Love Your Enemies

“Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy: but I say unto you, Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the Gentiles the same? Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43–48



When Jesus says, “Ye heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy” he has in mind rabbinical distortion of Old Testament teaching. Apparently the reasoning by which the hatred (If enemies came to be justified and inculcated was something like this. The Old Testament said, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Lev. 19:18). Since this commandment referred expressly only to one’s neighbor, it was thought that the requirement of love extended no further than the person who could be regarded as a neighbor and therefore did not include others. Since enemies could not be regarded as neighbors, there was no obligation to love them and so they might even be hated. This type of reasoning was, no doubt, in line with the self-complacent and self-righteous isolationism into which Judaism had degenerated and by which the peculiar privileges which God had bestowed upon Israel as his chosen people had been perverted.

It is in opposition to this kind of distortion and to all its implications that Jesus places his own teaching: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” There are lessons of basic and far-reaching import to be derived from the words of our Lord in this passage.

The reason Jesus gives why the disciples should love their enemies is that by so doing they might be sons of their Father who is in heaven. Very simply stated this means that they must be like their heavenly Father. As sons of the Father they must reflect the character of him who has adopted and begotten them—they must resemble him in attitude, disposition, and conduct.

This blunt assertion may seem to be irreverent. Who among the sons of men can be like unto the Lord? It is indeed true that, in one sense, to aspire to be like God would be the essence of iniquity. Was this not the pivot of the tempter’s appeal to Eve in the garden, “Ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil?” It was because Eve gave sympathetic entertainment to such an assertion and coveted such a prerogative that she fell. Yes, to seek to be as God and to place ourselves on a parity with God is the deadliest sin. It is the contradiction of all the virtue that originally characterized man and of the virtue unto which man is redeemed.

But to be like God in the sense of reflecting his image in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness is the essence of divine obligation and the glory of all human virtue. This shows us how fine is the line between virtue and sin, right and wrong, life and death. To aspire to be like God in one sense is the essence of virtue, to aspire to be like him in another sense is the greatest iniquity. To preserve this line of distinction is the sine qua non of all right thinking on truth and right.

The disciples must love their enemies. The reason is that they, the disciples, are sons of God and therefore they must be like God in attitude and behavior. This points us to the basic truth connected with ethical demand. In the last analysis, why must we behave in one way and not in another? Is it because experience has proved the one to be better than the other, that the one leads to happiness and contentment and the other to misery and ruin? Our Lord in this passage enunciates the only proper standard or criterion. The only ultimate standard of right is the character or nature of God. The basis of ethics is that God is what he is and we must be conformed to what he is in holiness, righteousness, truth, goodness, and love. It is this truth. as the foundation of all ethical demand, that exposes the error of any doctrine of divine transcendence which, in effect, removes the character and action of God from all relevance to our obligation. God made man in his own image and after his likeness. Man must be like God. Any doctrine which fails to take account of this undermines the foundation upon which alone can rest a proper construction of God’s relation to man and of man’s relation to God.

It needs to be noted, however, that when Jesus says “in order that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven,” he is speaking to his disciples. It is an unwarranted and erroneous interpretation of this passage which regards it as teaching that God is the Father of all men, just and unjust, good and evil. Jesus does not say that it is because God is the Father of all men that he sends rain upon just and unjust and makes his sun to rise upon evil and good. Too many assume that this is what Jesus says or, at least, means. But it is not so. Jesus does say that those whom he is addressing are sons of their Father who is in heaven. But he does not say nor does he imply that all those who are the recipients of God’s gifts are sons of the Father who is in heaven. It is true that it is the Father in heaven who showers the favors of his providence upon all without discrimination. It is the God of providence who is the heavenly Father of the disciples. But it is not said that he is Father in heaven to all men. He is the creator of all and the provider for all. But our Lord is very careful not to say that he is the Father of all. He does say that those who evince the character here enjoined are sons of the Father in heaven.

The appeal to the beneficence of God in making his sun to shine upon the evil and the good and in sending rain upon just and unjust opens to our view certain very important truths respecting God’s goodness and loving-kindness. It is beyond question that the sunshine and the rain are viewed as benefits or favors bestowed upon the evil as well as the good, upon the unjust as well as the just. Bu t there is more implied than this. h is not simply that the evil and unjust receive and enjoy such benefits, not simply that such gifts are bestowed. It is also implied that these gifts actually bestowed are expressions of the goodness and loving-kindness of God to them. This appears perhaps more patently when we look at a parallel passage in Luke 6:27, 28, 35, 36. “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who despitefully use you…But love your enemies, and do good and lend, hoping for nothing again. And your reward will be great, and ye shall be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the unthankful and evil.” God is kind toward the evil and unjust. His attitude or disposition is one of loving-kindness and that is the reason why he sends upon them rain and sunshine. In the words of Acts 14:17, he left not himself without witness, doing good, and giving rain from heaven and fruitful seasons.

The sum of all this is that God is kind even to the unjust and wicked; because he is kind he does them good; this good which he does is exemplified in the bestowal of rain and sunshine. And the purpose of appealing on this occasion to this sequence of truth respecting the attitude and action of God is that it forms the basis and enforces the necessity of like attitude and action on the part of the disciples. They must emulate their Father in heaven, they must follow the divine example. Love your enemies and do them good—this reflects the heavenly exemplar.

Nothing brings the implications of this passage into clearer focus than the concluding verse: “Ye shall therefore be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It must, of course, be understood that the benevolence and lovingkindness of God exhibited in the favors bestowed upon the ungodly are not the sum of divine perfection. Nevertheless they epitomize the divine perfection, and it is for this reason, with this particular aspect of the divine perfection in view, that it can be said, “Ye shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The demand of the divine perfection is here focused in the necessity of loving our enemies and doing them good. But it must also be recognized that the statement, “Ye shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” covers the whole range of the divine perfection as it bears upon human behavior, and covers the whole range of human behavior as patterned after the divine perfection. God’s perfection is the ultimate norm for man’s life and conformity to it the goal of ethical attainment.

This passage of Scripture has been a source of difficulty to many in respect of the morality of war. How can we engage in warfare if Christ’s ethic is that we should love our enemies, bless them that curse us, do good to them that hate us, and pray for those who despitefully use us and persecute us? Is not non-resistance or pacifism the only proper ethic for a Christian? In dealing with such a question it must be admitted at the outset that much of actual warfare and a great deal of the atrocity which is often committed in the conduct of war are blatantly contrary to the requirements of this passage. And it is also true that war arises from the failure to carry into effect the motivation and conduct inculcated in this passage. It goes without saying that if there were no sin there would be no war. And sin is failure to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.

But the interpretation and application of this passage which would brand all war as sinful and participation in war as wrong proceed from failure to make necessary distinctions. The demand of love, alI-pervasive and unrelenting as it is, does not abrogate the demand of justice. The demand of love does not interfere with the necessity of observing the sanctions of justice—it is not inconsistent with the infliction of punishment. Indeed, when we view the demand of love in its broader proportions as first of all the love of God, the demand of love and the demand of justice become really one. If we love God we love justice, for justice is the habitation of his throne. And if we love justice, we comply with the demands of justice. There is such a thing as a just war, that is to say, war undertaken in the defense and promotion of the ends of justice and the maintenance of the dictates of right. That which makes such a war necessary is wrong. But the war that is waged for these ends is not wrong but in many cases mandatory.

War, of course, requires us to fight and wound and kill. It is when we think of wounding and killing our enemies that so many people arc perplexed as to the legitimacy of such action. Is this doing good to our enemies?

An Illustration may help to show the compatibility of love and the infliction of punishment. There is the case of a loving and just father who has an only and well-beloved son in whom all his human affections are concentrated. But let us suppose that his father is also a judge. Let us also suppose that the son is guilty of murder and is arraigned before his own father in his capacity as judge. The crime is proved. What must the father do? There is one thing and one thing only. He must sentence his own son to the death penalty. The father must not consult his parental affections in this case and perpetrate a miscarriage of justice. He must condemn his own son to death. But, when the father does this, is it because he has waived the claims of love? Has he ceased to love as God demands? Of course not. If he refrained from pronouncing the sentence of death, then he would be worse than his criminal son.

So it is in the case of war. When waged upon just and necessary occasion war is simply the use of the sword as the instrument of maintaining and promoting the interests of justice. The sword should never be the instrument of vindictive and malicious hate. Whenever a nation or the soldier on the field of battle uses the instruments of war as the expression of vindictive revenge rather them as the instruments of vindicatory and retributive justice, then not only are the demands of love violated, bUl the very dictates of justice arc desecrated. Nevertheless, the use of the sword as such in the fulfillment of the purposes for which God has ordained it violates neither justice nor love. Such use fulfills both.

John Murray is professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary.