A Commentary by John Stott

Matthew 5:43-48. Active love (continued).

Words can also express our love, however, both words addressed to our enemies themselves and words addressed to God on their behalf. ‘Bless those who curse you.’ If they call down disaster and catastrophe upon our heads, expressing in words their wish for our downfall, we must retaliate by calling down heaven’s blessing upon them, declaring in words that we wish them nothing but good. Finally, we direct our words to God. Both evangelists record this command of Jesus: ‘Pray for those who persecute (or abuse) you.’ (Mt.5:44; Lk.6:28). Chrysostom saw this responsibility to pray for our enemies as ‘the highest summit of self-control’. Indeed, looking back over the requirements of these last two antitheses, he traces nine ascending steps, with intercession as the topmost one. First, we are not to take any evil initiative ourselves. Secondly, we are not to avenge another’s evil. Thirdly, we are to be quiet, and fourthly, to suffer wrongfully. Fifthly, we are to surrender to the evildoer even more than he demands. Sixthly, we are not to hate him, but (steps 7 and 8) to love him and to him good. As our ninth duty, we are ‘to entreat God Himself on his behalf’.

Modern commentators also have seen such intercession as the summit of Christian love. ‘This is the supreme command,’ wrote Bonhoeffer. ‘Through the medium of prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God.’ Moreover, if intercessory prayer is an expression of what love we have, it is a means to increase our love as well. It is impossible to pray for someone without loving him, and impossible to go on praying for him without discovering that our love for him grows and matures. We must not, therefore, wait before praying for our enemy until we feel some love for him in our heart. We must begin to pray for him before we are conscious of loving him, and we shall find our love break first into bud, then into blossom. Jesus seems to have prayed for his tormentors actually while the iron spikes were being driven through his hands and feet; indeed the imperfect tense suggests that he kept praying, kept repeating his entreaty ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’ (Lk.23:34). If the cruel torture of crucifixion could not silence our Lord’s prayer for his enemies, what pain, pride, prejudice or sloth could justify the silencing of ours?

I find I am quoting Bonhoeffer in this chapter more than any other commentator. I suppose the reason is that although he wrote his exposition before the outbreak of war, he could see where Nazism was leading, and we know to what fate his Christian testimony against it brought him in the end. He quoted a certain A.F.C.Villmar of 1880, but his words sound almost prophetic of Bonhoeffer’s own day: ‘This commandment, that we should love our enemies and forgo revenge, will grow even more urgent in the holy struggle which lies before us… The Christians will be hounded from place to place, subjected to physical assault, maltreatment and death of every kind. We are approaching an age of wide-spread persecution…Soon the time will come when we shall pray…It will be a prayer of earnest love for these very sons of perdition who stand around and gaze at us with eyes aflame with hatred, and who have perhaps already raised their hands to kill us… Yes, the Church which is really waiting for its Lord, and which discerns the signs of the times of decision, must fling itself with its utmost power and with the panoply of its holy life, into this prayer of love.’

Having indicated that our love for our enemies will express itself in deeds, words and prayers, Jesus goes on to declare that only then shall we prove conclusively whose sons we are, for only then shall we be exhibiting a love like the love of our heavenly Father’s. *For he makes his sun to rise (Notice in passing, to whom the sun belongs) on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust* (45). Divine love is indiscriminate love, shown equally to good men and to bad. The theologians (following Calvin) call this God’s ‘common grace’. It is not ‘saving grace’. enabling sinners to repent, believe and be saved; but grace shown to all mankind, the penitent and the impenitent, believers and unbelievers alike. This common grace of God is expressed, then, not in the gift of salvation but in the gifts of creation, and not least in the blessings of rain and sunshine, without which we could not eat and life on the planet could not continue. This, then, is to be the standard of Christian love. We are to love like God, not men.
Tomorrow: Matthew 5:43-48 Active love (continued).

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.