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Who is our Enemy and Does it Matter?

February 6, 2012

Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, and even throughout His ministry Jesus is constantly reorienting His listeners and directing His disciples.  In this Sermon, blessing is defined, the law is upheld, and the disciples are called to a new level of living.  Murder is no longer an outward act alone, but a condition of a fallen heart.  Likewise lust, adultery, hatred, and confessions become out-workings of a heart that is not pure, and as a result has not seen God.  In Matthew 5: 43-48 Jesus begins to confront the hearts of those who felt it appropriate to reserve love, and display it to a select few.

Matthew 5:43-44 “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you.”

For the Jews, the enemy was the one who was not your neighbor.  A neighbor was one who was part of the community, typically a fellow Jew, but even a foreigner sojourning through your community. (Ex. 23:4-5; Lev 19:18, 3334)  The enemies were those outside of these communities, the non-Jews.  The Jews of this time were known for their exclusion and hatred of non-Jews.  This is evidenced in the writings of the Roman Historians, Tacitus and Juvenal.[1]  The Old Testament never prescribes, outlines, or commands that Israel is to hate their enemies.  Rather, they were commanded in Leviticus 19:18, which Jesus here quotes, to “Love your neighbor.”

The “and hate your enemies” line seems to be referring to the traditional Rabbinic Teaching that grew up around the Law of God.  The Rabbi’s and Jewish religious establishment slowly added to God’s Law, distorting it and choking the life out of it, turning it into legalism devoid of God’s character.  Throughout His Sermon, Jesus is breaking down these man-made barriers, and revealing the Law we are meant to uphold.  One rooted in a heart reflecting the love of God, who “while we were still enemies, reconciled (us) to God through the death of His son.” (Romans 5:10)

For us, loving our enemies is not an easy task.  G.K. Chesterton once remarked that “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also love our enemies; probably because they are often the same people.”  There is a certain amount of wisdom in that saying, as we often have the greatest amount of strife with those who are close to us.  The word used here for enemy is the Greek word ekthros or Echthros, it is an adjective meaning hated, a man who is hostile toward others or toward God.  The common idea throughout the New Testament regarding the word enemy is one who stands in opposition.  They may be standing in opposition to God, or in opposition to you, or both if you are attempting to accomplish God’s work.  Your enemy may be real or perceived.  He or they may be actively opposing you, or simply passively displaying anger; inflicting pain, emotional damage, or financial hardship on you.  They may be family members, children, co-workers, or someone who happen to dislike.  They may be the drunk driver who accidentally killed your uncle in an accident.  They may be the boss who passed over you for promotion.  Obviously the list could go on and on.

It is much easier to identify your enemies than it is to show them God’s love, forgiveness and kindness.  Jesus is less concerned with the form your enemies take, and more concerned with the form of your attitude toward them.  For the Christian, an enemy should not be defined by the hatred in our heart or the vitriol from our lips, but rather our enemies should be marked as those who receive the outpouring of our kindness and love.  If they are hungry, we should feed them; if they are thirsty, we should give them something to drink. (Romans 12:20)

God Himself is kind to “ungrateful and evil men” (Luke 6:35); He came among them, and though they did not receive Him, He died for them.  And as they were pounding nails into His flesh, to hang Him up to die on a cross, He cried out on their behalf.  His cry was not one of cursing, as we might do when someone cuts us off in traffic;  His cry was not for God’s wrath, as we might call on for the one who steals from us at work.  His cry was that they might be forgiven, that the Father who loved them, might forgive them this horrendous act. What wrong could be done to us that has not been felt and forgiven by God?  If we are His and have His love, how can we love less those who He loves so much. “If the cruel torture of crucifixion could not silence our Lord’s prayer for His enemies, what pain, pride, prejudice, or sloth could justify the silencing our ours.” – John Stott


[1] Quarles, Charles. The Sermon on the Mount. Nashville. B&H. 2011. 160.

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