If we are to call ourselves Christ-ians, we must love our enemies like Christ does. For the early church, loving enemies was not just a minor feature of their faith – it was one of the most distinguishing features of the early church.
Jesus’s command to love enemies must never be reduced to simply “be nice to your grumpy neighbors.” It must be a love that is as radical as Jesus’s love on the cross, and it must be at the very heart of who we are as Christians. If we are serious about our commitment to restoring New Testament Christianity in our own day, we must wrestle with the teachings and examples of Jesus and His apostles, even when it challenges us to step outside our comfort zones.
This is not to suggest that we can’t raise tough questions about the implications Jesus’s teachings. We are allowed to ask questions like “did Jesus really mean what I think he means?” and “did Jesus really intend for his teachings to be applied in this particular way in this particular situation?” And Christians may not always draw the same conclusions from their studies. We are allowed to wrestle with Jesus’ teachings.
But we must never simply ignore or dismiss Jesus’ teachings simply because we think of them as impractical or nonsensical. If we have given Jesus our faithful allegiance, we cannot and must not decide to disagree with his teachings.
But I Say To You…
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor 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 causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5.38-48
Jesus quotes from Exodus 21:24, “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” Jesus read this law not as God’s endorsement for just violence, but as a text designed to limit violence. Jesus teaches the fulfillment of this law by saying “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person.”
“Do not resist an evil person”? On the surface, such a command sounds very strange. Wasn’t the entire life and mission of Jesus one of resisting evil? Aren’t Christians supposed to resist evil and worldly ways?
What did Jesus mean when he said “do not resist an evil person”? The best explanation is the one Jesus gives with four examples.
- “Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also”
- “If anyone wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat also”
- “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two”
- “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you”
This is a form of resisting evil. Instead of responding with the “slap for slap, punch for punch, bullet for bullet” same kind of evil, Jesus commanded his disciples to resist the urge to respond in kind, thus putting an end to the cycle of violence. Jesus didn’t simply forbid unjust retaliation. The law did that. Jesus took it a step further by commanding his disciples not even to resist in kind.
How do Jesus’s disciples resist evil? By letting evil people win. That almost feels strange to put it that way. It’s backwards. It’s counterintuitive. But go back and read the four examples. In all four examples, Jesus instructs us to let the bad guy gain the upper hand.
What’s more, this is what Jesus showed us to do when he practiced what he preached. Jesus allowed his enemies to “win” by nailing him to the cross.
It should be noted that following this command is not weakness. Jesus was not “weak” when he hung on the cross. He could have easily commanded an army to ten thousand angels to judge the world and set him free. He was commanding us to let the bad guys win, even when we have the strength and power to defeat them.
Radical Enemy Love
Jesus commands us to love our enemies. He didn’t just command us to love some of our enemies. He didn’t just command us to love our enemies when it makes sense to so. He commanded us to love our enemies the way God, “who sends rain on the just and unjust”, loves them. We are to love the way God does by refusing to make a distinction between which enemies we are to love. He commanded us to love our enemies even in those times when it wouldn’t make sense to your average Gentile or tax collector.
Consider also this parallel passage from Luke:
But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. Treat others the same way you want them to treat you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount. But love you enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is Merciful.” – Luke 6:27-36
Could Jesus have been any clearer? The type of love Christians are to have is supposed to be more than the “common sense” love shown by the world around us. Also note that Jesus commands us to do good to our enemies, lest we think that we can somehow “love” our enemies while doing harm to them.
Not Just a Minor Feature of Christianity
Lest we think that this is just a somewhat strange, one-off command of Jesus, when we read our New Testament, it doesn’t take long to see this teaching repeated time and time again.
When Jesus was arrested in the garden, he commanded Peter to “Put your sword back into its place” (Mt. 26:52). Here Peter was drawing his sword against an enemy in defense of an innocent person, yet Jesus rebuked Peter.
Jesus cites the fact that his disciples were not fighting in his self-defense as proof that his kingdom was not of this world.
My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this world. – John 18.36
When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23.34). Without a doubt, Jesus loved his enemies.
“Yeah, but Jesus had to do that…”
“Sure, but Jesus’s death was different. He was the Messiah. That was the sacrifice for sins. Jesus had to let himself be killed. It had to happen as part of God’s plan.”
Without a doubt, Jesus was unique and His death was unique.
But even so, when Peter looked to the cross, he viewed Jesus’s response to evil as an example given for all of us to follow.
For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in his mouth, and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously. – 1 Peter 2.21-23
In Romans 12, Paul instructs the disciples to “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” says the Lord” (v. 19) Rather than judging them, Christians are to love and serve their enemies, attending to their needs (vs. 20-21).
In Hebrews 10:34 we read about how the early disciples joyfully accepted the plundering of their possessions, knowing that they possessed a better and more lasting possession.
In Acts we read about the disciple Stephen, who with his dying breath, prayed for his enemies as they were stoning him (Acts 7.60).
And then there’s the book of Revelation. Not only does Revelation ascribe our victory to the “slain lamb” (Rev. 5.6-14), but apparently Jesus was not the only one to gain victory through death.
Revelation 12 is filled with encouraging words, describing the victory of the saints:
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation , and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night. – Revelation 12:10
Salvation! Power! Kingdom! Authority! The enemy is destroyed! This is all great news!
But then in the very next verse, we are told how Jesus’ disciples gained this great victory.
And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death. – Revelation 12:11
Yes, we must overcome evil. But the way we overcome evil is by resisting the strong urge to gain the upper hand when our enemies mistreat us. Or as Paul puts it,
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12:21
Are We Really Expected To Believe Such Nonsense?
The idea of “letting others win” will always be mocked at by some. It will always be dismissed by others in exchange for resisting evil with a little more “common sense.”
But the earliest Christians believed Jesus actually meant what he said. They believed that they were supposed to love their enemies, even to the point of death. They actually believed that their death was a more powerful proof of the gospel than their life. The 2nd century Christian, Tertullian, is famously quoted as saying:
The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. As often as we are mown down by you, the more we grow in numbers; the blood of Christians is the seed.
For the first couple of centuries immediately following the close of the New Testament, “Love your enemies” (Mt. 5.44) was quoted by 10 different authors in 26 places, making it the most cited verse from the New Testament. “Love your enemies” was to the early church what verses like “Acts 2:38” or “John 3:16” are for the church today. It was the very heartbeat of early Christianity. It is the teaching for which they were most known. It is what separated them from everyone else.
Those Hard Questions
“But what if someone attacks my family in the middle of the night?”
“But what if a Christian is a policeman or in the military?”
“But what about Hitler? Surely Christians shouldn’t have just let him win?”
Questions like these aren’t easy. They need to be wrestled with (with lots of love for one another in the process). If after wrestling with all the teachings of Jesus, you are convinced that you would be justified in killing an enemy as a very last resort, fine. Buy a gun if you want. Join the military if your conscience compels you. Maybe you’re right. Maybe there is an argument that can be made to justify violence in some extreme situations.
But that’s not the point.
The point is, when it’s all said and done, and those questions have been asked, and those discussions have been had, “loving your enemies” must still be at the very heart of who we are as Christians. When other people hear “Oh, you’re a Christian”, do they think “You’re one of those crazy people who loves their enemies no matter what”? If we’re not known for loving enemies in a way that seems strange to the world around us, we’re not following the teachings and example of Jesus.
Beloved, Jesus expects us to love our enemies. We must love our enemies.