43"You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be sons 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. 46If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Jesus here concludes this section of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus speaks about specific commandments of the Law. He teaches: "You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven" (vss. 43-45). Note well that, unlike His previous teachings, Jesus here is not citing a Scripture, for nowhere does the Law say: "Hate your enemy", though of course the Law does say: "Love your neighbor" (see Lev. 19:18). Far from sanctioning hatred for enemies, the writings in the Old Testament command and encourage love for enemies: see Ex. 23:4-5; I Sam. 24:5; Job 31:29; Ps. 7:4; Prov. 24:17,29; Prov. 25:21ff.
So, in this case, Jesus' reference, "You have heard that it was said...", was not to the actual writings of the Law of God, but rather to the teachings that the people were hearing concerning love. There has been found archaeological examples of such teaching. In the Dead Sea scrolls, in the writings of the Qumran community (a sect of Jews at the time Jesus walked the earth), the members of that community were enjoined "that they may love all that [God] has chosen and hate all that He has rejected." And though we have no direct evidence that the mainline Jewish teachers (the Pharisees and the Sadducees) said these exact words, we do know by their actions that hatred of others, especially hatred of the Romans and the Samaritans, was common among them. In general, teachers of God's Word must be very careful not to give the impression that it's OK to hate others. Any disparaging words against others while teaching God's Word--against non-believers, against blatant sinners, against government leaders, etc.--can be taken by the hearers as license to hate others.
Jesus makes clear the true Law of God: "But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven" (vs. 44). Jesus spells it right out, so that no one can be mistaken: "Love your enemies." He also gives the primary action by which we can show love for our enemies: "Pray for those who persecute you." Praying for our enemies has a two-fold benefit: it is a demonstration of love for our enemies; it also helps to increase our love for our enemies. Try it, and you'll see what I mean. Through prayer for our enemies, we are in communication with God concerning them. Through prayer for our enemies, God speaks to us and so we begin to see our enemies as God does. Of course, God loves our enemies, and so if we see them as He sees them, our love grows for them.
Jesus commands us to love our enemies "that [we] may be sons of [our] Father in heaven." When we love our enemies, we are God-like, we are Christ-like. God loves His enemies. Through our sin, we have all been enemies of God. God has gone to great lengths to show His love for His enemies. He sent His Son to die for His enemies. All on earth have the same opportunity of salvation through Jesus Christ. God treats His enemies fairly, and gives them blessings, just as He gives His children blessings. As Jesus points out: "He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (vs. 45). Many have struggled with the question, "Why do the wicked prosper here on earth?" Jesus here gives us one reason why God blesses the wicked: It is an example of love for enemies, an example that we are to follow.
Jesus next points out the absurdity of a command that would urge love for just those who are not enemies: "If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?" (vs. 46). "Tax collectors" were despised as among the most immoral in Israel at that time, because they were allowed by the Roman government to extort as much money as they could from the people, and usually did. And so, if "tax collectors" are able to love those who love them, surely we don't need a command that enjoins love for friends. Although, in these ungodly times, we have fallen so far away from knowing what true love is, even our love for friends is greatly flawed. Certainly, the high divorce rate testifies to this. If we could even love those who love us, there would be no need for divorce. Instead, we love, as long as it is not inconvenient; we love, as long as we can still do what we want; we love, as long as we do not have to make any sacrifices. This is not love. We fall far short of loving even as well as "tax collectors" do. John defines love, and this is the love we should show for both friends and enemies: "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers" (I John 3:16).
Jesus then gives us an idea of a very simple way to show love for enemies: "And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?" (vs. 47). As a starting point to showing love for enemies, greet them as you pass them in the hall, or on the street. What a simple, effective way of showing love: a nod and a smile; a cheerful "Hello"; a shake of the hand, or a pat on the back. We must be set apart from others in our behavior, otherwise, why take on the name "Christian"? Our love for others should be evident, exemplary. In loving our enemies, we are a witness for God's love. Don't think that your enemies will not notice your love. They will. They may not directly respond to it, but they will notice it. And the greatest reward that you can get for your love will be if "they see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us" (I Pet. 2:12). "Unfailing courtesy, kindness, tenderness, and consideration for others, are some of the greatest ornaments to the character of a child of God. The world can understand these things [even] if it cannot understand doctrine."
To sum up, Jesus commands: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (vs. 48). I believe that in this verse, Jesus is summing up, not only His words concerning love, but His entire discourse concerning the Law (e.g., all that He has said from Matt. 5:17 through 5:47). As David tells us: "The law of the Lord is perfect" (Ps. 19:7). Being a perfect law, from a holy and righteous God, the Law of God necessarily demands perfection. "But wait," you may say, "Have you not heard the saying, `Nobody's perfect'?" Yes, indeed. But just because we, in our sin nature, cannot attain perfection, does not mean that God should compromise His Law and allow imperfection. What kind of law would that be? Could a holy God give commandments such as these: "Try to love your enemies. Try not to divorce. Try not to steal. Tell the truth, except when your in a really bad fix. etc."? No. A holy God, a righteous God commands: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." This is the standard for the Kingdom of God. This is the Law for the Kingdom of God. And when we enter His Kingdom, we will experience the gloriousness of a Kingdom that operates under this rule of Law.
Until then, we are stuck in these fallen bodies, we are stuck with our sin nature, such that, though we may strive for God's perfection, we fail miserably, minutely. But thanks be to God, that though we fail, we can still be clothed with righteousness through Christ's sacrifice. We fail, but Jesus has paid the price for our failure, so that our sins may be forgiven through Him. And so, God can remain holy and righteous, and His law can reflect His holiness and righteousness, yet we can escape judgment because God, in His love for us (His enemies) gave His Son to pay the price for our sin. Praise be to God! Praise Him for His love! Praise Him for His perfect plan! To Him be the glory forever and ever!