We are getting to the jump off point now for many would be Christians. We are at the hard points of the teachings of Jesus, the points where even those who want to follow find it too unwise, too risky, too hard. Just as many of Jesus’ early disciples turned away and left, we still often turn away at the hard teachings of Jesus. “At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him. Then Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “Are you also going to leave?” Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. We believe, and we know you are the Holy One of God. ”” John 6:66-69 NLT.
Many times, over and over, we see Jesus saying “You have heard it said…but I say…”. What Jesus is really saying is, “The Torah says, but I say…” because every time he does this he is contrasting his own teaching against the teaching of the Torah. Or as we much better know the Torah to be…the Bible.
So Jesus tells us – “”[The Bible says] ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” Matthew 5:21-22 ESV
“” [The Bible says] ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5:27-28 ESV
“” [The Bible says]‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Matthew 5:31-32 ESV
“”[The Bible says]‘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.” Matthew 5:38-39 ESV.
Yes, we believe the Bible, and it is the inerrant word of God as revealed through Moses, the prophets, and the apostles. But the Bible, from beginning to end, is there to point us to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the light of the world who was there in the beginning and illuminates everything else we know, including the Bible which points us to Him, who is the full revelation of God. So we read the Bible, we believe the Bible, but we follow Jesus. And just to be even more clear about this, following the Bible is not the same thing as following Jesus. Those would be disciples of Jesus Christ who fell away in John Chapter 6 were more than happy to follow the Bible. The disciples who turned and left him there were Jews who had followed the Torah (the Bible) their whole lives. And when they left Jesus, I’m sure they continued to follow the Bible. But they missed out on following the way, the truth and the life because it was just too hard, too much to swallow. That’s why we must get to the point where, like Peter, we just know there is nowhere else to go, no one else to follow. Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. We believe, and we know you are the Holy One of God.”
Most of us, we prefer the Bible to Jesus. We can use the Bible to justify ourselves in all kinds of ways that we can never use Jesus. We can use the Bible to justify war. We can use the Bible to justify capital punishment. We can use the Bible for imposing our own will on another human being. We can use it to justify our own anger, our own desire for vengeance. We can use use it to justify slavery. But we can’t use Jesus for any of these things.
So when we see “”[The Bible says]‘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.”, we often (most often) choose eye for an eye. We turn away from following Jesus, and instead choose to follow the spirit of this world. Because you see, the biggest problem in the early stages of Genesis leading up to the flood of Noah was exponential violence, violence multiplied. Cain kills Abel, laments his predicament to God, and gets a promise that anyone who harms Cain will be harmed seven times over. “Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him.” Genesis 4:15 ESV. Then we have Lamech, descendant of Cain and father of Noah, who took this above and beyond – “Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.”” Genesis 4:23-24 ESV. Not seven fold revenge, but seventy-seven fold. Soon after which, we have the flood. (What is it that Jesus says we should do seventy-seven, or seventy times seven times?). I’m sure some of us have used these verses for our own self justification, haven’t we? But we see, the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth is a step in the right direction for mankind, it begins moving us toward Jesus. We could no longer avenge ourselves multiplied, just wound for wound. Eye for an eye, not break my nose and I kill you. Not break my finger and I break your arm and leg. Wound for wound.
Jesus tells us, of course, that eye for an eye doesn’t work (isn’t that obvious from human experience). Jesus knew what Mahatma Ghandi would say centuries later – “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” If we are living for the kingdom, and have already heard and received the truth of the kingdom through Christ, then we have also already dealt with our anger, contempt, and all consuming desire. They do not control us. They may still test us, but they do not control us. That’s how we go from the old legal requirement of equivalent violence to the new covenant standard under grace, which is non violence.
Which brings us to the church’s favorite – 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. This is, without a doubt, the most unique ethical teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Love of enemies is still unique to Jesus in human history. No one else, before or since, teaches this. For the early church, the pre Constantine church of the first to the about the fourth centuries, this was the most quoted scripture. In a time when the church was really being persecuted, when Christians were being thrown to the lions, given over to gladiators and burned alive for entertainment, this was not only their favorite scripture, but how they lived their lives. It was the non negotiable mark of a Christian. In those days, if love of enemies was something you couldn’t or wouldn’t get on board with, then you just weren’t going to be able to call yourself a Christian (seriously). It was only after Constantine (who made Christianity the most favored religion of the Roman Empire) that love of enemies fell away from its status as the favorite (required) scripture of the church.
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? I’m going to let you in on a secret. God loves your enemies. Loving those who are just like us and love us back is something even the most hardened criminals do. The Mob loves their families. Osama Bin Laden loved those who were closest to him. If we just love those from our own group, or own family, we are no different from any other group. Even the Gentiles do that.
Loving your neighbor is not revolutionary. It’s not unique to Jesus. In fact it’s right there in Leviticus 19:18, part of the old covenant. We think we can get by with loving our neighbors, don’t we? That SHOULD be enough, should it? It even satisfies the great commandments from Jesus himself, love God and love your neighbor. There’s just one problem. We just want to know, who is our neighbor? “But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”” Luke 10:29 ESV. Doesn’t that really say it? Aren’t we always trying to justify ourselves with questions just like this? We know we shouldn’t have to love those who are evil, should we. Except, God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. God knows the difference between good and evil, but he still loves the evil ones. We think we know the difference. After all, what was that tree Adam and Eve ate from? “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”” Genesis 2:16-17 ESV.
We think we know evil. We think we can know who is good and who is evil, which neighbors to love and which we can hate. But Jesus says if we are living in his kingdom we will not only love the lovable ones, those just like us, but we must also love them, even them who don’t love us back, even if they might hate us and want to harm us. The Bible says it’s ok to hate your enemy as long as you love your neighbor. Jesus says to live and pray for your enemies. Here’s the funny thing – when we take our love of neighbor and expand it to living our enemies, there’s no more room for hate. You ask, what about hating the devil and hating sin? When we move to loving and praying for our enemies, there’s just not that much sin left to hate. If you don’t respond to violence with violence and you begin to live your life in such a way that you can love even your enemies, the devil is out of business. That’s how we cast out the devil from our lives. This is exactly what Jesus lived out when he cried from the cross “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Grace and forgiveness won, and the devil was cast out.
You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. And yes, Jesus really said even this. But Jesus was not talking about perfection of behavior, of our being sinless all of a sudden. That is simply not who we are, at least not until we have been perfected in his image. Look here at the equivalent passage in Luke, from the more abbreviated sermon on the plain. “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:36 ESV. We may not be able to be perfect as Jesus was perfect, or sinless as Jesus sinless. But we can move in the direction of being perfectly merciful. If you can’t be perfect, then be merciful.
The Bible says eye for and eye and tooth for a tooth. The Bible says it’s ok to hate your enemies. But Jesus says that if we are following him into the kingdom of God which through Him has come upon us, we will be the kind of people whoturn the other cheek and love our enemies. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV. We read the Bible, we love the Bible, we learn from the Bible, we find Jesus in the Bible. But we don’t use the Bible to find excuses for following our own will instead of following Jesus. We might prefer other teachings in the bible over the teachings of Jesus, but we don’t get to use the Bible to tell Jesus to sit down and shut up. We don’t follow the Bible. We follow Jesus.
“”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 5:43-48 ESV