“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” Luke 6:27
Not long ago, I received a heartbreaking letter from a reader who’s having relational issues with someone close to her. Coincidentally, my fellow Sunday school teachers and I were talking about the same thing with our church’s middle schoolers last weekend, only the students’ issues had more to do with bullying, teasing, and other middle school shenanigans.
What’s true in both cases is, regardless whether the issue is with someone close to you or not, if the problem persists and a resolution isn’t in sight, it’s likely you’ll end up feeling anger and resentment.
This problem isn’t new. In fact, it’s something Jesus directly emphasized in His Sermon on the Mount, and He based His message on the Old Testament. Loving others we don’t like has been an ongoing issue for thousands of years.
So, what does the Bible say about loving our enemies, and why should we do it? What could possibly be the positive side of it? Let’s first take a look at the book of Leviticus.
Loving Our Neighbors
In Leviticus 19, God instructs the Israelites how to conduct themselves morally with others.
“You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” Leviticus 19:17-18
A few verses later, God says a bit more about loving others.
“And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (v.33-34)
It’s clear that we are commanded to love others as ourselves because everyone is a neighbor. Then a few books later, in Deuteronomy, God then gives us the Greatest Commandment: how to love God.
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Deuteronomy 6:5
It’s the commandment in Deuteronomy that the Pharisees quiz Jesus on in Matthew 22:37-40. They expect Jesus to repeat Deuteronomy 6:5, but He surprises them by going one step further and throwing in Leviticus 19:17-18.
“Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
Notice Jesus’ last line there. The two commandments are what all of Moses’ Law is about. All of it! We are to love others just as we love both ourselves and (even more so) God. And now Jesus is saying His new covenant is just like it.
Loving others we get along with isn’t too hard. There’s not a lot of hard work to be done there. But, how do we love others if they’ve hurt us? How do we love our enemies as much as the ones who have been good to us?
Loving Our Enemies
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us what we should do with 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, 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.” Matthew 5:43-45
You might be thinking, “Where in the Bible does it say to hate our enemies?” It doesn’t. It’s not in the Bible at all.
What Jesus is doing is reminding His audience (and us) of what the Pharisees were often teaching the people. They were taking the words in Leviticus and corrupting them. And the worse part is people were buying it!
Bless Your Enemies
Jesus sets the record straight in Matthew 5. No, we shouldn’t hate our enemies. We should bless them, do good things for them, and above all, pray for them. Jesus goes on to explain why.
“For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward is that? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore, you shall be perfect just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:45-48
The sun rises and the rain falls on both evil and good people. We’re all in this together. But Jesus goes on to challenge our thinking. Where is the reward in loving only those who we love? Even evil people do that. And why should we only greet our friends? Evil people do that too. How do we set ourselves apart as Christians if we are only doing exactly what evil people do?
Then, Jesus’ last instruction on this matter is to be perfect just as He is perfect. Many people take that to mean we’re commanded to be perfect all the time, in everything we say and everything we do. But that’s not what Jesus is saying. He knows we’re totally incapable of being perfect. That’s why He came to die on the cross for us. So, what does He mean?
Jesus is instructing us to love as He loves. We ought to extend the same kind of unconditional love to both our friends and enemies just as He does. I’m sure you agree that’s a pretty tall order. He’s God, after all. Love comes rather easy to Him. It’s a lot harder for us humans, especially if someone has wounded us in some way.
So, what do we do?
It’s Not Eye for an Eye
Backing up just a bit more in Matthew 5, Jesus talks about retaliation. Basically, He’s telling us “don’t do it.” But He’s not just telling us to keep our hands to ourselves or keep our mouths shut. He gives us a detailed plan of how to love our enemies, some of which might sound rather familiar.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.” Matthew 5:38-42
Moses’ Law, as given by God directly, used the “eye for an eye” standard as a method of settling civil cases so the crime always fit the punishment (Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21). It had nothing to do with personal revenge or retaliation, which is why Jesus tries to clarify what to do when you have been personally wronged. He’s essentially telling us to stay cool, take the higher road, and always try to be the nice guy because “an eye for an eye” isn’t true anymore.
Now, some of you right now might be saying, “Try to be nice? You don’t know what I’ve been through!” And you’re right. I don’t know. But God does, and He knows exactly how it feels when you’re trying to keep your dignity in the face of shameful acts by others.
Jesus Loves His Enemies
Remember how Jesus was treated during His last week on the earth. He was wrongly accused, chained and tortured, spit on, taunted and heckled, and ultimately nailed to a cross for a crime He never committed. The only “crime” He committed was loving others, and the Pharisees seethed with hate over it. But did Jesus fight back? Did He try to escape? Did He even try to defend Himself?
No. He didn’t.
Because it was all part of the Father’s big plan of redemption, Jesus never did or said one thing. Never once did He try to stop what was going on. He was like a “lamb led to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7).” And it was all because of love. Love for both those who love Him and for His enemies. He died just as much for you and me as He did for the Pharisees.
How else did Jesus follow His own command to love our enemies?
As He was being tried before the Jewish High Council, Jesus was repeatedly slapped in the face. He offered His other cheek too.
They took away all His clothing and placed a crown of thorns on His head, and He let them.
And they definitely made Him go one mile. One long mile up a hill called Golgotha dragging His cross across the parched ground as it rested on His bloody and torn up back. If they had made Him go another mile, He would have done it without hesitation.
As one of His final acts of love, He did give to someone who asked. It was the robber on the cross next to His, and the man was asking for forgiveness. Though losing blood quickly and gasping for breath, Jesus told him, “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise (Luke 23:43).”
Yes, Jesus knows your pain. He knows exactly what you’re going through, and He physically showed us precisely how to handle it.
The Positive Side of Loving Our Enemies
Loving our enemies as Jesus does is far more easily said than done. But here’s the positive side of it when we try.
Any time we do things God’s way, He blesses us. He blesses us with grace, and He softens our hearts so forgiveness and healing can begin. When we love as He loves—even if we only try—we’re allowing Him to enter into our pain and heartbreak and become a part of the equation instead of allowing the hurt to control us.
Then, slowly over time, we rediscover joy—the kind of joy only God gives—which leads to compassion and, ultimately, a willingness to forgive. And if we can forgive, it leads to not only our freedom, but it could lead to someone else’s salvation, perhaps even the offender’s.
In reality, the blessing process may not end with someone’s salvation. But even if it doesn’t, making an intentional effort to love as God loves will bring healing and freedom in your life. Love will set you free, and it will put you back in the driver’s seat so that whatever wounded you can start being put in the rearview mirror.
I’m not trying to look through rose-colored glasses here. I understand it’s difficult to love our enemies. But the Bible tells us, as shown through Jesus’ experience, we should at least try. If we don’t, we remain stuck in our pain, Satan stays in control, and God can’t move in our lives.
There’s only blessing and grace for all when we love as God loves. As hard as it might be for some of us, it’s at least worth a shot.