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Given what Christians believe about common grace, we are not terribly surprised to discover that some of the things taught in the New Testament also appear in the religious writings of other faiths. Many religions teach about charity towards the widow, many religions teach about the importance of marital fidelity but what Jesus said in Matthew 5:43-45 is entirely without precedent.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:43–45 ESV)

To be clear, the Old Testament does not tell people to hate their enemies. Jesus appears to be quoting from Leviticus 19:18 which says:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18 ESV)

Therefore most scholars assume that Jesus was quoting the Old Testament verse and the contemporary scribal interpretation. The scribes were teaching the people that the command to love your neighbour carried within it the implicit command to hate your enemies.

As the author of the original, Jesus was in a unique position to set the record straight.

God does not intend for us to hate our enemies. On the contrary, he commands us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us.

No one had ever said that before.

No one.

This is arguably the most uniquely Christian teaching in all the Bible.

So what does it mean?

It might be easiest to begin with what it doesn’t mean.

If we assume a common Author of the Scriptures, then we can further assume that whatever God means here it will not contradict the things he says elsewhere. Therefore, loving our enemies does NOT MEAN that God will not judge and punish those who persecute his people. The Apostle Paul makes that clear in the concluding verses of Romans 12:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19 ESV)

Christians are not to seek vengeance against their enemies – but that doesn’t mean that they won’t be avenged. They will. God himself will repay.

Loving our enemies does not mean that we don’t care about issues of justice and recompense – rather it means trusting in a God who sees, who cares and who does what is right. God will pay back the evildoer, therefore, we can concern ourselves with mercy, prayer and good works. That is what the Apostle Paul commends in closing verses of Romans chapter 12:

To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:20–21 ESV)

By deferring concerns about personal vindication and recompense, the Christian is able to break the cycle of retributive violence and give testimony to his or her faith in the justice and mercy of God.

Secondly, loving our enemies and praying for our persecutors is not an argument for pacifism – at least not in all of its particulars. Again, if we assume a common Author of the Scriptures then we assume an essential inner harmony of the Scriptures. We assume that whatever God means here, it should not contradict what he says elsewhere in the Bible. Therefore what God means here in Matthew 5 should be harmonized with what he says in Romans 13 through the Apostle Paul:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:1–4 ESV)

According to this passage, God gives to ruling powers (Kings, Queens, Prime Ministers and Presidents) certain responsibilities and authorities that he does not give to regular citizens. The ruler does not bear the sword in vain. The ruler can use the sword to execute the evildoer. This has generally been understood as the authority to enforce justice and in some circumstances, the authority to make war. Private citizens do not have this authority, but clearly, Kings and Presidents do.

A ruler is responsible for personally forgiving those who wrong them personally, but they are also responsible for using the sword of justice and war to preserve the safety and liberty of their people. As citizens we may each be called upon to play a role in the execution of those responsibilities. This is why the vast majority of Christians over the ages have not perceived their service as soldiers or magistrates to be in violation of Christ’s command to love our enemies, pray for persecutors, turn the other cheek etc. They have perceived in the Scriptures a distinction between the personal and the political.

So what does it mean to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us?

As I meditated on this Scripture today here are a few things that came to my mind:

  1. It means praying for the people – perhaps even fellow Christians – who have mischaracterized you or slandered you to others. It means praying for an opportunity to understand each other and to build real bonds of fellowship.
  2. It means not requiring the people who have wronged you to confess and make restitution before you extend the olive branch of peace and mercy. It means always taking the first step towards reconciliation.
  3. It means evaluating your own role in whatever injury or injustice you have suffered. It means owning your percentage – be it 10%, 20%, 50% or more – as if it were the whole.
  4. It means ‘letting it go’ so that there is no impediment to a future relationship should that become possible in the future.
  5. It means seeking the welfare and prosperity of the very people who would deny you the same.
  6. It means praying for the spiritual conviction and entire conversion of the terrorists who murdered 28 Coptic Christians on their way to prayer in May of 2017.
  7. It means praying for groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda to convert en masse to faith in Jesus Christ.
  8. It means praying for the conversion of Kathleen Wynne, despite how her recent legislative proposals have made many Christian parents in Ontario feel undermined and threatened.
  9. It means praying for the conversion of Justin Trudeau. It means asking God to bless this man and to prosper him and to awaken him to the spiritual truths to which he was once exposed.
  10. It means giving up the assumption that your views on justice are impartial. It means facing the fact that we see reality through the lens of our own self interest. It means trusting God more than we trust ourselves.

I’m sure it means more than that, but it cannot mean less.

As it stands, this passage forces me to my knees. It reminds me that I have a very long way to go. I am many degrees removed from the image and likeness of Christ.

But thanks be to God, the Lord isn’t finished with me yet.

Even still come Lord Jesus!

Amen.

SDG

Pastor Paul Carter

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