Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

58. Love your enemies (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:27, 35)*

“Ye have heard that it hath been said...“ In this section of the Lord’s discourse there is the clearest possible demonstration that his commentary and protest did not relate to the Law of Moses directly but to the interpretations of it which had come to be regarded as authoritative at that time. Certainly Moses had written: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”, but there is no sign in the Law of the antithesis: “thou shalt hate thine enemy.”

The nearest approach which Moses has to this unwarranted perversion of his teaching is the warning against fellowship with Ammonite or Moabite, “to their tenth generation.” “Thou sholt not seek their peace nor their prosperity for ever” (Dt. 23:3-6).

The Spirit of Moses’ Law

Indeed, both in precept and in spirit, the Law left no room for the cherishing of hatreds. The ox or ass of one’s enemy must be saved from straying. If help was needed with a beast in difficulty, it must be given, even though its owner hate you like poison (Ex. 23:4, 5). Then how much more should the man himself be helped, his bad disposition notwithstanding?

It is true that the Law has several drastic injunctions that the Canaanitish tribes be extirpated from the Land (eg. Dt. 25:17-19; 20:17; 7:16; Num. 31:16, 17), but these were divine judgments against people incurably wicked. The Canaanites were not Israel’s -enemies but God’s!

By contrast with these, there is the kindly wisdom of the Book of Proverbs, unmatched in its tone and quality in any ancient literature: “Say not thou, I will recompense evil; but wait on the Lord and he shall save thee” (20:22).

“Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: lest the Lord see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him (to thee)” (24:17, 18). So even the outpouring of heaven’s wrath on an enemy is not to be viewed with unmixed satisfaction.

“If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink. For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee” (25:21, 22).

“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” is by no means an isolated precept in the Law. “A finer description of true neighbourliness than this chapter (Lev. 19) would be hard to find, for it includes generosity (v. 9, 10), truthfulness, integrity and justice (v. 11-13), consideration for the afflicted (v. 14), equity in judgement (v. 15), freedom from malice or vindictiveness, and sincere effort for mutual understanding (v. 16-18)” (L.G.S. “The Teaching of the Master, ” page 143).

A Great Ideal

Jesus re-enunciated the spirit of these Mosaic commandments: “I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you (s.w. 1 Pet. 3:16), and persecute you” (Mt. 5:44). Every phrase here vetoes natural inclination. Nor is the force of the commandment diluted by the omission of two of the phrases (probably rightly) from the modern version. The omitted words are certainly authentic in Luke 6:28, whence they have crept into the text of Matthew. Indeed, Luke 6:35 appears to go even further: “Love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again.” Even those so mild of disposition as not to cherish rancour against out and out enemies would hesitate to show this degree of practical generosity. And it is noteworthy that the Lord’s instruction is to pray for them, on their behalf, and not merely about them. Here, then, is the solvent of many a problem in human relationships. Undertaken in Christian duty in the first place, prayer for those who are enemies becomes not only a salve to troubled souls but also the essential first step towards mutual understanding. It can hardly be stressed too much that there is no higher or more practical wisdom than this. But is there any commandment of Christ that goes so much by default? Its idealism so transcends practicality as to warrant classification with the impossible. So, at least, the not uncommon attitude of conscientious disciples of the Lord appears to proclaim.

It is important, then, here-as with certain other of the Lord’s teaching-that there be scrupulous honesty with regard to it. If the commandment daunts the disciple by its very idealism, then rather than dilute its meaning and intention by the kind of casuistry the Pharisees were good at, it were better to affirm outright: “Lord, forgive me, your standards are too high for me, this is more than I can do.” If the law of Christ be honoured in the breach more than the observance, at least let it be honoured!


To be sure, in the minds of many “much difficulty in understanding the command arises from the emotional association of the word which confuses loving with liking” (L.G.S.). Gore’s famous definition of Christian love, in his book, “The Philosophy of the Good Life”, has never been bettered: “The Greek word for love in the New Testament (agape) does not signify any sort of emotion, but a deliberate disposition of the will, something which is within everyone’s control if he chooses to have it so. We can put God indisputably first; and we can care impartially for the interests of those we like and those we don’t like.”

The Goodness of God

The purpose and intent of this sublime command of Christ to love our enemies is for the sake of its effect on the disciple as well as on others -- “that ye may become the children of your Father which is in heaven.” Family likeness shows up in the children. That is how it must be in the family of God also. And the striking implication needs to be noted that even though professed, baptized believers are sons of God in one sense, they have need to become sons of God in a much higher sense. (And Rev. 21:7 points higher still).

The Father does not ask His children to do other than what He Himself practices: “He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” It is not that the godless happen by some lucky fluke to share the blessings which God designs for His own, just because they happen to be there at the time, ana discrimination is difficult or inconvenient. As L.G.S. comments again: “God maketh the sun to rise, and sendeth the rain, on the evil and good, just and unjust; it is His deliberate action to include both in the scope of these gifts.”

This awe-inspiring goodness in the character of God was declared by Moses also: “The Lord your God is a God of gods, and Lord of lords... He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger in giving him food and raiment. Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Dt. 10:17-19).

The world’s way of sharing good fellowship with those who offer it is now quietly exposed as the easy-going life of self-interest which it essentially is. “Do not even the publicans so?” And Jesus would have the righteousness of his followers exceed that of the publicans as well as that of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt. 5:20). So there must be the utmost good will towards all, regardless of personal character or individual predilection: “The poor (ie. the meek godly man) and the oppressor meet together: the Lord lighteneth the eyes of them both” (Pr.29:13). Those who are the Lord’s people are called to emulate this divine example: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (cp. Lev. 19:2; Dt. 18:13).


In the modern sense of the term this is unreasonable. Such a degree of moral perfection is a stark impossibility. But this Greek word translated “perfect” is used in the New Testament in the sense of “mature”, “grown up”. Hebrews 5:13, 14 sets the “babe” who is “unskilful in the word of righteousness” over against “them that are of full age” (RVm: full grown). Similarly, in 1 Cor. 2:6: “We speak wisdom among them that are perfect (RVm: full grown).” “Till we all come in the unity of the faith unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4;13; and see 5:1). This passage beautifully expresses the idea of spiritual growth to maturity.

Specially interesting is Col. 3:14, 15: “And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.” This love for one’s enemies (notice the previous verse!) is the mark of spiritual grown-up-ness. In putting these words on paper, Paul was writing in Greek but thinking in Hebrew. He continues: “And let the peace of God rule in your hearts.” The words “peace” and “perfect” are almost identical in Hebrew.

The development of Christ’s thought in this part of his discourse is specially impressive. He begins by setting before his followers the ideal of being true children of a beneficent Heavenly Father (v. 45). He concludes by pointing them to a further spiritual target-that of being grown-up like their Father. Could there be any aspiration higher than this?

Notes: Mt. 5:43-48

Hate thine enemy has been indignantly described as “a villainous gloss”. ‘*;
Love your enemies. It is impressive to observe that God does not observe this new law of retaliation towards those who are the enemies of His friends: Gen. 12:3. Pray for them. Inspirit: Job. 31:29, 30;and in fact: Lk. 23:34.
If ye love them which love you. There is a remarkable switch here from aorist to continuous tense, perhaps implying: If you decide to show love to those who are already in the habit of showing love to you...
Salute is certainly the right word here, for the publicans Jesus spoke about would neither bless nor pray (v. 44).
As your Father. Lev. 11:44; Dt. 18:13; Eph. 5:1.

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