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Matthew 5:43-48

Why does Jesus tell us to love our enemies?

Tom Faletti

May 8, 2024

Matthew 5:43-48 Love your enemies


This is the last of the 6 antitheses, where Jesus reinterprets and transforms the Jewish teachings in the Law.


What does Jesus suggest that his Jewish audience has been taught?

They have been taught: love your neighbor and hate your enemy.


The Hebrew Bible does not teach that you should hate your enemy.  You could imagine his audience nodding along as he says it, because that is what they have been raised to think.  But it’s not there in the Old Testament.  Leviticus 19:18 says, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (NRSV).  Leviticus 19:17 says you shall not hate your kin.  That might have been interpreted by some as allowing you to hate your enemy, even if you are not directed to do so.  But the Old Testament does not say it; and Jesus not only rejects it, he goes further.


What does Jesus teach here?


The word for love here is agape, which is the kind of love that goes beyond even one’s love for one’s family and taps into the love that comes from God.  This love does what is best for the other person even at cost to oneself.  This does not necessarily mean letting others do whatever they want against us.  Sometimes, restraining or refusing another person is the best thing for them.  But this kind of love is the love that is done solely for the other person’s benefit, not to meet our own desires.


What does this kind of love look like in action?


According to Jesus in verse 45, who will we be if we do this?


What does it mean to be “children of God”?


The literal phrase here is “sons of God.”  In the Hebrew language, there were relatively few adjectives, and “son of . . .” was often a way to convey an adjective – for example, the Jews might have said someone was a “son of peace” to signify that the person was peaceful.  In this case, saying someone is a son of God might convey that they are a “godlike” person (Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, p. 175).


Jesus is saying that if you love your enemies, you are acting like God would act – you are showing the character of God.  How does loving our enemies make us like God?

When we love, we reflect the mind and actions of God, because that is how God thinks and acts toward all people.  If we love our enemies like God does, people will see the “family” resemblance – like Father, like son or daughter.


In verse 44, Jesus tells us not only to love our enemies but to pray for those who persecute us.  Why is praying for our enemies part of the package here?



In the second part of verse 45, Jesus gives some examples of what God does to show his love even toward his enemies.  What does he say God does?


What are some ways we can treat our “enemies” – or those who are hard to love – that would be like the way God provides the sun and rain even to people who are evil or unrighteous?


What attitude lies behind these ways that God and we show love to others?  What attitude toward humans leads to a desire to love them even when they are being difficult?


In verse 46-47, how does Jesus describe the more shallow, transactional care for others that is part of normal human nature?


In his examples, Jesus refers to tax collectors and Gentiles – the non-favored people of his society.  In a subtle way, he is suggesting that, although the Jews looked down on these groups, the “love your neighbor, hate your enemy” attitude of the prevailing Jewish society was no better.


How can we adopt more fully an approach of love toward those we don’t agree with that would reflect the mind and actions of God?


What would it look like if we were to routinely approach others, in every facet of life, this way?  What would it look like:

  • in business dealings?

  • in political discourse?

  • in disagreements within the church?

  • in family squabbles and estrangements?

  • in other areas of your life?



Focus now on verse 48.  What does it mean to be “perfect”?


The Greek word here for perfect is teleios, which comes from the word telos, meaning end, purpose, aim, or goal.  This word for “perfect” is not about being flawless in some abstract way.  The word is about fulfilling the purpose for which you have been created (Barclay, Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, p. 176).


How does loving our enemy help perfect us to that we can become more fully what God intended us to be?

When we choose to love our enemies, we move forward in the transformation by which we take on God’s character and allow every part of our lives – our thoughts, words, and actions – to reflect the image of the God in whose image we were originally created.  We could interpret the “be perfect” statement in this way: Jesus calls us to “be [fill in the blank] as your heavenly Father is [that thing].”  Be holy as he is holy; be loving as he is loving; be patient as he is patient; etc. Be fully what God intends you to be.



How does the call, in verse 48, to be fully what we are intended by God to be, sum up the entire teaching of the 6 “antitheses” from verses 21-47?


In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus totally transforms some of the core teachings from the Jewish Law on how to relate to and deal with one another.  Where in your life do you need to work on this new way of living?



Take a step back and consider this:


Why does God want us to love our enemies?  The easy answer, based on this passage, is: to become children of God.  But let’s push ourselves to think more rigorously.


One reason to love our enemies is that Jesus told us to do so, to become children of God.  What are some additional reasons why we should love our enemies?


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said that we should love our enemies because (1) only love can overcome hate; (2) hate scars the soul; (3) only love can turn an enemy into a friend; and (4) love allows us to experience God’s holiness:


(1) “Why should we love our enemies?  The first reason is fairly obvious.  Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.  Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, Beacon Press, Boston, 1963, p. 47).


(2) “Another reason we must love our enemies is that hate scars the soul and distorts the personality. . . .  [H]ate brings irreparable damage to its victims. . . .  But there is another side which we must never overlook.  Hate is just as injurious to the person who hates.  Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity.  Hate destroys a man’s sense of values and his objectivity.  It causes him to . . . confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, Beacon Press, Boston, 1963, pp. 47, 48).


(3) “A third reason why we should love our enemies is that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.  We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. . . .  Love transforms with redemptive power.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, Beacon Press, Boston, 1963, p. 48).


(4) “An even more basic reason why we are commanded to love is expressed in Jesus’ words, ‘Love your enemies . . . that you may be children of your Father which is in heaven.” [ellipses and italics in the original]  We are called to this difficult task in order to realize a unique relationship with God. . . .  We must love our enemies, because only by loving them can we know God and experience the beauty of his holiness.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, Beacon Press, Boston, 1963, p. 50).


If someone were to ask you, “Why should I love my enemies?”, how would you respond?


How can you apply these insights about love to some particular situation in your life?  What is something you can do to choose love over hate?



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Copyright © 2024, Tom Faletti (Faith Explored, This material may be reproduced in whole or in part without alteration, for nonprofit use, provided such reproductions are not sold and include this copyright notice or a similar acknowledgement that includes a reference to Faith Explored and See for more materials like this.

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