What does it really mean to love our enemies? In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his expositional series in the gospel of Luke, getting to the heart of the ethics taught by Jesus to His church.
We are continuing now with our study of the Gospel of Saint Luke, and we are looking at one of the most difficult passages in the entire gospel. I will be reading Luke 6:27–36:
But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.
But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore, be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.
Here we have the heart and soul of the New Testament ethic taught to us by the Lord Jesus Christ. He speaks these commands by divine authority, and I hope that you will receive them as such. Let us pray.
O God, if ever we needed Your help to understand a difficult text and apply it to our lives, it is this morning. We ask for the gentle conviction of the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit, to accompany the hearing of these words, that He will take these words and cut between sinew and muscle. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Full Import of the Law
From one perspective, this text in Luke 6 stands out as one of the most radical teachings that ever came from the lips of Jesus. Certainly, those who heard His mandate were shocked by it, and the scribes and Pharisees were utterly hostile to it. If we look at it from a different perspective, however, we will see that there was nothing new at all about this teaching from our Lord Jesus.
When Jesus gave His explanation of the Ten Commandments, His ideas seemed shocking. He told the people that the law saying “You shall not kill” carries the implication that you should not even be angry at a person without just cause. He also said that not only the act of adultery but even lustful thoughts in our minds violate the law against adultery.
Jesus didn’t add new content to the Ten Commandments. Rather, He explained the full intent of the law of God as it was originally given. He did the same thing in Luke 6. The Great Commandment God gave His people in the Old Testament was this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your mind and all of your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Of course, the Pharisees gave a narrow interpretation regarding what was included in the Great Commandment. They defined “neighbor” as a fellow Jew, so the mandate to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself did not apply to Gentiles or foreigners who were outside the camp.
The Pharisees twisted and distorted the original significance of the Great Commandment, and what Jesus did in response was simply say: “This is what the Great Commandment entails. This is the full import of the Great Commandment.” I’ll go a step further and say that Jesus’ exposition of the Great Commandment indicated that the Great Commandment itself was only an exposition of the original commandment that God gave when He stamped His image on every human being.
The image of God carries with it the mandate to live in such a way as to mirror and reflect the character of God. So, in the brief time we have this morning, I want us to look at Jesus’ strange-sounding mandates and think of them in terms of how God relates to us.
The Difficulty of Loving Your Enemies
We, who are by nature the enemies of God, constantly receive His beneficence and benevolent love. Even though we are God’s enemies, He has loved us, and He has loved us when we were altogether unlovely. When we were not thankful to Him, He was merciful to us. When we sinned against Him, He never returned evil for evil. God’s pattern of relating to His people is the same pattern that Jesus teaches us to display as imitators of Christ, who is God incarnate.
When Jesus says, “But I say to you, love your enemies,” what does He mean? He doesn’t mean that you must have feelings of warm fuzzies and affection towards your enemies. Here, as almost everywhere in the Scriptures, love is defined more by a verb than a noun. We could translate it this way: “Be loving toward your enemies.”
I know a Christian counselor who once had a man come to see him who wanted to divorce his wife. As his reason, the man said: “My wife wasn’t unfaithful. She hasn’t left me or anything like that, but I just don’t love her anymore.”
The counselor said to the man: “Well, the Bible says, ‘Husbands, love your wives.’ So, you don’t have an option. This is the command of Almighty God. You have to start loving your wife.” The man responded: “You don’t get it. I don’t even want to be around her. I don’t want to live in the same house with her.”
At this point, the counselor said: “Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you have a trial separation and move next door for a few weeks?” The man asked, “What good will that do?” The counselor responded, “Well, the Bible says, ‘Love your neighbor,’ and now she’ll be your next-door neighbor.”
The man was getting more and more exasperated with the counselor. He said: “You don’t get it. It’s not that I don’t want to be near her—I can’t stand the sight of her. I have nothing but enmity in my heart towards her.”
“Oh,” said the counselor, “she’s your enemy?” After the man answered in the affirmative, the counselor responded, “Well, the Bible says, ‘Love your enemies.’” I think that fellow went to a different counselor the next week.
Jesus’ statement is striking—how difficult it is to love your enemies. But Jesus spells out what it means. It has to do with how we behave towards those who are our enemies. Let’s understand something: we all have enemies. Not everybody out there is our friend. As Christian people, we need to learn how to deal with those we can identify as our enemies.
Jesus said, “Do good to those who hate you.” That is what it means to love your enemy: do good to those who hate you and bless those who curse you. What is our flesh going to do when somebody curses us? We want to curse them right back. If somebody wants to harm us, we don’t want to do good to them, because we say, “If they are up to no good, why should I do any good for them?”
Pray for Your Enemies
Next, Jesus said, “Pray for those who spitefully use you.” When I hear this verse, to this day I still think back to one of the most moving funeral services I ever experienced. When I was in Pittsburgh, a good friend of mine who was an Episcopalian priest died suddenly in his forties from a heart attack.
We went to the huge Episcopalian cathedral for the funeral, and every priest in the diocese made up the choir. The processional hymn was “For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest.” I’ll never forget it. It was like I transported into heaven on that occasion. The tears were running down my cheeks. What a glorious celebration of a life it was.
If there was ever a man who no one expected would be an Episcopalian priest, it was the young man who died that day. He didn’t have a parish. Instead, he was the executive director of an organization in Pittsburgh called The Pittsburgh Experiment, founded by the late Samuel Shoemaker.
Sam Shoemaker started The Pittsburgh Experiment by meeting with downtown businessmen every week at lunchtime. He would give a message and the Pittsburgh Experiment challenge: “If you don’t like somebody or you’re having trouble getting along with somebody, be it a coworker, your boss, whoever it is that you are against, pick your strongest enemy. I challenge you to pray for that person every single day for thirty days.”
One businessman, a tough ex-Marine drill instructor, came to one of the meetings kicking and screaming, against his will. When he heard the challenge, he said to Sam Shoemaker: “I’d like to meet the man who could get me to pray for someone I hate—that will never happen.” Sam responded to him: “Sir, you may be right, but I want you to take this challenge. Pray for your enemy for thirty days, then come back here next month and tell me what happened.”
The man did come back the next month, and the month after that. He converted to Christ. He entered the ministry and became the director of The Pittsburgh Experiment. It was Don James, whose funeral service I’m talking about, who learned what it meant to pray for those who spitefully use you.
Endure Insults and Help Freely
Jesus continued with other examples when He said: “To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also, and from him who takes away your cloak don’t withhold your tunic. Give it to everyone who asks of you.
I once led a Bible study to a group of the Pittsburgh Steelers on behalf of the team’s chaplain, and I was at Terry Bradshaw’s house speaking on this text: “If somebody strikes you on the right cheek, turn the left one to them as well.” I wanted to use L.C. Greenwood, who was about six-foot-seven, as an example, and I had to stand on a chair.
I said: “L.C., I’m going to show you what Jesus meant in this text. I’m not going to hurt you (as if you’re worried), but please be calm.” I didn’t want him to take off on me. I said, “I am going to try to hit you on your right cheek.” So, I tried to reach around him with my arm and hit him on the right cheek.
After my try failed, I said: “That won’t work, will it? If I’m right-handed, the only way I can strike you on the right cheek is with the back of my hand, which was the classical way that Jewish people would insult somebody.” Jesus was saying that if someone insults you by giving you the back of their hand, turn the other cheek. Let him insult you repeatedly, but do not return insult for insult. If he wants your coat, give him your shirt.
If somebody comes and asks you for help, help the person. The Bible does not deny the legitimacy of loaning money for interest. What the Bible denies is usury, the kind of interest that is so heavy and burdensome that it exploits the person in need. If you want to see what usury is, see the interest rates on your credit cards. Those rates are so ungodly that they are usurious and in direct violation to the law of God.
Jesus went beyond helping people via a loan. He gave the golden rule: “If somebody needs it, give it to him, even if it means you’re not getting anything back.” In other words, don’t use the help of your brother simply for your own profit. Instead, Jesus asks us to be like God.
Choose Mercy, Not Vengeance
Jesus went on to say: “What good is it if you love those who love you? Even sinners do that. What good is it if you only do good to those who do good to you?” He said, “You will be, if you follow this advice, the sons of the Most High, because God is kind to the unthankful and to the evil. Therefore, be merciful even as your heavenly Father is merciful.”
If there is a core meaning to these exhortations, it’s this: mercy, not vengeance. God is an avenging God. God promises to make unjust things just. God says: “Vengeance is Mine. I will repay, but vengeance is not yours.”
When it comes to public matters, there is still a legitimate place for the role of the state, the role of church courts, and all the rest that the New Testament teaches, but Jesus was talking here about Christian personal ethics. You should be known as a person of mercy because you’ve been a recipient of mercy. That should mark your behavior. As God has been kind to you, so you should be kind to your neighbor. There’s no greater kindness than this: that He has adopted us into His family.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.