Matthew 5:43-48


  1. The Meaning of it

Matt. 5:43-48

You have heard that it has been said: You shall love your neighbour, and you shall hate your enemy; but I say to you: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may become the sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward can you expect? Do not even the tax-gatherers do that? If you greet only your brothers, where is there anything extra about that? Do not even the Gentiles do that? So, then, you must be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect.

  1. G. Montefiore, the Jewish scholar, calls this “the central and most famous section” of the Sermon on the Mount. It is certainly true that there is no other passage of the New Testament which contains such a concentrated expression of the Christian ethic of personal relations. To the ordinary person this passage describes essential Christianity in action, and even the person who never darkens the door of the church knows that Jesus said this, and very often condemns the professing Christian for falling so far short of its demands.

When we study this passage we must first try to find out what Jesus was really saying, and what he was demanding of his followers. If we are to try to live this out, we must obviously first of all be quite clear as to what it is asking. What does Jesus mean by loving our enemies?

Greek is a language which is rich in synonyms; its words often have shades of meaning which English does not possess. In Greek there are four different words for love.

(i) There is the noun storgi with its accompanying verb stergein. These words are the characteristic words of family love. They are the words which describe the love of a parent for a child and a child for a parent. “A child,” said Plato “loves (stergein) and is loved by those who brought him into the world.” “Sweet is a father to his children,” said Philemon, “if he has love (storge).” These words describe family affection.

(ii) There is the noun eros and the accompanying verb eran (compare GSN2037). These words describe the love of a man for a maid; there is always passion in them; and there is always sexual love. Sophocles described eros as “the terrible longing.” In these words there is nothing essentially bad; they simply describe the passion of human love; but as time went on they began to be tinged with the idea of lust rather than love, and they never occur in the New Testament at all.

(iii) There is philia (GSN5373) with its accompanying verb philein (GSN5368). These are the warmest and the best Greek words for love. They describe real love, real affection. Hot philountes (GSN5368), the present participle, is the word which describes a man’s closest and nearest and truest friends. It is the word which is used in the famous saying of Meander: “Whom the gods love, dies young.” Philein (GSN5368) can mean to fondle or to kiss. It is the word of warm, tender affection, the highest kind of love.

(iv) There is agape (GSN0026) with its accompanying verb agapan (GSN0025). These words indicate unconquerable benevolence, invincible goodwill. (Agape (GSN0026) is the word which is used here.) If we regard a person with agape (GSN0026), it means that no matter what that person does to us, no matter how he treats us, no matter if he insults us or injures us or grieves us, we will never allow any bitterness against him to invade our hearts, but will regard him with that unconquerable benevolence and goodwill which will seek nothing but his highest good. From this certain things emerge.

(i) Jesus never asked us to love our enemies in the same way as we love our nearest and our dearest. The very word is different; to love our enemies in the same way as we love our nearest and our dearest would neither be possible nor right. This is a different kind of love.

(ii) Wherein does the main difference lie? In the case of our nearest and our dearest we cannot help loving them; we speak of falling in love; it is something which comes to us quite unsought; it is something which is born of the emotions of the heart. But in the case of our enemies, love is not only something of the heart, it is also something of the will. It is not something which we cannot help; it is something which we have to will ourselves into doing. It is in fact a victory over that which comes instinctively to the natural man.

Agape (GSN0026) does not mean a feeling of the heart, which we cannot help, and which comes unbidden and unsought; it means a determination of the mind, whereby we achieve this unconquerable goodwill even to those who hurt and injure us. Agape (GSN0026), someone has said, is the power to love those whom we do not like and who may not like us. In point of fact we can only have agape (GSN0026) when Jesus Christ enables us to conquer our natural tendency to anger and to bitterness, and to achieve this invincible goodwill to all men.

(iii) It is then quite obvious that the last thing agape (GSN0026), Christian love, means is that we allow people to do absolutely as they like, and that we leave them quite unchecked. No one would say that a parent really loves his child if he lets the child do as he likes. If we regard a person with invincible goodwill, it will often mean that we must punish him, that we must restrain him, that we must discipline him, that we must protect him against himself. But it will also mean that we do not punish him to satisfy our desire for revenge, but in order to make him a better man. It will always mean that all Christian discipline and all Christian punishment must be aimed, not at vengeance, but at cure. Punishment will never be merely retributive; it win always be remedial.

(iv) It must be noted that Jesus laid this love down as a basis for personal relationships. People use this passage as a basis for pacifism and as a text on which to speak about international relationships. Of course, it includes that, but first and foremost it deals with our personal relationships with our family and our neighbours and the people we meet with every day in life. It is very much easier to go about declaring that there should be no such thing as war between nation and nation, than to live a life in which we personally never allow any such thing as bitterness to invade our relationships with those we meet with every day. First and foremost, this commandment of Jesus deals with personal relationship. It is a commandment of which we should say first and foremost: “This means me.”

(v) We must note that this commandment is possible only for a Christian. Only the grace of Jesus Christ can enable a man to have this unconquerable benevolence and this invincible goodwill in his personal relationships with other people. It is only when Christ lives in our hearts that bitterness will die and this love spring to life. It is often said that this world would be perfect if only people would live according to the principles of the Sermon on the Mount; but the plain fact is that no one can even begin to live according to these principles without the help of Jesus Christ. We need Christ to enable us to obey Christ’s command.

(vi) Lastly–and it may be most important of all–we must note that this commandment does not only involve allowing people to do as they like to us; it also involves that we should do something for them. We are bidden to pray for them. No man can pray for another man and still hate him. When he takes himself and the man whom he is tempted to hate to God, something happens. We cannot go on hating another man in the presence of God. The surest way of killing bitterness is to pray


  1. The Reason for it

Matt. 5:43-48 (continued)

We have seen what Jesus meant when he commanded us to have this Christian love; and now we must go on to see why he demanded that we should have it. Why, then, does Jesus demand that a man should have this love, this unconquerable benevolence, this invincible goodwill? The reason is very simple and tremendous–it is that such a love makes a man like God.

Jesus pointed to the action of God in the world, and that is the action of unconquerable benevolence. God makes his sun to rise on the good and the evil; he sends his rain on the just and the unjust. Rabbi Joshua ben Nehemiah used to say, “Have you ever noticed that the rain fell on the field of A, who was righteous, and not on the field of B, who was wicked? Or that the sun rose and shone on Israel, who was righteous, and not upon the Gentiles, who were wicked? God causes the sun to shine both on Israel and on the nations, for the Lord is good to all.” Even the Jewish Rabbi was moved and impressed with the sheer benevolence of God to saint and sinner alike.

There is a rabbinic tale which tells of the destruction of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. When the Egyptians were drowned, so the tale runs, the angels began a paean of praise, but God said sorrowfully: “The work of my hands are sunk in the sea, and you would sing before me!” The love of God is such that he can never take pleasure in the destruction of any of the creatures whom his hands have made. The Psalmist had it: “The eyes of all look to thee; and thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, thou satisfiest the desire of every living thing” (Ps.145:15). In God there is this universal benevolence even towards men who have broken his law and broken his heart.

Jesus says that we must have this love that we may become “the sons of our Father who is in heaven.” Hebrew is not rich in adjectives; and for that reason Hebrew often uses son of… with an abstract noun, where we would use an adjective. For instance a son of peace is a peaceful man; a son of consolation is a consoling man. So, then, a son of God is a godlike man. The reason why we must have this unconquerable benevolence and goodwill is that God has it; and, if we have it, we become nothing less than sons of God, godlike men.

Here we have the key to one of the most difficult sentences in the New Testament, the sentence with which this passage finishes. Jesus said: “You, therefore, must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” On the face of it that sounds like a commandment which cannot possibly have anything to do with us. There is none of us who would even faintly connect ourselves with perfection.

The Greek word for perfect is teleios (GSN5046). This word is often used in Greek in a very special way. It has nothing to do with what we might call abstract, philosophical, metaphysical perfection. A victim which is fit for a sacrifice to God, that is a victim which is without blemish, is teleios (GSN5046). A man who has reached his full-grown stature is teleios (GSN5046) in contradistinction to a half-grown lad. A student who has reached a mature knowledge of his subject is teleios (GSN5046) as opposed to a learner who is just beginning, and who as yet has no grasp of things.

To put it in another way, the Greek idea of perfection is functional. A thing is perfect if it fully realizes the purpose for which it was planned, and designed, and made. In point of fact, that meaning is involved in the derivation of the word. Teleios (GSN5046) is the adjective formed from the noun telos (GSN5056). Telos (GSN5056) means an end, a purpose, an aim, a goal. A thing is teleios (GSN5046), if it realizes the purpose for which it was planned; a man is perfect if he realizes the purpose for which he was created and sent into the world.

Let us take a very simple analogy. Suppose in my house there is a screw loose, and I want to tighten and adjust this screw. I go out to the ironmonger and I buy a screw-driver. I find that the screw-driver exactly fits the grip of my hand; it is neither too large nor too small, too rough nor too smooth. I lay the screw-driver on the slot of the screw, and I find that it exactly fits. I then turn the screw and the screw is fixed. In the Greek sense, and especially in the New Testament sense, that screw-driver is teleios (GSN5046), because it exactly fulfilled the purpose for which I desired and bought it.

So, then, a man will be teleios (GSN5046) if he fulfils the purpose for which he was created. For what purpose was man created? The Bible leaves us in no doubt as to that. In the old creation story we find God saying, “Let us make man in our image after our likeness” (Gen.1:26). Man was created to be like God The characteristic of God is this universal benevolence, this unconquerable goodwill, this constant seeking of the highest good of every man. The great characteristic of God is love to saint and to sinner alike. No matter what men do to him, God seeks nothing but their highest good.

The hymn has it of Jesus:

“Thy foes might hate, despise, revile, Thy friends unfaithful prove; Unwearied in forgiveness still, Thy heart could only love.”

It is when man reproduces in his life the unwearied, forgiving, sacrificial benevolence of God that he becomes like God, and is therefore perfect in the New Testament sense of the word. To put it at its simplest, the man who cares most for men is the most perfect man.

It is the whole teaching of the Bible that we realise our manhood only by becoming godlike. The one thing which makes us like God is the love which never ceases to care for men, no matter what men do to it. We realize our manhood, we enter upon Christian perfection, when we learn to forgive as God forgives, and to love as God loves.


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