I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.
Introduction: The Destructiveness of Hatred
In U.S. history there is a very famous feud that started towards the end of the Civil War in West Virginia and Kentucky. It began in January of 1865 when Harmon McCoy, who had joined the Union army, was found murdered, presumably by a group of men led by William Anderson Hatfield.
This is the beginning of decades of violence and conflict that we have fondly come to know as the Hatfield and McCoy Feud. The violence escalated years later over a sow and her pigs. The McCoys claimed that since the pig was on their property it must be their hog. The Hatfields countered the claim and the matter was taken to court. The McCoys lost their claim in court because of the testimony of Bill Staton who was later murdered by two McCoy brothers.
The feud then intensified when Roseanna McCoy began an affair with Johnse Hatfield. Johnse later abandoned Roseanna and married her cousin. This only stirred the fires of hatred more intensely.
Two years later Ellison Hatfield was brutally murdered by three of Roseanna’s brothers who in turn were murdered as the vendetta reached epidemic proportions. Eventually eight men were tried in West Virginia for the murders. Seven were given life sentences and the eighth was hanged in public, even though it was against the law, as a sign to the warring families to stop it. Both sides agreed to end the fighting in 1891, 26 years after the feud began. Such is the horrible cost of hatred and unforgiveness.
Today I'd like to study Matthew 5:43-48. This is a part of Jesus' famous sermon on the Mount. In this section our Lord is countering the teachings of the religious leaders of the time regarding what the Mosaic Law had to say about dealing with ones enemies. He is setting the record straight regarding what was really meant. And by doing this the Lord was pointing out what God expects of one who would enter His holy Kingdom.
Indeed, the Law requires one to be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect. In other words, no one would ever make it if we had to follow the Mosaic Law to be right with God. This Scripture, though originally intended for His covenant people Israel, shows us what kind of God we are serving in the 21st century as members of the Body of Christ as well. The Lord never changes. He is still holy and wants His people to be holy as He is.
Let us look at these verses and then make some applications to our lives today as we seek to serve the One who, by His grace, has given us all that we have, including eternal life with Him forever.
I. The World's View of Enemies Versus God's View (5:43-45).
Jesus' begins this section like He started previous sections of chapter 5 by the formula:
"You have heard that it was said...but I say to you."
The Jewish leadership of the day told the people to love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But sadly, that is no different than how the world in general apart from God sees it.
Jesus tells His listeners in Matthew 5:43-45 that
"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 causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."
We can see that Jesus' view of how to treat enemies is radical just by looking at history, both before and after He arrived on this earth. History is a record mostly of war and retaliation against enemies.
Chris Hedges, in 2003, wrote a book entitled: What Every Person Should Know about War. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter. He states:
What is a war?
War is defined as an active conflict that has claimed more than 1,000 lives.
Of the past 3,400 years, humans have only been entirely at peace for 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history.
How many people have died in war?
At least 108 million people were killed in wars in the twentieth century. Estimates for the total number killed in wars throughout all of human history range from 150 million to 1 billion. War has several other effects on population, including decreasing the birthrate by taking men away from their wives. The reduced birthrate during World War II is estimated to have caused a population deficit of more than 20 million people.
How many people around the world serve in the military?
The combined armed forces of the world have 21.3 million people. China has the world's largest, with 2.4 million. America is second with 1.4 million. India has 1.3 million, North Korea 1 million, and Russia 900,000. Of the world's 20 largest militaries, 14 are in developing nations?
Hedges went on later to tell how many Americans had been killed in wars up until that time in 2003. He states:
"More than 650,000 Americans have been killed in combat. Another 243,000 have died while wars were being fought, due to training accidents, injury, and disease. In the twentieth century, approximately 53,000 Americans were killed in combat in World War I, 291,000 in World War II, 33,000 in the Korean War, 47,000 in Vietnam, and 148 in the Gulf War. Including deaths from disease, accidents, and other factors, each war's total was much higher: approximately 116,000 died in World War I, 400,000 in World War II, 53,000 in the Korean War, 90,000 in Vietnam, and almost 400 in the Gulf War."
Of course, if we were to come right up to the present time we would find many people in the world who have died as a result of war. This is not to say that the Scriptures are against just wars. Hitler, for instance, was leading an evil group called the Nazis that should have been defeated. So we could Scripturally make a case for just war very easily. However, these statistics just mentioned teach us that man's answer to dealing with his enemies is almost always retaliation and getting even.
We can see this further by the amount of murders that have been committed in the world. To give you some idea, every year there are 400,000 homicides happening worldwide. And in some countries it is one of the leading causes of death. Man is indeed a sinner and cannot seem to get along with his fellow man.
God, on the other hand, is characterized by agape love. The Greek word agape is different from other types of love? The essence of agape love is goodwill, benevolence, and willful delight in the object of love.
The type of love that characterizes God is not a sappy, sentimental feeling such as we often hear portrayed. God loves because that is His nature and the expression of His being. He loves the unlovable and the unlovely, not because we deserve to be loved or because of any excellence we possess, but because it is His nature to love and He must be true to His nature. Therefore God loves even His enemies.
Unlike our English word love, agape is not used in the New Testament to refer to romantic or sexual love. Nor does it refer to close friendship or brotherly love, for which the Greek word philia is used. Agape love involves faithfulness, commitment, and an act of the will. It is distinguished from the other types of love by its lofty moral nature and strong character. Agape love is beautifully described in 1 Corinthians 13. Here is a sample of that chapter:
"Love is patient, love is kind, it is not jealous; love does not brag, it is not arrogant. It does not act disgracefully, it does not seek its own benefit; it is not provoked, does not keep an account of a wrong suffered, it does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; it keeps every confidence, it believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails... (I Corinthians 13:4-8a).
Agape love is always demonstrated in some way. God's enemies included all of us at one time prior to our salvation. All mankind has sinned and rebelled against Him. Jesus' here gives us one of the ways that God has demonstrated His love for all men and not just those who place their trust in Him. God extends His love to even His enemies by "causing His sun to rise on the evil and the good and the rain to fall on the righteous and unrighteous. Theologians call this type of love common grace because it is demonstrated to all indiscriminately.
However, agape love is seen more fully and in the greatest way possible by the fact that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). The cross of Jesus Christ is the most wonderful love in history. For God the Father allowed God the Son to come to this earth in order to die for His enemies. We can see from this that the Lord was not asking His followers to do anything that He was unwilling to do Himself.
We didn't deserve such love. It was totally by His grace, or unmerited favor (Ephesians 2:8,9). God’s agape love is gracious, and constantly seeking the benefit of the ones He loves. And the more we become like Him, the more that we will care about our enemies and want them to know the Savior whom we know and love. And this could potentially turn enemies into friends as well. Just as we, Christ's followers, have become friends of the living God.
II. The Rewards of God's View Versus the World's (46-48)
If we look at the last 3 verses of chapter 5, verses 45-48, Jesus tells us that it might be natural to have the world's view of your enemies and to seek revenge against them for anything that they may have done to you, but there is no reward in it from the Father. He says:
"For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your Father is perfect."
Jesus uses the example of the tax collector here as well as He uses the general word for those outside of Israel's covenant relationship with him by invoking the term 'Gentiles.' A Gentile in this context is anyone other than a Jew. A tax collector was a disloyal Israelite hired by the Romans who taxed his fellow Jews for personal profit They became the symbols of the worst kind of people. Interestingly, the gospel writer Matthew had been a tax collector himself before his conversion to Christ.
By using the terms tax collectors and Gentiles Jesus was saying that even the worst of sinners were able to love someone who loved them back. It took a genuine son of the Father in Heaven to love a person who shows a total hatred and disdain for you.
In telling His followers to be perfect as our Father is perfect by loving our enemies, Jesus was setting a completely unattainable standard. And this sums up what all of the Law was demanding of its followers. Therefore, the law, though wonderful because it came from God, could never save anyone. Further, it was never meant to save. Paul calls it our school master or guardian to lead us to Christ in Galatians 3:24. This guardian demonstrated the standards of righteousness that we needed to attain in order to be right with a holy God but didn't give us the power to obey those standards.
However, though its standards were impossible to meet, God could not lower them without compromising His perfection. The One who is perfect could never set an imperfect standard of righteousness. However, one of the rewards of being under God's grace is that, Christ has met this perfect standard that we could never attain on our own. And he did it on our behalf. Paul tells us in II Corinthians 5:17 that:
"For God has made Him, (Jesus), to be sin for us who knew no sin that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."
So, if God loved us when we were enemies, then He expects us to love our enemies who are out there so that they might see His love for them through us and be persuaded to love the Lord as well. For that God will give us eternal rewards that no enemy will ever be able to take away.
Beyond the eternal rewards that we receive by loving and seeking peace with our enemies, there are many temporal ones as well. Those who constantly seek reconciliation with enemies tend to live more peaceful lives as they make friends out of those they once warred with.
We have seen earlier some of the things that hatred for ones enemies brings. War and murder are among the ultimate consequences of this way of life. And it leaves broken families, communities and nations in its wake as well.
However, loving ones enemies is healing and brings about positive changes in our own life and the lives of others around us. And it will release one from a prison of our own making which comes by hold grudges and failing to forgive someone who did us wrong.
Lewis B. Smedes, a renowned Christian author, ethicist and theologian once said:
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
Forgiveness does not erase the past, but looks upon it with compassion. To withhold forgiveness keeps alive emotions of hurt, anger and blame which discolor your perception of life. To forgive, avoids ruminating on thoughts of being wronged which can destroy our health, and our peace of mind.
I'd like to end by giving an illustration of this commandment that our Lord gave concerning love of enemies. It's an illustration found in the book entitled The Grace of Giving, by Stephen Olford. Olford tells of a Baptist pastor during the American Revolution, Peter Miller, who lived in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, and enjoyed the friendship of George Washington. In Ephrata also lived Michael Wittman, an evil-minded sort who did all he could to oppose and humiliate the pastor. One day Michael Wittman was arrested for treason and sentenced to die. Peter Miller traveled seventy miles on foot to Philadelphia to plead for the life of the traitor.
"No, Peter," General Washington said. "I cannot grant you the life of your friend."
"My friend!" exclaimed the old preacher. "He's the bitterest enemy I have."
"What?" cried Washington. "You've walked seventy miles to save the life of an enemy? That puts the matter in different light. I'll grant your pardon." And he did.
Peter Miller took Michael Wittman back home to Ephrata--no longer an enemy but a friend."
The bottom line is that the reason that the world hates its enemies is because it is incapable of doing anything else. It is the natural sinful tendency of the human condition to hate those who hate them. Agape love is Supernatural and therefore, if one loves in this way, it is because God gives them the ability to do so.
The Christian, having the Holy Spirit residing in them, is capable of this kind of love because he has been given a new nature and the Spirit's power.
Sadly, we cannot live godly lives in Christ Jesus without making a few enemies along the way. People hated Christ without a reason and they will hate us as well. But we don't have to be controlled by them by holding a grudge or vowing to get even.
As God's children, we can and must imitate our Heavenly Father and love those persons unconditionally who hate us. By doing this we can make this world a better place in which to live, and bring many people along with us to Heaven. May God give us the strength to replace hatred for our enemies with a love and compassion for their eternal well-being.
© 2021 Jeff Shirley