By Peter Amsterdam
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In the Gospels, Jesus quotes two commandments from the Old Testament. The first is from the book of Deuteronomy: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”1 And the second is from the book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”2
The Jewish understanding of one’s “neighbors” was other Jewish people. As one author explains: “In Judaism, one’s neighbor was someone with similar religious thinking, not one who was opposed and hostile. … In some movements in Judaism, the exact opposite was instructed, as at Qumran, where the right to hate one’s religious foes was a given.”3
Seeing that some Jewish people had different interpretations of Scripture may help explain why, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes reference to a saying which isn’t found in Scripture: “You have 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.”4
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus expands the concept of loving one’s enemies by giving examples of ways that His followers can implement that love. He says that the love that His followers demonstrate for others is to be above and beyond the way people usually love. Jesus says: “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 abuse you.”5
There are some references to doing good to one’s enemies in some Old Testament teachings.6 While verses such as these in the Old Testament directed believers to show kindness to one’s enemies, Jesus went considerably further, instructing His followers to love and forgive them.
He also practiced what He preached, as seen by the words He spoke from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”7 His followers practiced this as well. Stephen, the first martyr, while being stoned to death, cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”8 The apostle Peter wrote, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.”9
After expressing the general principle of loving one’s enemies, Jesus moved on to specifics: “Do good to those who hate you.”10 He’s calling His followers to not just love their enemies in principle or in some passive manner, but to show them love through their actions.
Jesus called His disciples to “bless those who curse you,”11 meaning those who verbally attack you with insults, scorn, or verbal abuse. It’s natural to respond in kind, but Jesus taught His disciples to break that cycle of anger and hatred by blessing those who revile them.
While at times we are right to respond to someone who is verbally attacking us, Scripture teaches us to do so wisely and lovingly. “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat.”12
He also said to “pray for those who abuse you.”13 The KJV translates this as “them which despitefully use you,” while other translations say “those who mistreat you.” Jesus’ call for His disciples to pray for people who mistreat them represents a supernatural form of love which reflects God’s love for humanity. Of course, Jesus’ call to love and pray for those who mistreat or abuse us doesn’t mean that we should continually tolerate such mistreatment.
After telling His disciples to love their enemies, to do good to the haters, to those who curse them, and to pray for those who mistreat, insult, and threaten them, He then went on to give four illustrations of loving others in spite of actions which hurt you or result in loss. The first is “To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.”14 Part of love is not seeking revenge for affronts, slights, or insults. Rather than striking back, the disciple is willing to break the cycle of retaliation.
The second part of verse 29 is somewhat similar to the first: “From one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.” Again, Jesus is saying not to retaliate by seeking revenge, but rather to love one’s enemy by being willing to suffer the loss rather than retaliating.
Jesus then follows with “Give to everyone who begs from you.”15 Other Bible translations render this as “Give to everyone who asks of you,” which seems to be a better translation. Jesus pointed out here that part of love was the readiness to help those in need without prejudice, as He states that all who ask should be helped.
The fourth illustration of love is “from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back.”16 Here Jesus speaks to His disciples about not seeking retribution for wrongs which are done to them.
After teaching His disciples the principle of loving one’s enemies, giving examples of behavior which would put this principle into action, Jesus went on to say, “As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”17
There are other ancient Jewish writings which convey this concept, such as: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor for that is the whole Torah; What you hate, do to no one; None should do to his neighbor what he does not like for himself.”
While these sayings are similar to Jesus’ statement, they are expressed in the sense of avoiding unfair treatment of others that one wouldn’t wish for oneself. As one author wrote about Jesus’ expression of this concept: “It is not simply a command to avoid unfair treatment that one might not wish for oneself. Rather it is a command to give the same sensitive consideration to others that one might want others to give.”18
Jesus used three examples to show how the love He expected of His disciples was to surpass the average norms of love. With each illustration of love, He starts by asking what is so special about His disciples doing things that anyone, even sinners, would do to show love. He then challenges them to love in a greater way.
“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.”19 Jesus makes the point that most people love those who love them—that’s normal and natural behavior. But Jesus was calling His disciples to go further.
The principle Jesus put forward, however, is to love not only those who love you, but to go so far as to love those who hate you, who steal from you, who curse and mistreat you. Jesus raised the standard of love beyond the norm of this world.
“If you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”20 Again, Jesus points out that love which only does good to those who do good in return is no different from the love that most people give. Jesus is calling for love that surpasses the natural love and kindness that people have for one another, that is extraordinary.
“Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”21 The loving behavior He outlined is evidence that one is a child of God.
Jesus ends this segment of His teaching by telling His followers that they should emulate the Father in His mercy. “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”22
Jesus was calling His followers to surpass the standard thinking, ethics, and actions of the Jewish people of His day and how they put limits on who were their neighbors, thus limiting who they needed to love. He calls His disciples across the ages to love in ways that are out of the ordinary; in ways that are difficult, yet greater.
The love He proclaims is the kind of love that we, who have been forgiven for our sins, are meant to live. A love that is kind, generous, merciful, sacrificial, and forgiving.
Originally published June 2018. Adapted and republished September 2020.
Read by John Laurence.
1 Deuteronomy 6:5. All scriptures are from the ESV.
2 Leviticus 19:18.
3 Darrell L. Bock, Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994), 588.
4 Matthew 5:43–45.
5 Luke 6:27–28.
6 See Exodus 23:4–5; Proverbs 24:17–18, 25:21–22.
7 Luke 23:34.
8 Acts 7:60.
9 1 Peter 3:9.
10 Luke 6:27.
11 Luke 6:28.
12 1 Corinthians 4:12–13.
13 Luke 6:28.
14 Luke 6:29.
15 Luke 6:30.
16 Luke 6:30.
17 Luke 6:31.
18 Bock, Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50, 596.
19 Luke 6:32.
20 Luke 6:33.
21 Luke 6:35.
22 Luke 6:36.