In Christ’s sermon, which we call The Sermon on the Mount, He presents the Christian ethic, dealing with how believers are to behave. In Matthew 5:38-48, He presents a challenging call to active and practical love. In fact, our Lord calls His followers to self-sacrificing godly love. What Jesus shares in His sermon is radically counter-cultural. It is so radical that believers are drawn ever closer to the Holy Spirit, who alone can make Christ’s call possible in their lives.
Jesus begins in verse 38, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” In the Old Testament, excessive punishment was prohibited (Deut 19:16-21). The penalty is to fit the crime. The purpose was to restrain evil. In the Old Testament, revenge was forbidden (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19). The courts were to be let to do their job, understanding that God would ultimately repay the evil. The Pharisees and Scribes create a problem by extending the principle in verse 38 from that of just restitution occurring in the law courts (where it belongs) to the realm of personal relationships (where it does not belong). They misinterpreted and misapplied this law and principle to apply and support personal revenge even though the law forbids it.
Jesus’ reply does not contradict the law or principle as it was initially delivered but corrects the inappropriate application to justify personal retaliation and revenge. In Matthew 5:39-42, Jesus presents something quite radical and counter-cultural. The believer is not to resist an evil person (v. 39a). It’s important to be clear here. There is One in Scripture we are told not to resist and another we are explicitly told to resist. We are not to resist God, His will, His truth, or His authority. We are to resist the devil. John Stott notes, “What we are forbidden to resist is not evil as such, evil in the abstract, nor the ‘evil one’ meaning the devil, but an evil person.” Jesus does not deny the reality of evil. He does not call us to deny a person is evil or acting evilly. What Jesus does not allow is revenge or retaliation in our personal relationships, even to evil people.
Jesus shares four examples of radical love over revenge: What about personal insults? “Turn the other cheek” (v. 39b). How about lawsuits? “Let him have your cloak as well” (v. 40). What about forced actions? “Go the second mile” (v. 41). How about requests? “Give to the one who asks” (v. 42). It’s important to note that each of these examples had a cultural mooring in Christ’s day. Let me address two of them. To turn the other cheek is not a command to endure physical abuse. Still, in the Middle East today, it represents an insulting blow accompanied by a verbal insult. Physical safety is not in jeopardy, just one’s ego. To go the extra mile addresses a Roman soldier’s right to demand a subject to the empire, like a Jew, to carry their baggage up to a mile. Jesus says, “Don’t just carry it one, but carry it for two.”
The call of Christ here is not to be a doormat. He does not call us to allow ourselves to be verbally or physically abused. Instead, He calls us, empowered by His Spirit, to offer the utmost in love when we are tempted to take revenge. Jesus is not prohibiting the administration of justice but rather forbidding us to take the law into our own hands. Here is the point, Jesus declares that believers are to allow the principle of love, godly selfless love, to look for the ultimate wellbeing of all people, rather than taking revenge.
Jesus takes us further in Matthew 5:43, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” The Pharisees taught incorrectly that their neighbors were only fellow Israelites. Of course, Jesus defines a neighbor for us as everyone (Lk 10:30-37). The Pharisees used God’s hatred for evil to allow personal animosity. The Old Testament actually taught to love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:17-18) and do good to your enemy (Ex 23:4-5; Prov 25:21).
Jesus in Matthew 5:44-48 teaches us to “Love our enemies” (vv. 44-48). Believers are to pray for those who persecute them (v. 44). They are to live as children of their heavenly Father (v. 45). Christians are to express love broader and more thoroughly than others (vv. 46-47). Then, Christ challenges His followers to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect (v. 48).
To better understand Christ’s teaching, we need to remember that, like God, we are to love the sinner but hate the sin. We must realize that to love people who do evil is to desire that they repent and believe and so be saved. God never taught a double standard of morality, one for our neighbor and another for our enemy; after all, an enemy is our neighbor. Here is the point, Jesus declares that believers are to love everyone (enemies included) in tangible acts, words, and prayers.
We are to love people in loving acts like Jesus did. We are to love people with words as Jesus did. We are to love others through prayer as Jesus did. Hanging on the cross, Christ prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). John Stott observes, “It is impossible to pray for people without loving them and impossible to go on praying for them without discovering that our love for them grows and matures.” I have found this to be true in my life.
This statement by Stott is incredible, “Divine love is indiscriminate love, shown equally to good and bad people.” This is what Christ is calling believers to when He said, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Christ calls believers to have and express self-sacrificing godly love to all people. After all, this is the kind of love God shows to us.
Here is the problem. All human love, even the best human love, is contaminated on some level by self-interest. Here is the solution. To love as God loves, Christians need the supernatural working on the Holy Spirit in and through their lives. Our love is not to resemble the world. We are called to live with a more profound love. We are called to be perfect in love, that is, to love our enemies with the merciful, all-encompassing love of God. The new (redeemed) life is based on divine love, refusing to take revenge but overcoming evil with good. Our Christian calling is not to imitate the world but to imitate God the Father. By imitating Him, through the power of His Spirit, the righteousness of the believer is seen through active and practical love, self-sacrificing godly love. Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)!