Matthew 5:33-48: Love Your Enemies
January 13, 2021
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
We have already, yesterday, commented on the repeated refrain that structures this middle section of the Sermon on the Mount—“you have heard that it was said…but I say to you.” This claim of Jesus to be the authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures, against the views of the Pharisees of his day, leads him to establish the spirituality of the commands. God is interested in our inner life, in the thinking of our hearts and the feeling of our minds, as much as outward conformity to the externalities of obedience.
Now a similar thrust shapes the next section of commands, and they conclude with such an overarching demand that there is no way that the only intention of these commands can be practical obedience. Jesus concludes by telling us that we must be “perfect,” and not just perfect by a human standard, but perfect by a divine standard: “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). Obviously, in our fallen and finite state, this is impossible, and so the purpose of the Sermon of the Mount is as much to drive us towards needing salvation in Christ (“hungering and thirsting after righteousness,” 5:6) as it is a guideline for behavior.
By the same token, however, the guidelines are there, and they function as goals and commands that we are to live up—though we will fail—increasingly in the power of Christ and by his Spirit.
The first command is regarding “oaths” (5:33-37). Jesus is not talking about “swearing” or “cussing” in the contemporary sense—using dirty or profane language. He is talking about guaranteeing our promises by an extra oath that will make sure that people take what we say seriously. Jesus says all that is ultimately specious; it already exposes that we might not tell the truth. Instead, let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no” (5:37). What a high standard! Christians are to be known as people of their word. They are to say of us: they are the sort of people that say what they mean and mean what they say.
The second command is about retaliation (5:38-42). Now it is important to realize here that Jesus is not teaching about the responsibilities of government. Paul, in Romans 13, talks of how the authorities bear the sword: there is a place for punitive, military defense, and all the rest—as an expression of God’s order, even if the individuals are by no means themselves an expression of that order. Here Jesus is talking about human relationships at the micro, not the macro nation-state level. Israel at the time that he was speaking was not in charge of its own affairs, but was under occupation. It is possible that he has in mind some of the friction and difficulty this would have caused him. When a Roman soldier forces you to go one mile carrying their gear, instead of refusing and resisting that evil—and inevitably being overpowered—you gain the upper hand by doing even more. Go two miles. Paul says something similar when he says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Acting this way allows us to regain the initiative, to not be passive victims, to avoid becoming a reflection of the evil that we have experienced or be overcome by evil, but instead to overcome that evil with good.
The third command is perhaps most challenging of all (5:43-48). “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (5:44). It is worth taking a moment to realize that Jesus is assuming that his people will in all likelihood have enemies, and there may well be times when we do have people who persecute us. So he is not envisaging, this side of glory, a halcyon utopia, but providing practical actions for a very threatening and challenging world. It is also worth noting that Jesus does not say to be a pushover or a doormat, to just lie down and let your enemy beat you up. That is not at all what he is saying. Rather, we are to have pity on the person who is so filled with hate that they attack us for following Jesus. We are to realize what an awful situation that must be for them to be in. It is very hard to do, of course; our hackles rise, our anger and indignation spurt out, and we want to hit back. But instead Jesus says to pray for that person and love that person. Who knows if by that approach you may win them over?
Challenging words from Jesus that lead us to fall at his feet and seek for his salvation and his help in following him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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