When Loving Is Hard: Matthew 5:38-48

Today, we finish up the first chapter in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.  This series has, with the exception of last week’s post and this post, run every Monday, and hopefully that trend will pick back up, and we’ll finish the Sermon on the Mount at the end of August.

One of my favorite songs is called “Loving You is Easy,” by Ben Rector.  In the song, Rector lists several reasons (by using the alphabet) why it’s easy to love this person he’s writing about.  From “all that you’ve done for me,” to being “the only one for me,” there are multiple reasons Ben Rector loves this person.

In our lives, we find it easy to love those who give us reasons to love them.  The people that come to my mind are close friends and family.  I can think of multiple reasons why I love these people.  As Rector says, loving them is easy.

But what about the people who don’t give us reasons to love them?  What about the people that stand against us, who hurt us, who persecute us?  Loving them is most definitely not easy.  Instead of treating others as we want to be treated (Matt. 7:12), we treat others as we are treated by them–straying far from the way of Christ.

Jesus tells us to love our enemies.  It’s one of the defining marks of the Christian faith.  As Jesus says later, everyone loves their friends–it’s why they’re our friends, not our enemies.  But loving those who are against you sets you apart from the world around you.  As Christ followers, we’re called to do this.  But how do we do it?  How has Jesus enabled us to obey these commands?  How can we love, when loving is hard?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil.  But if anyone slaps you on right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

Jesus quotes multiple Old Testament passages that do indeed command Israel, as a legal nation, to take an “eye for an eye,” and a “tooth for a tooth.”  Similar punishments are found in old legal systems, such as the Code of Hammurabi.  We typically call the process of the punishment fitting the crime “justice.”  So is Jesus saying that this is wrong, to take an eye for an eye?  To punish those who hurt others?

It’s important to note that the next 11 verses are Jesus’ commands for His followers in their relationships with others.  Jesus is most certainly not giving us His political views.  Jesus is not outing Himself as a pacifist.  It is a good thing, indeed, a gift of God, that we have legal systems in place that punish those who hurt others.  While the law doesn’t change anyone’s heart, it does help curb some sin, and helps minimize, to an obvious extent, the results of sin, in both our lives and others.  This is, instead, Christ’s commands to His followers as it relates to their relationship with those who would hurt them.

God calls us to not take revenge, to not return an eye for an eye, to “not resist the one who is evil,” but to be prepared to take another slap instead of dishing one out in revenge.  In Deuteronomy 32:35-36, God promises to take vengeance, to vindicate His people.  Because He has promised to take rightful vengeance, we can lay aside our vengeance, and leave it to God.  This is not to say that self-defense is not sometimes necessary.  There are times where we need to get out of a situation, because it may lead to further violence.  We also have times where we may need to physically defend others.  Jesus is not condemning getting out of a situation and doing what it takes toward that end, but taking matters into our own hands and returning violence with more violence.

Because Jesus gives us the rights and privileges of the children of God when we come to know Him as Lord and Savior, we can give up our rights to revenge and leave it in God’s hands.  Because our inheritance is in Him, and not this world, we are free to love and serve our enemies, instead of wishing ill will on them and holding grudges and bitterness in our hearts.

Leon Morris puts it this way in his commentary on Matthew: “The principles that we are to refrain from asserting our rights and that we should put the needs of others before our own run through all of life and mark the difference between the servant of God and the worldling.”

Next, Jesus talks about giving to others.  He describes two circumstances: a man losing his tunic in a lawsuit, and someone being forced to walk a mile with someone (implying that they’re carrying something for them).  These men were forced to do things they shouldn’t have been forced to do.  Jesus calls His followers to not only do those things, but to go beyond that and “go the extra mile.”

Once again, these commands must be viewed in light of the entirety of Scripture, which also commands us to be wise and to be a good steward of what God has given us.  We see this more clearly in the next two verses, where Jesus commands His followers to not refuse anyone who would beg or borrow from them.

Jesus says to give to everyone who asks…He does not specify what to give.  Sometimes, we’re called to give what they ask, and trust that God is in control and that He will use that for good.  However, wisdom and common sense dictate that if we know that our giving, specifically of money, will enable sin (such as drug use or alcohol abuse), or it would do more harm than good, it would be wise of us to give something else.  At times, we are not in a position, whether it’s for lack of money or a knowledge that it would go toward sin, to give those who beg from us money.  However, we can pray for them.  We can buy them a meal.  We can share Jesus with them.  I’ve been on mission trips where it was absolutely not allowed to give anyone money or material goods–but we were most definitely commanded and encouraged to give them Jesus and a copy of God’s Word.  We give to others, as opposed to passing by them as if we are more important.

We are not more important than Christ, but God the Father sent His only Son so that we can be saved, despite our sin.  We honor Him as those who trust and follow His Son by treating all people as more significant than ourselves.  That often means that although they ask for material goods that would only push them further away from God, we give the gospel.  We share Jesus, and give only that which will help them.  Being a good friend to both friends and enemies means meeting their needs, which aren’t always the same as their wants.

“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.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Funny story: God never said to hate your enemies.  Ever.  That phrase is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament.  There are all sorts of commands about loving your neighbors, but God never defines who that is.  Why?  Because everyone is your neighbor.  Even asking, “Who’s my neighbor?” is a silly question and shows an intent to not go beyond the letter of the law.

We are, as believers, called to love and pray for all people.  Why?  Because God loves all people.  He gives common grace to all.  People who hate Jesus prosper in this life.  It’s a common complaint from God’s people through the Old Testament, and is still a complaint we have today.  But these blessings are not a sign of God’s saving love, but of His general love for all creation.  In fact, His common grace is to show His goodness and lead unbelievers to repentance and faith toward Jesus.

So when we consider our enemies, we ought to take God’s attitude toward them.  This means that while we do not affirm their sin, we pray for their repentance.  We pray God would bless them so they would come to know Jesus.  One of the most powerful things you can do is pray for someone you cannot stand.  It becomes really hard to have a bitter, unloving attitude toward someone you pray for.

As I said earlier, this is a mark of genuine Christians.  What do we do toward those who harm us?  Craig Blomberg, in the New American Commentary on this passage, says, “The true test of genuine Christianity is how believers treat those whom they are naturally inclined to hate or who mistreat or persecute them.”

As Jesus says, if we only love and serve those who love us and agree with us, we aren’t any better than an unbeliever.  Because we know Jesus, who loves His enemies to the point of death on a cross, we love and pray for all people.

I hesitate to tell this story, because there’s unfortunately a temptation to revive unforgiving attitudes.  But this moment in my life was formative in my understanding of grace and the gospel and forgiveness, and has helped me become more like Jesus.

My grandmother on my dad’s side passed away this past January.  For those who aren’t familiar with my story, my parents divorced when I was two, and I didn’t meet my dad until I was 19 years old.  I met my grandmother when I was 20, and she passed away right after I turned 24.  I saw her three times in my life.

When we went to the funeral in her hometown, at the visitation, one of her older friends came up to me and my mother, and, in what was I’m almost sure an attempt to be funny, said, “She sure loved you. I don’t know why she loved you so much, you never came to see her.”

As three or four of my friends can attest, the text messages I sent over the next 45 minutes were not exactly Christlike.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so angry in my entire life.  This woman had not only offended me….I could get over that.  She had offended my mother, which hurt even worse, and my immediate thought was, “If you weren’t an elderly lady, I’d have punched you in the face by now.”  Seriously.  I don’t say that to sound tough (because there’s nothing tough about hitting old ladies…), but because in my sinful, prideful, rage, I wanted to inflict harm, because harm had been inflicted on me and my family.  I thought about screaming at this woman, letting her know how much she hurt me and my mom, and how she needed to repent of her wicked, evil words.  I thought about losing my temper in ways I hadn’t lost it in years, since before I became a Christian.

That night, nothing really changed, other than that I mellowed out a little bit.  I wasn’t quite as angry, but I was still plenty mad.  And I most definitely hadn’t forgiven her.  I had heard God telling me to forgive her, but I wasn’t ready yet.

The next morning, as we got ready for the funeral service, God called and said, “It’s time.  You need to forgive her.”  “But God, did you not hear what she said?  Did you not hear that?  She deserves to be slapped.”  God asked me a simple question: “Neal, are you forgiven?”  “Of course, God….”  Pause.  Conviction.  Repentance.  Somehow, in the midst of my anger, I had forgotten that I was forgiven because Jesus died and God had given me faith to confess my sins and trust in Him.  I had done nothing to deserve it.  And I never would.  “Of course, God…”…who do I think I am?  God gave me grace that covers all of my stupid, disgusting sin, and I was holding a grudge against this woman, refusing to forgive her.  In that moment, God assured me of His love, that the cross was for me, that I was forgiven, and used the power of the gospel to bring me to forgive her.  To love this woman that had very quickly become the closest thing to an enemy I’ve ever known.

God never told me I was wrong in being angry.  In fact, there was a peace that me and God agreed that what this woman did was wrong.  It was wicked.  But so was the sin in my life.  And I was forgiven.  And while I certainly wasn’t ready to be good friends with this woman, I learned to love and pray for my enemies.  To forgive them.  To pray for their repentance, to pray God would bless them so they would learn to follow Him.  I learned that loving my enemies doesn’t mean I become their best friend, but that I treat them, and pray God would treat them, the same way I want God to treat me–with grace.  With compassion.  I learned the hard truth that forgiving someone always cost the one who’s doing the forgiving.  I had to absorb the hurt, and not throw it back at her, in the same way that on the cross, Christ absorbed my sin, took on the wrath of God, and offered me the chance to be saved through faith in Him.

The gospel isn’t just for getting right with God.  It is for everyday, as we deal with the people who hurt us the most, who hate us the most, because the gospel reminds us that we were once those who hurt God, who hated God, but by His grace, through Jesus, He’s redeemed us, adopted us and forgiven us.  And because of that, we are free to love our enemies.

Jesus closes chapter five with the command to be perfect, as God the Father is perfect.

Bad news: You and I are not perfect.  We do not love our enemies as we should.  We do not give our revenge to God as we should.  We do not give to those in need as we should.  By God’s grace, as Christians, we are hopefully growing in holiness, but we never outgrow our need for the work of Christ on our behalf.

Good news: Jesus is perfect.  Jesus is righteous for us while we were yet His enemies.  Jesus did not resist evil, sinful men–He left His home in heaven to come rescue us.  He did not return our slaps and our spit and our curses–He prayed for our forgiveness.  He didn’t just give up His clothes–He gave up His life.  He was the one who went the extra mile for us, who carried His cross so we could be carried by His grace into eternal fellowship with God.  When we beg of Him, He gives us what we truly need–Himself.  Jesus prayed not only for His disciples, but for all that would come to know Him, and for the entire world.  Jesus loved His enemies so much He shed His blood and took on the wrath of God so they can be saved.  Jesus didn’t just love His friends–He shed His blood for His enemies that they become His friends.  He was perfect, so we can be perfect through Him.

And it is only through faith in Him, trusting Him to be Lord and lead us, trusting in His righteousness for us, and trusting in His cross for our forgiveness, that we can be restored to God.  And in the gospel, when we grasp who we are in Christ and what He’s done for us, we can, with the work of the Spirit, begin to love our enemies as we should.  We can be who we are in Christ.  We can love, even when loving is hard.

Lord, may we never forget that we were once enemies of God.  May we never forget the price you paid so we could be forgiven.  May we never forget the grace you’ve shown in rescuing us and bringing us back to God.  May we trust you with our revenge, knowing that you are God, and you are holy.  May we pray for others to see you, to repent and trust you.  May we love those who hate us, give to those who ask as they need, and may we model you in putting others, even and especially those who would be our enemies, above ourselves.

God bless,

Neal E.


The Word of God and Temptation

Today I’m continuing the blog series on temptation and the tools God has given us to fight it.  Last week, we examined the cross and how what Jesus has done for us on Calvary impacts our fight against sin.

This week, we’re looking at the Word of God and how the Scriptures help us fight our sin and grow in obedience to Jesus Christ.

Back in the 1990s, there was a popular bracelet/saying/shirt that read, “WWJD?”  The abbreviation stood for, “What Would Jesus Do?”  The idea behind the movement/apparel was to make Christians think about, in every situation, what Jesus would do?

I’m usually not a big fan of trendy Christian things, seeing as how all that’s produced over the years is some really cheesy music, really cheesy (and not necessarily biblical) sayings, and a slightly blasphemous “Jesus is my homeboy” t-shirt, but that saying isn’t too far off.  While the Bible, and the Christian life, finds its emphasis and foundation on what Christ has done for us, we certainly, in working out our salvation, want to do what Jesus would do so that we look more like Him and bring Him glory.

In fighting temptation, if we are to do what Jesus would do, we absolutely MUST know the Word of God.  If you are not consistently in God’s Word, you will never grow as a Christian.  I preach to myself, as much as anyone else, because this year has not been the most shining example of Bible study for me.  We have to understand just how crucial it is to be in God’s Word, and specifically in fighting temptation.  Jesus sets the example for us in this area in Matthew 4, as He battles the temptation of the devil.

Satan’s first temptation was to try and make Jesus use His authority and power as the Son of God for selfish needs.  Whenever we see Jesus using His authority and power as God (healing, miracles, etc.), it is always within the context of His ministry  to reveal Himself as the promised Messiah and Lord, and it is always done according to the Father’s will.  Jesus never uses His divine power to meet needs like food, drink or housing.  He never just plays around with His power, a la Jim Carrey in “Bruce Almighty.”  He knows that the Father will provide for Him, which is why He is able to tell us to not be anxious but trust the Father in the Sermon on the Mount.  And He knows that the Word of God says, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” in Deuteronomy 8:3.  Jesus is able to use the truth of God’s Word to fight back against the temptation to meet His own needs in a sinful way when the Father has told Him to trust Him.

Satan then tempts Jesus to test God’s love and care for Him by telling Jesus to throw Himself off the temple.  Satan himself uses Scripture to try and trick Jesus, saying that the Bible says “He will command his angels concerning you,”  and that “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”  Here is another reason we must know God’s Word for ourselves–If we don’t, we can be sure that our enemy will use our lack of knowledge of God’s Word to our destruction by twisting His Word and making us believe it says something it doesn’t, doesn’t say something it does, making us believe that we are doing God’s will when we are not.  Jesus sniffs out Satan’s plan and uses another Scripture to rebuke the devil: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”  Jesus again knows what God’s Word says and combats lies with the truth.

Lastly, Satan tempts Jesus with the kingdom He is promised if He falls down and worships him.  We need to understand what’s happening here:  The devil knows that Jesus will reign as King for eternity.  He (and Jesus) also knows that in order for that to happen, though, Jesus must go to the cross.  And the devil knows that at the cross, his accusations against God’s elect will fall short, for our sins were paid for, and he knows that because Jesus reigns, he does not.  He knows that if he can get Jesus to skip the cross and all the suffering Christ endures for our salvation and His kingdom, he has defeated God.  In this moment of temptation, all of eternity is at stake.  This is a battle for the future of the entire universe.

And our King wins.  How does He win?  By knowing the Word of God.  Jesus Christ overcame the devil’s temptations, continued His life of perfect obedience to God, securing our righteousness, suffered the cross in obedience to God, securing our forgiveness, and rose again from the grave, securing His reign in our lives and in this world and the world to come, all due, in large part, because He knew and trusted God’s Word.  In the moment of temptation, Jesus yells, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”  Jesus knew that God was God, that Satan was not, and that no matter what happens, He refuses to worship another God.

Hopefully in looking at Christ’s example, we now understand how vital, how crucial, it is that we know God’s Word if we are to work out our salvation in obedience to God and fighting back against Satan and our old sinful flesh.

So what specifically do we look for and utilize in God’s Word in “fighting the good fight of faith?” (1 Tim. 6:12)

First, we look for and trust in God’s promises.  Sin tries to make us believe false promises like: “Looking at that picture won’t kill you.”  “Go on and be angry–you have the right to be angry.”  “No one will know that you do (fill in the blank).”  “God doesn’t: care about you, love you, satisfy you.”  The list goes on and on.  We must know that these are false promises, and we must fight them with the promises in God’s Word.

One of my favorites is Psalm 37:4–“Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”  The idea behind this verse is that if you delight in God, He will give you Himself, because He gives you the desires (Him) of your heart! 

Another one that has been of great use lately is Romans 8:6–“For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”  Couple this with verse 13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.”  So, according to this promise, if we set our minds and walk (behave) according to our (sinful) flesh, we die.  But if we set our minds and walk (behave) according to the Spirit, we will have life and peace, we will live.  That is, we will have the joy of knowing we are living life the way God intended, we are honoring Him, and it is a sign that we possess eternal life.  We have peace with God through Christ, as Romans 5:1 makes clear, but we have more and more peace as we walk by the Spirit.

Secondly, we allow God’s Word to shape our view of truth.  Just as we fight sin’s false promises, we fight lies and deceit with knowing God’s truth.  In the Garden of Eden, Adam believed a lie instead of believing God (“In the day that you eat of it (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) you shall surely die.”)  If we are to be renewed in God’s image, we need to encounter God in His Word and grow in our knowledge, faith and obedience to His truth. 

We have our minds, our beliefs, our worldviews, what we believe is true (and not true) changed as we know God’s Word.  So as our sinful flesh or Satan tries to deceive us and make us believe and act according to falsehood, we are now able, in knowing God’s Word, to fight back with the truth, because we know the truth.  But if we don’t know the truth, we cannot live by it.  So we must know the truth. 

Satan may lie to us to make us think that we can now use our freedom in Christ to do whatever we want.  But the New Testament is clear that we belong to Jesus:
“You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body”  (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
“Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Pet. 2:16). 
“For you were called to freedom, brothers.  Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13).

The truth of God’s Word is that those who are free from guilt and shame, from the wrath of God, through the blood of Jesus Christ, now belong to God.  We know this truth, we love this truth, and we live out this truth.

Brothers and sisters, join me in knowing God’s promises, knowing His truth, and using this great weapon God has given us to fight against sin and be obedient to the Lord who has saved us by His obedience for His glory.  And let us remember when we do fail, which we will, more than we care to admit, to trust the promise found in 1 John 1:9–“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  When we fail to obey God as we should, we remember our salvation, humbly repent, acknowledging our sin before God and agreeing with Him about it, and trusting Him to forgive us of our sins and to change us by His grace, by His Spirit, and we get up and pursue Jesus, confident that we are forgiven by grace and that Jesus will finish what He started (Phil. 1:6).

May we trust your promises, Father.  May we know your truth and live in it.  May we never forget that we are righteous before you through faith, and may we continue to learn to live out the salvation we have in your Son.  May you give us strength, faith and grace for the battles that lie ahead.  May you be glorified in our gospel-believing, grace-driven and faith-driven efforts to be more like Jesus and honor your great name.  Amen.

God bless,
Neal E.

Next week, we examine the role of the Holy Spirit in fighting temptation.  As always, if you have any comments, questions, concerns, etc., feel free to leave them here or email me at nembry@charter.net.  You can also find me on Twitter at @NealEmbry.