Matthew: God’s Law vs. Human Tradition: Part 6

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on June 17, 1997

Matthew 5:43-48

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Please turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew chapter 5 verse 43 as we continue our study of the Sermon on the Mount. We’ve said that throughout chapter 5 from verse 17 all the way down to the end of the chapter in verse 48, the Lord Jesus Christ is setting forth the righteousness of His kingdom, that is, He’s setting forth the kind of life that His disciples are going to live. He’s setting forth the standard of the kingdom. Standards which cannot be produced by our own efforts unaided by the grace of God. Things in our lives, in our hearts, and our behavior that can only be produced by the grace of God active in our lives. Things which can only result when we are united to Christ. The Lord Jesus is not teaching us how we can work our way to heaven. He’s teaching us how people live once heaven has been implanted in their hearts, as they have trusted, as they have rested on Him alone for their salvation. But as He does, He sets forth a standard that cannot be matched by the world.

And so we come to the last contrast. We’ve said all along He’s been contrasting His teaching with the Pharisees false teaching about righteousness, teaching which purports to be biblical teaching, which purports to be based on the word of God in the Old Testament, but which in fact misunderstands it. Those contrasts begin in verse 21. There He contrasts His teaching about murder with the Pharisees’ teaching about murder. Then in verse 27 He contrasts His teaching about adultery with the Pharisees’ teaching about adultery. In verse 31 He contrasts His teaching about divorce with the Pharisees’ teaching about divorce. In verse 33 He contrasts His teaching about truthful speaking with the Pharisees’ teaching about truthful speaking. In verse 38, He contrasts His teaching about justice and about love of neighbor with the Pharisees’ teaching about justice and love of neighbor. And finally we come to the sixth contrast or antithesis in verse 43. So let’s hear the word of the living God together:

Matthew 5:43-48

Our Father we ask Your grace to understand Your word, and not only to understand it but to apply it practically in our lives. We know that we need the grace of the Holy Spirit not simply to see this truth, but to be enabled to do this truth. For of all the things that our Lord sets forth in this passage surely this is the most difficult. That we might love as our heavenly Father loves. And so give us the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ to that end. And we give You the praise and the glory. For we ask it in Jesus name. Amen.

I. We must not illegitimately limit the extent of our neighbor-love
The Lord Jesus has already started in the previous verses, the verses that we studied last week, to set forth His teaching on what it means to love your neighbor, but today He makes a bolder strike than He did in verses 33-42. Here, He sets forth a command to love our enemies. And I’d like us to see two or three things particularly in this passage which we learn this morning. The first we’ll find in verse 43, where He gives us what the Pharisees are teaching about this subject contrasted with His teaching. In the process, He teaches us that we must not illegitimately limit the extent of our neighbor love. That is, we must not come up with rationalizations that restrict God’s command to us to love our neighbor. The Pharisees were doing that. The Pharisees took a good law, you shall love your neighbor, and they appended an unbiblical truth ‘and hate your enemy.’ You see that law of neighbor love, some of which we heard in Leviticus 19, is a law that demands practical love of neighbor, not just sentiment towards neighbor, but a practical helping of neighbor. Not slandering your neighbor’s name, but looking for your neighbor’s interests in his estates, in his person, in his vocation, in his good name and reputation. In all these practical ways, Leviticus and other commands of Moses demand that we love our neighbor. But nowhere do those passages command that we hate our enemy. And the Pharisees, you see, were saying “Well yes, we must love our neighbor, but you have to understand who your neighbor is.” Your neighbor is the person who has a claim on your love. Your neighbor well may be a relative. Your neighbor may be a fellow citizen of Israel, but there are some who do not deserve that kind of treatment or love, they were teaching.

The Pharisees, you see, misunderstood the meaning of neighbor. They misinterpreted the Law of God in its teaching on our neighbor. They had a worldly understanding of who our neighbor is. They restricted the definition of neighbor. Jesus addresses this, of course, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, but He does it here as well. The Pharisees had defined “neighbor” as a person who had a claim on your love, a person who deserved to be treated lovingly by you, and so they had redefined neighbor. In Leviticus 19, we were told not only to love our neighbor, and not only to consider those who are fellow citizens of Israel as neighbors, but in verse 34 of Leviticus 19 we were taught that we were to love the stranger, the resident alien, the outsider who is sojourning in the land. We were to love that person just like our fellow citizens. And so that demand of neighbor love was a universal demand.

The Pharisees, you see, had misunderstood the Old Testament call for separation. God, in His law in the Old Testament, called Israel to be separated from the nations, to not act like them, to not think like them, not to make alliances with them. And the Pharisees said, “Well, that’s a justification for us to hate the nation. And furthermore, didn’t God tell us to go into the land of Canaan and wipe out the Canaanites?” You see, they had misunderstood those Old Testament teachings. God does not give His people the right to make those decisions on their own. The only reason that the children of Israel were sent into the land of Canaan and told to take it by conquest and to spare no one, was because of what we learned in Genesis 15. God spared Canaan for over 400 years to give her time to repent. And when, in the kindness of God she did not repent, God sent His people in as His scourge to the land of Canaan to punish wickedness, wickedness that was of an exponential nature even in comparison to the nations, the pagan nations, around Canaan. To punish wickedness and to foreshadow His judgment to come, a judgment in which He would bring His condemnation against all those who not trust and rest in Him. But we ourselves are never given the option to so treat our neighbor.

We must beware the Pharisees’ temptation, the temptation to try and find approval from the word of God for our own lovelessness. Very often we try and justify ourselves in our lovelessness by an appeal to the word. And the Lord Jesus is saying, the Pharisees have misunderstood the command because they have limited the extent of what I am requiring when I say “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

II. We must willingly embrace our obligation to love even our enemies

    Now this is a practical problem for us, my friends. It’s easy to love those who love you. It is easy, at least sometimes, to love those in whom you delight. But, it’s hard to love those who have abused you. It’s hard to love those who do not love you. It’s hard to love those who are not seeking your best interest, in fact, who would like to undercut you at every point. That is hard. And that is precisely what the Lord Jesus is calling us to. You see how practical it is, my friends. It’s easy to love those who are within our own circle, related to our family, part of the friendships that we have already built. But to love the outsider, and what’s more, to love the one who is not on good terms with us is a difficult thing. You watch ministers on the floor of the General Assembly and you’ll see sometimes how hard it is for ministers to love one another! All of us struggle with it, my friends.

Some of you know of the great Southern Presbyterian minister, John Lafayette Girardeau. He was a prisoner of war during the War Between the States. When He came back to South Carolina to take up his ministry again after the war, he preached a passionate sermon on this passage…on loving your neighbor. His youngest son heard that sermon and asked his dad questions all the way home, and continued to ask him annoying questions around the dinner table. He kept asking him specifics about how that sermon might apply to his own experience: “Dad, does this mean that I have to love the bully who beats me up at school?” “Yes, son.” “Dad, does this mean that we have to love people who have taken advantage of our family?” “Yes, son.” “Dad, does this mean we have to love Yankees?” “Be quiet, son, and eat your dinner.” It’s hard for all of us to love as God calls us to love.

And so the Lord Jesus addresses that issue beginning in verse 44, and He tells us this: that we must willingly embrace our obligation to love even our enemies, “But I say to you” (He says in verse 44) “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” You see, our natural tendency, our natural tendency is to not wish good for those who wish us harm. Our natural tendency is certainly to be cold in our love towards those who are cold in love towards us. In fact, our natural tendency is to hate those who hate us. The Lord Jesus, in this word, puts a check on that tendency: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ You see, when we see our enemies, we often treat them as if they were less than human. We want to be treated as if we were more than human. But Calvin said long ago, “As often as I see a man who is my bone and my flesh, I must necessarily see myself as reflected in a mirror.” When we see others, we must see them as ourselves and love them as ourselves. Jesus gives us practical instructions into this passage. He doesn’t leave love up in the air. He gives practical teaching on what it means to love. I’d invite you to turn briefly to Luke chapter 6. Luke gives us a summation of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s shorter than the summary that Matthew gives us, but in some places Luke gives us more information that Matthew does, and this is one of those places. In Luke chapter 6 beginning in verse 27, Luke gives us these words that Christ has spoken: “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.”

Notice the three things that Jesus sets forth as to how we ought to treat our enemies. First, He says we should speak well of our enemies. We are to bless our enemies. When they criticize us, when they revile us, when they slander us, we are to meet that criticism, that reviling, that slandering with courteous and friendly words. We are not to return reviling for reviling. But we are to speak well and uprightly.

Notice also that we are told that we must do well to our enemies. We must love them practically. We must be ready to give them all real kindness that we can and be glad of the opportunity to do them kindness. Of Thomas Cranmer, the great Archbishop of Canterbury during the times of the Reformation in England under Henry VIII and beyond, it was said that if you wanted to become His friend you ought to do him ill because he was always anxious to return kindness and friendship for evil actions done towards him. And so he always showed love towards those who disobliged him. That is a pattern for us to immulate. We must be ready to do good to do well towards our enemy.

Notice also that Jesus says that we are to pray for our enemies. There is no way to more quickly develop love for an enemy than to pray for him. It’s very difficult to get down on your knees and offer up sincere prayers for another without cultivating love for another, asking God to forgive them, asking God that He would grant them peace with us. All these things we ought to do. As a boy growing up, one of my pastors related to me, that whenever he had two men in the congregation who were at odds, he would invite them to his study and he would ask them to join him on his knees and theirs in prayer. And he said that often times men who got down on their knees as enemies got up as friends. It is very difficult to pray side by side, a friend and an enemy, without learning to love. We must speak well of our enemies. We must do well to our enemies. We must pray for our enemies. Practical kindness is what Christ is asking for. Practical kindness towards those who have no claim on our affection. It’s easy to love those who have claims on our affection, those who love us, those that we delight in, but Christ is asking us to show kindness and love to those who have no claim on our affections, those who do not evoke our delight. When we see them, we don’t think, “Oh how wonderful.” For those even who have actually sought to seek our harm. Plummer once said, “To return evil for good is devilish. To return good for good is human. But to return good for evil is divine.” That is what Christ is asking us to do when He says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

III. We must be imitators of our heavenly Father in our life of love

    Notice also what He says in verses 45 and 46 and 47. He teaches us there that we must be imitators of our heavenly Father in our life of love. He says ‘So that you may be sons of your Father in heaven, love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. So that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.’ Where we’ve studied these contrasts we’ve seen in each passage Jesus do three things: first, He tells you that the Pharisees teaching is wrong. Then He gives you His own teaching on the law, and then what does He do? He applies that law to human relationships. This is the only passage where He does not do that. In this passage, rather than giving a specific application of the law to human relationships, He tells you why you ought to be motivated to keep that law, why you ought to be motivated to love your enemies, why you ought to be motivated to love your neighbor, and He tells you that your great motivation ought to be a desire to be like your heavenly Father. Law dodging is a hobby of the Pharisees, but believers have a keen appetite for righteousness. They seek the living God, and they want to be like the living God in His moral character, and so they seek after Him and they desire to be like Him. The Lord Jesus gives a beautiful description of what the heart of the heavenly Father is like.

In verse 45 He says, ‘You see these Pharisees who are saying that love is for some but not for others? Contrast them to your heavenly Father. He causes the rain and the sun to bring blessing both to righteous people and to unrighteous people, both to good people and to wicked people. The heavens pour out His mercies on everyone without distinction. His mercies come to all. These common mercies are instances and proofs of God’s bountiful and His sovereign love. They are manifestations of a God who gives good gifts and who shows His love towards people who hate Him. And even in redemption, my friends, the Apostle Paul can say “For while we were at enmity with Him, at the right time Christ died for us.” You see the Father’s love. The Father’s love is a love which reaches out to those who hate Him and pours out His bounty on those at enmity with Him, and the Lord Jesus says that’s what we ought to desire to be like. We ought to desire to show the same kind of love as the love of the heavenly Father.

Now I want to say very quickly that our love does not make us sons. By doing loving deeds we do not make ourselves children of the living God. No, it’s the other way around. When, by the Spirit, God makes us His children, we walk in love, because we’re in His family. Listen to these words from John Calvin: “Christ testifies that this will be the mark of our adoption if we are kind to the bad and the unworthy. Do not think that we are made sons by our kind deeds. But Christ gives proof from the effect of those deeds that the sons of God are precisely those who approach Him in their humility and tenderness.” When God takes up residence in your life by the Holy Spirit, He changes you and He enables you to love those who are unlovable, to love those who do not evoke your love naturally, and to have a compassion on those who humanly speaking do not evoke a response of compassion.

The Lord Jesus, in verses 46 and 47, makes it clear that our love must exceed the love of the world. He says of tax collectors, that scourge of Israel. Many of them were sons of Israel, they were Israelites who worked for the Roman government to collect burdensome taxes from their own people, and they were not popular in their day, as if tax collectors ever were popular. And the Lord Jesus says: ‘Even tax collectors love those who love them, look out for those who look out for them…but I’m asking you to do more than that.’ He goes on to say: ‘Brothers love brothers even amongst the gentiles, even amongst the pagans, even amongst those who don’t know the Law of Moses, people look out for those who are their own.’ He’s saying to Christians, ‘I’m expecting you to love more than that.’

Matthew Henry once said, “Christianity is more than humanity. We know more than others. We talk more the things of God than others. We profess more than others. We have been promised more than others. God has done more for us and therefore He justly expects more from us than of others. He calls on us to love the unlovable.” And isn’t that exactly what Christ is saying in verse 48? When He says, “You are to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” Christ is not saying that a person can attain perfection in this life. You remember, it’s the same Christ who’s going to teach us to pray, “Forgive us our sins, forgive us our debts, forgive us our trespasses,” who tells us to ‘be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.’ Christ is not expecting us to achieve perfection in this life, or He would not have given us that clause in the Lord’s Prayer which asks God to forgive us! No, Christ is saying, ‘Have the same kind of all embracing love that your heavenly Father has.’

Luke gives you the clue in Luke chapter 6. He translates ‘be merciful’ as your heavenly Father is merciful. You see here mercy is being contrasted to being mercenary. God, through the Lord Jesus Christ, is calling His people to love those who are both not in a position to reward us for our love, and even to love those who despite our love seek to abuse us. It is a love which loves not because of what it will get out of others, but it is a love implanted in our hearts by God Himself that enables us to love without anticipation or expectation of reward for that love, except from the heavenly Father. That is the love that the Lord Jesus is calling us to. And it’s the love of God, my friends. If anything in this passage teaches you that this way is not a way of works righteousness, it’s this passage, because this love is not a love that we can stoke up in ourselves. This is a love that only comes to us when God has taken up residence in our lives.

Think of God’s words to Jonah. Jonah the prophet, a mighty man of God who had absolutely no compassion on the Ninevites. He wanted his people to have revival. He didn’t want those Gentile Ninevites to have revival. God the Father says to him, in Jonah chapter 4 verses 10 and 11, words which spoke of His compassion not only on the people but even the animals. God the Father had compassion on those people who did not know their right hand from their left, and He wanted them to come and to enjoy the grace which is held in store for all those who embrace Him by faith. It’s easy to love those in whom we delight. It’s difficult to love those who are not only different from us but those who use us and abuse us and seek to take advantage of us. John Stott has said, and this hits me right between the eyes: “Everybody believes in love. But not love for those who’ve injured us.” Everybody believes in love. But not love for those who’re outsiders.

You see my friends, if you want to measure whether you’ve gone beyond niceness to real Christian love, look at your hearts and ask yourselves: “How do I love those who have hurt me? How do I love those who hate me? How do I love those who have no claim on my love?” Then, you will see how far you have to go in love. Thank God, the Lord Jesus does not leave us to our own devices, for this love cannot be created by human effort. We must run back to Him. We must get more love to Christ if we are to grow in this kind of love to one another. You see, there is no humanly generated love that can enable you to love people in this sort of a self-sacrificial way. Only a living and loving relationship with the heavenly Father, an assurance that He has given you everything that you need in Christ, an assurance that all blessing awaits in glory, can enable you to love those will take advantage of you. And that’s precisely what Christ is calling you to. And that’s precisely what Christ is calling me to. And if we would live this way for one day, there is no telling what would happen in our community. Amen.

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