Loving EnemiesRev. Philip Miller | March 6, 2022
Selected highlights from this sermon
At this point in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is still turning our world, our thought process, our ideas upside down. In this message, Pastor Miller leads us through Jesus’ radical message of loving our enemies instead of seeking retaliation or revenge.
If we take our eyes off of ourselves, off of our rights, and choose instead to do what is best for our enemy’s soul, and act redemptively in love toward them, it reveals a heart that is at home in the kingdom of heaven. That’s a message just as radical today as it was 2,000 years ago. And it’s something only Jesus can help us do.
Imagine you’re a first-century Jew living in Capernaum. Life is tough. You’re under military occupation from the Romans. They have stolen much of your family land. Their rising taxes have left you impoverished. And the Romans like to push you around. Whenever they can, they like to show you who’s in charge. And every time they lash out at you, you die a little bit on the inside. Everywhere you go there’s talk of revolt. It’s brewing just beneath the surface. Everyone keeps saying in whispered tongues, “It’s about time we got rid of these Roman pigs!”
Your heroes (the stories you tell) are of Judas Maccabeus and his son who, 200 years ago, led a revolt that pushed the Seleucid Empire out, and everyone keeps saying, “It’s time we did it again, get rid of these Romans.” Your best friend just joined the Sicarii, the Daggermen, who sneak up in the marketplace behind Roman soldiers and stab them in the back. You love his passion, but you didn’t join with him because it was just too risky. The Romans are too ruthless. You have too much to lose. In fact, the last guy who claimed to be the messiah and led a revolution died. He was crucified with 600 of his followers.
But one day you hope, you and all your friends hope that the real Messiah will show up, and when He does it will be time to draw swords. When He does, it will be time to fight. When He does, it will time to avenge the nation and the Romans won’t even know what hit them.
And then the rumors hit your ears, rumors of a young rabbi with radical ideas and talk of a kingdom, Jesus of Nazareth. He’s one who speaks with more authority than anyone you’ve ever experienced. People even claim they’ve been healed by Him. There are whispers everywhere. Could this be Him? Could it be the Messiah? And crowds are gathering, hundreds and thousands of people. And so you go out to see what the situation is. You grab your best dagger, conceal it beneath your cloak, and join up with the ranks of hundreds of people, gathering on a hillside in Galilee to figure out what this Jesus, this revolutionary, is all about. You’re hoping this day sparks a fire that will burn Rome to the ground and put Israel back on the map. And you hear these words from Matthew 5:38–48. This is pages 810 and 811 in your pew Bible.
Matthew 5, verses 38 to 48, Jesus’ words: “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 the good, and sends rain on the just and 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.”
Thanks be to the Lord for the reading of His Word.
As a first-century Jewish person hoping for a revolution, you can’t imagine more opposite words, can you? Shocking. Frustrating. Backwards. Who is this Jesus?
Today we come to what is perhaps one of the most radical teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. And we’re going to see three perspectives this morning. We’re going to see: The Power of Non-Retaliation, The Redemption of Enemy-Love, and The Beauty of a God-ward Heart. The Power of Non-Retaliation, The Redemption of Enemy-Love, and The Beauty of a God-ward Heart.
Friends, Jesus wants to turn our world upside down today, our world, if we will let Him, so will you do something wherever you’re seated? Would you just take your hands like this, and hold them out openly? We’re going to pray and our open hands are a symbol of our open hearts, our willingness to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn this morning. Let’s invite Him to teach us.
Father, we ask that you would teach us to love like you, not just our friends, but our enemies, because when we were your enemies you loved us. It’s the only reason we’re here, and the way of Jesus is radically upside down. We’re not going to learn this from Twitter. We’re not going to learn this from our politicians. We can only learn this from Jesus in the power of your Spirit who is conforming us to the image of God. So teach us, we pray. We open our hearts. We hold nothing back. In Jesus’ name we invite you. Amen. Amen.
First, The Power of Non-Retaliation, the power of non-retaliation. Jesus says (verse 38), “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”
This is a principal, a legal principal from the Old Testament called Lex Talionis. Can you say that? Lex Talionis. (Congregation says Lex Talionis.) Very good! It’s Latin. It means the Law of Reciprocal Justice, the Law of Reciprocal Justice. You find this, for example, in Exodus 21, Leviticus 24, Deuteronomy 19, and other places. The idea is if someone harms you, it’s only fair and just that they suffer the same harm in return. So much of the time this was like restitution. If someone steals ten thousand dollars from you, then it’s only right that that person pays you back ten thousand dollars. If they kill your goat, they need to give you one of their goats. That’s how that works. Restitution.
But sometimes that’s impossible. You can’t do restitution, and so it became retribution. If someone breaks your arm they can’t give you their arm, so what do you do? You break their arm in response. It’s a legal standard of justice. To break someone’s arm you do the same in return. If they knocked out one of your teeth, then you knocked out one of their teeth. This was a legal proceeding. Hence, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
Now at first blush, this seems rather primitive and inhumane, but it was better than what they had prior to the Law of God, which was a culture of vengeance. Vengeance culture. This is, you know, this is the world of posses and mobs, vengeance culture. It was the way normal things were handled in the Ancient Near East. If someone wronged you, you took revenge on them. You made them pay, and those things tended to kind of escalate. Right?
“You break my arm, I’m gonna break both your arms.”
“If you kill my cow, I’m gonna kill three of your cows.”
“If you hit me, I’m gonna hit back ten times harder.”
Why? “Because I want to make sure you never do that to me again!” Bully the bullies, right? It led to an endless cycle of retribution and escalating violence. Revenge upon revenge upon revenge.
It’s like Buck said in Huckleberry Finn, that great book by Mark Twain. Buck says this, “Well, a feud is this way. A man has a quarrel with another man and kills him, and then that other man’s brother kills him, and then the other brothers, on both sides, goes for one another; then the cousins chip in, and by and by everybody’s killed off, and there ain’t no more feud. But it’s kind of slow, and takes a long time.”
So Lex Talionis is a major step in the right direction. It’s the rule of Law as opposed to mob rule. It’s a process of justice, a punishment that fits the crime and goes no further. And it kept things from kind of escalating and devolving into this sort of personal vendetta culture. But over time, Lex Talionis, as it was taught and practiced by the scribes and Pharisees, took on a kind of retaliatory flavor. “If someone harms you, it’s your job to make sure they pay. You’ve got to go after them. You’ve got to demand your pound of flesh and make them bleed, because after all it’s the Law of God. (chuckles) An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It’s only right. It’s what God wants. He wants you to go after your enemies.” That’s what the scribes and Pharisees made allowances for. And Jesus is saying, “No, your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees if you’re ever going to enter into the kingdom of heaven. You’ve got to be perfect as your heavenly Father in heaven is perfect.
Now let Me show you what kind of heart that looks like. If you come to Me, if you trust in Me, if you follow Me, by My Spirit and power I will give you a new heart, a new heart that is eager to follow My ways and the abundant life of the kingdom of heaven. Let Me show you what that’s like.”
He’s giving us a whole bunch of illustrations as we’ve seen in this series, illustrations of a new kind of heart that Jesus can give us. Instead of a heart full of anger, it is now one of peaceful reconciliation. Instead of cultivated lust, it is a heart of self-giving love. Instead of a hard-hearted, divorcing heart, it is one that is tender and faithful. Instead of a divided, manipulative heart, it is one that is full of integrity. And now He says, “Instead of a heart that is dominated by retaliation and revenge, I can give you a heart that is full of love and redemption towards your enemies.”
Verse 39a, “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.” Do not resist the one who is evil. Literally this phrase is, “Do not set yourself against this person; Do not rise in opposition to; Do not retaliate against...” As Paul will say in Romans, “Do not repay evil with evil.” In other words, do not answer violence with violence because the way of Jesus is non-retaliation. The way of Jesus is non-retaliation.
Now, our normal response to a threat of harm is one of two things, right? Fight or flight. Right? Fight or flight. You’re familiar with these categories. Jesus, on the other hand, is offering a third way, another way. It’s the way of love, the way of the cross. It’s the way of the kingdom of heaven. And He’s going to give us now four examples of what this kind of non-retaliatory heart looks like. And before we jump into those, we should make it perfectly clear what Jesus is NOT saying here. He is not saying that nations can never defend themselves. This is a personal ethic, not a national policy. He’s not saying that you can never defend your family. These are again, He’s talking about a personal insult that He’s dealing with in these examples. He’s not saying abuse is okay and that we have to be doormats. In fact, what Jesus is going to lead us to here is a very empowering response to evil. And again, He’s not laying down a new Law. He’s illustrating a new heart.
So it would be a mistake to take all of this and turn it into an absolute ten commandments, “you have to live by all of these things in every situation.” He’s not addressing every situation in life. He’s illustrating the kind of heart He can give us that is alive in the kingdom of heaven that doesn’t retaliate but loves enemies instead. That’s what He’s doing. So let’s look at these four examples now.
Number one: the slapped cheek, the slapped cheek. Verse 39b: “But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Now, why does He specify the right cheek? Why doesn’t He just say, “If someone slaps you on “a” cheek, turn the other cheek.” Why does he say “right”? Well, there’s actually a reason for this. Most people are right-handed, so a right-handed slap to the right cheek is a backhanded slap. He is not talking about a closed-fist punch to the jaw. He’s talking about a slap, a backhanded slap. Why does this matter? A slap in the face like this is an insult. It is a dismissal. It is to treat someone with disdain. It’s not okay, but in the first century it was pretty common, especially at the hands of the Romans. If they wanted to get you out of their way, they would slap you and “get out of my way.”
This is a very specific situation Jesus’ audience would relate to, and normally a response in these kinds of situations is flight or fight. Right? Flight, we either run away in shame, holding our face, we lose our dignity. The bully gets his way and the power, and we let him win, or we fight back. “You don’t slap me!” Pow! And you take him out. Right? Insult with insult! Blow with blow! And you hit each other until someone drops to the ground. And Jesus says, “But what if you do neither of those things? What if instead of running away or instead of lashing back, what if you turn? He hits your cheek, what if you turn, meet his gaze and unflinchingly, with courage and poise, offer the other cheek? What good would that do? Four things:
One, you’ve just stopped the cycle of violence. Do you see that? You just stopped the cycle of violence. You refused to let that violence cycle and turn into something huge. You keep it from escalating.
Number two, you just reclaimed your agency. This is huge. You are now in charge of the interaction, by simply not running away and lashing back, you are refusing to play their game on their terms. You are reclaiming your dignity and your agency as you look your slapper in the face.
Third thing is: you have honored the image of God. You are honoring the image of God. You’re refusing to villainize that person, but you are still seeing them as a fellow human being in need of redemption.
Fourth thing you are doing is: you are opening a window of grace. If I hit back, if someone hits me and I hit them back, we know exactly what the rules of engagement are. Right? We just pummel each other until someone hits the mat. Right? That’s easy, but by not retaliating, what we’re doing is opening a window of grace where our aggressor is forced to choose to either relent and repent and realize the aggression and what they did was wrong, or strike again and become a monster. Do you see that? That’s the choice we force upon them by not retaliating where they stop their evil or where they double down. By non-retaliation it opens a window of grace for their soul, and they have to do something with that. It is powerful.
This is what Bishop Myriel did for Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. Do you remember this? Do you remember this story, Victor Hugo’s novel? The convict, Jean Valjean, gets taken care of by the bishop. As he’s eating his meal he realizes the silverware that he’s eating with is very valuable. Silver, he could sell it for something. And the bishop also has these beautiful candlesticks on the mantelpiece that are silver and very valuable. It’s the only two things he owns, the bishop owns, of any value. And Jean Valjean sneaks out in the middle of the night, but before he does, he pilfers the silverware, puts it in a sack and he runs off. But the police catch him down the road and they haul him back, they say, “This man (they bring him before the bishop) this man stole from you.” And the bishop says, “My son, you forgot the candlesticks. They were a gift as well. Why did you leave them?”
“Officers, you can let him go. This man has done no wrong.” Jean Valjean in shock, looks at the bishop and he says, “What are you doing?” And he says, “I have just bought your soul for God.”
Powerful story, and the story of Jean Valjean, this non-retaliation act of the bishop, sets off a cascade of mercy and grace and redemption through Jean Valjean’s life. It’s the rest of the story. It’s a long book, trust me. But it’s worth reading.
This is the same insight, by the way, that Martin Luther King Jr. had when he said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” That’s why his movement was marked by non-retaliation. It is powerful. Jesus is showing us that when we do not answer evil with evil, or violence with violence, or insult with insult, we open up the possibility of redemption for our enemies and it might just change their life and the whole world. That’s the first example.
The second one: the tunic and the cloak. The tunic and the cloak. Verse 40, “If anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”
The scene has shifted now. We’re in a courtroom setting. We’re being sued. The first century people wore two main garments: they had their tunic, which was like their dress clothes, and then they had their cloak, like their jacket. And by law you could not sue someone and take their jacket. It was protected, because you leave them exposed to the elements and it was inhumane. So you were protected, your cloak, no one could take your cloak. They could take your tunic, but they couldn’t take your cloak in a lawsuit. And again, Jesus says, “You have two options, fight or flight. That’s what you think. Right?” Flight: just give them what they want. Fine, just give them what they want, or [fight]: lawyer up, counter-sue. And Jesus says, “What if there’s a third way? What if you get creative? What if, when they sue for your tunic, you give them your cloak too in the settlement?”
What good does that do? Well again, it stops the cycle of violence. You’ve reclaimed your agency. You’re in charge again. You’re honoring your enemy as someone made in the image of God in need of redemption, and you’re opening a window of grace because when you give your cloak it creates a moment. What are they going to do? Are they going to take it or not? When you offer something they can’t even get by law, you are creating a moment where they have to realize, “Am I a greedy monster that’s going to take this too? Am I going to relent from all my anger? Am I going to calm down here or am I going to be mean-spirited and monstrous here? So you’ve opened up a window of possible redemption for their soul.
The third illustration, the third example: the second mile. “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” That’s verse 41. The Roman soldiers in the first century could compel any subject to carry their pack for a mile. So Roman soldiers don’t want to carry their big heavy military pack, (points) “You carry it!” We see this in Simon of Cyrene where he’s just about his business, and a soldier says, “You carry Jesus’ cross.” And he had to do it. This was all over the first century, and normally your fight of flight response kicks in. Your flight response when you have no choice, you can’t run away, so you have to carry it, but you flee inward. You become a victim. You resign to your fate. Or you fight, you boil, you feel resentment. You throw down the pack (spits) at the end and say, “I’m done, and one day we’re going to get you guys.” You march off and join the Sicarii. And Jesus says, “But what if you do neither of those things? What if you go an extra mile?” You get to the end of the mile marker and you say, “Where are you going?” “Oh, I’m going up over the hill over here…” “You know what? I’ll carry the pack the rest of the way.”
Okay, what just happened? We stopped the cycle of violence. We reclaimed our agency. We are honoring the image of God in the other person, and we just opened up a window of grace. It’s perplexing. The soldier wouldn’t know what to do with that, would he? He would have no idea what to do with it. By helping the soldier and carrying the pack voluntarily another mile, you’ve just changed the whole dynamic of the relationship. Their brutality is exposed. You’ve leveled the playing field. You’ve humanized them and yourself. And maybe instead of stewing the whole time and being embittered enemies, you begin to have a conversation, and you ask him what it’s like to be so far from home, stationed in a land where everyone hates you. And maybe he asks you questions in return. And by not answering evil with evil but with good, not answering violence with violence but with kindness, not answering insult with insult, but with grace, you’ve just acted redemptively toward your enemy, and you turned your enemy into a neighbor. That’s powerful.
The fourth example: The beggar and the borrower. Verse 42: “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” And Jesus here gets creative with His example. Instead of a powerful imposition upon you, He now picks a powerless imposition. This is a street beggar, someone destitute and poor, a panhandler on Michigan Avenue. You say, “Well, that’s not really an enemy.” Sure, but we kind of treat them like enemies, don’t we? These are the people who are ruining our city. They’re dirty, smelly, and gross. We won’t even look them in the eye. Their begging is an imposition on our day. The flight response kicks in. We look the other way. We want to walk off. Our flight response is triggered. We get mad inside. “Riff raff like that in my city? They should go get a job, the lazy bums.”
Or...or we can do what Jesus says and just give, reach out, extend grace. Oh, they’ll probably misuse it, but do it anyway. If they want to borrow your stuff, let them have it. They’ll probably keep it. You probably will never see it again. That’s okay. What good does that do? Well again, it stops the cycle of violence in our own hearts, as we dehumanize people with our anger, and our judgementalism, and our cynicism, our dehumanizing treatment of them. We’ve reclaimed our agency. Instead of resisting their person as an intrusion into our little world, you just entered theirs. We’re honoring the image of God in them because they bear the image of God as precious souls, and we’ve opened a window for grace. For a moment they have experienced a little bit of dignity, a small token of the mercy of God. And they may not steward it well. They probably won’t, but we gave them that choice, you see, and that choice was itself grace. We’ve acted redemptively toward an enemy, recognizing them as a neighbor.
Friends, this is the very kind of heart that God wants to give us. This is the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. This is to be perfect like our heavenly Father is perfect. This is the power of non-retaliation.
Now, the Redemption of Enemy Love. The Redemption of Enemy Love. Verse 43, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” It’s interesting: “You shall love your neighbor.” That’s from Leviticus 19:18, but “You shall hate your enemy” is nowhere in the Bible, is it? It’s nowhere in the Bible, but it’s the way things normally work, isn’t it? It’s the pattern of reciprocal treatment. “I’ll be nice if they’re nice.” (chuckles) “I’ll share if they share.” “If they won’t talk to me, I’m not talking to them.” It’s “Do unto others as they do to you.” Right? That’s the normal way. That’s the way the Pharisees taught was just fine. And Jesus says, “Your righteousness needs to exceed that.”
Verse 44, “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.”
“If you have an enemy,” Jesus is saying, “I can give you a heart to love them, a heart to pray for someone who’s persecuting you.” You’re not praying for their demise, but praying for their good in love, because the way of Jesus is enemy-love. The way of Jesus is enemy-love. The word for love in verse 44 is Agape. It is the divine love of God Himself who pursues His enemies with radical, self-giving, sacrificial, and redeeming love. And Jesus says, “I can give you a heart just like that, a heart that is like your Father’s in heaven. Through the power of the Spirit, I can conform you to My image, the image of Christ, and I can give you a new heart of the kingdom of heaven that pursues its enemies in Agape love. Jesus is saying if we follow Him and take our eyes off of ourselves, off of our rights, off of our wounds, off of our revenge, and choose instead to do what is best for our enemy’s souls, and act redemptively in Agape love toward them, that will reveal a heart that is at home in the kingdom of heaven. It’s so very different from the kingdom of Earth, isn’t it?
Look at verse 46. “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” The tax collectors were sellouts to Rome, right? The IRS collecting taxes for foreign oppressors, despised by all the Jews, and Jesus says, “Even those guys love their own.” There’s nothing remarkable to reciprocal love. No, your righteousness has to better than that.
Verse 47, “If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” “Even your Roman oppressors, the pagans, are greeting their own when they see them. There’s nothing remarkable about reciprocal kindness.”
Notice Jesus’s insight. We can identify friends and enemies just by who we say hi to, who we make eye-contact with. This is the work of enemy-love, whether we even say hi to people or not. He says, “But if you follow me and learn from Me the way of enemy-love, that’s remarkable, that’s supernatural. That’s agape love that will make the world sit up and take notice because it’s the heart of God Himself, and beautiful. It’s beautiful. It’s The Beauty of a God-ward Heart.
Let’s look at that now, The Beauty of a God-ward Heart. This heart that Jesus is describing, that chooses not to retaliate but moves with loving redemption toward its enemies. It’s beautiful because it’s just like God.
Verse 44, “But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (Verse 45a) so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.’”
Like Father, like son. Friends, God loves His enemies. Amen? And when we pour out love for our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, we are imitating our Father who is in heaven. And it shows the world whose we are. We are a part of the family of God, because this is how Jesus and the Father and the Spirit treat their enemies.
Verse 45b, “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
It’s an agrarian society. Plants need what? Water and sun (Right?) to grow, and God indiscriminately gives sun and rain to the righteous and the unrighteous, to the just and the unjust. He lavishes His mercy, His grace, His patience, His kindness, His goodness upon all. He is God after all. He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and loyalty, rich in mercy. And it is a good thing too, because while it is true that some people are worse than others, before God we are all His enemies. Aren’t we? We are all His enemies. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We all have failed to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We have all failed to love our neighbors as ourselves. We’ve hijacked our lives. We’ve stiff-armed God, but listen to the words of Paul in Romans, chapter 5, verses 6, 8, and 10.
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly... God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us...While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.”
Friends, how does God treat His enemies? Instead of retaliation, He moves toward us. In redeeming love, He loves His enemies. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever would believe in him might not perish but have everlasting life.” That’s why Jesus came, to love His enemies, not to retaliate and judge us, but to rescue us and save us from our sins when He went on trial, when He was falsely accused and mistreated, when they slapped Him across the face—First Peter 2:23, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” And friends, Jesus went to the cross and He laid down His life for enemies like you and me and said, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Don’t you see? On the cross, Jesus turned the other cheek. On the cross, Jesus gave us His tunic. On the cross, Jesus went the extra mile. On the cross, Jesus gave infinite contributions to the poor beggars that are who we are. Friends, this is the love of God who loves His enemies and prays for those who persecute Him.
This is the powerful, non-retaliatory, redemptive, cross-shaped enemy-love of God that is our saving grace because our problem, of course, is that our hearts are not like God’s. Our hearts are vengeful and retaliatory, and petty and mean. But Jesus, the righteous one, offers Himself in our place and for our sake, His life in exchange for ours so that we might become, by grace through faith, children of God. And as children, He will fill us with His Holy Spirit and give us a new heart that is eager to follow Jesus in the cross-shaped way of life that He gives us, this powerful, non-retaliatory, redemptive, and enemy-love, this Agape love.
Now the love of God, this Agape love of God, will never fully encompass our hearts this side of glory, but even now we are being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. He teaches us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. We are learning to love because He first loved us. That’s why Jesus says in verse 48, “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Perfect. The word is the same word for mature or complete. “You must grow up and be like your Father if you are going to have a home in the kingdom of heaven.” And the way to the Father is shown to us by Jesus, the perfect Son, and so we follow Him. And the way of Jesus is overcoming evil with good. The way of Jesus is overcoming evil with good.
Friends, do you realize Jesus overcame evil with good when He died on the cross in our place and for our sake? That’s why He went to the cross, to overcome evil with good. The Holy Spirit is overcoming evil with good as He teaches us to walk in the ways of Jesus. God the Father is overcoming evil with good. In all of world history, the cross will redeem the universe, overcoming evil with good, and our triune God intends that we would join Him as sons and daughters in the work of overcoming evil with good in our lives, one enemy at a time.
Listen to these words from Romans, chapter 12. Paul says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them...Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by doing so you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Where do you get that? That’s all straight from Jesus, and Jesus models it for us all the way to the cross. This is the Way of Jesus. Friends, the key to this is remembering that we’re not orphans, but we are children of God. And we can entrust ourselves to our Father who will judge justly. “Vengeance is mine. I will repay,” says the Lord. We can rest all of the harm that is inflicted on us in life, we can rest it in the hands of God, and the nail-scarred hands of Jesus will hold us as children of God. We drink deeply of the love that God has for us, as His children, and that gives us capacity to then love people who don’t deserve it, and pour ourselves out for the sake of others.
Friends, this is the way of Jesus. This is the way of the kingdom. This is the way of the cross. And so Jesus invites us. “Take up your cross and follow Me.” Take up your cross and follow Me.
Some of you will know the name of Corrie ten Boom. She’s a follower of Jesus Christ, a survivor of the Ravensbrück concentration camp where she was imprisoned with her sister, Betsie, for hiding Dutch Jews from the Nazis. And one day she faced a radical test in the call to love one’s enemies. The year was 1947 and she was speaking in Munich at a church on forgiveness, and at the close of the service, a balding man in a gray overcoat walked up to speak with her. And Corrie froze because she knew this man. He had been one of her guards at Ravensbrück.
She writes this in her book, Tramp for the Lord.
Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out:
“A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is good to know that, as you say, all of our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”
“And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand...
“‘You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,’ he was saying. ‘I was a guard there...But since that time...I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein,’–again the hand came out–“will you forgive me?’”
And Corrie writes, “And I stood there–I whose sins had every day to be forgiven, and I could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place–could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed like hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
“For I had to do it–I knew that...‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’ I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience... Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and horrible as that.
“And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘Jesus, help me!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.”
Friends, this is the powerful, non-retaliatory, redemptive, cross-shaped enemy–love of Jesus. This is the way. This is the way. Would you take up your cross and follow Him?
Father, you loved us when we were enemies. You made us sons and daughters. Teach us this way. Forgive our orphan hearts for retaliating and acting out. Teach us to love. Fill us with your Spirit. Change our hearts. Make us new. Change us and change the world one enemy at a time we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.