In Matthew 5:44, Jesus is addressing the multitudes during the Sermon on the Mount when He tells them: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (ESV). This is quite a statement. The King James Bible, which is based on a different source text, elaborates on this even further: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Who is capable of doing such a thing? Loving our neighbors (Mark 12:31) is difficult enough for many. But here, Jesus takes this commandment much further. Why does He want us to love our enemies, and how can we obey Him in this respect?
What exactly does Jesus say about loving our enemies?
The context of Jesus’ statement is the Sermon on the Mount. In chapters 5, 6 and 7 of the Book of Matthew, Jesus’ words are recorded as He gives a sermon to “great crowds [that had] followed Him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan”, according to Matthew 4:25. Jesus has already spoken about God’s blessings and His own role in the fulfillment of the Mosaic Law, and from, turns His attention to specific traditions and situations.
By the way, it is interesting to keep in mind the regions where the great crowds came from. They are not all Jewish, so Jesus was not just addressing a Jewish audience: many of the people there, being Gentiles, could have been considered “potential enemies”, since there was a lot of political tension between the people of Israel, surrounding nations and the Roman oppressors.
In Matthew 5:43, Jesus points out that people had been told to “hate their enemy”. Well, they had not been told this by God. In Leviticus 19:18, God commands: “Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” The “hate” instruction is an unbiblical addition, possibly introduced by the Pharisees. These were the same Pharisees who would end up as Jesus’ enemies. Jesus retracts their commandment, and tells the people that they must love their enemies, bless them, do good to them and pray for them, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.
Why would Jesus say this?
If all of mankind were to (a) love their neighbors, and, (b) love their enemies, there would be no more wars, no more poverty, no more jealousy, no more oppression, no more spitefulness, etc. We would see “paradise on earth” because all people would be devoting their time to helping each other, making sure that the entire global population has enough to eat, that all have a proper roof over our heads, have access to good medical care, and have a safe place to live and enjoy life. His words on a global scale are truly of the utmost importance.
On a personal level, we would experience the same effect: peace. Hate for someone makes it impossible to move on from the past. Hate connects us with negative things. It can be a very strong emotion, and allowing ourselves to be consumed by it, leads us away from God’s love. If we manage to love our enemies, we can disconnect ourselves from this and experience peace in our heart.
Who is our enemy?
Just as we might ask who our neighbor is, it is worth asking who our enemy is. Our enemy can be anyone who acts in a way that hurts us, disadvantages us, threatens us, mocks us, OR, that we perceive to hurt, disadvantage, threaten, or mock us. Children have “enemies” in the school playground; soldiers have enemies in the battlefield, and ordinary Christians living in a country where Christianity is not freely permitted, may have enemies that are looking to persecute them. It is not difficult to imagine why we might not like people who hurt or attack us. Even, “hate” them.
What is hatred?
Surprisingly, perhaps, not all hate is wrong. Hating our sin, is very good. God hates everything that separates us from His love, such as idolatry (Deuteronomy 16:22), evil (Hosea 9:15, Psalm 5:5; 11:5) and the wrong choices listed in Proverbs 6. But He didn’t let hate get in the way of His plan for mankind. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
God is able to make an important distinction that we find difficult. Our hate is often combined with feelings of revenge, unkindness, wanting to disadvantage the other. God does not hate in this way. For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45). The difference is in the motive for hatred. God’s hatred is justified and reasoned whereas we, people, allow our hatred to be brought on by emotions; often in a way and to a degree that we cannot control it.
Hostility towards others will leave us open to sin. Firstly, if we decide to hate someone, we presumably passed judgment on this person (judging them to be “worthy of our hate”). But Jesus tells us not to judge (Matthew 7:1-2). Secondly, if we hate someone, that will certainly leave us unable to view them as our neighbor, and we will fail to love them, as commanded by Jesus. We must not underestimate this. 1 John 3:15 says: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”
Does Jesus not realize how difficult this is?
It IS difficult – but even Jesus, Who had to endure the most painful and humiliating torture and death, asked His Father while He was on the cross, to forgive His executioners: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Jesus knows. He made a deliberate choice not to hate His executioners, but to pray for them. He didn’t “wait for a positive feeling about them”, nor did He wait for them to ask for His forgiveness. He simply decided not to hate, but forgive. If you find this difficult to do: please do pray for strength in this respect, and God will give it to you (Matthew 7:7). We would recommend that you read our articles on forgiveness, which may be of help.
It is easy to love those who are kind towards us. But Jesus needs His followers to reflect His own love for people – and this extends to people who are not kind, at all. Loving your enemies, blessing them that curse you, doing good to them that hate you, and praying for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you, is something that He asks of those who are determined to follow in His footsteps, and have a desire “to be perfect, as [our] heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
 The ESV and the KJV are based on different source texts which have minimal discrepancies. The shorter version of this verse (ESV) is in the Greek New Testament/Novum Testamentum Graece of Nestlé-Aland, based on Alexandrian manuscripts, whereas the longer version (KJV) is from the Textus Receptus, based on a Byzantine text-type. Compare Luke 6:27-28 for a very similar verse that is in all manuscript types.