Matthew 5:43-48 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Not only are we to love our enemies and persecutors, our love is of a different nature than the love of the people who don’t know Christ. God’s agape love has both a different nature and a different source than natural love. There are three ways that the quality of our love is radically different.
First, Jesus defined for us what natural love looks like – loving those who love us and greeting those who greet us – reciprocal love. Reciprocal love is part of living well here on earth, but it doesn’t distinguish us as Christians from anyone else. The nature of our love is both different and higher. The message of the Gospel is that Christ loved first without reservation or any necessity of reciprocation. That is the definition of grace and what made His love so unusual and so compelling. God so loved the world that He gave unconditionally and gracefully, demanding nothing in return but inviting us to join Him to express that same love to others. Alfred Plummer said, “to return evil for good is devilish; to return good for good is human; to return good for evil is divine.”
Second, our love is volitional, an act of the mind and will, not of our emotions. The verb used in Matthew 5:44 (“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”) is in the present imperative, meaning that our loving is to be continuous and habitual. When someone is an enemy they generate negative emotions, usually because it is someone who has offended or hurt us deeply. It’s difficult if not impossible to conjure up any positive emotion about that person. Yet agape overcomes those negative feelings with a resolve to obey God’s Word and respond to God’s Spirit with a decision to love. It is a voluntary choice to love someone even though that person has done nothing in the natural for us to love and will likely never reciprocate the love we bestow upon them.
Third, our love is selfless, giving out of a heart transformed by Christ’s love instead of either demanding or waiting until our love is returned. We love first (1 John 4:19), hoping that our example will be returned, but not dependent on it being returned. We love others because the new nature which dwells in us is a nature of love for others (Matthew 22:39). Our sinful nature is characterized by selfish ambition (Galatians 5:20), but Christ was selfless, thinking of others before Himself.
Loving our enemies and persecutors is supernatural, not natural. Only God’s Spirit dwelling in us gives us the will and the ability to love the way that Jesus loves. A transformed life results in a transforming love.