You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 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. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For 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? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. —Matthew 5:38-48
I’ll set this up by saying two things – one to unbelievers, and the other to believers. First, to those of us who are unbelievers – I read what Jesus says here and I am forced to conclude that you have the right to judge us. As you look at us here at Immanuel Church, can you see with your eyes that we accept injuries and wrongs with a sweet spirit? Can you see with your eyes that we love those who mistreat us? Or are we just a lot of big talk? If you see in us only the minimalist righteousness of the Pharisees and not the surprising love of Jesus, then you have the right to judge us as hypocrites. But if, with all our failings, you can see with your eyes something of the beauty that Jesus is talking about here, and you still say No to God, then God has the right to judge you, doesn’t he? We will not judge you. But God will.
Immanuel Church is a prophetic community – not just in what we say but in what we are. If you can see in us the difference Jesus makes, it is Jesus himself calling to you. He loves you and wants you. Here is his gospel you must accept. One, God made you and owns you. Two, you have run from God and ignored him and marginalized him, and he is offended by you. His heart is broken. He wanted so much more with you. Three, God so loves self-assured idiots that he came in Jesus to live for us the perfect life we’ve never lived and to die for us the guilty death we don’t want to die. God has opened the door back to himself. Four, all we have to do, all we can do, is open up and receive his love with the empty hands of faith. If you’ll do that, he will include you in his mighty heart and in his new community. This world is headed for judgment. But the kingdom of heaven is here, and you can be a part of it, starting right here. Do you mind receiving the greatest thing that’s ever happened in all this sorry world?
Two, let me say this to Immanuel people. Gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture. That’s what Jesus is talking about here – the gospel creating a surprising new community. The true test of our faithfulness as a church is not only in what we teach but also in what we are. I’m talking about both our message and our relationships, our vibe, our feel, our culture as a church. Many of us have never before experienced a gospel culture. For many of us, it is something new to be a gospel-preaching church that actually feels a little bit like Jesus. So don’t import into Immanuel the patterns of the past. Let’s be open to the new thing God is doing here. It is worthy of our utmost. This past week at the Acts 29 retreat we received these cool water bottles with the slogan, “Until the world knows.” I love that. Our work has only begun. We’re going to preach and love and serve and gather and sing and worship and obey and weep and laugh and plant churches until the world knows about Jesus.
But I want to tweak that slogan for us here in Nashville: “Until the world sees.” Our city knows something of the gospel. But they won’t believe until they see it in a gospel culture. Our city must see the beauty of Jesus and not only hear the truth of Jesus. And what is more Jesus-like, what is more beautiful and impressive, than the love Jesus is talking about here? This week I was reading Death in the City by Francis Schaeffer. I heard him give these lectures when I was a student in 1968. He said this:
If we are Christians and do not have upon us the calling to respond to the lostness of the lost and a compassion for those of our kind, our orthodoxy is ugly and it stinks. And it not only stinks in the presence of the hippie, it stinks in the presence of anybody who is honest. And more than that, I’ll tell you something else. Orthodoxy without compassion stinks with God.
But when gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture, it’s beautiful. And that is what the Sermon on the Mount is all about—a new kind of community for messy people who need God. That is costly. But that is the calling God has put upon us at Immanuel. Then people can see the real Jesus.
Let’s listen now to what Jesus is saying. First, he tells us what not to do. Second, he tells us what to do. Third, he tells us how far to take this.
What not to do
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” —Matthew 5:38
The Old Testament said that (Leviticus 24:20). But the rabbis changed the meaning of it. What God had meant was this. The punishment should fit the crime. That’s justice. Who can argue with that? That principle doesn’t require that the full punishment be given. The administration of justice is a separate question. An offender isn’t automatically punished to the full extent of the law. A just punishment could be softened, but it couldn’t be exceeded. But however justice is meted out in actual cases, the principle of measure for measure does define justice, doesn’t it? Would we want justice defined any other way? Would we want justice to go undefined, so that anybody can take personal revenge? So, “an eye for an eye,” though severe, is right.
But Jesus can see that human hypocrisy has stolen the very definition of justice to subvert justice. The Old Testament was saying, “Be fair.” But human hypocrisy twisted that to say, “Take your pound of flesh, right up to the last ounce. If they hurt you, hurt them back. Teach them a lesson they’ll never forget.” And that is divine justice?
It is so hard to bear an injury without lashing back. It is so easy, when we feel hurt, to confuse my personal cause with the justice of God. It is easy to confuse my own moral fervor with the will of God. But that is hypocrisy. We can bring that to Jesus. But we can’t pretend it’s the heart of Jesus. Rather than moderating our blood lust, the very words of the Bible were being used to rationalize our spitefulness. But the Old Testament itself had already said, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). That’s the heart of Jesus, and that’s a gospel culture. This is what Jesus says to us in our anger and our frustration when we’ve really been wronged:
But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. —Matthew 5:39-42
Do you see what Jesus is doing? He isn’t answering every question that comes into our minds. In fact, he raises a lot of questions. He isn’t telling parents not to discipline their children. He isn’t telling the police department to shut down. He’s throwing out some representative samples of a gospel culture. And it’s beautiful, because it’s like Jesus himself.
When he says, “Do not resist the one who is evil,” he is saying, “Do not resist in an evil way the one who is evil. Do not compound their evil by hitting back – and then adding the hypocrisy of quoting the Bible to justify it.” He’s telling us not to do that.
What to do
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” —Matthew 5:43
But the Old Testament never said, “Hate your enemy.” In fact, the Old Testament said, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head” (Proverbs 25:21-22). In other words, If you want to torment your enemy, be so kind to him that he’s too embarrassed to stay your enemy. But this tradition that added, “Hate your enemy” – God never said that. When he did say, “You shall love your neighbor,” he meant the word “neighbor” to include all people. Look at the heart of God:
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. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For 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? —Matthew 5:44-47
The love of God reaches out to everybody, both evil people and good people. Every beautiful sunrise over the home of an abortionist is the love of God saying, “I want to brighten your day, to get you to start listening to me.” Every rain shower that waters the lawn of an adult bookstore owner is the love of God saying, “I want to make your life better, to win your heart.” Who do you disapprove of? Who makes you feel offended and threatened and angry? Jesus wants to know, How are you going to love that person? God loves that person. And he shows it every day. Do you see that Jesus says it’s “his sun” that shines down (verse 45). God can make it shine wherever he wants. And he uses it and to shine on everybody, including that person you find most distasteful. And where our English Bibles say that God “sends rain,” the Greek text literally says, “He rains” on the just and on the unjust.
It could not be more personal for God. He is personally, universally sending out signals of his love to all kinds of people, to show them that he loves even them. They don’t believe it. Or, if they do, they think they deserve it. But God loves them anyway. What are you and I going to do, here in our part of God’s world, to show love for the very people who offend us the most? If we’re willing to follow Christ on that path, we will be the children of our Father who is in heaven (verse 45). If we are unwilling, if we set limits to how far we will let the love of God take us, then our love is the righteousness of the Pharisees.
Where did we get the idea that we’re going to live a normal life? That is not our mission. Sooner or later, something catastrophic, something horribly unjust, crashes into our lives, and then we discover what our true mission in life is. Our mission is to forgive. It is God’s mission.
The reason why God allowed that evil person to harm you so horribly is this. He wanted to show that person a love almost unbelievable. So he allowed that evil person to harm you, so that you could love that person and forgive that person and pray for that person and do good to that person with the love of God himself. The wrong you suffered was part of God’s strategy for world redemption getting close to one undeserving sinner—so close they might even believe it.
So here is the Lord’s question for every one of us: “What more are you doing than others?” (verse 47). If you’re not picketing the home of an abortionist and you’re just leaving that person alone, where is Jesus in that? He’s not asking you how you aren’t harming that person. He’s asking you how you are benefiting that person. He’s asking you what you’re doing that goes beyond being nice to the people who already like you. He’s asking you what you’re doing for the people you don’t understand at all – you don’t understand their music, their politics, their dress, their language, their lifestyle, their jokes. He’s not asking you to understand them. He asking you to love them, and especially the people you feel compelled by the Bible itself to disapprove of in some respects. If your Christianity doesn’t take you beyond the limits of understandable love into the love of God that breaks down barriers, then your Christianity is the righteousness of the Pharisees. “What more are you doing than others?” And here’s how far he wants us to take this:
How far to take this
You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. —Matthew 5:48
What on earth does that mean? A verse like this is when we start looking up other translations, because surely the word “perfect” cannot mean “perfect.” But we can’t weasel out of it. The Lord’s point doesn’t rest on one word. His point rests on the phrase, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.” What then is Jesus saying? Remember verse 20. All of verses 21-47 flow out of verse 20. The Lord said there, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Do you remember what the righteousness of the Pharisees is? It is pervasive in Christianity today. It is the minimalist, “Just define for me the least I have to do, to get by, and I’ll do it.” For example, “Sure, I’ll teach the kids in Sunday School. But I won’t give it my all. I won’t prepare on Saturday afternoon, so that I give them my best. What I’ll do is, I’ll show up on Sunday, glance at the materials, and pretty much wing it. And then, I’ll tell myself I’ve served the Lord.” Try that at work, and see if your company likes it. But that is a common way of thinking in churches, isn’t it? We give God our least, not our best, and then we tell ourselves, “That is Christianity.” But Jesus says, “No, that is the obedience of the Pharisees.” It’s why Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).
So here is the Lord’s point in verse 48: “There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no limits” (Revised English Bible). Jesus will stretch us. Jesus will make us like his Father in heaven. Jesus will get us thinking, “How can I serve at the very highest level of my abilities?” Jesus is not asking you to be superhuman. But he demands your whole heart. Henry Drummond nailed it when he said, “Don’t touch Christianity unless you are willing to seek the kingdom of heaven first. I promise you a miserable existence if you seek it second.” And there is nothing more satisfying than to hurl yourself, in all your weakness and need, at Jesus and give yourself entirely to him and find out how greatly he can use you to build a gospel culture in a world that doesn’t see any reason to believe.