How high Jesus' standards are for his people! No doubt you'll have lots of things to sort out from this series on the Sermon on The Mount.
Jesus' standards are very high but please don't misunderstand. Jesus doesn't set incredibly high standards as a necessary mark to reach before we can become one of his people. It's not like a high jump – that we've got to get to that height before we can be one of his people. That's never God's way.
One school in the UK has two Prize Winners Boards hanging in the Entrance Hall – one is for Olympic Gold medallists and the other is for Nobel prize winners. That was the standard for recognition at that school. If your name appeared on either of those boards, you knew you'd achieved something and that you were part of that school.
Now listen. That's never how it is with God. He never sets a standard for us to jump over in order to be accepted by him. You see he doesn't accept us based on our achievements or on our performance. He never sets a standard to jump over in that regard. In fact, with God it's quite the opposite. We're not accepted based on our performance but rather on the basis of Jesus' performance. Jesus came to earth to live the perfect life and to die the perfect death on a Cross, in our place. And so, to be accepted by God all we need to do is to repent and believe and trust in Jesus – that's it.
But you see the point is once we've done that, once we are his people then he expects us, in response, to aim high in the Spirit's power and indeed as Christians we'll want to aim high, out of thankfulness for all he's done for us, which in this bit of Matthew 5, means that we're to love our enemies. You've done all this for me Lord, what can I do for you? That's what the true Christian always says. Out of thankfulness and love for the Lord we'll obey his commands. It's evidence of genuine faith in Jesus.
And that's what the Sermon on the Mount is all about. Do you understand? It's grace – God's free and undeserved gift to us – that's the motivation for living the Christian life.
And one of the key reasons we'll want to live the way God tells us to live is because once we've understood the Cross, once we've understood grace, we know He also wants the best for us. You see if Jesus died for me and he did. If he loves me that much and he does, then I can be sure that all the other things he tells me to do are for my good. Indeed, as we get to know him better we then discover that following his ways are not only for my good but they also bring me freedom and life in its all fulness. And that's what this is really all about. You see, this isn't a list of rules to crush us, but rather a way to live as a free person in Christ - to set us free to live for him.
Now this is a great surprise to many people. Folks say to me following Jesus is restrictive, a set of rules to live by – it's all about the things you can't do. But no - following Jesus gives us freedom and joy! Rules can be liberating and protecting even if they appear restrictive. In one South African Safari Park there are massive signs which say, 'Wild Animals – Please do not get out of your car.' Sadly, two tourists ignored the signs, got out of their car and went for a walk. They never returned. But there are also signs which tell you where it's safe to walk, enjoy the views and have a picnic while you watch the birds and giraffes from a safe distance. It's not a restrictive rule but a liberating rule. God's rules are there for our good and give us safety and freedom, never freedom to ignore the rules for those are rules to protect you and provide for you. And this is how we're to see God's law.
The Ten Commandments in the Bible and Jesus' teaching here in Matthew 5 are there to protect you and provide for you – and other people too – they're there for the good of God's people and of society as a whole.
So for the Christian saved by grace – God's law gives me freedom and joy and protection. This is how I should live. For my good and for the good of others.
This is what's going on in the Sermon On the Mount and this is why I'll want to live it out – because I'm motivated by grace and also because I'll see he's a good God and when he tells me to do something. It gives me freedom and joy and it's also for the benefit of others. Which brings us to Loving Your Enemies. So, my first heading is that there should be
1. No Limits To Our Loving
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy'. But I say to you, Love your enemies…"
Have you ever thought 'If everyone loves everyone what a world the world would be'? In the 1970s Coca Cola thought the drink could bring everyone together as their advert sang: I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony! Not many of you remember that one! In our best moments, we'd all like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. We sing it but no sooner have we sung it than we're looking for ways out of living it. We're just like the Pharisees in that respect.
The Pharisees taught, verse 43, "Love your neighbour and hate your enemy." But that's a corruption of Old Testament law. Yes, God's law teaches "Love your neighbour as yourself" – Leviticus 19.18. But hate your enemy isn't in God's law, it isn't in the Old Testament. So how did the Pharisees come to corrupt the law?
Because they decided that "Love your neighbour" meant to just love my fellow Jew. So, I'm not obliged to love anyone who isn't a Jew. Then it's a short step to verse 43: "Love your neighbour and hate your enemy".
The Pharisees were wrong. But before we get on our high horse and become self-righteous, what about us? What do we often say – Charity begins at home etc? Now, if we don't love at home it's going to be hard for us to love anyone else. But what 'charity begins at home' usually ends up meaning is that charity ends at home. It's an excuse not to give, not to love others. We can so easily become like the Pharisees. That's why Jesus' words are so telling, verse 44, "But I say to you, 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...'"
Jesus is redefining who our neighbour is. Here and in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus teaches that loving your neighbour means loving everyone, including your enemy. Your enemy is also your neighbour. There should be no limits to our loving, even loving our enemies. Which is pretty radical.
But this kind of love is in short supply. We see that in the wider world, in governments crushing their own people in Venezuela and Sudan. Here it's been Boris v. his enemies, parliamentary Brexit divisions. Anti-Semitism. Racism more widely. Knife crime. The Jeremy Kyle Show and even Love Island have led to hatred. Hatred and fear are widespread.
But even between Christians – where is this love? Christians can fail in behaving with common decency to one another, never mind love. Christians can be unkind to one another. Some of you'll now be thinking of things you need to repent of and sort out. Of relationships that have gone wrong. That you need to repent of your behaviour and that an apology needs to be made, and things put right. And that's just with other Christians or friends and family, even before we begin to love our enemies.
Well moving on to loving our enemies how are we to love our enemies? Following a threat to destroy a sabre-rattling North Korea, Donald Trump decided instead to write to Kim Jong Un, which helped. A little flattery can go a long way in the world, especially with a narcissistic dictator!
But how are we as Christians to love our enemies? Forgiving those who sin against us is powerful as Jesus teaches in Matthew chapter 6. In 1987 Gordon Wilson forgave the IRA bombers for blowing up his daughter in Enniskillen. The papers at the time called it superhuman but it wasn't, it was supernatural – Gordon was a Christian.
And praying for them is powerful too as Jesus teaches here. How do we love those who oppose us as Christians? How do we love those who promote their unbiblical agenda in schools and in the workplace? Well Jesus doesn't say compromise with them or accept what they promote or remain silent. Martin Luther King said, "In the end we'll remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends". Sadly, that's what some people think loving our enemies means. No Jesus says love them – literally show them self-sacrificial love as the good Samaritan did – and pray for them – pray for those who persecute you.
Loving someone self sacrificially may mean challenging their behaviour. It certainly means proclaiming the gospel to them by word and deed. Perhaps you're facing persecution at work or even from your family, maybe over those very issues. Jesus says pray for them. But why? It doesn't at first seem a very practical response. Except when you think about it – it's very practical and powerful. You see praying for them is the first step to loving them. Pray for your enemies. Pray for those you don't get on with, even those at church. Your relationship with them will be impacted. It can help to transform those harder relationships. Prayer changes them and you. It's hard to genuinely and persistently pray for people you hate. You either stop praying for them or stop hating them. Prayer gives rise to love. Have you tried it? Pray for your enemies and then you'll begin to love them is what Jesus is saying.
So, there's to be no limits to your loving, from enemy to best friend and everyone in between. Then secondly there'll be...
2. No Doubt About Your Ancestry
... when you do so. Verse 44 to 45,
"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."
Here's why we're to love our enemies. Not just because the law says so. It's not just a matter of rules and regulations. It's because behind the law is the lawgiver, the Lord Almighty. Law reflects the character of the Lord. So, if I live the law, I'll reflect the character of God. People will say I know who your father is! If I start living like verse 44, if I start loving my enemies, people will say I know who your Father is, verse 45. You see our Father in heaven loves everyone. God's love is universal. God loves universally. Now don't misunderstand I'm not saying everyone will be saved, I'm not a universalist.
But everyone is at the end of God's love. God gives good gifts to all (Psalm 145). He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good (verse 45) and sends rain on the just and the unjust. Good or evil you enjoy the sunshine and the benefits of the rain. You don't see a cloud just raining on evil people, do you? The sun shines on everyone and the rain falls on everyone. It's just another sign of him being a good God.
But it's not the fact that God loves which makes him special. Human beings' love. What's so special about God is that he loves his enemies. So, copy God and not man. You see man loves with prejudice. Look at verse 46 and 47. 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?
Do you see? Love's not peculiar to Christians. Everyone's capable of loving. Families, friends, children, even bad people love. But there's nothing spectacular about loving those who love you. Even the pagans do that verse 47. Supernatural love is to love those you don't like, to love your enemies. So how much of our 'Christian' love is just human?
So the question we must ask ourselves is are we loving supernaturally in the power of the Spirit? A clique's love in a church can be just like the pagans. Is your group impossible to break into? Then it's not supernatural. The real test of how we're loving is how do we embrace the outsider? That clique can perceive the outsider to be the enemy of the group, but Jesus says love your enemies. Over coffee do we speak to those we don't know. How many people go away from church feeling lonely? Do we really love our neighbour? The challenge here is to love everyone. To love those who don't share the same social niceties. To love those who reject us. To love those we don't like. Let's start tonight. Over coffee let's look out for people. Let's include them in our friendship group. Let's include those who reject us. Let's love people who don't fit in, who've been horrible to us for it often demonstrates a need in them – yes even our enemies. God loves all and we're to do so too.
3. No Standard Below perfection (v48)
"You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Now let's not misunderstand this. We must keep this verse in its context. As we've seen Christ sets up the high ideal of perfect love – not that we can fully attain it in this life but it is God's high standard for us. So being perfect here equals loving others in a supernatural way, loving our enemies.
When we love like this, people will know we've been changed and taught by Jesus because no-one else loves like this. It's been said that: To repay good with evil is devilish. To repay good with good is human. To repay evil with good is divine.
That's how God loves. And that's what we're to aim to do. To love our enemies. It's a high calling. But we have the perfect model to follow in Jesus. Jesus lived this. Romans 5.8: "God shows his own love for us in that while we were still sinners [while we were still his enemies], Christ died for us", which is the verse that led me to trust Christ. Jesus went to the Cross for sinners, for his enemies, for you and me. Christ died for us.
He prayed for those who persecuted him. On the Cross he prayed: "Father forgive them they know not what they do." Jesus is our perfect example of perfect love.
And God the Father loves like this. John 3.16: "God so loved the world". And the world in John's writing is always the world in rebellion against God. Those who shake their fist at God or ignore him. "God so loved the world he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." So verse 48 be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Love like this.
No this isn't the way we become Christians – no we become Christians by trusting in Jesus' death and resurrection. But as those who've known God's love upon us when we were his enemies, we should love others like this too. And as we live it people will see that we are children of our heavenly Father. To love like this will have a remarkable impact on our church and on our community. Loving our enemies. Loving our neighbour. Loving others so that they feel accepted. Then, as unbelievers encounter us, they'll long to be part of it. This is evangelistic living. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. That you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.