Matthew 5:38-48

One man embracing enemy whose fist is clenched in anger.

 "One man embracing enemy whose fist is clenched in anger." 
Reprinted from Icon: Visual Images for Every Sunday, copywrite© 2000 Augsburg Fortress. Used by permission.


At this point Ylvisaker summarizes Matthew 5:21-48 thus:

In five sections and by means of five different illustrations Jesus has demonstrated that truth that the righteousness He demands of His disciples must conform not only to the external letter, but also to the inner spirit of the Law. He opens with 'brother' and closes with 'enemies.' He begins with the less difficult, and concludes with that which is more perplexing. The first three sections, which deal with the fraternal relation (21-26), the conjugal connection (27-32), and with man's attitude toward God (33-37) is treated from the negative point of view (thou shalt not); the last two, which teach us not to be self-seeking; a) in the domain of the Law (38-42), b) in the realm of love (43-48), are positive (an eye of an eye . . . thou shalt love thy neighbor). There is an inner systematic and logical progression. The process of reasoning is simple, easily comprehended, and yet withal so profound.

Well said.

We repeat: Jesus is here teaching no more, no less, than the Old Testament teaches. He is not a new Law-giver.

Matthew 5:38 You have heard that it was said,  "Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth." 

The passage was correctly quoted by Jesus' contemporaries but wrongly applied, thus leading people away from true heart-righteousness. Read Exodus 21:24-25; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21.

Hendriksen: This was a law for the civil courts, laid down in order that the practice of seeking private revenge might be discouraged. The Old Testament passages do not mean 'Take personal revenge whenever you are wronged.' They mean the exact opposite 'Do not avenge yourself but let justice be administered publicly.'
Ylvisaker: The Lord does not in this section argue against the laws of society as such.

It was the  lex talionis, the law of retribution, civil, not moral law.

Apology, Art. XVI, 7, Tappert, 223: Public redress through a judge is not forbidden but expressly commanded, and it is a work of God according to Paul (Romans 13:1ff).
Lenski: The civil law is not placed into our hands but is taken out of them.

Matthew 5:39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

The emphatic pronoun  I  and the "I tell you" denoting the God-man who speaks with divine authority. Then follows a negative command: "Don't ever resist the wicked man." All the translations, except AV and LB, correctly translate  "one who is evil" or its equivalent, not "evil." The word used here means "actively evil," "One who wrongs another person." Evil must always be resisted. Jesus is condemning vengeance, returning evil for evil, as did the Old Testament: Leviticus 19:18; Proverbs 24:29. To do so is to have an evil heart. A judge or jury must make decisions on the basis of law and justice only, not from an evil heart. In every dealing with people, vengeance is always a sin. As a citizen, a Christian must do all he can to maintain the security of the State and the promotion of the public welfare.

From 39b-42 Jesus gives four examples of how the Christian must deal with others in interpersonal relationships, always devoid of vengeance. "But" following a negative means "but quite to the contrary." Here we are dealing with the Christian in the Kingdom of grace, not the Kingdom of power.

Bengel: The words of Christ belong not merely to human and natural life but to eternal life. Our Lord gives examples of private (39), legal (40) and political (41) wrong done to the Christian.

To turn the other check simply means not to be vengeful but rather to return good for evil. Jesus is stressing attitude, not mechanical action. At John 18:22, when Jesus was slapped, He did not mechanically turn the other cheek, but gave an answer which was devoid of anger and resentment, spoken for the good of the one who slapped Him.

The earliest pre-school childhood memory of the author of these   Notes   is an occasion on which, at mother's orders, his sister restrained him from running out into the street. When he slapped her and said: "I hate you" she smiled, put her arms around him and said: "But I love you." An indelible memory. Sister did precisely what Jesus meant in verse 39b, though she did not mechanically turn the other cheek.

Fahling: Does this mean that all outrages should henceforth go unchallenged? There is a time to submit, but there is also a time to fight. Passive behavior ceases when it comes into conflict with the law of love. Naturally, a Christian's duties to his family, community, or country may compel him to resist rather than to submit to injustice and insult. but that is not the point in the present consideration.

Matthew 5:40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.

"Furthermore" a second example, this time a legal confrontation.  "To him who desires that you be taken to court." The case is not yet in court. He is only suing.  "And if anyone wants to sue you." Thus NIV, NEB, AAT, NASB, NKJV which are preferable to AV, LB and RSV.

The second "and" is  "and as a result" or "and so." For what reason?  "To get your shirt." A negligible matter which does not end in poverty. You can afford to lose this without great loss.

The last part literally: "Allow (give) to him  also  your cloak." The Christian has a  legal  right to fight back, but in a negligible matter (which the worldling would consider a matter of cold principle) the Christian is morally bound by the law of love to give double, without strife, to assuage anger and wrath. Look at 1 Corinthians 6:1ff. True love produces true moral courage, a courage which yields rather than to cause further trouble.

The author of these   Notes   once knew two neighbors who went to court over a discrepancy of the property-line (six inches). The case ended indecisively, at great cost to both, in bitter hatred. Both moved away. A legal battle ended immorally.

Matthew 5:41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

Again an "and" which means "furthermore," a third example, which Bengel calls "a political wrong." The verb is of Persian origin, taken over by the Greeks and Romans. When a Persian messenger or soldier was on the King's business and needed assistance he could deputize any citizen to help him. NEB reads: "If a man in authority makes you go one mile, go with him two." The point is cheerful submission and assistance, not grudging, forced compliance.

A good case in point is that of Simon of Cyrene (Matthew 27:32). The same verb is used.

Note that in these first three examples (verses 39, 40, 41) the true righteousness of the heart is made evident by lovingly returning double. Hendriksen gives a list of examples from the Old Testament: Abraham (Genesis 14:14ff), David (1 Samuel 24 and 25), Elisha (2 Kings 6). True believers in the Old Testament did what God wanted.

Matthew 5:42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Here we have a final example which bridges over into verse 43. Again, Jesus is not inducing poverty. It deals with the person who makes a request or wants to borrow.

Hendriksen: When someone in distress asks for assistance, one must not turn a deaf ear to him. On the contrary, says Jesus, give not grudgingly or gingerly but generously; lend, not selfishly, looking forward to usury but liberally, magnanimously. Micah 6:8; Deuteronomy 15:7-8; Psalm 37:26; Proverbs 19:17.

The Old Testament already contained this injunction.

Matthew 5:43 You have heard that it was said,  "Love your neighbor and hate your enemy." 

First and foremost read all of Leviticus 19:18. Jesus' contemporaries read only a part of this verse. And notice the omission  "as yourself." They included a part not found in the Old Testament, their companion interpretation to the first part.  "Enemy" here is the word for personal enemy, as opposed to an enemy in war. Leviticus 19:17 rules such hatred out altogether. That Old Testament believers showed love to Gentiles is clear from such examples as 1 Kings 17:9; 2 Kings 5:14. Most commentators express ideas similar to those of Ylvisaker:

The real basis for this fabricated injunction (thou shalt hate thine enemy) is found presumably in the divine regulations regarding the attitude of Israel toward the Amalekites and others who were without the covenant of God (Deuteronomy 7:2ff; 23:6; 25:19). These provisions had been made to apply to the personal relation between enemies. Pharisaism was in this regard not far removed from the morality of the ancients: 'Serve your friend, harm your enemy.'

That may be.

Hendriksen: During the time of the exile the attitude of the Jews toward the Gentiles changed.

That may be. But the reason lies closer at hand. Because of their unregenerate hearts, Scribes and Pharisees contrasted "personal enemy" with "national enemy" and interpreted very unlike Leviticus 18:19. Furthermore, they omitted "as thyself" which led to the question asked at Luke 10:29, a very revealing question. This led to a total lack of love, even of neighbor (look at John 7:49 and Luke 18:11), to self-righteousness which is the death of both justification and sanctification.

Matthew 5:44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

Note that AV and NKJV, unlike the other translations, quote the Koine Greek text, according to the parallel at Luke 6:27-28.  "Enemies" are personal enemies. Might they on occasion include husband, wife, child, etc? Yes, whenever someone hates you. Note that "love" is present imperative, ongoing action. It's not "love of fellowship" , it's the love of the regenerate heart, possible only for such.

The single example introduced by "but" reminds us immediately of Luke 23:24 and Acts 7:60. Note the progressive tense of the verbs: "Keep on praying in behalf of those who are constantly persecuting (doing evil) you." 

Ylvisaker: But to love one's enemies, to help them, and even to pray for them, this can be accomplished only by the heart which has experienced the love of God in Christ Jesus,and is rooted and grounded in this divine love. The strength must come from the Lord Himself.

The strongest incentive for loving our enemies is the universal atonement. If Jesus prayed for  all  and thus laid God's anger by, I must follow His example.

Matthew 5:45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

 "That you may be sons, etc." is a poor translation. The word cannot mean "be" (AV, RSV, NIV, NKJV, NASB, NEB) nor "will become"  (TEV) because a Christian  is  a child of God by grace through faith, not by works. AAT is recommended: "In this way you will show you are true sons, etc." The word here means "prove to be." Christians reflect the mercy of the Lord. They don't cause the sun to rise nor the rain to come. They live by the mercy of the Lord and make this mercy evident by their actions.

"Your Father" is a double genitive of relation. Not "God" but "Father" which immediately reminds us of redemption in Christ. "In heaven" is adjectival, telling us what kind of Father He is. Lenski inserts "inasmuch as" to introduce the second sentence.

Without sun and rain, mankind would perish. They remind us daily of His universal love and compassion to all people. He makes no exceptions. "The evil and the good" denote mankind as men view other men: "Actively evil and good in character." "The righteous and the unrighteous" denotes mankind as God views their hearts: "The justified believers and unjustified unbelievers." AV, NKJV, LB, RSV, NIV, NASB are recommended. Not TEV, JB, NEB and AAT.

The true love of God in Christ (John 3:16) which prompts the Christian to love all, even enemies, underlies this verse.

Matthew 5:46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?

Verses 46 and 47 are  similar:  Each is introduced by a rhetorical question which Jesus answers with a question which demands the answer "yes." Secondly, both draw a sharp distinction between the regenerate selfless person and the unregenerate selfish person. The former serves others, the latter self only.

Verses 46 and 47 are  dissimilar:  The first verb is general, and the second more specific. And the first involves the hated publicans while the second involves the hated Gentiles, Goyim, pagans.

Note that "love" is used also of the unregenerate. In neither case is it the love of friendship. For both the believer and the unbeliever "love" is of deliberate purpose. But there the similarity ends. For the unbeliever it is purely  quid pro quo.  For the believer it is universal, selfless, motivated by the Holy Spirit. See Matthew 5:12. It is as difficult to love those who hate us as it is to endure persecution for Jesus' sake. It is purely a reward of grace.

Matthew 5:47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

The word for "greet" means more than a mere greeting. It denotes our whole demeanor when we meet or leave them. TEV is getting at it: "If you speak only to your friends, have you done anything out of the ordinary?" And JB: "And if you save your greetings for your brothers, etc." A lack of genuine friendliness, snubbing people, is a clear indication of an unregenerate heart. How often don't even Christians snub each other!

Matthew 5:48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

"Therefore,"  is a summary statement for everything in verses 13-47. Here is the one grand principle. Even this principle was found already in the Old Testament at Leviticus 19:2. "Perfect" is the translation of all the versions, but it needs explanation. Literally it means "having reached the goal." What goal? Of justification and sanctification. Compare its usage at Philippians 3:15 and James 1:4. It does not mean that the Christian is sinless. The best commentary here is Philippians 3:12-14. He is "mature" and "spiritual" (Galatians 6:1), constantly enjoying freedom from sin, death, the devil and his own flesh.

At the same time he is serving and loving his neighbor as himself. The Gospel frees him. The Law obligates him. The Gospel says "Done." The Law says "Do." The Christian is cleansed because of the Gospel. John 15:3-5. He is a branch on the vine and therefore brings forth much fruit. Your heavenly Father is "perfect," holy in Himself, but also merciful and kind to all in Christ Jesus. Verse 48 is to be taken literally and is attainable, by the grace of God.

Note the little word "as."  "Love your neighbor  as  yourself."  "Be perfect  as  your heavenly Father is perfect." The first is our constant standard as to the object of our love. The second constantly reminds us as to the proper attitude of heart. Sunday for Sunday we sing Psalm 51:10-12 as the Offertory. That implies a penitent heart, Psalm 51:1-9. Read 2 Corinthians 5:17-19. What a wondrous blessing it is to be a new creature in Christ!


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series A, Festival Season Sundays Gospel Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1980, pp. 42-45. Used with permission.

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