Love Thy Enemies


By Linus Chua, adapted from message delivered on 4th May 2008 in PCC Morning Worship Service

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).

In verse 43, we read, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.” This was what the Pharisees and scribes were teaching the people. But they had perverted the law in two ways.

Firstly, they left out the phrase “as thyself.” We could call this a perversion by omission. Leviticus 19:18 says, “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” They had conveniently left out those words which teach us to what extent we should love our neighbour. It is one thing to love your neighbour but quite another to love your neighbour as you love yourself. This second part just did not fit into their scheme of things. They were proud, self-righteous and selfish. We need only to turn to Matthew 6 to see how much they loved and cared for themselves.

To them, it was simply unthinkable that they should care for anyone as much as they cared for themselves and so they softened the demands of the law by omitting the words “as thyself”. But that was not all. They also narrowed the definition of neighbour to those people they liked or approved of. And so in Luke 10:29, one of the lawyers or scribes sought to justify himself before the Lord by asking Him, “Who is my neighbour?” to which Christ responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Gentiles and Samaritans were excluded from their definition. Even the tax-collectors and other sinners, though Jews, were not regarded as their neighbour, and they were not obliged to love them. So their first fault was in omitting the words “as thyself” and in narrowly defining the word neighbour to leave out those people whom they did not like.

But secondly, they added something to the law which is totally foreign to the scriptures. We could call this a perversion by addition. The phrase, “hate thine enemy” is no where to be found in the Old Testament. This confirms our interpretation that the phrase “ye have heard that it hath been said” does not refer to the Old Testament scriptures directly but to the distorted teachings of the Jewish teachers.

This idea of hating one’s enemy was simply a false conclusion drawn from a false definition of neighbour. The argument might go like this: if the Gentiles and Samaritans and sinners are not included in the term neighbour, then I am not required to love them. But if I am not required to love them, then the only alternative would be to hate them. And who are these Gentiles and Samaritans and sinners but our enemies. Therefore, the conclusion is: we should love our neighbours and hate our enemies.      

In response to these perversion of God’s Holy Law, Christ says, “But I say unto you, Love your enemies…” What a shocking statement this must have been to the Rabbis and scribes! But this would not have been the case for those who truly understood the scriptures. Although the words “Love your enemies” are not explicitly found in the Old Testament, nevertheless, they are implied.

For example, we read in Exodus 23:4-5, “If thou meet thine enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again. If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden, and wouldest forbear to help him (that is, don’t pass him by), thou shalt surely help with him.” Helping an enemy’s animal and thus helping the enemy is but an outward expression of loving him. Again, in Proverbs 25:21, we read, “If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink.” These too are acts of love.

And so Christ explicitly says, “Love your enemies…” And then he gives us three examples of how we may love our enemies – firstly, bless them that curse you, secondly, do good to them that hate you, and thirdly, pray for them that persecute you. On praying for our enemies, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “This is the supreme demand. Through the medium of prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God.”[1]

What should we pray for when praying for our enemies? Well, if they are not believers, then obviously we should pray that they might know the grace and forgiveness of God, and be reconciled to Him. But what if they are fellow believers? After all, it is entirely possible to be persecuted by fellow-believers. We should pray that the Lord might open their eyes and soften their hearts and bring about a healing of the relationship that has been broken. How often it is when we feel a great sense of anger and hatred towards a person, that we turn to God and plead for him before the throne of grace; and afterwards, that sense of hatred is greatly diminished. Instead we feel a sense of love and pity for him. Oh how hard it is to hate a person after you have brought him or her before the God of love and mercy!

Then in verse 45, Christ goes on to say, “that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” Now we must not misunderstand our Lord’s words. It is not that we become the children of our heavenly Father by loving our enemies and praying for them. Instead, it is when we love and pray for them that we show that we are truly the children of God. John 13:35, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have loved one for another.” And again in 1 John 4:20, “If a man says, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?”

If we love our enemies, we demonstrate that we are God’s children by reflecting something of His character and nature. Christ tells us that our Heavenly Father is a good God and He manifests His goodness through His providence by giving good gifts like the sun and the rain to all, regardless of whether they are evil or good, just or unjust. The emphasis of the verse falls neither on the evil nor the good but simply on the Father’s general love and goodness to all mankind.

Two things need to be said in connection with this love of God for all mankind. Firstly, while gifts like the sun and the rain are common to all, nevertheless there is no common response from all. The righteous person, i.e. one who has been made righteous by Christ, returns thanks to God for all His blessings. The unrighteous person, i.e. one who rebels against God, does not give thanks to Him and thus uses God’s blessings to his own hurt and ultimate destruction. So while the gift is common, the response is not the same. One shows gratitude whereas the other ingratitude.

Secondly, we should note that the general love of God manifested in His providence to all is to be distinguished from the special love of God that is not shared by all. A failure to make this distinction will lead to universalism or the doctrine that all men will eventually be saved. Passages like Romans 8:38-39 and 1 John 3:1 clearly refer to the special and saving love of God which is in Christ and which God bestows upon some for the purpose of making them His children. What we have here in our text is not to be confused with that kind of special love.

It is an abuse of this passage to say that it provides the basis for preaching the gospel to all men and for teaching that God has a desire for all men to be saved. Again, we need to remember that this passage does not deal with God’s grace in salvation. Christ is not speaking about saving grace but simply about God’s general goodness to all and how we too are to show kindness to all, regardless of how they treat us. The reason why the church must preach the gospel to all men is because Christ commands us to do so. And while God does have a general goodness to and love for all men, He does not desire all men to be saved or all men will be saved. Job 23:13 says, “But he (God) is in one mind, and who can turn him? And what his soul desireth, even that he doeth.”     

So if the question is asked, “Does God love all men without exception?” The answer would be dependent on which kind of love we are referring to. If it is a love of salvation, then the answer would have to be “no, God does not love all men.” Scripture is clear on this, “Jacob have I loved but Esau have I hated.” (Romans 9:13) But if we are talking about a general love of benevolence and kindness that is manifested in providence, then yes, God does show love to all men.

And so in verse 45, Christ calls us to manifest our sonship by loving our enemies just as our Heavenly Father loves both the just and the unjust. Then in verses 46-47, Christ presents another reason for loving our enemies, namely, that we should exceed the standard of fallen men. He says, “For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?”

Now, the Pharisees utterly despised and detested the publicans and the Gentiles. They saw themselves as far better and superior to them. And yet, Christ was saying that the Pharisees were really on the same level with the people whom they despised. Both groups were no different. Why? Because they loved only those who loved them and saluted only those who were their brethren or friends. This type of love is no different than the type exhibited by the publicans and Gentiles.   

Christ is teaching us that the true sons of God are to have a much higher standard of love than the rest of the world. Christians should be distinguished from the world because they exhibit a love that is divine, a love that comes from above. Christians are people who love those who do not love them and who greet even their enemies.

Is that true of us? Do we rise above the level of love that is shown by fallen and unregenerate men? Or are we no different from them? I remind us again of the words of Christ in Matthew 5:20, “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

Then finally, in verse 48, Christ says, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” This verse provides a fitting summary, not just of the sixth antithesis, but indeed of the entire section. The word “perfect” means complete and lacking nothing.

Christ is not teaching that we will ever attain that goal of perfection in this present life. Rather, He is calling us to strive towards it. We are not to be content with half-way or half-hearted obedience to God’s law, as the Pharisees were. Rather, we are to be like our Heavenly Father who is perfect in all His attributes, and we are to follow our Lord Christ in His perfect and complete obedience to the Law. 


As we come to the end of this section of the Sermon on the Mount, let me leave us with two thoughts. Firstly, we must be careful not to misapply or misuse the words of Christ regarding retaliation, loving our enemies, oath taking or any of the other antitheses that we have considered. Always remember the context: Christ is confirming the original purpose and meaning of the Law in contrast to the distorted and inadequate explanations of it by the Rabbis and scribes. Also, remember to interpret these words of Christ in a way that is consistent with other passages both in the Old and New Testament.

Secondly, we must understand that Christ is calling us to attain and maintain a standard of righteousness that is utterly impossible to fallen men. By sheer determination and effort, we might be able to attain the same level of righteousness as the scribes and Pharisees. But to exceed them is beyond our own natural ability. The words of Christ in Matthew 19:26 apply here as well, “With men this is impossible but with God, all things are possible.”

But thanks be to God that what He demands, He also provides. This impossible righteousness is made possible for those who trust in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. His perfect righteousness is ours by grace through faith. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Cor. 5:21)

May the Lord open our eyes to see the poverty and worthlessness of our own righteousness, but at the same time, to see the beauty and excellence of His righteousness! And may He work that same righteousness in our hearts day by day through His Sanctifying Word and Spirit. Amen.