Dr. Howard Griffith preached this chapel message from Matthew 5 on loving your enemies. Below is a lightly edited transcript.
Gracious Father, we thank you for these words that you have caused to be in enscripturated so that we might have life in Jesus Christ. Our Father, we pray now that you’d open our hearts and our minds, that you would illumine our hearts and we might behold Christ in his Word. Thank you that you speak, and we ask you to enable us to hear. We pray now in Jesus’s name, Amen.
So reading from the Gospel of Matthew, beginning at verse 43–48. We could read a larger section, but this seems to me to be the most apt as a unit. So let’s hear the Word of God:
You’ve 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 makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This is God’s Word.
The Importance of Context to Understand the Sermon on Mount
Dr. Gaffin at Westminster Seminary taught us an awful lot about the kingdom of God. And it was a great joy to study the New Testament and to study theology with him because he had that way of helping us see context, those statements, and redemptive historical context especially.
And I think if there’s any passage in the Word of God in which we need to see redemptive historical context in order to hear what the Scripture’s saying, it’s this passage. Everybody’s heard sermons on the Beatitudes; everybody’s heard sermons on the Sermon on the Mount. And we love it. It’s a crucial part of our life as believers. And that’s true for every Christian surely in every church in the world. I have no doubt that that’s true.
“You therefore be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That’s the climax. That is the widest perspective on discipleship in the kingdom of God.Well, Jesus sits down here on the mount and he speaks to his family. He speaks to his disciples about kingdom life. And this passage, verses 43–48, is the climax of chapter five in which he’s been teaching about kingdom discipleship. And we get this pinnacle point, verse 48: “You therefore be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That’s the climax. That is the widest perspective on discipleship in the kingdom of God. From the highest point of all. It’s the climax, I think, of this chapter. It’s certainly the climax of verses 43 to 48. It’s this widest perspective on discipleship in the kingdom. And it tells us, Jesus tells us, that the model for our conduct as disciples is nothing less than God’s own love. That’s our model, the model of God’s own love.
The Command to Be Perfect Is Not a Call to Perfectionism or an Unattainable Goal
But unfortunately, I think it’s easy to misunderstand this, to misunderstand this command specifically, be perfect as your Father in heaven, by pulling it out of the paragraph. It’s not a call to sinless perfection. This is not a call to perfection-ism. You might suppose any time you use the word “ism,” you know, there’s some— You think of the doctrine or the churches that think in terms of actually attaining perfection in this life. I don’t think we have any of us who hold that here at Reformed Theological Seminary. I don’t think so. We ought not to hold it. Surely that’s not what Jesus is saying, that it’s possible actually to attain sinless perfection.
So it’s not a call to an attainable goal that Jesus is making here. But I think likewise it’s not a call to an unattainable goal. That’s the interpretation I think I’ve most often heard in Reformed churches, and I know why. And the reason is because we have a strong doctrine of sin. We believe that people are fallen, profoundly fallen, of course. Deeply, deeply fallen. And that means that we know that we’ve sinned. And we believe that we’ve sinned.
And so when we read this passage, it’s possible, I think, for us to misread that. And the idea then would be that when Jesus says, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” the idea is that Jesus is making a kind of pre-evangelistic point by convicting the disciples of their inability by showing such a high standard.
And that’s, frankly most of the references that I hear to the Sermon on the Mount are of this kind: “So let’s confess our sins. Let’s read the Sermon on the Mount and then we’ll make confession of our sins.” But I think those interpretations miss the point. I think they miss the point pretty seriously of this context, verses 43–48. What is the point?
Christian Love Should Be Indiscriminate, Impartial, and Imitative
Well, the point is that as disciples of the kingdom, we’re not to love only our neighbors, excluding our enemies, but our love is to be indiscriminate, impartial, and on the principle of imitation. It’s to be indiscriminate, impartial, and on the principle of imitation. Look at verse 45: “The Father,” we read there, “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good.” He sends rain on the evil and the good.
Who Is Our Neighbor?
I think then that Jesus’s point is like the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan. See, what was the question there in the parable of the Good Samaritan? The question was, who is my neighbor? And you remember that the Pharisees had one way of answering that, who is my neighbor? And their way was to sort of make it very narrow, who their neighbor was. And Jesus turns the question on its head by saying the neighbor is that Samaritan guy. Which is totally shocking to any Pharisee or Israelites that hear that, because the Samaritan guy, he’s nobody’s neighbor. But he’s really a neighbor because why? Well, because he treated the guy in his path with compassion. He was showing neighborliness.
Our love is to be total, complete, consistent, without reservation, unwavering, unbiased, indiscriminate.So Jesus not only answers the question, but he flips it and then he answers it in such a way as to really make the point. Well, that’s the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan. But I think likewise here, the point is that as disciples of the kingdom, we’re not to love only our neighbors, excluding our enemies, but our love is to be indiscriminate. It’s to be impartial, and it’s to be on the principle of imitation.
And the answer to that question, who is my neighbor, from this passage would be this: my enemy is my neighbor. In the kingdom of God disciples are to love as God loves. This is what Jesus is teaching. We’re to love as God loves. “Be perfect” means love as God loves. Our love is to be total, complete, consistent, without reservation, unwavering, unbiased, indiscriminate.
And I think what confirms this interpretation is it’s parallel in Luke 6. In that version of the same sermon, right at this pinnacle point, Jesus says this in verse 36: “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.” That’s a different way of saying the same thing. See, God shows mercy indiscriminately. God shows mercy to everybody.
Loving Our Enemies Does Not Undo the Scandal of the Gospel
Now, we might say, “Does that undo the scandal of the gospel? Does that undo the scandal of the cross? That God requires faith and repentance of people? That God had to give his Son up to death in order to bring in his kingdom, to bring in his reign?” And I think clearly the answer is, no. It does not. It doesn’t undo that scandal. It doesn’t undo this because discipleship in the kingdom is always rooted in faith in Jesus Christ and in obedience to the gospel. Mark 1:15: The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is at hand. What’s the proper response? Repent and believe the Gospel.
So the message of the kingdom is the reign of God setting things right, restoring the creation to its intention, bringing it to its fulfillment, fulfilling the Old Testament, all those things that Jesus sets out in that brief compass in Mark 1:15. The way to be a member of the kingdom of God is what? Is to repent and to believe. And that’s how we’re brought into the kingdom of God. God gives us gifts. That’s what we believe as Reformed people. God brings us into the kingdom by giving us faith, by giving us repentance. He unites us with Jesus Christ.
But then there’s a life to live. See, there’s a life to live. Now notice how Jesus describes the sunshine in verse 45. He says *his sun. He causes *his sun. See, it’s God’s sun that he causes to rise on the evil and the good. Every single day, God deliberately, purposely, intentionally causes his sun to rise on the unrighteous. He chooses to show his love to the unrighteous. Because the creation does not belong to God’s enemies. It doesn’t belong to the unrighteous. Who does it belong to? It belongs to him. If God can afford to show mercy to his enemies without compromising the Gospel, then we can too.
Who else does the world belong to, according to the Sermon on the Mount? You tell me, who’s going to inherit it? The meek believers, those who are in Christ. So you and I, we live in a creation that by rights belongs to us, but it’s not ours yet. It’s not ours yet because Jesus hasn’t come back. So in this period, in this period where we await his return, it’s true of us that our love is to be like the Father’s love. He shows his love to the unrighteous. And if God can afford to show mercy to his enemies without compromising the Gospel, then we can too. And we must.
Practically Loving Our Enemies
So we asked this question, what would it mean for me, what would it mean for you, what would it mean for the church to love its enemies? That’s the question that we have to ask ourselves. That’s the question that Jesus is posing here.
His command is applicable in virtually an unlimited number of ways and circumstances. What would it mean for me, for you to love your enemies? Do you have a kind greeting, do you have a kind word for the person who gives you that look or looks down when you walk into the room. And, you know, it’s hard for us to think in terms of that, especially early on in our Christian lives. Maybe in this culture, it’s not hard to think in terms of enemies. Who are our enemies? Well, hopefully we don’t think of people in the church. I hope not. But you may be able to think of somebody. If we only love the people who love us, then we’re not really very different at all. But we are different. And God is very different.
But I don’t think there’s an idealized view here that Jesus is talking about. I think he’s saying, you’re going to have people who oppose you as disciples. They oppose you because you follow me. And here’s your task: love them like the Father loves them. Love them like the Father has loved you. Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.
Loving Enemies Exhibits God’s Different Kind of Love
See, if we only love the people who love us, then we’re not really very different at all. But we are different. And God is very different. And as his children, we show that difference in our love for those who are enemies to us.
It’s in his identity as Father that we’re to be perfect as our love is to imitate his fatherly love. Verses 44 and 45 again: “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.” Now, of course, this is just what we read in the rest of the New Testament: like begets gets like. Be what you are in Jesus Christ. And so brothers and sister, that love that caused God to bring you into this kingdom is the model for your love, for everyone. That’s the model. That’s the call. That’s the command of this gracious king for the kingdom of God.