Read Matthew 5:43-48
Continuing with our study of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus once again says some tricky things. Love your enemy? How is that even possible? How are we supposed to love those who murder innocent children? How are we supposed to love those who persecute us for our faith? How could Jesus ask that, and how do we reasonably implement it? Fortunately, by digging into Scripture, we find our answers. More importantly, we discover that the NIV leaves out crucial verses that would have made what Jesus said about loving our enemies so much easier to understand.
Let's start by looking at the first verse of this passage:
"You have heard that it was said,
Once again, Jesus refers to the Torah to lay the foundation of where He is going. So let's look at the passage He was referring to.
You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.
The first question we need to ask is - who is our neighbour? According to the Hebrew definition of the word used here, which is rēaʿ, our neighbour would be everyone we meet, from friends and intimate companions to fellow citizens. The Greek word for neighbour was plēsion and meant the same thing. Our neighbour was anyone we met. The Law clarified that no one was to mistreat anyone, even the lowest citizens.
Jesus goes on to say: "But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father 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" (Matthew 5:44-45, NKJV).
And it is here that we find the NIV has deleted crucial verses that show us the steps to loving our neighbour. Here is what the NIV says:
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:44-45, NIV).
As you can see, the NIV deletes how we are to love our enemies - by blessing them, doing good to them and praying for them. And why are we to do these things? So that we may show we are children of God. This makes us different above all else, which is why Christians are supposed to be known as peaceful, non-retaliatory people. We are not supposed to respond in kind. We are to rise above it. Proverbs 25:21-22 says it best:
If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. For so you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord will reward you.
Jesus goes on to say that if we only love those who love us, how are we any different than tax collectors? Tax collectors were on the low rung of the ladder in Jesus' day. They were public officials of Jewish nationality who worked for the Roman government and were generally despised by the people. It was common knowledge that the tax collectors cheated the people they collected from by collecting more than was required and keeping the extra for themselves. The tax collector Zacchaeus confessed to the Lord that he had done this (Luke 19:8). So, yeah - very hard to like, let alone love.
Yet Jesus said: "If you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?" In other words, loving our enemies by doing something good for them is how we win them over to Christ and isn't that our ultimate goal? To see those still trapped in darkness enter into the light of Christ?
Matthew 5:48 sums up what happens to Christians who love their enemies as Jesus described.
Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48, NKJV).
The KJV version and the NIV say, "Be ye therefore perfect." The NKJV, in a roundabout way, explains how that perfection is attained. The word for "perfect" comes from the Greek word teleios which means "perfect, of full age, completed." In other words, this final verse tells us that if we practice loving the way Jesus taught us, we will become fully mature, perfect, and complete in Him. Just as our Father in heaven is perfect.