Jesus said, "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. 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" (Matthew 5:43–48).
There are a number of things we should address here that are important for our understanding of what it means to pray for our enemies. First, we should notice that Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said" rather than "It is written." He chooses this phrase because there is nowhere in Scripture where we are instructed to hate our enemies. The relevant passage here is Leviticus 19:18, where God instructs His people, "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD." The term "you shall hate your enemy" might have been added by the religious leaders, perhaps thinking that hatred of enemies, who were presumably not followers of God, was a way to uphold righteousness.
Notice then how Jesus continues, "But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). Jesus imparts His divine authority and clarifies the law. We are not to hate our enemies, but instead we are to love them and to pray for them. Why? "So that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:45). To be sons (and daughters) of our Father we must love others as we are loved (John 13:34–35; 1 John 3:10, 23–24; 4:7–12). This is the second greatest commandment (Mark 12:31). Jesus said, "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:14 –15). This is not to be taken to mean that a Christian who fails to forgive others will lose their salvation; that is impossible (John 10:27–30). Rather, this imparts the principle of forgiveness as representative of someone who belongs to Christ. In other words, those who belong to Christ, who have received His grace and forgiveness, are quick to extend the same grace and forgiveness to others—even to their enemies—because they recognize that they have already been forgiven much more.
After saying that loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us is part of being a child of God, Jesus goes on to say that the Father makes the sun rise on both good and evil people (Matthew 5:45). God extends this measure of grace to everyone, regardless of whether or not they accept the full measure of His grace in the person and work of Jesus Christ on the cross. God will bring judgment, but He "is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). God has "no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live" (Ezekiel 33:11). God's common grace is one expression of His care for humanity and His desire that they turn to Him (John 3:16–18, 36). We, too, should desire that our enemies turn to God in faith and become part of His family (John 1:12), and we can pray toward that end.
Jesus makes a final statement here that is important for understanding why we pray for our enemies. He says, "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" (Matthew 5:46–48). In other words, what difference does it make if you love people who love you? That is expected. In fact, even those the Jewish people typically considered far from God and often despised—tax collectors and Gentiles—love those who love them. So you are no better than they if that is all you are doing. It does not require God's intervention in one's life to be able to reciprocate.
Here it is helpful to understand the concept of agape love. Paul wrote, "Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Corinthians 13:4–7). This is to be our attitude toward both our neighbor and our enemies.
While naturally we may want to reciprocate the negative behavior of our enemies and take revenge, instead we are to love them and pray for them. Proverbs 20:22 says, "Do not say, 'I will repay evil'; wait for the LORD, and he will deliver you." And in Romans 12:17–21 we read, "Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' To the contrary, 'if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
God's instructions regarding how to approach those who are evil is to wait for Him. This is what Jesus meant when He said, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." As Christians we know that there is a day coming when God will judge mankind according to his works. Paul put it in clear terms; "[God] will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality" (Romans 2:6–11).
Praying for your enemies means recognizing the depth of grace and mercy that God has extended to you in sending Jesus Christ to take your punishment for your sin, and in turn extending a measure of that same grace to those who mistreat you. It means desiring that those who would seek to harm us in this life would come to know that same grace and transformation in Christ. Loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us means having the heart of God that desires people to turn from sin and to turn to Him. It means recognizing that our true enemy is not physical but spiritual (Ephesians 6:10–13). It means trusting that God will ultimately accomplish His good purposes with His perfect love and in His perfect justice. Knowing that we are forgiven in Christ and secure in the Father, we can extend His grace and love to others. We can pray that our enemies would come to know Him, too.
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