Christmas gifts are often wrapped with love and given to people close to you. Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 5:43–48 about whom to love.
Love your enemies. Love your neighbor—and your enemies! Jesus’ quote (“you have heard that it was said”) includes Scripture, Leviticus 19:18. Jesus is certainly not abrogating this Old Testament command, for he quotes it as one of the two great commandments, Matthew 22:39. But sinful people that we are, we take what God says and try to limit the scope of his command. In Luke 10, after Jesus tells the expert in the law to do what he had summarized—love God and love your neighbor—the man asks, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The next step in limiting the scope of what God says is to insert something that God does not say—love your neighbor, but hate your enemy. Even Leviticus 19:33 goes on to command that you treat the alien well. We resonate with that kind of reaction. It is easy to find excuses why I don’t have to love this person. But Jesus commands you to love your enemies.
Pray for your persecutors. In Matthew 5:10–12 Jesus called you blessed when you are persecuted. Now he commands you to pray for those who persecute you. That is hard to do—but look at what Jesus did as he was being nailed to the cross. Stephen’s prayer in Acts 7 echoes that of his Lord. Loving your enemies does not abrogate justice. On a national level, though much warfare grows out of hate and greed, there can be a just, defensive war. It is not wrong for Christians to participate in that. Nor does forgiveness that obeys this command to love your enemies preclude seeking justice. Listen again to Rachael Denhollander’s impact statement at the Nasser trial—and keep your ears open for her plea for justice. Pray for your enemies, and for those with whom you may have lesser disagreements.
Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. Reflect the generous attitude of your Father in heaven. The benevolent gifts that the Father in heaven bestows (rain and sunshine) reflect his benevolent heart. The natural man does good to those whom he expects will reciprocate. That is self-interest, not a reflection of God’s character. God’s goodness overflows. “Holy Scripture is a hymn of praise to the goodness of the Lord; from it Scripture derives the work of creation, as well as all life and blessings for humans and animals (Ps. 8; 19; 36:5–7; 65:44; Matt. 4:45; Acts 14:17; James 1:17). It is extended over all his works (Ps. 145:9) and endures forever (Ps. 136).” “God is King; the King of kings and the Lord of lords; a King who in Christ is a Father to his subjects, and a Father who is at the same time a King over his children. Among creatures, in the world of animals, humans, and angels, all that is found in the way of care for, love toward, and protection of one by the other is a faint adumbration of of God’s providential order over the work of his hands. His absolute power and perfect love, accordingly, are the true object of the faith in providence reflected in Holy Scripture.” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, pages 213 and 593)
Be sons of your Father in heaven. You cannot think of loving your enemies in the way that Jesus calls you to without reflecting on the character of your Father in heaven. As you reflect your Father’s character, you are living as sons of God. “To love our enemies is to live a life patterned after God. . . . [T] idea of imitating God is biblical. It is our destiny and our obligation to be conformed to the character of God.” (Daniel M. Doriani, Matthew, Vol. 1, p. 191) God extended his love to us while we were yet sinners. We were dead in sin when the Father called us, and when the Son laid down his life for us. Remember that it is the Son who is calling you to be sons of the Father. In love God predestined us to be sons of God. When that unfolds in your life and you trust in that Son, then you begin to understand what it means to be wrapped in love.
Be perfect. Jesus is not only telling you what it means to love as sons of God, he is summarizing all of the illustrations he has given of what it means to have a righteousness greater than that of the teachers of the law, the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven. The command is noting less than to be perfect. It reflects Leviticus 19:2. Your standard is nothing less than to truly be what you are—the image of God. Adam disobeyed, but the goal has never lessened. God does not grade on a curve. But he does something far better. He sends his own Son so that in him, because of his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and gift of the Spirit, you can become more and more what you will be in glory. “Like Jesus, his followers are to show benevolence to their enemies in order to reflect God’s benevolence which he shows to evil people. Thus, they are ‘to be complete’ or ‘perfect’ as is their Father (i.e., they are to aspire toward the end time goal of the law, which the Father perfectly reflects).” (G, K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, p. 426)
The most loving family, the deepest love of a husband and wife, the closest love of rich friendship—those are all pointers to the richness of the love shown by your Father in heaven. And he showed it to you, in his Son, while you were yet his enemy. This week, love your neighbor, but also, as sons of the Father, love your enemies and pray for them.