Message: The Radical Nature of Our Love | Scripture: Matthew 5:43-48 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
If able, please stand as I read our passage to you from Matthew 5:43-48. TWoL: You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour 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.
We come now to the last of these six antitheses, and perhaps the personal lesson for me as we went through them was that they’re extremely difficult to take in. So difficult are these reinterpretations of the law, in fact, that they leave us asking if they are possible for us to fulfill at all. Jesus is here telling us that in order to become citizens of heaven, our righteousness must be greater than the Pharisees and scribes. Why? Because as we learned in chapter 23 of Matthew when I preached on that chapter a little while back, and as we will learn next week, they’re hypocrites. Their understanding of righteousness and law-keeping is wholly dependent not on the attitudes and purity of their hearts, but upon the conduct of their hands—what people can see them do.
So, Christ comes to tell them and us righteousness in God’s eyes doesn’t begin with how you act but with the motivations for your acting. What drives you to do what you do? And if you haven’t noticed, the commands that Jesus gives us get increasingly more difficult—from the law against murder, to the abomination of adultery, to divorce, the making of oaths, and the exercise of retributive rights—we find ourselves, increasingly, to be victims of our own inability. They show us, in ourselves, the impossibility of the task.
And this is all too true as we come to these verses here in Matt 5:43-48, isn’t it, as Christ calls us to love our enemies. The difficulty of this command cannot be understated, and while there are so, so many sermons on this text, I can’t help but notice that most of them miss the point of it because the point isn’t to love our enemies. Certainly, it’s an important imperative, but it’s not the main imperative here, and I want to point that out for you right from the beginning because of how much confusion this text can create if we misunderstand it—a misunderstanding that we see all too much in the world. I hope you know what I’m talking about. The world thinks that a passage like this can apply to them. They take their own model of kindness from what Jesus says here.
How many non-Christians have I spoken to who say, “I like a lot of the things Jesus says, and a lot of those things apply to me—like this command, love my enemies, I try to live this out in my own life”? My response to them in those conversations and this morning is, “no, you don’t.” You can’t because the point of the text isn’t about loving your enemies. It’s about sonship. It’s about where your identity rests and finds its satisfaction, and if your identity rests and finds its satisfaction in something other than being called a child of God, then even if you’re every bit as kind to your enemies as the next person, still you can never truly love them—and thus, you can never count yourself a part of the kingdom of heaven.
This, then, is the point and proposition of our sermon this morning—that we are to prove our lineage by loving your enemies. Loving enemies isn’t the source of your shared DNA with God, it is the product. You can love and pray for your enemies in a way that evokes the ear of God because you possess the love of God, not the other way around. You have that which enables you to do the impossible, and I hope to show you this today as we walk through our outline. So, let’s look to our points there now, beginning with our first: prove your lineage by loving your enemies …
1) Because It Is God Who Adopts You
Looking at verses 43-45, once again, what we’re dealing with here is fulfillment. Jesus starts by quoting from the Old Testament in Leviticus 19:18, “you have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’” And I want to point out rather quickly that although he’s not actually giving us a direct quotation, this idea of hating your enemy, which is the part not found in Leviticus 19:18, would have been generally accepted as a consequence of those who were not considered your neighbour.
If you weren’t a neighbour—if you weren’t a friendly, then you were an enemy. And this makes particular sense for Israel because of the context in which they would have received this law, namely, as they’re gearing to inherit the promised land—a land infested with enemies—people whom God commanded Israel to destroy because if they didn’t, those gentile nations would entice the Jews towards their gods and their evil practices and thereby anger God. So, a neighbour to the Jew was a fellow-member of the covenant community—a fellow Jew, and an enemy was anyone who threatened to harm or dismantle that community. They were to be hated because they stood contrary to God’s will and character.
But then, to the surprise of his audience, as the one whom they thought might be the Messianic figure to liberate them from their Roman oppression, Christ, a Jew himself, living like a second-class citizen upon the land that they believed to be their inheritance from God—Christ opens his mouth and says, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …” Yet, before you imagine how angry his audience might be in hearing this, consider also the words we heard last week—there he goes from telling these Jews to walk two miles when they’ve been forced by their oppressors to walk one. Now he’s saying don’t just walk a second mile but love them. Don’t just go beyond basic rationality. Do what is utterly impossible—what goes against the entire moral fabric of your character.
Herein lies the true nature of Christ’s call for a greater righteousness. He is saying to the people before him—people who are hearing and meeting him for the first time—after centuries of silence from God (not counting what they might have heard from John the Baptist)—after persecution-upon-persecution—after attempted liberation upon attempted liberation—here stands this man, Jesus, who says the way to be free, the way to be happy and blessed—the way to receive God’s inheritance—isn’t only by giving up your rights—the right to be angry, the right to use people as you want, the right to divorce and break your promises, the right to retaliate when someone wrongs you—but to embrace, wholeheartedly the very people that you hate and that hate you. Such an instruction would make the ears of any sane, natural, listening man bleed because the task being asked of him—in the context of the world in which they lived—could not be done.
Yet, it’s this command—the entirety of it in the context of its impossibility—that sits as the cornerstone, the greatest pearl, the most brilliant jewel of Christ’s message. Because right after giving the command, he gives us the main point not only of this text but of all the six statements: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you might be sons of your Father in heaven.
Now, what does Jesus mean when he says this? Does he mean by loving your enemy and praying for your persecutors, you earn the right to be called sons? I hope you already know that my answer to this is no, but why not? Well, the first reason is because the text does not say, “so that you might be sons of your God who is in heaven.” The way Matthew phrases it implies your already-established relationship with the phrase “Your Father who is in heaven”—he is already Father to you. He cannot precede being Father if you’re not already his son, and unless Matthew is mixing up the order of how things work, there must be another explanation as to what he means when he says, “so that you might be sons.”
And we see that explanation in an earlier passage from Matthew 5:16, which reads, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Just like in our text, here, Matthew 5:16 doesn’t say that in doing good works, God becomes your Father. No, the text implies he is already your Father prior to your conduct. We see that because it says, in doing good works, others will give glory to your Father.
Why do they give glory to the Father? Because, as your Father, his character, his desires, his presence, his DNA abides in you, helping you, enabling you to do what is good! If we were responsible for doing good works ourselves, then we would be the ones to receive glory, but the reason why we don’t receive the glory, and why God, the Father, does is, first, because on our own, we are sinful and incapable to do anything glorious, and secondly, because of God’s grace in our lives by sending his Son into our midst to fulfill the entirety of the law for us, he has lovingly shone into our hearts the light of the knowledge of his glory, which we now shine into the rest of the world.
Thus, when Matthew says in our passage, “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven,” he can’t mean you become sons by virtue of your love for your enemies. Rather, he must mean you display your sonship—you prove your lineage—that the DNA of God is saturated in your bones and in your blood and in your heart because his light—his love—shines in and from you so that even as our enemies hate us and even as they persecute us, all that they can bear witness to in us is that we can do the impossible—that we can love them.
And if that wasn’t clear to us in the first half of verse 45, Matthew gives us the verse’s second half in order tell us explicitly why we can do such things, namely, that because we’re the sons and daughters of God, we can show an impartiality of grace towards anyone as our Heavenly Father does. It doesn’t matter how good or evil someone is, as God is lavishly generous to both, so too are we, as those who are heirs to his throne—heirs to everything in his kingdom. We know there is no shortage of what he intends to give us, and how he intends to spoil us, like a father spoils his children.
I know this all too well, as I’m sure any father or grandfather in this room might attest, because as soon as we walk into any store with any sort of toy, all I want to do is purchase the entire place and give my kids free reign so that they might have the time of their life, so that I might be filled with joy and laughter, and most importantly, that they might know and share in my own joy for them. And Matthew is telling us that as our Father shares in generous supply his own joy for us—sinners like us—vagrants like us, so too are we to display his joy to the worst amongst us—for those who want only to harm us.
It’s here that I need you all to remember how I said that this command to love your enemies, though the most difficult, is the cornerstone—the brilliant jewel of Christ’s fulfillment of the whole law because with these words, he tells us exactly how he intends to fulfill it—how he intends to bring the entirety of God’s will into a sinful world. You see, this law, like all the rest, was given not to help us be better, but to keep us from getting worse. God never intended us to hate anybody. He never intended for us to love only those who look like us, act like us, or agree with us. All have been created by him, and he created them to enjoy them, for them to enjoy him, and, in him, for all creatures to enjoy one another.
But our sin prevents us from loving! It prevents us from enjoying in fullness that which we were intended to enjoy! And it causes us to hate that which is good for us—so much so that we might flog it, beat it until it is unrecognizable, place a crown of thorns upon its head, and nail it to a tree. That we might treat God, himself, as one who does not intend what’s best for us, but rather as one who we should hate and persecute despite the fact that all he’s ever shown us is love.
Yet, that is precisely how he brings us back isn’t it? He is everlastingly persistent, is he not, and infinitely wise to use our own evil and our own hatred to show us his love? That he might not only cause the sun to rise and rain to fall upon us indiscriminately, but that he might send his own Son to take on the filthy rags of our flesh, die in it, rise in it, and now, to intercede for us in it for all time so that we might be called back as children who were lost and display our joy in our adoption through how we love the lost. This is the extent of his love for us. His sacrifice wasn’t borne only upon that tree but even now as one who will always look like us, bear with us, be able in all respects to sympathize with us.
This is the lineage of which we boast—a lineage that has enabled us to do the impossible—to love those who hate us and to pray for those who persecute us. May we always remember that we are only able to do so because it is God, himself, who sends his Son to die upon a cross so that, by our repentance of sin and reliance upon his righteousness, we might be called children of the living God.
2) Because It Is God Who Sanctifies You
Growing up, at the outset of every field trip and at the end of every recess, teachers would line us up, placing the smallest children at the front moving progressively to the tallest at the back so that they could see and count us. I was always the smallest in the class, so, of course, I was always at the front of the line, that is, until the fourth grade when a kid named Justin joined us. Now, Justin was good at everything. He was the fastest kid in our class. He was great at basketball. He was great at baseball. He was really smart—always knew the right answer to every question. He also had a way with the girls that all the other fourth grade boys kind of envied.
But, as you can probably guess, there was one thing I had, literally, over Justin, and that was my height—a whole centimeter, and I remember specifically, when the bell rang for the end of recess, if I wasn’t playing with Justin already, I’d scan the entire yard for him because, even though he was better than me at everything, I wanted him to know as we got into line that he would be standing beside a giant—making sure always to look “down” at him—standing as straight as I possibly could.
It didn’t matter to me that we were the first two people at the front of the line. No, to me, I was the tallest, biggest, baddest boy in that playground, that is, until another boy named Joseph Makari who was six feet by the time we were in fourth grade, forgot where his feet were, tripped on his shoes, unable to avoid the line of people behind him while he was running to catch a ball, and because my eyes were so set on comparing myself to Justin’s height, I didn’t see Joseph coming as he ran in my direction, and as he proceeded to bulldoze right through me, knocking me out line, and really scarring me from ever comparing my height with anyone else ever again.
Now, Jesus is a lot gentler than Joseph Makari was, but really the lesson I learned from Joseph is the lesson that Jesus taught on that mount, namely, the reason why you can love your enemies, rather than try to knock them down or make them feel small (both literally and figuratively), even if they deserve it, is not only because of how God is indiscriminating with his generosity but also, Christ tells us, because no good comes from comparing yourself to someone who is just like you. What good is it to stand beside someone and compare your four-foot frames when a six-foot giant is running at you, doing everything to get your attention, trying to tell you to get out of your own way?
If you are basing your righteousness upon the standards and conduct of man, then all your reward will ever be is what comes from man. This is what Jesus says in verses 46 to 47. Tax collectors—the thieves and frauds of the Jews, men who seem to only love to expand their own pockets and steal from their own people—even they understand how to reciprocate love. It’s easy to love when you’re loved. It’s easy to give yourself to someone who gives themselves to you. And even the nations understand how to show respect and greet their brothers—if this is all you do, then in what sense is your righteousness greater than theirs?
Notice with me two things. First, Matthew is making a specific reference to the nations—to the gentiles—on purpose because that’s exactly where his book intends to lead us. It is the nations—the gentiles—who are to be grafted in and considered the people of God while the apostate, rebellious Jews and, especially, their leaders are left behind and shown for their hypocrisy. These people who the Jews once mocked for their hardness of heart and for their unwillingness to submit themselves to the true God of the universe, they will receive new hearts, says Jesus, because the ones who were supposed to display the heart of God became proud in themselves, passive in their pursuit of holiness, relativizers of their righteousness, self-justifiers of their sin—indistinguishable from those they once condemned.
And this ought to bring a flood of sobering humility upon our lives as we consider our own hearts. Everyone of us in this room, I hope, looks out onto the world in pity and maybe, even sometimes, with a righteous indignation for its slanderous behaviour against a holy God. Yet, Christ wants to stop you there—before you look out upon everyone else, before you pity them—make sure that you are, first, not one to be pitied.
Where do you place your pride? What is your boast? In whom or in what have you been set apart? Is it in your work? Is it in your family? Is it in your desire to please man and to receive their praise? Or is it in the One who has given you all of these good things, generous things in your life in order to point you back to himself, to remind you of your sonship, and to restore you to a right spirit from which you might not only pity the world but go out in sacrificial love for it?
Which brings me to the second thing I want you to notice with me—not only is Matthew pointing out the natural tendencies of gentiles here as a test and warning upon our hearts, but he chooses a peculiar profession to pick on prior to his discussion about the gentiles, doesn’t he? He chooses to pick on tax collectors, and my question to you is, why? Who was Matthew before this book? Who was he in his former life?
He was a tax-collector. And I believe Matthew chooses to pick on tax-collectors not only here but throughout his book for two reasons: first, because they’re seen as vermin and traitors within the Jewish community—sellouts who take their own peoples’ money, line their own pockets, and give the rest to their Roman oppressors. But secondly, because he is testifying for us what has happened in his own life. That in his own blindness and in his own self-justification, he thought he was fine—that he was doing what his Jewish neighbours were doing—feeding his family, tending to their needs, loving those who loved him. The Jews simply didn’t understand him.
But then came Jesus, and he understood Matthew, and he told Matthew, you’re in the exact same place as your fellow brothers and sisters. Your fate is the same as the Pharisees and Sadducees. And while this may have delighted Matthew’s ears at first, as he looked upon the solemn face of his Lord, he likely realized very quickly that it wasn’t a good thing. That he wasn’t distinguished for his service. That his love towards his family did not warrant his forgiveness or merit his entrance into the kingdom of God. No, just like the Pharisees, he stood outside of it.
And it would have been at that exact moment, as Matthew is seeing the entirety of his world come crumbling down—as his pride and his zeal to justify himself are shown to be nothing but stubble and wood adequate to be burned—at that moment, Christ peers into his heart, knows his sorrow, his moral bankruptcy, his desperate hopelessness, and he says to Matthew, “Come, dear son, and follow me.”
Brothers and sisters, for those of us who have confidence of our citizenship, is this not the testimony of all of us? That God did not merely create us, and he did not simply adopt us and bring us back to him when we were far off from him, but he has sanctified us. He has set us apart for his good and great work through the provision and sacrifice of his own Son—the Son whom we hated in our sin. And in so doing, he’s given us a heart for others—a lowliness and a willingness to serve others—to love them, to lay our lives down for them, even those who hate us, which leads me to my third point …
3) Because It Is God Who Enables You
What then does this heart look like? What does it mean to love our enemies? Well, it means, firstly, that he transforms our every understanding of the law—that all who come into our midst, or who we draw near to is now our neighbour, even if our neighbour is our enemy because of what Christ has accomplished upon that cross. By his death and resurrection, he lifts our assumption that we are supposed to hate those who are not our neighbours. He removes the restriction meant to curb our evil for the purpose of flourishing our holiness so that when we look at the world, there is now no distinction in our eyes for we know all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All peoples are now our neighbours, and we are called to radically go out to love them.
How? Jesus says, at the very least, greet them. This may seem silly, but when someone wants to rob you of your life, I hardly think displaying respect and kindness towards them is an easy thing. Or, secondly, Christ tells us to provide for them. As God causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on the good and evil—on the righteous and unrighteous—so too are we to practically seek to meet the needs even of those who hate us, as best we can—as those empowered not only by the gospel, and by the Spirit of God, but as those who look forward to the promise of God’s inheritance for those whom he calls sons and daughters.
And thirdly, our Saviour calls for us to pray for them. Nothing speaks of love more than your prayer for your enemies because, as one theologian says, “it means that you have to really want something good to happen to them, and not merely something good, but you want the absolute best for them.”
Yet, I hope you know, church, that when you hear me say this, I do not mean for you to merely lift up empty words to heaven, but to pray with every sincerity, being enabled always by your remembrance of what God has done for you. And it’s very likely that if you pray this way, you will become that very good and best thing that God intends to give them because it is often the case that when we are truly praying in step with the Spirit, our prayer isn’t only heard by God, but through it, God enables and empowers you to accomplish that for which you ask. In your pleading on their behalf, God may respond that you are meant to go to them under the threat of persecution, that you are meant to speak to them gently and winsomely, as Christ came to speak to us, and that you are the one whom he sends to them, knowing, first the sin of your heart, and thus not judging them for the sin in theirs, to open your mouth and say, “Come and follow Jesus.”
Because, at the end of the day, we were this person, and Christ didn’t merely greet us or feed us. No, he prayed for us to his Father, and so fervent was his prayer for our salvation, for our hearts’ regeneration, for our eyes to see the glories of heaven and our eternal happiness with him—so great was his desire that these wonderful, unspeakable things be given to us, that he died for it and secured it with his blood.
So, my prayer for you is this: that you be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect in your love for your enemies, knowing that such perfection has already been accomplished on your behalf in the life and death of his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, and that through him, we have been enabled to do the impossible. He is our fulfillment. He is our proof of lineage and our ever-present help in times of need. Love, then, your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be shown to be the true sons of your Father who is in heaven.