Thoughts on Matthew 5:43-47
The final “you have heard it said” of the Sermon on the Mount does not have as clear a parallel between it and an Old Testament passage as the previous topics did. There are plenty of verses about how God’s people were to relate to fellow Israelites, and there are many imprecatory Psalms and other passages about hating enemies, evil people and those who sought to harm God’s people. However, this seeming mashup of verses and ideas, this juxtaposition, that Jesus quotes here in Matthew is not something that can be found articulated as a command anywhere in the Bible. In fact, Jesus forcefully repudiates the idea that there are any circumstances under which His disciples are justified in hating other people.
Jesus sets out to quickly destroy any prideful notions the Jews (as the immediate and most direct audience with their national elitism), as well as His disciples and, eventually, Christians (likely His primary audiences), could have that they possess any positional or moral superiority above “persecutors,” “evil,” “unjust,” “tax collectors” and “Gentiles.” He calls those of us who would follow Him to a proactive loving of those who hate and persecute us. He says to pray for those who do us harm, which requires us to think of them and what they need, and then to take time to intercede on their behalf before the Father – even while they might be actively hurting us. As crazy as it sounds, the reward is beyond worth – to be called children of God. Hence, there are no pains to be endured, no rights sacrificed, no shame deep enough to compare with what’s promised to those who adopted into the family of God.
Jesus does acquiesce a distinction between morally divergent – evil and good, just and unjust – as well as culturally and ethnically divergent people – Jews and tax collectors, Jews (brothers) and Gentiles – yet in so doing He makes the point that all people share two things in common that were just as true then as they are now: 1. God’s common grace is bestowed upon and enjoyed by all people, even if they fail to acknowledge it or understand it; 2. The need to be loved by God and other people, even if they deny that need from one or both. The bottom line is that we are all of one race – the human race – and share the same intrinsic needs as well as defects.
These concepts of love and hate, enemy and friend (or “brother”) raise a huge theological question – is Jesus calling us to do something He, as God, does not seem to do Himself, namely, loving His enemies? What do I mean? I mean that there exists a very difficult, seemingly conflicting reality that the Bible says of God, “…You hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies…” (Psalm 5:5b-6a) and yet, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) “What’s the problem then?” you might ask. Do not these verses clearly show the truth of John 3:16 that “…God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in His should not perish but have eternal life” and of Romans 5:10 that says that we who were once enemies of God were “reconciled to God by the death of his Son”? Yes, they do. However, the Bible is also clear there remain “enemies” of God that He will destroy and cast into eternal fire at the end of the age. Are these condemned souls loved by God? Were they ever loved by God since God is omniscient and has known since eternity past who would be saved (the Elect), or have they always been hated as evildoers? If so, then why and how can Jesus call us to love all people, even our enemies, if He sends people to hell, which seems to be the paramount antithesis to what we conceive as love? Should not God save all people if he is to follow His own command to love everyone? Now do you see the theological issue?
Full disclosure here. I am a Christian with Calvinistic tendencies, which means I believe God’s sovereign will supersedes the “freewill” of man, particularly in relation to salvation. It means I believe the Bible explicitly teaches God has predestined a people from before the foundations of the world to be adopted into His family and thus be saved (Ephesians 1). Of course, the flip side of that is that there are those who are not elect and are therefore not saved. It’s a very hard doctrine to accept because of the implications for both us and God. It puts us in a helpless position whereby our ability to be saved from eternal hell is predicated solely upon God’s choice and leaves no hope for those who are not predetermined to be saved. It puts God in a position where His love and character are called into question because He essentially predestines people for hell (some call this “double predestination”). And, of course, no discussion about election and damnation would be complete without the age-old question, “how could a loving God send good people to hell?”
Here’s how I reconcile these legitimate concerns. First and foremost, we don’t get to define God’s character or the meaning of love. What we know of God’s nature and character are limited to and constrained by what He reveals in the Bible, the person of Jesus Christ, and, to a lesser extent, creation. Furthermore, the word “love” is probably the most misused and abused word in the dictionary, at least as it compares to its meaning in relation to God. Our skewed understanding love makes is nearly, if not completely, impossible to argue whether or not God is or is not loving in His judging of sin and allowing evil things to happen in this world. As with God’s character, true love is defined by God in the Bible, not by culture, a dictionary or our own conceptions. Secondly, the Bible teaches in Romans 3:10 that “There is none righteous; no, not one.” This means we cannot correctly argue that there are any “good” people by God’s definition of good. We are all born dead in sin and at enmity with God (hence and again, “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.”) We are all “by nature Children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3) and justly deserve eternal punishment in hell for our rebellion against the eternal and holy God. The fact God lets the sun rise and rain fall on the just and the unjust reveals the common grace and love God has for all of His creation. Thus, it is true to say God loves all people. However, God’s specific, saving grace is reserved for a defined and determined people upon whom his special love and favor rest – the Elect. The fact He chooses to save anyone is far beyond what any of us deserve and proves the magnitude and mystery of God’s love.
There remains the question of how and why in Matthew 5 Jesus calls His disciples to love everyone, even when He himself will someday destroy His enemies and punish them forever. Here’s the key difference that I believe answers this tough question: “The Lord knows those who are his” (2 Timothy 2:19), and we do not. We do not know who are numbered among the elect, and therefore, if we are to fulfill the Great Commission we must preach the Gospel to all people, including our enemies and those who persecute us. Since we simply do not know if someone is elect or not, our default – our command – is to love everyone with the aim of reaching them with the saving message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God chooses who will be saved, not us. Our call is to love everyone so as to cast the net of the Kingdom of Heaven over all people and let God sort out those whom He loves in a specific, saving way (Matthew 13:47-50). If we show love to everyone, even those who hate and hurt (and maybe eventually even kill) us, we “do more” than those who don’t follow Jesus and so carry the message of true love and hope to a dying world.
I know this has been a very long post, but bear with me for one minute longer and please read this very timely and applicable quote from A. F. C. Vilmar that I read recently in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s chapter about Matthew 5: 43-47 in his book, The Cost of Discipleship:
This commandment, that we should love our enemies and forgo revenge will grow even more urgent in the holy struggle which lies before us and in which we partly have already been engaged for years. In it love and hate engage in mortal combat. It is the urgent duty of every Christian soul to prepare itself for it.
The time is coming when the confession of the living God will incur not only the hatred and the fury of the world, for on the whole it has come to that already, but complete ostracism from ‘human society,’ as they call it. The Christians will be hounded from place to place, subjected to physical assault, maltreatment and death of every kind. We are approaching an age of widespread persecution.
Therein lies the true significance of all the movements and conflicts of our age. Our adversaries seek to root out the Christian Church and the Christian faith because they cannot live side by side with us, because they see in every word we utter and every deed we do, even when they are not specifically directed against them, a condemnation of their own words and deeds. They are not far wrong. They suspect too that we are indifferent to their condemnation. Indeed they must admit that it is utterly futile to condemn us. We do not reciprocate their hatred and contention, although they would like it better if we did, and so sink to their own level.
And how is the battle to be fought? Soon the time will come when we shall pray, not as isolated individuals, but as a corporate body, a congregation, a Church: we shall pray in multitudes (albeit in relatively small multitudes) and among the thousands and thousands of apostates we shall loudly praise and confess the Lord who was crucified and is risen and shall come again.
And what prayer, what confession, what hymn of praise will it be? It will be the prayer of earnest love for these very sons of perdition who stand around and gaze at us with eyes aflame with hatred, and who have perhaps already raised their hands to kill us. It will be a prayer for the peace of these erring, devastated and bewildered souls, a prayer for the same love and peace which we ourselves enjoy, a prayer which will penetrate to the depths of their souls and rend their hearts more grievously than anything they can do to us.
Yes, the Church which is really waiting for its Lord, and which discerns the signs of the times of decision, must fling itself with its utmost power and with the panoply of its holy life into this prayer of love.