in our hearts, our lives, our relationships, our congregation, and our world.

Want to dive deeper?

John Piper. Love Your Enemies: Jesus’ Love Command in the Synoptic Gospels and the Early Christian Paraenesis. Crossway, 2012. E-book version.

Max Lucado. Love Your Enemies – Matthew 5:13 – 6:4: Rules for Relationships, download from Upword Ministries.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love. New York: Harper, 1963.  Paperback and Used from Amazon.

  1. W. Belt. “Agapate tous echthrous” (“Love your enemies”) A Discourse delivered at St. George’s Episcopal Chapel, Edinburgh, on Sunday, July 1845. London: William Edward Painter, 1845. (16 pages)

 

Steve has been a Bible teacher for over 30 years. He has written many articles, more than 20 e-books, and several study guides, most recently, Overcoming: Guide to Understanding the Book of Revelation. His website, DeeperStudy.com, encourages all people to go deeper in their understanding of the Word of God, the Bible, and to become authentic, New Testament Christians who serve a risen Lord.

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