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Matthew 5:43-48 “Superior Righteousness, Part 6: Love”

You heard that it was said: “You shall love your neighbor” and “You shall hate your enemy.” So I, even I say to you: love your enemies and pray for those persecuting you. So that you might become sons of your Father who is in heaven because He shines His sun upon evil and good and rains upon righteous and unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not also the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, how are you surpassing? Do not also the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, you, yes you, shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This final correction not only links us back to the first correction against a superficial and legalistic understanding of murder (vv. 21-26) but also summarizes the whole first section of the sermon (vv. 21-48) by demonstrating (a) the superior nature of true righteousness in comparison to that of the scribes and Pharisees and (b) that Jesus certainly has come to fulfill rather than to abolish the Law and the Prophets (v. 17). As these verses unfold, Jesus first corrects the nature and object of God’s love (vv. 43-44) before revealing that it is He who has been given as the embodiment of that love (vv. 45-47). These verses do more than simply bring the present discussion of superior righteousness to a close. They summarize and advance Jesus’ point that HE is the One who fulfills all that the Old Testament anticipates. As such, His disciples must follow Him and follow Him exclusively.

Correction: The Object of God’s Love (vv. 43-44)

The patter of “you heard that it was said…yet I say to you…” has been ingrained in us by now to the point that we actually expect it. Nevertheless, we would do well to remain vigilant by reminding ourselves of several points already discussed. First, the chronological placement of this sermon and the packaging it is delivered in picks up precisely where the Old Testament left off with the indictments against Israel from Yhwh’s prophet Malachi. As such, we should expect to find allusions to the prophets as Jesus shares and develops points first made with them. After all, He claims to come to fulfill them (v. 17). Second, each of these “you have heard it said” statements (vv. 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43) reflect contemporary teaching, not divine revelation. Jesus counters the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (v. 20), not the righteousness of God revealed through His word. And finally, every time Jesus counters with “I, even I say to you” (ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν) He is providing His audience with God-breathed Scripture in the most physical and literal sense imaginable. Each of these things must be kept in mind as we continue to explore the Pharisaical error (v. 43) and Jesus’ exhortation (v. 44).

Destructive Error (v. 43)

You heard that it was said: “You shall love your neighbor” and “You shall hate your enemy.”

As with all the other statements, there is at least a nugget of truth to this statement. In fact, the first clause “you shall love your neighbor” is an exact quotation to Lev. 19:18 (וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ /ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν). What makes this statement interesting though is that (a) the statement that prescribes how to love one’s neighbor (as yourself) is not included and (b) a statement that is utterly foreign to the Old Testament is added. Following the pattern of vv. 33&38, Jesus links two different, yet related statements together with καὶ. The fact that the statement “you shall hate your enemy” (μισήσεις τὸν ἐχθρόν σου) cannot be found in Scripture is somewhat puzzling. Placing these observations together leads to two conclusions. First, what was given as a command to guide the manner in which God’s people love (to love others in the same manner that we love ourselves) has been twisted by the religious establishment to define (in their words) who to love. When Jesus counters this point in v. 44 He does nothing to alter the original intention of Lev. 19:18 because a completely different point is being made. Jesus corrects the false notion of who to love and leaves Lev. 19:18 intact to reveal how men are to love.

Second, the fact that two opposing actions are presented (love vs. hate) implies that the two objects (neighbors vs. enemies) are to be understood as opposites as well. This differs somewhat from the original intention. The context of Lev. 19 seems to define “neighbor” in the context of the community, those who live in close proximity and who regularly come into contact with you. A fellow Israelite is a neighbor (Lev. 19:16-17) but also any foreign national who sojourns among them (Lev. 19:33-34). By contrasting neighbor with enemy however, the scribes and Pharisees seem to redefine “neighbor” as “friend”.[1] That is, those whom we know, like, and get along and identify with. To love one’s neighbor, or friend, is to show preference to them while hating them does not necessarily mean to take their scalp, but to ignore and neglect them because they are not a part of neighborhood.[2] This not only reshapes the way we think of “neighbor” but also how we define “enemy.” The statement does not seem to refer to political, national, or even spiritual enemies but rather personal enemies. If nothing else, the scribes and Pharisees are presented as territorial and catty.

This is the cultish and club-like mentality of the scribes and Pharisees that misrepresents Scripture by first providing their own definitions and then adds to God’s word their own applications. This sort of understanding of “enemy” would certainly include anyone who was not an Israelite (thus all Gentiles are enemies) but would include all “bad” Israelites who don’t measure up to the standard of the scribes and Pharisees or play by their rules.[3] Those who toe the line and are a part of the special group receive attention and preference. Those who fall outside those lines for any numerous reasons receive nothing but scorn and contempt. Clearly this is not what the Bible teaches.

Divine Exhortation (v. 44)

So I, even I say to you: love your enemies and pray for those persecuting you.

Jesus’ correction accomplishes several things at once. First, He blatantly reverses the popular concept in the form of a command. What the disciples have heard (hate your enemies) Jesus inverts with a command (love them!).

Second, Jesus takes the concept that was presented in the singular (your enemy/τὸν ἐχθρὸν σου) and transforms the command in the plural (y’alls enemies/τοὺς ἐχθροὺς ὑμῶν). This is not an occasional issue but a generalizing command that will become a rule of life for the follower of Jesus.

Third, Jesus’ grammar does not communicate a reaction to evil so much as a way of living life in the constant presence of evil. The present imperatives (love/ἀγαπᾶτε and pray/προσεύχεσθε) indicate continuous action: keep/be loving, keep/be praying. To this we must add the fact that “those who persecute” reflects a present participle (τῶν διωκόντων) that refers to those who are persecuting you. In other words, the prayers that are to be regularly and continually offered on behalf of these men are delivered even while they are persecuting the disciples. It is difficult not to immediately think of our Lord’s example of praying on behalf of those who were crucifying Him (Lk. 23:34). On this very thought, one commentator writes: "If cruel torture of crucifixion could not silence our Lord’s prayer for His enemies, what pain, pride, prejudice, or sloth could justify the silencing of ours?".[4]

Fourth, the fact that Jesus’ counter argument mirrors the errant statement should make us think a little differently about these “persecutors”. The errant statement is presented with two future indicatives connected by “and” (ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου καὶ μισήσεις τὸν ἐχθρόν σου). Jesus mirrors that same construction with present imperatives in place of the future indicatives (ἀγαπᾶτε τοὺς ἐχθροὺς ὑμῶν καὶ προσεύχεσθε ὑπὲρ τῶν διωκόντων ὑμᾶς). By keeping the command to love first (as in the errant statement) and bringing enemies to the front, one wonders what Jesus commands regarding one’s neighbors. The answer comes easier when we remember that persecution and persecutors were a major theme in vv. 10-12. One’s persecutors are one’s neighbors, those who live among them and around them and come into daily contact with them. On a personal level, there are disciples and then there are those who oppose those disciples. One’s neighbors are one’s enemies, and Jesus commands His disciples to love them and pray for them. How and what that looks like is made clear in the following verses.

Cohesion: God’s Love Defined (vv. 45-47)

By correcting the false notion of who to love, Jesus here continues to explain why and how His disciples are to love everyone they come into contact with whether they be friend or foe.

Command’s Rationale (v. 45)

So that you might become sons of your Father who is in heaven because He shines His sun upon evil and good and rains upon righteous and unrighteous.

So that” (ὅπως) introduces a purpose statement. The purpose for which Jesus’ disciples are to love their enemies and pray for their persecuting neighbors is to expose, reveal, and confirm that they are truly begotten of God. This is not a means to an end in that loving one’s enemies thereby secures one’s position as a son of the Father.[5] This purpose statement makes it clear that to be a disciple is to emulate the Father as one who belongs to Him. The action of loving one’s enemies does not produce a son of God but proves that such a transformation has taken place.[6] Because God loves, so must His children. But that love is carefully defined and identified.

The following ὅτι clause (because) provides the reason or rationale of the purpose statement. The verse then works something like this: Loving one’s enemies has the purpose of proving that one is a son of God because God is one who loves even His enemies via His sun and rain. The two examples of the sun and the rain are given as examples of God’s love to the entire world and not only those who are His friends. In other words, how we are to love our enemies is provided in the example of how God loves His enemies.

It is generally assumed that this ὅτι clause refers to nothing more than God’s common grace upon humanity whereby He indiscriminately and impersonally allows the sun to warm the globe and the rains to wet the ground regardless of who may or may not be directly receiving these effects. This is somehow supposed to inform us how we love our enemies (indiscriminately and impersonally?) and smacks more of deism than it does of biblical Christianity.

When Jesus mentions God’s sun rising (τὸν ἥλιον αὐτοῦ ἀνατέλλει) and God’s wetting of the earth (βρέχει), He is not merely using the language of a sovereign creator/sustainer but is in fact referring to specific biblical covenants and promises made in the Old Testament. The perpetual rising of the sun and sending of the rains certainly connects us back to the stability promised in the Noahic Covenant (Gen. 8:20-9:17), stability that provides a context for the redemption of humanity anticipated through the coming seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15). This seed who will crush the serpent and undo and reverse the curse is later identified with Abraham and promised to him in the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1-21; 17:1-14). As seeds of Abraham, the nation of Israel was given the Mosaic Covenant as a means of expressing their trust in this promise of a restored world through the Seed/Messiah who would come to them as one of them. Their faithfulness would be rewarded by a foretaste of the blessings to come in the fruitful rains (Lev. 26:4; Deut. 11:14-15). These rains would be sent as a teacher to indicate when the people were faithful while their absence would indicate the people’s need to repent (1 Kings 8:35-36), a role of blessing that is anticipated to come not from the realm of nature but from the reign of the future king (Ps. 72:6). Plainly stated, God’s love is not primarily demonstrated through the providence and stability of His creation (the sun and the rain) so much as it is demonstrated in what these things point to: the coming of His Son, Messiah.

The noun “sun” (ἥλιος) used in conjunction with the verb “to rise” (ἀνατέλλω) only appear in twelve different Old Testament texts. Of those twelve passages, only in Mal. 4:2 does this “sun rise” in connection with any one of the four terms (in noun or adjective form) used here (evil, good, just, unjust): But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall (NASB). A similar trail is left with the verb βρἐχω (to wet/rain). This verb appears 16x in 12 Old Testament texts but only in Joel 2:23 is it found in conjunction with one of the four terms listed above: “So rejoice O sons of Zion and be glad in Yhwh your God. Because He has given you the Teacher for righteousness, also He pours down the rain to you, the early and the latter rains as before.” Jesus carefully and artfully alludes to these two key Old Testament passages in His reference to the sun and the rains that speak of the coming Messiah who will provide global blessing and restoration. The point then is this: God’s love is demonstrated in that He gave His Son (Jn. 3:16).

Contrasts with Pharisaical Love (vv. 46-47)

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not also the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, how are you surpassing? Do not also the Gentiles do the same?

The two illustrations of God’s love that culminate in Messiah are here contrasted with the love of the scribes and Pharisees. These rhetorical questions reveal not only the vast superiority of God’s love, but also inform the disciple what loving one’s enemies truly looks like.

The comparison to both tax-collectors and Gentiles is in reference to the hatred of enemies from v. 43. Both Gentiles and tax-collectors fall far outside the limits to what the scribes and Pharisees would consider their neighbors or friends and thus are worthy of scorn and contempt. They deserve neither preferential treatment nor even the attention of a public greeting because by either their birth or by their choice they reside far outside the circle of the neighborhood. Is this the way God loves? To whom did God send His Son? To friends or to enemies?

For God demonstrates His own love toward us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

For Christ also suffered once for all concerning sins, the just in exchange for the unjust (1 Pet. 3:18a).

He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21).

Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved (Eph. 2:3-5).

If God loved only those who loved Him, then He would love no one. If God greeted those who loved Him, then He would reveal Himself to no one. Yet God determined to love humanity in that He sent His Messiah to redeem the world. One loves their enemies by proclaiming this good news and one prays for their persecutors that their eyes might be opened to this truth and that they might come to know this love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39).

The gospel is a global and universal message. If Jesus’ disciples keep this love within their own circle or fail to proclaim it among others, how does this surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees?

Conclusion: God’s Love Demands Repentance (v. 48)

Therefore, you, yes you, shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus’ attention to His audience is quite emphatic. He calls for a decisive decision from His disciples. It is likely that v. 48 concludes the entire section of correction (vv. 21-47) while also functioning as a bridge to the next portion of the sermon.[7] It is in this context that we understand what it means to be perfect. While there is a temptation to lower the bar of what it means to be perfect (τέλειος – perfect, complete, nothing lacking), the comparison to God’s perfection makes all attempts vain. Whatever is meant by perfect, God is the standard of that perfection.

The language here is clearly taken from Lev. 19:2 yet Jesus deftly substituted “holy” in exchange for “perfect.” After all, the context of this section shows how Jesus fulfills, completes, makes perfect the Law and the Prophets. While the scribes and the Pharisees have been twisting, confusing, and convoluting the Law and the Prophets, Jesus has spent the last 27 verses making them clear. Jesus is calling His disciples to follow His words rather than the errant teaching of the scribes and Pharisees. It is almost as if Jesus already anticipates the final call of the sermon in 7:24-27. The point then is this: complete the Law and the Prophets by following Jesus alone. God’s standard is only met and His word is only kept through Him.

[1] Nolland, p. 264-5.

[2] Garland, p. 76.

[3] Hendriksen, p. 312-3.

[4] Carson, p. 192.

[5] Morris, p. 131.

[6] Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, p. 163.

[7] Nolland, p. 271.


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