What Is Love?
Love is love – you define it for yourself, find the love that is meaningful for you, and defy anyone to tell you that your love is not love. When love is obsessed with fulfilling its own desires, it is the opposite of love. Love is what I want, on my terms, without judgment or boundaries. We must, therefore, recover some objectivity in using the word, for love is at the center of our faith – God’s love in Christ, our Savior’s dying love, and our love for one another. A clear understanding of love is especially important in a passage like this one, when our Lord tells us that we are to love our enemies. Does he expect us to feel warmly about them? To embrace them as friends? To accept their versions of truth and justice? Our Lord Jesus does not mean that we must like or befriend our enemies. Nowhere are we encouraged to make friends with the world; in fact, quite the opposite: “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful deeds of darkness” (Eph. 5:11). “Friendship with the world is hostility with God” (James 4:4). We are nowhere commanded to have affection for our enemies – would you have warm feelings for one who robs you in the night, beats you up, and kidnaps your children? No, but you can love such a villain.
For the Christian, love is not fancy or a feeling. It is an intentional and intelligent decision to do good to one who hates you, does evil to you, and would if possible destroy you. It is defined by Christ’s love for us – not the love of sentiment – was the cross sentimental? It is not the love of looking the other way when it comes to sin but the love of looking at us in our filth and knowing that God’s wrath and judgment was about to fall upon us. Therefore, he took decisive action to lay down his life for us – forgetting his own feelings and even his life, not considering our worthiness, for we had none, and taking our curse and scorn upon himself. True love lays down its life. The object of the love may be utterly unworthy, and the subject may struggle with his own feelings, but love is a God-like decision, empowered by the Spirit, to do good and serve, even to renounce our feelings in the hope that God may be glorified by our looking like him and blessing the world with his truth while it curses us.
One last point here is vital. The believer in Jesus, at least the growing one, can never feel toward an unbeliever what he feels toward fellow believers. There is a love not only of doing good but of real sentiment and warm affection that exists between those who share “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.” There is a dangerous leveling going on in the church, that you should feel the same about everyone and treat everyone the same. This is nonsense, and no one does it, especially not those who preach it the loudest. We are to do good to all, and especially to the household of faith (Gal. 6:10). We are to love our enemies and do them good, but we are to have “bowels of mercies” for fellow-believers, the deepest compassion and tenderness that we simply do not and in most instances must not have toward unbelievers (Col. 3:12). But we can and must love them – do them good and treat them well when they treat us evil. This is sufficiently challenging without confusing the situation with false views and definitions of love imported from the world of darkness and imposed upon the holy Word of God.
Love’s Radical Twist (vv. 27, 32-34)
Love Your Enemies (v. 27)
We should note first that this commandment is empty unless there is such a thing as division and disunity among men. To hear some talk today, the whole world should simply agree that all religions and truth claims are the same, that everyone is the same, and that all division are societally based and therefore artificial, usually stirred up by mean people who will not recognize the good in everyone. This is obviously and dangerously false, but many are deceived that this kind of thinking and relating is the only way to love. It would be for sinners, for there is no one to adjudicate man’s differences, but in Christ, there is a new way. There are still enemies, and I do not think he is speaking here of enemies we make because we are mean or stupid. It is enemies that we have as Christians that our Lord has primarily in mind. Always “for my sake” looms largely in this sermon – it is unjustified hatred that we must meet with kindness and enemies, because of our Savior, that we must love.
And this is the second surprising twist. The law said we are to love our neighbors. The Pharisees perverted this to mean that we need only love our neighbors, but with respect to our enemies, “Do unto them before they do unto you.” And since only fellow Jews were neighbors, then the Gentiles were treated as dogs, even though the law made abundant provision for Gentiles to be incorporated into God’s holy nation and promised that all nations would be blessed in Abraham’s seed. Our Lord therefore is correcting the narrow-minded bigotry prevalent in his day that limited love and good to its own kind. He tells us to love those who hate us for his sake. And by love he does not mean that we pretend there are not real differences between men – it may be the difference between heaven and hell! Even so, we must do good to those who plan evil for us, take thought as we are able for their eternal good while they are planning our temporary misery, and pray for them. Remember that Christian love is defined by Jesus’ love: self-denying, delivering from sin, and raising us up to heaven. This kind of love is hard, for it requires wisdom we must seek from the Lord, persistence in the face of resistance, backlash, and suspicion, and willingness for our efforts to be rejected.
Six Examples of Love (vv. 28-30)
Jesus Christ does not leave us in the dark about this love and its practice. Many of these examples find an exact fulfillment in his life, which is our supreme example (1 John 2:6). When he was cursed, he blessed – your father is the devil, the Jewish leaders vilified him, but he gave them the words of life and ample opportunity to come to the light. He was despitefully used, as many Christians have been, but even from the cross, he prayed to his Father for their forgiveness. In the directive to pray for our enemies, the Lord gives us a very clear definition of love – doing good, laboring for the salvation, even laying down one’s life, hurts, and feelings, to seek the salvation of an enemy, one who hates you for Jesus’ sake. It may be for a short season, Christian parent, that this is the main way you love a wayward child who has become an enemy because you will not back down from your allegiance to Jesus in order to save the relationship through short-term compromise – but you can pray for your son or daughter, love them before God by seeking their salvation from him.
Violence and injustice do not exempt us from practicing this kind of love (v. 28). “Cheek” is more literally “jawbone,” so it is not only the insulting slap on the face but the more violent slug in the jaw that our Lord has in mind – give the other jaw to your enemy. Remember that this is an enemy for Christ’s sake and by no mean prevents us from defending ourselves from lawless men or fighting in a just war. The same would be true of a thief who breaks into your house in the night (v. 29), which is not because you are a Christian, and you may certainly ward him off and protect your life and home, of which the Lord has made you a custodian. It is the spirit of retaliation and vengeance and insisting upon one’s rights in every situation that is opposed to Christian love. We are not following our Lord if we are constantly angry at men for their mistreatments or demand satisfaction for every wrong we endure, especially for those we suffer specifically as Christians. We have a different Spirit – if someone asks something from us, we give (v. 30) – not the drunk who asks for money to buy more drink – but again the context is ill-treatment. Imagine how Jesus Christ gave forgiveness and cleansing to us when we asked for it, or the way he saved us when we were his enemies by wicked works – he is our model! Did he not heal Malchus’ ear in the melee of Gethsemane? And if our goods are taken away (v. 31), we should not keep asking for their return. We have a better and enduring inheritance in heaven. Should our Savior ask it of us, we must let go of this life so that we can lay hold upon the life to come.
Do Good to Those Who Hate You (vv. 32-34)
This is his disciple’s call to each one of us – love not the world, nor the things in the world; he who finds his life will lose it; what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his own soul? But somewhere along the way, we, the church, you and me in our desire to defend ourselves and uphold civic righteousness and find a little heaven on earth became a little imbalanced. We forgot that being a Christian is not a matter of having our share in the prosperity pie or loving those who love us. There is no reward in this (v. 32). We are to love those who do not love us and do good to those who would never do good to us (v. 33). Leaving a political meeting, for example, at which the name of Christ was vilified, we hold the door for our adversary, speak a kind word of blessing to him, and help him fix a flat tire in the parking lot. Love does not love to get something in return – like lending to those who we think can pay us back or do us a favor (v. 34). All sinners think with this kind of self-interestedness. We are to think and relate to men with Christ-interestedness and their eternal interest in him. This is part of the apostle’s great dictum in dealing with men: “From now on we know no man after the flesh” (2 Cor. 5:15) – because we see them as they are in Christ, as they need Christ, and what we may do to help them along to seek and find Christ.
The Golden Rule (v. 31)
And to this end, our Lord’s Golden Rule is truly valuable. Many before and after Christ have stated this principle negatively – do not do to others what you would not have them do to you – and this is true as far as it goes. But this is very self-centered and shows that our moral standard revolves more around avoiding difficulties for ourselves than doing positive good to others from a heart of love and stance of self-denial. It is one thing to say, for example, “I would never shoot someone, for I do not want to be shot.” It is something very different to say, “I am going to let this impatient driver in front of me, even though he is cursing at me, for I would to do him a good turn for his bad one.” This begins to capture something of the positive challenge of this rule.
It is more than, “I am going to treat you like I want to be treated,” for this is to make ethics intensely selfish, a world in which I get what I want and let you have what you want so that I can get what I want. Jesus’ rule is a positive emptying of oneself for the good of another. I am going to do for you as I know God would have me do, even though you are doing evil to me. This is to turn love Godward, in recognition of his right over us, and in so doing, to free us to serve those who are treating us meanly. Imagine the wife cooking her angry husband’s favorite dinner, or the husband cleaning toilets to help his weary wife. At the smallest level, Jesus’ love rule is revolutionary. It is not about acting in a certain way to get what you want in return; it is doing good to those who do not deserve it, loving those who hate, actively looking to do a good turn to those who are doing you an evil one.
Love Like Your Father’s (v. 35)
Love Your Enemies…God Does
I have often heard it said that we are to “love our enemies but hate God’s.” It is true that David speaks of “hating those who hate thee” (Ps. 139:21), and there is a place for the believer’s hatred of sin and of evil men who blaspheme the holy name by which we are called. But I have often found this a convenient excuse to ignore and practically deny the profound truth that God himself loves his enemies. Now, he loves his children more and differently. It is a great lie of our age that God, if he exists at all, is the greatest egalitarian of all and loves everyone the same. Let us hope not, for he loves some men and women so much that he allows them to go to hell because he would not love them into heaven! But God nonetheless loves his enemies in that he is kind to them, gives them many evidences of his goodness and generosity, by which they should be drawn to love and serve him, were their hearts not dead in sin and hateful to him. Thus, whenever we struggle with loving our enemies, let us remember that God loves them, and thus shows the way to love ours – by kindly words and attitudes, cheerful bearing of all their malice toward us – like he bears daily with a billion blasphemies against his majesty – and active displays of good will.
A Great Reward for Love Like God’s
It is difficult for us to work this out, for when evil is brazen and God’s enemies making a tumult, we cannot be silent or passive while our beloved Master is being attacked. Enduring evil and hearing his name blasphemed while doing good to those who hate us for his sake requires patience and longsuffering, like our Savior’s. To encourage us to seek wisdom and strength from the Lord to live as his children in the world, we are again promised a great reward. We may lose our name and our goods for Jesus’ sake, even our lives, but we are to set our affections heavenward – that our Savior will repay all the wrongs endured for his sake. A reward does not nullify God’s grace to us but magnifies his kindness, for he rewards the fruits of his renovating power in us by the Spirit, not for virtues that we generate in our own strength. The critical point is that whenever our earthly duties and responsibilities become heavy and challenging, we are called to look up, to the great weight of glory coming. The glories of heaven in the soul of the saints have empowered them to endure unbelievable injuries and pain, all the while blessing God and loving their enemies. Love like this requires that we know more of God’s mercy to us in Jesus, that we feel it deeply, and that we gain from our Savior a sense of the privilege of suffering for him and some measure of compassion toward our enemies, even as God treats his in a kindly way.
Love Bears the Family Resemblance
This is not religious tripe, as many hardhearted souls in the church often treat it. Why, this is sentimental nonsense – most all the leaders in the old Jewish church certainly thought it was, as did most of the Jews. To live this way opens us to insult and harm – better to “speak softly and carry a big gun.” Most would prefer to be strident warriors for Christ in the earthly sense of “warrior” rather than true and spiritual warriors, armed with heavenly weapons, the oil of gladness, the power and graces of the Spirit supplying the strength and wisdom. But this kind of love is not for women and the weak – it is the family trait of God’s children. When we do good and lend and treat men well who treat us badly, without thinking of getting something back for our troubles, then we are children of our heavenly Father. In other words, loving one’s enemies is the family trait of Christians. We differ widely in personal proclivities and gifts, earthly station and wealth, intelligence – but there is one thing that unites us. We know what it means to be an enemy of God but to have him treat us kindly and save us. We know mercy. And mercy transforms. Mercy in the soul is the spark of the divine seed in us, the life of Christ in us by the Holy Spirit, the fountain from which the grace of love flows and overflows and transforms our earthly relations, even with our enemies.
Now, if we are to love our enemies like this, lending, serving, blessing, praying, and doing all we can for their temporal and eternal good – like our Lord Jesus went about doing good – healing, comforting, weeping, burden-bearing, smiling, giving hope, feeding and clothing – imagine how we are to feel toward one another! Perhaps the reason we do not love our enemies very well, not like our Savior and Father in heaven, is that we do not love one another with the fervency and “bowels of mercies” that he loved us. In many instances, believers can barely tolerate one another. “Life” happens, and we can outgrow certain relationships in the Lord’s providence. It may simply be that time and circumstances change, but we must think the best of one another, repent of a critical and unmerciful spirit, ask our children to forgive us for finding fault with everyone and everything. Our Father does not treat us like this, but we seem to find perverse pleasure in pulling ourselves up on the ladder of the torn down lives and reputations and intentions of other believers.
May the Lord forgive us for treating so badly those whom he loved upon the cross and whose names are engraved upon his hands! And when this kind of animosity or indifference or neglect exists in Christian families, among Christian spouses, parents, and children, who are bound twice to love fervently, we must prostrate ourselves before the face of God and examine ourselves carefully and honestly. Why do we not have the family trait of love? Or why is it so obliterated or mixed with earthly images that God’s love can barely be seen. It is hardly to be wondered that we struggle to love our enemies when we struggle so mightily to love one another. But our Savior’s love must prevail if we will seek him. He can turn the most arrogant and hardened and unfeeling into compassionate and merciful children of his kingdom. Let us fall down now before his loving majesty and ask him to work powerfully in us.