A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew. 5:43-48 Active love (continued).
For*if you love those who love you, what reward have you?* Or what credit is that to you? ‘Even sinners love those who love them.’ (Lk.6:32) Fallen man is not incapable of loving. The doctrine of total depravity does not mean (and never has meant) that original sin has rendered men incapable of doing anything good at all, but rather that every good they do is tainted to some degree by evil. Unredeemed sinners can love. Parental love, filial love, conjugal love, the love of friends – all these, as we know very well, are the regular experience of men and women outside Christ. *Even the tax collectors* (the petty customs officials who because of their extortion had a reputation for greed) love those who love them. *Even the gentiles* (those ‘dogs’, as the Jews called them, those outsiders who loathed the Jews and would look the other way when they passed one in the street), even they salute each other. None of this is in dispute.
But all human love, even the highest, the noblest and the best, is contaminated to some degree by the impurities of self-interest, We Christians are specifically called to love our enemies (in which love there is no self-interest), and this is impossible without the supernatural grace of God. If we love only those who love us, we are no better than swindlers. If we greet only our brothers and sisters, our fellow Christians, we are no better than pagans; they too greet one another. The question Jesus asked is: *What more are you doing than others?* (47). The simple word *more* is the quintessence of what he is saying. It is not enough for Christians to *resemble* non-Christians; our calling is to outstrip them in virtue. Our righteousness is to exceed (*perisseuse … pleion*) that of the Pharisees (20) and our love is to surpass, to be more than (*perisson*) that of the Gentiles (47). Bonhoeffer puts it well: ‘What makes the Christian different from other men is the “peculiar”, the *perisson*, the “extraordinary”, the “unusual”, that which is not “a matter of course” … It is “the more”, the “beyond-all-that”. The natural is *to auto* (one and the same) for heathen and Christian, the distinctive quality of the Christian life begins with the *perisson* … For him (sc. Jesus) the hallmark of the Christian is the “extraordinary”.’ (Pp. 136 f).
And what is this *perisson*, this ‘plus’ or ‘extra’ which Christians must display? Bonhoeffer’s reply was: ‘It is the love of Jesus Christ himself, who went patiently and obediently to the cross … The cross is the differential of the Christian religion.’. What he writes is true. Yet to be more precise, the way Jesus put it was to say that this ‘super-love’ is not the love of men but the love of God, which in common grace gives the sun and rain to the wicked. So *you, therefore* ( the ‘you’ is emphatic, distinguishing Christians from non-Christians), *must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect* (48). The concept that God’s people must imitate God rather than men is not new. The book of Leviticus repeated some five times as a refrain the command, ‘I am the Lord your God; … you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.’ (Lv.11:44, 45 ;19:2;20:7,26. Cf. 1Pet.1:16) Yet here Christ’s call to us is not to be ‘holy’ but to be ‘perfect’.
Some holiness teachers have built upon this verse great dreams of the possibility of reaching in this life a state of sinless perfection. But the words of Jesus cannot be pressed into meaning this without causing discord in the Sermon. For he has already indicated in the beatitudes that a hunger and thirst after righteousness is a perpetual characteristic of his disciples, (Matt.5:6), and in the next chapter he will teach us to pray constantly, ‘Forgive us our debts.’(6:12) Both the hunger for righteousness and the prayer for forgiveness, being continuous, are clear indications that Jesus did not expect his followers to become morally perfect in this life. The context shows that the ‘perfection’ he means relates to love, that perfect love of God which is shown even to those who do not return it. Indeed, scholars tell us that the Aramaic word which Jesus may well have used meant ‘all-embracing’. The parallel verse in Luke’s account of the Sermon confirms this: ‘Be merciful even as your Father is merciful.’ (Lk.6:63), We are called to be perfect in love, that is, to love even our enemies with the merciful, the inclusive love of God.
Christ’s call to us is new not only because it is a command to be ‘perfect’ rather than ‘holy’, but also because of his description of the God we are to imitate. In the Old Testament it was always ‘I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall therefore be holy , for I am holy.’ But now in the New Testament days it is not the unique Redeemer of Israel whom we are to follow and obey; it is our *Father who is in heaven* (45), our *heavenly Father*(48). And our obedience will come from our hearts as the manifestation of our new nature. For we are the sons of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, and we can demonstrate whose sons we are only when we exhibit the family likeness, only when we become peacemakers as he is (9), only when we love with an all-embracing love like his (45,48).
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.