We are in the midst of that material that is found in Matthew 5-7 as the Sermon on the Mount. Some of the material we are to read this morning – none of which is a word for word repetition of the same paragraph in Matthew’s version – is found in Matthew 5 and some in chapter 7.
v.28 It is not enough to having loving thoughts toward one’s enemies, one must act positively on their behalf.
v.29 The word translated “cheek” is really the “jaw.” So don’t think of a light slap to the cheek but a punch to the jaw. [Morris, 149]
Think of “cloak” and “tunic” as your coat and your shirt.
v.30 Jesus is, of course, describing a fundamental attitude, not what must be done in every case. Obviously true love will not always give what is asked any more than it will allow a hot-tempered man to be habitually violent. But this radical way of describing the love that Christians owe their neighbors, even their enemies, is very typical of the Lord’s teaching. He will tell a man on one occasion to sell all that he has and give it to the poor; he will teach his disciples that they must hate their fathers and mothers, even their own lives if they would be his disciples. He will teach them to forgive those who sin against them not once or twice, but seventy times seven, and so on. There is a radical character to the Christian life that Jesus taught. In the Judaism of the period we find taught the love of neighbor, but the neighbor was understood to be someone who thought as you did. Indeed, in some of the Jewish thinking of the period, it was thought right to hate one’s religious enemies so long as you love your friends and we have learned of late that such is the thinking of many Muslims. [cf. Bock, i, 588]
v.31 Forms of the “golden rule” (a term that harks back at least to the middle ages) can be found in Jewish teaching of the period, in classical, that is Greek and Roman moral writing, and in an ancient Chinese version from Confucius 500 years before Christ. But it is usually put in a negative form: “do not do to others what you would not want to be done to you.” Jesus is the only one to put the rule so simply and clearly in a positive form: “Do for others what you wish they would do for you.” Again, the Lord puts his ethics in the most radical form. [cf. Bock’s summary, i, 596-597]
v.34 The kind of lending the Lord is talking about is the sort of lending you might do to someone from whom you might hope to get a loan yourself at some future date. That kind of lending amounts to “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” But that is not love, certainly not Christ-like, selfless love.
v.36 Christians’ behavior, in other words, is to be different than even the best behavior of unbelievers because they have a very different reason for their behavior. Unbelievers can certainly do good things, but there is definitely a limit to what they will do and there is almost always a principle of self-interest at work. Christians have completely different motivations which lend a completely different character to their obedience. In fact, the ancient moralists almost always recommended the principle in this way: “Do good to others so they will do good to you.” [Bock, i, 598] Christians, on the other hand, are to seek to please a merciful God and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If we would be the true children of our heavenly Father we should have the same spirit toward our enemies as he does toward his and, of course, we were once his enemies.
It is very interesting, by the way, that the Greco-Roman moralists also spoke of imitating their gods. Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher of the first and second centuries, wrote this:
“It is of prime importance for those who would please and obey the deities to be as much like them as lies within their power. If fidelity is a divine characteristic, then they are to be faithful; if generous, they are to be generous; if beneficent, they are to be beneficent,” and so on. [II, xiv, 12-13] But, of course, the Greek gods—as we read of them in the myths—were only sporadically faithful and generous and were never, ever merciful in the sense that Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is always and eternally merciful; they were never generous in the sense that the living God is generous, giving up his only Son for the sake of undeserving sinners.
v.37 Several authors I have read through the years regard this statement, the opening statement of v. 37 and its parallel in Matthew 7:1, as the unbelieving world’s favorite Bible verse. It immunizes them from condemnation, or so they think. It is always wrong for others to judge them, or so they think. But, of course, the statement itself assumes the reality of divine judgment. The statement “and you will not be judged” certainly refers to the Last Judgment. There is such a Judgment coming. The question is, “Who should render that Judgment.” A person who is always condemning others invites God’s condemnation. Remember Francis Schaeffer’s remark to the effect that we could all be condemned without any possible rebuttal on our part if only God were to hang a recorder around our necks and then hold us to account for the sins for which we condemned others, but which we often committed ourselves. And, on the other hand, a generous spirit, a spirit of forgiveness towards others is the surest sign that a person has been forgiven by God.
Remember Johann Albrecht Bengel’s famous four word comment on the first command of v. 37: sine scientia, necessitate, amore. The judgment the Lord is forbidding is that judgment that is made –as so much human judgment is made – “without knowledge, without necessity, and without love.”
v.38 These words describe a full measure of grain such as would be poured into a fold in the garment that serves as a kind of pocket. The Lord will not skimp on the reward he will give to those who serve him in a Christ-like way. A scholar who had a great deal of experience with the customs of the Middle East described the process this way.
“The measuring of corn is a process which is carried out according to an established pattern. The seller crouches on the ground with the measure between his legs. First of all he fills the measure three-quarters full and gives it a good shake with a rotary motion to make the grains settle down. Then he fills the measure to the top and gives it another shake. Next he presses the corn together strongly with both hands. Finally he heaps it into a cone, tapping it carefully to press the grains together… In this way, the purchaser is guaranteed an absolutely full measure; it cannot hold more.” [Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 222] That is the Lord’s point. He will guarantee to you a full measure of reward for love of this kind.
v.40 Speaking of the responsibility his disciples bear toward others, Jesus reminds them of the need to learn all they can so they will have something to give to others, but to do so with real humility never forgetting their place as students.
v.41 These verses are virtually a commentary on the previous verse 37 about judging. Again nothing so commends to others the spirit the Lord is after in his disciples than that true humility that never notices the faults of others without at the same time recognizing the faults in one’s own life.
Sometime in the second century, an unnamed Christian writer wrote an apology for the Christian faith which he addressed to a Roman official by the name of Diognetus. Apparently Diognetus was curious about the Christians; he would have heard both good and bad, and the author wanted to put him right. In this beautiful piece the author famously referred to Christians as a new race, by which he meant neither pagan nor Jew. They are a people, he told Diognetus, whose worship and whose way of life are something very different from what the world has seen before. In one of the most noble passages in any Christian writing before or since, the anonymous author describes Christians, describes you, in this way.
“…Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. … Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike…and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. … They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted. … They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance. … They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect. … They are treated by the Jews as foreigners and enemies, and are hunted down by the Greeks; and all the time those who hate them find it impossible to justify their enmity. … in the same way, Christians love those who hate them.” [v-vi]
This Christian writer referred to Christians as a new race. Later they would be referred to by Christian and non-Christian writers alike as the third race, neither pagans, nor Jews. It was a revealing title because everyone knew that the Christians had their origin among the Jews. But they were very different from the Jews. They were not as eccentric a people. They did not live aloof from everyone else as the Jews typically did. Throughout the Roman world the Jews were regarded, and usually despised, as a different people because of their refusal to participate in Greco-Roman worship, their refusal to use images in worship (a strange custom to the Greco-Roman mind), and because of the way they kept aloof from the general population in every town and city where they lived. The Roman government had extended to them the privilege of not worshipping the emperor, which they would never have done. But Christians were not simply Jews. They were a third race. Like the Jews, there were features of their life and conduct that the citizens of the empire genuinely disliked and feared. They were regarded as unpatriotic because they too would not worship the Roman gods or the emperor. And when people dislike and fear someone, they are inclined to invent stories to justify their hatred and disgust. And there were plenty such stories circulating about the Christians, who they were and what they did in their worship services and the like. They were accused of everything from incest to cannibalism. So it was necessary for Christian writers to explain who the Christians really were and what they really stood for and to disabuse Romans of much of what they had heard. And so this wonderful description of them and their way of life. And what claims this man made for his fellow Christians! They love those who hate them.
Now, can you imagine such a writing being addressed nowadays to President Obama or Governor Gregoire? There is a sense, of course, in which such writings are just as necessary nowadays as ever. There are always among many people and particularly among the high and mighty profound misunderstandings as to what Bible-believing Christians really believe and how they live. Authors like Lewis and Schaeffer have done for our time what the anonymous author of the Epistle to Diognetus did for his. There will always be a need to clear our faith from the opprobrium of the unbelieving world and to remind them what it is that Christians believe, why they believe it, and what difference it makes in their living; why they are in some ways so much the same as others and in other ways so utterly different. And it will always be necessary to emphasize that Christians are a community of love.
But we have a problem the author of that ancient apology did not. The problem we face is that Christianity has been around for a long time now and only some of those who call themselves Christians take seriously the Lord’s summons to his disciples that they must live a life different from and higher than even that of the most moral of unbelievers. Our faith and the reputation of our religion have been profoundly compromised in the so-called Christian world. We are no longer and so obviously a new race, a third race, a unique people. But some of us must be. Some of us must keep alive that reputation in the world. Some of us must persuade the unbelieving world that there really is such a community as Jesus Christ has described here. There is very little that we can do about the fact that so many insincere Christians dilute our testimony in the world, but there is nothing this world needs more than that there should be a mass of Christian people who vindicate in their lives the description of true Christianity that our Savior has given here. We cannot now any longer be a new race, but we can still be a unique people among the people of the world.
The advantage that the author of the Epistle to Diognetus had over those who would write in defense of Christianity today was precisely that he could count on the fact that Christians in general actually lived the life that he describes as uniquely theirs. Not perfectly. We understand that. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians remind us that even from the beginning there were those who claimed our faith who did not adorn it with their lives or at least did not adorn it all the time. But most Christians did in that early period. There were not the social and cultural reasons to claim an attachment to Christianity that there would come to be in the modern West. Those who followed Jesus did so with real verve and they really did live a life of selfless and self-sacrificing love that was obviously quite different from the norm.
One of the reasons why the Lord’s teaching has held such a grip on the world since it was first delivered there in Galilee is that it is so perfectly clear. No one ever perfected the art of saying things of the greatest importance so clearly and so persuasively as did Jesus of Nazareth. If it is a catastrophic mistake for many to think of Jesus as only a great moral teacher, it is not because he was not a great moral teacher. There was never a greater teacher of morals in the history of mankind.
I don’t suppose a one of us really has any difficulty understanding what the Lord Jesus is teaching us here, no matter that nearly 2,000 years separates his time from our own. When a store clerk is rude, the Lord expects us to be patient and kind in return. When we are criticized, even when we are criticized in ways we think unjust, we are to respond humbly, ready to take any responsibility that is ours and to reply with courtesy and respect. When people make demands upon us that are really unfair, we ought to meet them cheerfully, even sacrificially. Our loving treatment of others is vastly more important than any injustice done to us. If, as is happening in Iran and elsewhere today, we are condemned to death for our faith in Christ, we are to love and pray for our enemies to the end as our Savior did, as Stephen did and as countless martyrs have done after them. In all things we ought to govern our conduct by the principle of mercy, and not just any principle of mercy. No, the mercy, the kindness, the generosity, the patience toward others that is to mark our behavior and distinguish it from the common run of human behavior is that mercy that our heavenly Father and our Savior showed us in saving us from our sins, in overlooking our disgusting faults, and in paying the terrible price he paid to remove our mountainous guilt when he knew full well he was going to get virtually nothing in return.
That is the kind of mercy to which we are to aspire in our conduct toward others. We don’t pass judgment because we know full well that left to ourselves we couldn’t bear the judgment of God. We return blessing to those who curse us because we cursed God and he blessed us in return. We give to those who beg from us because we were nothing but beggars and the Lord lavished his gifts on us.
It isn’t only that we ought to behave this way toward others and toward our enemies, Christians want to do this; no, that isn’t even strong enough. They revel in doing it! Or, they should.
You see, this way of life, this radical, extravagantly selfless way of life, is the way of life a Christian wants to live precisely because of the impression the Lord’s love and mercy has made upon his or her soul. A person cannot really appreciate God’s great mercy, cannot feelingly understand what God’s grace has done in his or her life sinful and selfish life and not want that grace to be embodied in his or her behavior toward others. A Christian cannot really love God without wanting to please him. But how can mere mortals like you and me please God? We can take his heart and make it our own. We can honor his love – selfless, radical, sacrificial – by making it our own. We should; we must. There is no Christian here who can stand up and say, “That is too much to ask. I am under no such obligation.” If you did, we were all turn away from you in embarrassment and humiliation. To do anything less is to belittle that love with which he loved us. If you don’t aspire to God’s kind of love then it must not have impressed you very much.
Did you notice the somewhat unusual way in which the section we read began? “But I say to you who hear…” It is a way of speaking like his often repeated expression, “He who has an ear, let him hear.” It is a way of acknowledging both that a great many people who hear the Lord’s words will do nothing with them, and that those with new hearts, those attuned to the Lord’s words must not only hear them but then do something with them; put them into practice. It isn’t enough simply to listen. It isn’t enough even to agree. Many will do that. You must take action in obedience to these commandments.
But such action, difficult as it is, will only take place if it rests on the strength of our conviction that we have ourselves been loved with a very great love when we were God’s enemies. Why should it disgust us when we find within ourselves a judgmental attitude, or a supercilious or superior attitude toward others? Why should we crave opportunities to love people who have done nothing to win or deserve our love? Because that is how God loved us! Because that kind of love and only that kind of love, is a true imitation of our Savior’s love for us, because that divine love is all that that stands between us and hell itself. Why be merciful to everyone, all the time? Because the God who has granted us eternal life is merciful all the time. Why be kind to the unkind, grateful to the ungrateful, and thoughtful to the thoughtless? Because we have been so unkind, so thoughtless, and so ungrateful and yet God was kind and thoughtful to us. For the real Christian at least from time to time, the thought of such love sends shivers up and down the spine. Indeed, every real Christian wishes it were sending such shivers every moment of every day because he or she knows that it is only the hardness of our hearts and the opaqueness of our spiritual vision that keeps it from being so. This love is, as a famous Scottish writer put it more than a century ago, “the greatest thing in the world.” The Lord is inviting you to make the greatest thing in the world part and parcel of your life.
Why should we want to live lives of extraordinary love, to stand out for the love we show to others? Because the love with which we have been loved is utterly extraordinary. Let a man or woman feel that divine love in the heart and that kind of love for others becomes his or her happy calling. Such love is not a duty; it is a privilege; a life worth living.
It is a very interesting fact, and some powerful proof of our faith, that a way of life that is, humanly speaking, so unlikely, and so hard – requiring us not only strictly to control our penchant for anger, for resentment, for replying in kind, and for the criticism of others but to be kind and gracious to everyone – is a life Christians love. In some ways the harder it becomes the better, because love of that kind comes closer to being something like the love of God and Christ for us.
Here is Charles Wesley giving expression to the aspirations of a Christian to live a life of true love as the Lord has described that love here. A life of unqualified love and love for everyone.
O Thou who camest from above
The pure celestial fire to impart,
Kindle a flame of sacred love
On the mean altar of my heart!
Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
To work, and speak, and think for Thee;
Still let me guard the holy fire,
And still stir up Thy gift in me.
Ready for all Thy perfect will,
My acts of faith and love repeat,
Till death Thy endless mercies seal,
And makes the sacrifice complete.
Few Christians in the history of the church have been as often and systematically mistreated as the Armenian Christians of modern day Turkey, southern Russia, and northwestern Iraq. Through the ages they have endured ethnic cleansing of the cruelest kind – systematic executions, pogroms, persecution – and never have they reached a state in which they could count on peace and safety. So it continues even in our day. They have enemies, these brothers and sisters of ours, real enemies. Not a curt and impolite store clerk or someone writing a silly anti-Christian diatribe in the newspaper, or a thief who steals a little bit of our property; not someone who makes our otherwise comfortable life unhappy in this way or in that. They have real enemies. For them what happened to the Christian pastor in Iran for whom we prayed last Wednesday night – condemned to death for his conversion to Christianity – has happened times without number. So what will they do?
“A Turkish officer raided and looted an Armenian home. He killed the aged parents and gave the daughters to the soldiers, keeping the eldest daughter for himself. Some time later she escaped and trained as a nurse. As time passed, she found herself nursing in a ward of Turkish officers. One night, by the light of a lantern, she saw the face of this officer. He was so gravely ill that without exceptional nursing he would die. The days passed, and he recovered. One day, the doctor stood by the bed with her and said to him, ‘But for her devotion to you, you would be dead.’ He looked at her and said, ‘We have met before, haven’t we?’ ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘we have met before.’ ‘Why didn’t you kill me?’ he asked. She replied, ‘I am a follower of him who said ‘Love your enemies.’” [Cited in G. Wainwright, Doxology, 434]
Some stories are undoubtedly too good to be true, but I could, I think, easily convince you that the sources of this account are reliable and, after all, this kind of love is hardly unusual in our world. Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of his murderers while they were killing him and so later did Stephen. And since then there have been many Christians who have loved those who have hated them. Where Christians have been, this kind of radical, extravagant, merciful love has always been found. There are Christians here, so there must be that kind of love here as well and we must see to it that there is more and more of it. When I first read that account of that Turkish nurse I felt and thought several things at once.
- I thought how right it was that this dear woman did what she did; how Godlike. That is precisely what she should have done, God being who he is, life being what it is, the future being what it will be. What do you imagine that woman’s heavenly reward will be? Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over will be put into her lap.
- Second, I felt tremendous pride in being a Christian, in belonging to such a company of people, a simple nurse in faraway Turkey, of whom the world is not worthy.
- And I thought, I want to be like her. I may never face circumstances anything remotely as terrible as hers, but as much as I can, I want to be like her.
And if you are a Christian I’m sure you think the very same way and wish for the very same thing. We don’t want the ordinary life that unbelievers live; we want something greater, higher, nobler; something more worthy of the grace we have received, something that stands out as having a completely different motivation and foundation than the actions of people who are not Christians. We want to love in a way that is extraordinary in comparison to the way others love because we have been loved ourselves with an extraordinary love.
That is some grand demonstration of the truth of what our Savior has taught us here about life. Difficult as his summons is to meet; we want to meet it, no matter the difficulty, because that life and only that life is the life of God himself.
Now the next time someone, anyone, is unkind to you, unfair to you, mistreats you in some way, or ignores you, or patronizes you, you know what to do. And remember, “With the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”