What did Jesus mean when He said, “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.” How are we to pray for those who “despitefully use” us? Can you offer any thoughts?
In Matthew 5, Jesus was setting a very high standard of heart quality, in sharp contrast to the law of Moses with its simple outward requirements.
The text you cite (Matt. 5:44) is Jesus’ counter to the old Jewish law “love your neighbor, hate your enemy.”
In the time of Jesus, “Love your enemies” was a new thought to Jews who delighted in hating anyone who opposed them or disagreed with them, including Gentiles, Roman officials, promoters of heresy, etc., etc. Enemies were hated, and that hatred was considered to be in harmony with the Jewish standard of religion. The ancient world was ruptured by much deep and often violent hatred. When Jesus taught, “Love your enemies,” He was making an unequivocal and startling demand that cut sharply across Jewish ethics and morals.
In the New Testament there are three different words translated “love.” One indicates physical romantic love; another, the love that binds a family and friends; and third—the one used in Matthew 5:43-44—is a love which expresses persistence in goodwill in Christ. We are not to love everyone with a natural and spontaneous affection; rather, Christ tells us to act in goodwill from God toward all men.
This command was especially meaningful to the Jews of Jesus’ day who sought to justify their hatred of Roman authority by their interpretation of the law of Moses. They made no attempt to control their bitter, hateful feelings, and this, said Jesus, was wrong. They were jealous, revengeful, hating Jesus—even to the point of wanting to kill him.
While Jesus told them the plain facts, He did not harbor any feelings of revenge. He did not wish them harm or seek to injure them. He did not stir up His apostles and disciples with feelings of hatred or ill will. When Peter cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Jesus rebuked Peter and restored the ear (Matt. 26:51; Mark 14:47). When the disciples James and John asked Jesus to command fire to consume the Samaritans who would not receive them, again Jesus rebuked their impetuous spirit. Jesus never justified any ill feelings.
This does not say that Jesus condoned evil. He condemned it, and He separated Himself from it; but had He had ill feelings or feelings of revenge toward those who opposed Him, He would only have been adding to their evil a stain upon His own character. Thus, as our perfect Example, He taught us how to maintain a spirit of goodwill and benevolence even toward our enemies.
Paul tells how we should love our enemies in his letter to the Roman Church: “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone; aim to be above reproach in the eyes of all; be at peace with all men, if possible, so far as that depends on you. Never revenge yourselves, beloved, but let the Wrath of God have its way; for it is written, Vengeance is mine, I will exact a requital—the Lord has said it. No, if your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him drink; for in this way you will make him feel a burning sense of shame. Never let evil get the better of you; get the better of evil by doing good” (Rom. 12:17-21, Moffatt Bible).
Jesus then goes on to command us to pray for our “enemies”: “Pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you.” The primary purpose in such prayer would be to pray that they see their error, repent and turn from it.
Adam Clarke calls Jesus’ command to “pray for them…” an “exquisitely reasonable precept. I cannot change that wicked man’s heart; and while it is unchanged he will continue to harass me:…then I must implore him to do that which will at once secure the poor man’s salvation, and contribute so much to my own peace.”
Jesus goes on to say how God shows love to His enemies: “for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
We can do no better than to imitate God’s pattern. If God had not had mercy on us even while we were dead in sin, we should never have had opportunity to become His children. We can do no less than extend the same kindness to others.