Love Your Enemies

The Ukrainian pastor could not believe what he saw. He had arrived at the situation innocently enough. A few days earlier, an elderly woman had come to his office seeking help to secure her dying son’s diabetic medication. Wanting to be the hands and feet of Jesus, the pastor secured the medicine and then brought it to the woman’s home. But when he walked into the back bedroom, he did not see just any man. He saw ‘the man,’ his former security guard. For ten years, this guard had wiped his feces on the pastor’s toast. To top off the torture, the guard had also blindfolded and then tied the pastor to the execution post. The guard demanded that the pastor recant. He refused. But instead of gun shots, curses rang out. The guard then untied the pastor, drug him across the prison floor, and tossed him out of the gate. That chapter of the pastor’s life had ended just a few months earlier. Now he stood over his abuser unrecognized and full opportunity. Here was his moment, his chance for payback, justice, and revenge. What should he do?

What would you do if you had the opportunity to get even with that one person who had destroyed your childhood, ruined your marriage, or trashed your reputation? What would you do if you had the opportunity to get even with your most hated enemy?
The Sunday school answer (of course) consists of us loving and forgiving those who hurt us. After all Jesus had told his listeners in Matthew 5:44, “But, I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Still, this is not so easy to do when applied to the real world. Jesus knew this. In Matthew 5:43, he describes the general religious approach to dealing with enemies when he states, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Though modern ears get a touch squeamish around the word “hate,” they still very much tolerate the concept that characterized second temple religiosity. One does not have to go far before he or she will hear people qualifying their love for others with appeals to the concepts of negativity and toxicity. We love those who support our passions and who give credence to our hurts. On the other hand, we hate those who push unkind, toxic, and destructive vibes into our souls. We shun them because they are bad for us. They always bring us down with their criticisms and judgement. Like the people of Jesus’s day, we tend to love our friends and hate our enemies. Despite our disposition towards hating, Jesus still calls us to love our enemies. After all, God sends rain on the just and the unjust and defines love according to his extraordinary character.

What does Love Look Like?

Before we dive into why we should love our enemies, we need to grasp what this love looks like. Namely, it looks like prayer. When men and women insult us, hurt us, and harm us even though we are peaceable, we are to first rejoice for such persecution proves that we are suffering as Jesus suffered (Matt 5:10-12). But then we pray!
If we truly love someone, we should want them to know the peace and joy of Jesus. We should hope and pray that those who have tortured us with their hands and words become members of our churches. This is not to say that we sidestep the legal system when crimes have been committed. But even as our enemies wind their way through the court system, our prayer should be for their salvation. Augustine helpfully defined love’s perfection as the ability, “To love our enemies, and to love them to the end that they may be our brothers.”

At this point, some will object because of the magnitude of their opponents. They believe that this unchecked politician will destroy their very way of life. This pastor will ruin the church. Or this boss will ruin their career. Such concerns are often not unfounded. But it does not change the Jesus’s mandate to love and pray for one’s enemies. As the British Pastor, John Stott noted, Jesus prayed for the men as they drove the nails into his hands. He then writes, “If the cruel torture of the crucifixion could not silence our Lord’s prayer for his enemies, what pain, pride prejudice or sloth could justify the silencing of ours?” None can. For the Christian only one class of people exists: those whom we love and pray for.

Sun and Rain

Such prayer-filled love is not optional. As Matthew 5:45 makes clear, all the sons of God pray for their enemies because the sons reflect the character of their Father. He makes it rain on the just and the unjust (5:45). Though many religious people assume the presence of a new car, or their recent promotion reveals that God is pleased with them, they have no biblical basis for such thought. In his love, God cares for both the wicked and the righteous alike. The farmer who faithfully loves his wife and the farmer who has as many sexual partners as he does ears of corn can both plant, harvest, and sell corn with great success. God does not wipe sinners out the moment they sin. He patiently endures their evil (and our evil for that matter) allowing the sun afresh on both the righteous and the unrighteous. When Christians pop out an umbrella or marvels at the red sunset, they should remember their father’s caring disposition to them and to those who torment them. God loves his enemies. How can his sons and daughters do otherwise?

Extraordinary Love

Moreover, the simple ability to love those who love us falls short of the essence of God’s supernatural love. Jesus points out in Matthew 5:46, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” Jesus then restates the idea with Gentiles in verse 47 to help his listeners understand that even the most unreligious person will love those who love them back. Though we should love our friends, spouses, and those that share our interests. We must not boast in this love for it is common to all. Both the Christian husband wearing a tie to church and the lesbian husband wearing her black leather pants understand the importance of caring for their sick partner for both know that a happy wife equals a happy life. What sets the believer apart from the unbeliever is that the tie wearing guy should be just as ready to help his lesbian neighbor as he is his own wife. As the martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “No sacrifice which a lover would make for his beloved is too great for us to make for our enemy.” With this in mind, can we say that we truly love our enemies?

When Jesus saw us laying helplessly on the bed of life after having devoted all our energies to openly undermining, attacking, and insulting him and his loving glory, he loved us afresh. He went and died on the cross so that we might live. And then he ascended to the throne where he intercedes on our behalf. Salvation exists because God loved his enemies to the point where they became his sons and daughters. Should we not do the same?

What Did the Pastor Do?

The Ukrainian pastor knew the surpassing love of God. Instead of exacting vengeance so he could get some closure, he gave them man his medicine. And then when the mother asked, the pastor prayed for her son, he did. By God’s grace he loved his enemy.
Will you?

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

Like a child with shoulders slumped low from a long day of school, poverty drags a backpack of negative connotations wherever it goes. Even those who dedicate their lives to caring for the poor do so understanding poverty to be the outworking of sorrow, corruption, and suffering. It is something to be avoided, changed, or fixed.

Despite this reality, Jesus embraces poverty as the foundation of his kingdom ethic. He begins his famed Sermon on the Mount with these words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” To be a follower of Jesus, one must embrace the poverty of the spirit.

The Beatitudes

To grasp the importance of these words, the reader must understand the flow of Jesus’s Sermon. The Beatitudes found in verses 3-10 describe the essence of Christian character. To quote the famous British Pastor John Stott,

The group exhibiting these marks is not an elite, a small spiritual aristocracy remote from ordinary Christians. On the contrary, the Beatitudes are Christ’s own specification of what every Christian ought to be.

All Christians are to be poor in spirit, sorrowful, meek, hungry, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted.

But to arrive at the later virtues, Christians must know the poverty of Jesus. Without it, no one can reach the kingdom of God. So what is it? What does Jesus call us to when he pronounces blessing upon the poor in spirit?

Poor or Poor in Spirit?

Theologians have hotly debated the meaning of Matthew 5:3. Some like St. Francis of Assisi and John Calvin have claimed that Jesus is addressing earthly poverty. While the “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests…the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Lk 9:58).” Those who beg for a living seem to have more in common with Christ than those who live in palaces. Moreover, in Luke 6:20, the parallel or sister passage to Matthew 5, Luke omits the phrase “in spirit” giving us the following rendering: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” This quotation seems to support the notion that the kingdom of God is made up of the physical poor. The question then becomes which passage should interpret which?

Which Passage?

I believe as did Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Stott that we should follow the Reformation maxim and allow the clearer text to interpret the vaguer phrase as all Scripture is inspired by God. The prepositional phrase “in spirit” should be viewed as a divine interpretive insight into our savior’s meaning. We should always reason from the more clear to the less clear. When we apply this principle to the “poor in spirit” debate, we cannot help but conclude that Jesus was speaking of spiritual matters and not of economics. A quick survey of Scripture confirms this interpretation. Though Jesus saves one thief on the cross, the other enters hell (Lk 23:43). Jesus heals 10 lepers and yet only one returns to worship the Son of God (Lk 17:11-19). Moreover, Jesus redeems men such as Matthew, Nicodemus, and Zacchaeus, who oppressed the poor prior to their conversions.

God cares for the poor. Those who walk the path of affliction with the well torn shoes of difficulty are often more disposed to the concept spiritual poverty than those managing hedge funds. But one’s lack of wealth does not turn the key to heaven. As the church father Chromatius noted,

The necessity of poverty does not produce blessedness in each of us, but a devout trust sustained through poverty does.

In other words, poverty of spirit can be found both in government housing and in fenced off communities. Earthly poverty does not always equal heavenly glory.

What is Poor In Spirit?

To be poor in spirit, one must recognize his or her ultimate worthlessness in comparison to the majesty of God. Lloyd-Jones helpfully defined poor in spirit as, “a complete absence of pride, a complete absence of self-assurance and of self-reliance.” In other words, The poor in spirit realize that they have nothing within themselves by which to commend themselves to God outside of the wages of sin and death. Instead of boasting in their church attendance, in the successes of their children, in their common sense, in their giving, in their service hours, or in their ability to be better than their neighbors, those who are poor in spirit have one prayer: “God, be merciful to me a sinner (Lk 16:13).” They understand that they come to God much like the mail-order bride with billions of dollars in credit-card debt comes to the Crown Prince of England. They have no hope outside of a ridiculous their appeal for mercy.

The great news of the gospel is that Jesus responds to this cry for help. Jesus dies and burst out of the tomb on Easter morning so that he might redeem sinners such as us. Second Corinthians 15:19-20 declares, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”

To obtain the riches of the kingdom, we must first understand our poverty. As one early church sermon on Matthew noted, “The root of all evil is pride, and the root of all good is humility.” Once we understand we are nothing and give up all hope of saving ourselves, then and only then, do we begin to inherit everything. Only those who are poor in spirit can enter the kingdom of heaven.

To quote Jesus again, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.”

The Sermon on the Mount: A Kingdom Ethic for A Kingdom People

The Sermon on the Mount remains one of the most unique texts in the Bible. Though Jesus’s sermon simmers with deep theological truth that militates against the secular conscience, those living well outside the confines of the established church still find the treatise to be a wonderful source of inspiration and insight. After all, most souls who have languished under bad bosses, corrupt political systems, and cruel neighbors long for a world defined by love, peace, and justice. For example, both those who pray for hours in a state of heightened spirituality and those who stumble about the streets for hours in a state of inebriation can resonate with the golden rule found in Matthew 12:7: “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.”

The fact that both atheists such as Richard Dawkins and that pastors such as John Stott can find much to praise in the Sermon on the Mount raises an important question: “Who is the Sermon on the Mount for?” In other words, can atheist live out Jesus’s message or is it a unique message for Jesus’s followers?

A Kingdom Ethic For A Kingdom People

According to Jesus and to the New Testament authors, the Sermon on the Mount is a Kingdom ethic for a Kingdom people.  Both Matthew 5 and its sister passage in Luke 6 affirm that the Sermon was delivered to by Jesus to his disciples. Jesus’s message is not for the crowds of this world. It is for those who are willing to sit at the feet of Jesus to hear his words. To achieve the ethic of the kingdom, men and women must willingly submit to the full teaching of Jesus which stretches across all 66 books of the Bible. Jesus came to fulfill the law.

Listen to the Law

The Law, the spoken words of God, prove essential to our understanding of the kingdom of God. Humanity’s failure to heed God’s teaching necessitated Jesus’s famed sermon. He preaches it and seeks to reconstitute the kingdom of God because Adam and Eve had destroyed the kingdom of God thousands of years ago. In Genesis 3:1-7, the first royal couple eats the fruit of the tree “that is in the midst of the garden (3).” The first expression of pride comes about because Adam ceased to listen to the words of God, preferring the insights of his bride Eve to the wisdom from above. The failure to heed the voice of God led to humanities expulsion from the kingdom of God. To regain the kingdom of God, men and women must once again heed the voice of God. Jesus explicitly states this idea in Matthew 5:19: “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Kingdom power resides in the words of God.

Jesus Says, “You Can’t Do It Alone”

Those who reject Jesus’s words cannot hope to live out the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus does not applaud us for maintaining the generic level of goodness that society can attain at times. For example, in Matthew 7:27-30, Jesus does not pat husbands on the back because they had the self-control not to sleep with their secretary or a prostitute. The Son of God looks past external goodness. He says the law must control the hidden depths of the heart. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Instead of applauding the man for keeping his pants on, Jesus takes issues with all the times the man has looked at a woman other than his wife and thought about bedding her. As a coworker once noted, this standard of goodness is “impossible.” The liberal theologian Richard Niebuhr concurs writing that Jesus, “does not direct attention away from this world to another but from all worlds…to the one who creates all worlds, who is the other of all worlds (29).”  No man or women in his or her own strength can live out the Sermon on the Mount. No one can reach the ethic of the kingdom apart for the ruler of that God for it is other worldly.  The kingdom ethic is for a kingdom people.

The Hope

Though humanity’s inability to live out the kingdom ethic should cast a shadow of despair over those who have refused to sit down with Jesus’s disciples atop the mountain, hope has not been vanquished. The path to hope runs through that despair. When men and women give up their aspirations of bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth through human effort, then and only then will they be able to finally see the beauty of the cross and the empty tomb. They can finally realize that Jesus has done for them what they could never do for themselves. This poverty of spirit and mourning over sin leads the soul into the kingdom of heaven and to everlasting comfort. The kingdom ethic is for a kingdom people, a people who value the words of God. Stop working. Come sit at the feet of Jesus.