“The Divine and The Heart”

“The Divine and The Heart”

Matthew 5:43-48

I read a story about C.S. Lewis’ response to criticism he received that a Dr. Normal Pittenger published in a 1958 issue of the Christian Century.  The criticism Pittenger had was that C.S. Lewis did not care much for the Sermon on the Mount.  Lewis published a response to Dr. Pittenger, which I think you may be able to relate as I am able to relate to Lewis’ words:

As to “caring for” the Sermon on the Mount, if “caring for” here means “liking” or enjoying, I suppose no one “cares for” it. Who can like being knocked flat on his face by a sledge hammer? I can hardly imagine a more deadly spiritual condition than that of a man who can read that passage with tranquil pleasure.[1]

Of all the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount thus far, Matthew 5:43-48 is the most challenging in my opinion: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (v. 44).  Who does that?  Loving our neighbors, loving our friends, loving members of our own family, and loving our spouse on their worst day is something we are committed to as challenging as it may be, but to love an enemy and pray for them seems to be too much to ask for. 

Daniel Akin said of this section in the Sermon on the Mount, “Returning evil for good is satanic.  Returning good for good is simply human.  Returning good for evil—now, that is divine.”[2]  This is why it is appropriate that Jesus conclude his “You have heard that it was said…” statements with this sixth and final one. 

What Jesus has Taught So Far…

Now before we dive into these verses, I want you to see the flow of Jesus’ amazing sermon.  The first section of his sermon is the Beatitudes that can be divided into two main sections: they begin with the first three beatitudes known as the “beatitudes of need.”  The beatitudes of need show us how we enter into a relationship with Jesus and what it is that leads to the pardon of our guilty souls and our reconciliation to the God we have sinned against.  Only the poor in spirit, only those who mourn, and only those who are meek can receive the kingdom of heaven, be comforted by God, and will one day inherit the earth.  It is this person who will, “hunger and thirst for righteousness” and be satisfied. 

The remaining beatitudes are known as “beatitudes of response.”  What is the response of the one hungering and thirsting for righteousness (v. 6)?  It is the fruit of a life that has had encounter with Jesus: The Christian is one who is merciful (v. 7), who pursues holiness (v. 8), whose presence represents the presence of God (v.9), and whose joy is rooted in Jesus even when life gets hard (vv. 10-12).  

As the Christian lives his/her life in a world where fallen humanity “call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20), Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world” so, “…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven” (vv. 13-16). 

So, what does it look like to be salt and light in a sin cursed world?  It looks like the life of one who hungers and thirsts for a righteousness in a Christ who speaks into the hypocrisy of those who think that they have something God needs: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20).  In six corrective statements Jesus shows us that true religion addresses the problem of the heart. For example, yes murder is wrong, but Jesus’ disciples must put to death its root which is the kind of anger and hatred that lead to murder (vv. 21-26).  Of course, adultery is evil, but Jesus’ disciples must fight the lust that which leads to adultery (vv. 27-30).   When it comes to divorce, the Christian must love his/her spouse while shunning lust and divorce (vv. 31-32).  In a world of deceit, the Christian is one who is characterized by integrity (vv. 33-37).  When sinned against or wronged, the Christian must respond with grace, mercy, and love (vv. 38-41).  Then, Jesus concludes, 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” (Matthew 5:43–45). 

Jesus’ final, “You have heard it said…” statement is not a restatement of verses 38-42, for the enemy intends harm.  This is the person who is malicious and seeks to victimize you.  It is this kind of enemy Jesus tells his followers to love.   

Who is the Enemy?

Before we answer what it means to love one’s enemy, we need to understand what Jesus was addressing, and what I mean by addressing is “correcting.”  Nowhere in the Old Testament will anyone find a statement in the Mosaic Law to love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  The scribes and Pharisees perverted the Law to suit their own self-centered motives.  To love one’s neighbor was and is the point of the last six of the Ten Commandments.  They then misapplied what they read in the Old Testament regarding the justice of God and his judgment and wrath upon sin. 

This is how they did it and why others who listened to the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees thought that it made sense to love one’s neighbor and hate one’s enemy.  The scribes and Pharisees believed one’s neighbor applied only to the Hebrews and everyone who was not a Jew or did not convert to Judaism was not only an enemy of God, but an enemy of God’s people.  So, the Romans and every other gentile were considered by the scribes and Pharisees as dogs.  They read passages like Psalm 139:20-22,

                They speak against you with malicious intent;

your enemies take your name in vain.

                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.

That is not the worst of if though, for there are other passages in the Old Testament like Deuteronomy 20:16-17 that commanded the Hebrew people to destroy the Canaanites without mercy:

But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 20:16–18, ESV)

God also promised that he was for the Hebrew people and at the same time against any nation that opposed them: “And the Lord your God will put all these curses on your foes and enemies who persecuted you” (Deuteronomy 30:7).  What the scribes and Pharisees failed or refused to remember is that the same curses God promised to inflict their enemies with, he did to the Hebrew people to discipline them, just as he also promised he would do if they turned to the gods of their neighboring people groups (see Deut. 28:1ff.).  What the scribes and Pharisees also failed to recognize with passages like Psalm 139:20-22 and Deuteronomy 20:16-18 was that they address the justice and wrath that nations and sinners deserve and their need for one to stand in their place to receive that justice and wrath that their sin and rebellion deserve.   

It is also important to note that Jesus will come back and he will judge the nations (see Mal. 4:1; Rev. 19:11-21; 20:11-15).  When he does it will be to destroy all who set themselves against God.  So, understand that there are enemies of both God and his people that God will judge, but that judgement is not left to the people of God to decide.  At the moment, God still offers the olive branch of a peace that can only be found in and through Jesus, and in his grace, God continues to this day to make, “…his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45).

All of humanity have experienced the grace and goodness of a God who is justified to rain down brimstone upon our heads, but instead we get the warmth of the sun and the life-giving rain.  How so, you may ask, well consider what we learn of ourselves from Holy Scripture: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God” (Rom. 3:10-11).  The Bible also states: “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  We tend to take for granted the goodness of God as though we deserve the warmth of the sun and the life-giving rain, but consider what we read in Romans 2:4-6,

“Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and restraint and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will repay each person according to his deeds…” (Romans 2:4–6, NASB 2020)

The reality is that from the moment we are born, we are the enemy before a holy God (Ps. 51:5) and yet, it is his goodness and kindness that he uses to lead us to him.  His goodness and kindness are designed to show us our sin and to lead us to the cross of his son as those who are poor in spirit, mourning over our sin, and humble.

How Do I Love My Enemy?

For starters, there are four Greek words used for love in the New Testament: eros (sensual/romantic love), philia (brotherly/friendship love), storge (familial love)and agapē (a sacrificial love; the kind of love we have received from God).  The word Jesus used for the kind of love we are to have for the one who hates us is agapaō, which is used as a verb instead of a noun.  So, what does that mean?  In short, Jesus is not only addressing how we should feel about our enemy, but our motives in how we treat our enemies.  This is why Jesus did not only say that we must love our enemy, but to also pray for our enemy. 

What does praying for our enemy have to do with the way we treat them?  Praying for a person is to put that person before God who is able to do the same work he has done with you, on your enemy as well.  Essentially, when you genuinely pray for your enemy, you are forced to pray for their good.  Is this not what Jesus did even for those who mocked him while he hung on the cross dying when he said: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

To love our enemies is to first see that person as one who bears the image of the living God.  To love your enemy in spite of what he/she thinks of you or how he treats you, is to recognize that the same love, grace, and mercy that God lavished upon you is available to all who come to Jesus.  The apostle Paul, of all people understood the significance of this, for he was the one who approved the stoning of a Christian man by the name of Stephen.  The people took off their garments so that they could be more effective in killing Stephen and they laid those garments at the feet of Paul (known at the time as Saul).  Paul stood in approval over the bludgeoning of Stephen whose only crime was that he wanted the people to know who Jesus was.  Paul was there and heard Stephen’s final prayer just before his death: “And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:59–60).  So, when Paul wrote what he wrote in Romans 5:10, it was not empty words that he wrote, but words he felt deeply: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:10).

It is easy to love those who love you back (vv. 45-46).  It is also easy to love those who are like you (v. 47).  But, to love our enemy is much more difficult.  It is human nature to be most friendly with our friends; we often behave this way in our churches thinking that we are loving as God loves, but treat those outside of our circle as the stranger.  It is difficult enough to love our friends and those like us as God loves, but Jesus makes the standard seem unrealistic by concluding his final “You have heard it said…” statement with the expectation that his followers must also love their enemies. 


Then Jesus says something in verse 48 that helps us understand what it means to love our enemies and how it is we are to love our enemies: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  God is the model for how it is we are to love.  Here again we are reminded that the Sermon on the Mount is not for the world, but for the Christian.  Because of Jesus, we have been reconciled to God and now he is our Father.  Verse 48 has nothing to do with earning our way into Jesus’ Kingdom, but serves as a reminder that the only way to enter his kingdom is to be poor in spirit, to be mindful and morning over your sin, and to humbly come as one who cannot meet God’s holy standard by your own ability or strength.  The Christian is always aware of his/her sin in the same way John Newton was mindful of his own sin when he said as an old pastor: “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.”

The goal is to be like our heavenly Father and the pattern for getting there is Jesus.  But, how will we get there though?  The Greek word for “perfect” is a future indicative, which literally means, “You shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  It is a statement of what will happen, not what has already happened.  It is like saying, “It will be windy tomorrow” or “It will snow next week.”  Verse 48 is both a command that we must strive to obey and a promise for what we will one day become.  In other words, with every step we take in following Jesus it is one step closer to being like God in terms of his character.  I think Daniel Doriani is correct in how we ought to respond to these verses:

To live as Jesus lived, we must identify our enemies, those who make us think of revenge.  Those enemies offer us the opportunity to love as our Father loves.  For God loved us when we were strangers and alienated from him.  He loved us when we were his enemies.  Our animosity could not thwart his love.  He loved us, gave us new life, and drew us to himself as his adopted children.  He has poured his transforming grace into our hearts, so we can love our friends, our neighbors, and even our enemies.[3]

Or, as the apostle John pointed out:

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:10–12, ESV)


[1] C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock, Walter Hooper, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 181, 182.

[2] Daniel L. Akin, Christ-Centered Exposition: The Sermon on the Mount (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference; 2019), p. 72.

[3] Daniel M. Doriani, Reformed Expository Commentary: Matthew vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing; 2008), p. 195.