Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount

May 3, 2016

by Peter Amsterdam

(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)

Love Your Enemies

We’re going to take a look now at the last of the six examples in the Sermon where Jesus gave a fuller understanding of the Law of Moses. Here He went beyond the idea that members of the kingdom of God shouldn’t retaliate and resist (as explored in the previous article), by teaching that we are to love our enemies.

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.1

Jesus paraphrased Leviticus 19:18, you shall love your neighbor, and then added the phrase and hate your enemy, which most likely summarized the way many in His day interpreted Scripture. There is no Scripture which specifically says to hate your enemy, though it can be inferred by Old Testament verses such as Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.2

There are also Old Testament passages that speak of showing kindness and goodwill toward enemies.

If you meet your enemys ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him.3 If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.4 Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.5

Author D. A. Carson commented that

Some Jews took the word neighbor to be exclusive: we are to love only our neighbor, they thought, and therefore we are to hate our enemies. This was actually taught in some circles.6

The key lies in the matter of who is a neighbor. The word “neighbor” in the Old Testament is used generally as a term for a member of the Jewish people, the people of the covenant. All throughout the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the word “neighbor” generally refers to fellow Jews. The full sentence Jesus paraphrased said:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.7

The general Jewish thinking at the time left “non-neighbors,” basically non-Jews, outside the command to love. However, Jesus greatly expanded the understanding of who is a neighbor to include strangers and even enemies. This is made clear both in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount as well as in the parable of the Good Samaritan.8

John Stott explains that according to Jesus, our neighbor is

not necessarily a member of our own race, rank or religion. He may not even have any connection with us. He may be our enemy Our neighbor in the vocabulary of God includes our enemy. What constitutes him our neighbor is simply that he is a fellow human being in need, whose need we know and are in a position in some measure to relieve.9

We are to love even our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, pray for those who abuse us.10 Why? Because we are God’s children, and this is how God treats people.

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.11

Speaking of humanity in general, the apostle Paul made the point that corporately, through Adam’s sin (and individually through our own sins), humanity rejected God and as such were considered His enemy, yet Scripture tells us that While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.12 From the very beginning, God loved humanity; even though humanity was in rebellion against Him due to our sins, He loved us. As His children (sons of your Father), we should do as He does, by loving our enemies. We’re told to pray for those who persecute and abuse us. They may be cursing and damning us, wishing us harm, but our response should be to call down God’s blessing on them and let them know we wish them nothing but good.13 We are to pray for them as Jesus prayed after being severely beaten and nailed to the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”14

We are children of our Father, and therefore should imitate His love. He doesn’t discriminate. He gives the blessings of sunshine and rain not only to the just, but also to the unjust (which according to the Greek words used means those who keep the divine laws and those who don’t), the evil and good. God is inclusive when it comes to His love, and as disciples, our attitudes toward others should reflect His. Earlier in the Sermon Jesus taught to go the extra mile, to refrain from slapping back in retaliation, to give not just our tunic but our cloak when someone sues us; and here He goes a step further, saying we must love these people, to love even our enemies, to be positive in our attitude toward them. We are to behave as God behaves, to treat others as He treats them. The love He speaks of isn’t referring to a natural affection or feelings of love or emotional love, but rather the type of love which stems from the will rather than attraction or charm. This love chooses to love the undeserving. It’s a love that is shown in action, in compassion and kindness.

Jesus next puts forth two hypothetical cases.

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?15

Loving those who love you is nothing special. Even those who were considered the lowest of the low in Jesus’ milieu, the hated tax collectors, loved their family and friends. Jesus makes the point that there is no reward for doing what is naturally commonplace.16

He then pointed out that if you greet (bid welcome and wish well to) only those of your own people (in this case fellow Jews), you are only doing what everyone does, including the Gentiles—the people who were looked down upon and considered idolaters. There is nothing exceptional about warmly greeting your own people. The implication is that more is expected of believers. We’re not only meant to love and greet those who love us or are from our own family/group/neighborhood/community/race/nationality, as this is common to all people.

In the introduction to the six “you have heard it said … but I say unto you …” examples, Jesus said:

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.17

Here He is making the point that we shouldn’t pride ourselves because we measure up to what everyone else in the world does by loving our own. He’s saying that as members of the kingdom we are to do more than what is naturally done, to go beyond the norm. We are to imitate God by manifesting His love to everyone, including those who hate us and persecute us.

Jesus then ended with:

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.18 

The meaning of “perfect” as used here isn’t moral perfection. John Stott explains:

Both the hunger for righteousness and the prayer for forgiveness, being continuous, are clear indications that Jesus did not expect his followers to become morally perfect in this life. The context shows the perfection he means relates to love, that perfect love of God which is shown even to those who do not return it. Indeed, the scholars tell us that the Aramaic word which Jesus may well have used meant all-embracing.19

Authors Stassen and Gushee wrote:

Those who want to make the Sermon on the Mount into impossible high ideals interpret the summary verse, 5:48, as demanding moral perfection They assume that Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect meant moral perfection. Rather the word here means complete or all-inclusive, in the sense of love that includes even enemies. This is the point that Jesus has been emphasizing in this teaching: the love of Gods grace that includes the complete circle of humankind, with enemies in it as well, by contrast with tax collectors and Gentiles, who love only their friends So we are not to think of Jesus as teaching impossible moral ideals, or idealistic moral perfection, but practical deeds of love towards enemies, including prayer for them.20

The direction to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” picks up on the earlier point of imitating God. A believer’s lifestyle, along with the principles behind it, is meant to be different from the norm. It derives its direction and inspiration from the character of God rather than from the social norms of society. In giving the six examples (and throughout the rest of the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus teaches looking beyond simple obedience to the rules and restrictions of the Law to better understand the mind and character of the Father, and to reflect His character as best we can. It echoes the repeated direction given in the Old Testament:

You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.21

Like the Father, our treatment of others shouldn’t be determined by who they are or their treatment of us. God loves people and bestows His love on them even though they don’t believe in Him—even if they hate Him. He doesn’t respond in kind. Instead, He loves them because He is love. We too are called to move beyond reacting to others based on our personal feelings about them or how they treat us or what they say. Instead we are to be governed by God’s love, to love as He does. When we do, we reflect His love toward them.

The command to love others is not necessarily a command to like them. Liking someone depends on a lot of different factors, such as compatibility, temperament, and more. Lloyd-Jones explains:

What God commands is that we should love a man and treat him as if we do like him. Love is much more than feeling or sentiment. Love in the New Testament is very practical.—‘For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. Love is active. If, therefore, we find we do not like certain people, we need not be worried by that, so long as we are treating them as if we did like them. That is loving.22

Scripture speaks of hating evil:

O you who love the LORD, hate evil!23 The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil.24 Do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these things I hate, declares the LORD.25

Because God by nature is absolutely holy, He hates evil. His anger and hatred of evil is expressed as His wrath in Scripture. It is clear throughout Scripture that in the life to come, those who have been evil and have rejected the gift of a personal relationship with God made possible through the sacrifice of His Son will face judgment.

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him.26 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.27

God loves every human being, even though they sin against Him. He offers them the means of salvation from His wrath against their sin, but many reject it, and they face judgment in the life to come. When we are called to love our enemies, it’s a call to love them as God loves them, to desire good for them, to pray that they will come to know Him so they can spend eternity with Him. God hates their evil (and ours as well), but He loves them as individuals. He will nevertheless judge them for their evil, because that is just and right. Thus, while we should love the individuals as God loves them, it doesn’t mean we accept or embrace what they do and who they become, or never speak against or take a stance against their wrongdoing or ungodly actions. It is right to hate evil; as Paul says, “hate what is evil, cling to what is good,”28 and there is such a thing as righteous anger against evil. But such anger is hatred for the evil deeds; it’s hating what God hates. It’s not a personal hatred; it has no personal malice, vindictiveness, or spite.

Jesus’ call to love our enemies is His call for us to live as members of His kingdom by letting our light shine before others, by exhibiting a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees, by doing our best to reflect the nature and character of God, our Father in heaven.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

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Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Carson, D. A. Jesus Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987.

Charlesworth, James H., ed. Jesus Jewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.

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Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

Elwell, Walter A., ed. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.

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1 Matthew 5:43–48.

2 Psalm 139:21–22.

3 Exodus 23:4–5.

4 Proverbs 25:21.

5 Proverbs 24:17.

6 Carson, Jesus Sermon on the Mount, 55–56.

7 Leviticus 19:18.

8 Luke 10:29–37. See The Parable of the Good Samaritan in The Stories Jesus Told.

9 Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 118.

10 Luke 6:27–28.

11 Matthew 5:44–45.

12 Romans 5:10.

13 Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 118.

14 Luke 23:34.

15 Matthew 5:46–47.

16 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 132.

17 Matthew 5:20.

18 Matthew 5:48.

19 Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 122.

20 Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 141.

21 Leviticus 19:2; 11:45; 20:26.

22 Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 272.

23 Psalm 97:10.

24 Proverbs 8:13.

25 Zechariah 8:17.

26 John 3:36 NIV.

27 John 5:28–29.

28 Romans 12:9 NIV.