We have here, lastly, an exposition of that great fundamental law of the second table, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, which was the fulfilling of the law.
I. See here how this law was corrupted by the comments of the Jewish teachers, Matt. 5:43. God said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour; and by neighbour they understood those only of their own country, nation, and religion; and those only that they were pleased to look upon as their friends: yet this was not the worst; from this command, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, they were willing to infer what God never designed; Thou shalt hate thine enemy; and they looked upon whom they pleased as their enemies, thus making void the great command of God by their traditions, though there were express laws to the contrary, Exod. 23:4, 5; Deut. 23:7. Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite, nor an Egyptian, though these nations had been as much enemies to Israel as any whatsoever. It was true, God appointed them to destroy the seven devoted nations of Canaan, and not to make leagues with them; but there was a particular reason for it—to make room for Israel, and that they might not be snares to them; but it was very ill-natured from hence to infer, that they must hate all their enemies; yet the moral philosophy of the heathen then allowed this. It is Cicero’s rule, Nemini nocere nisi prius lacessitum injuriâ—To injure no one, unless previously injured. Deut. Offic. See how willing corrupt passions are to fetch countenance from the word of God, and to take occasion by the commandment to justify themselves.
II. See how it is cleared by the command of the Lord Jesus, who teaches us another lesson: “But I say unto you, I, who come to be the great Peace-Maker, the general Reconciler, who loved you when you were strangers and enemies, I say, Love your enemies,” Matt. 5:44. Though men are ever so bad themselves, and carry it ever so basely towards us, yet that does not discharge us from the great debt we owe them, of love to our kind, love to our kin. We cannot but find ourselves very prone to wish the hurt, or at least very coldly to desire the good, of those that hate us, and have been abusive to us; but that which is at the bottom hereof is a root of bitterness, which must be plucked up, and a remnant of corrupt nature which grace must conquer. Note, it is the great duty of Christians to love their enemies; we cannot have complacency in one that is openly wicked and profane, nor put a confidence in one that we know to be deceitful; nor are we to love all alike; but we must pay respect to the human nature, and so far honour all men: we must take notice, with pleasure, of that even in our enemies which is amiable and commendable; ingenuousness, good temper, learning, and moral virtue, kindness to others, profession of religion, etc., and love that, though they are our enemies. We must have a compassion for them, and a good will toward them. We are here told,
1. That we must speak well of them: Bless them that curse you. When we speak to them, we must answer their revilings with courteous and friendly words, and not render railing for railing; behind their backs we must commend that in them which is commendable, and when we have said all the good we can of them, not be forward to say any thing more. See 1 Pet. 3:9. They, in whose tongues is the law of kindness, can give good words to those who give bad words to them.
2. That we must do well to them: “Do good to them that hate you, and that will be a better proof of love than good words. Be ready to do them all the real kindness that you can, and glad of an opportunity to do it, in their bodies, estates, names, families; and especially to do good to their souls.” It was said of Archbishop Cranmer, that the way to make him a friend was to do him an ill turn; so many did he serve who had disobliged him.
3. We must pray for them: Pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you. Note, (1.) It is no new thing for the most excellent saints to be hated, and cursed, and persecuted, and despitefully used, by wicked people; Christ himself was so treated. (2.) That when at any time we meet with such usage, we have an opportunity of showing our conformity both to the precept and to the example of Christ, by praying for them who thus abuse us. If we cannot otherwise testify our love to them, yet this way we may without ostentation, and it is such a way as surely we durst not dissemble in. We must pray that God will forgive them, that they may never fare the worse for any thing they have done against us, and that he would make them to be at peace with us; and this is one way of making them so. Plutarch, in his Laconic Apophthegms, has this of Aristo; when one commended Cleomenes’s saying, who, being asked what a good king should do, replied, Tous men philous euergetein, tous de echthrous kakos poiein—Good turns to his friends, and evil to his enemies; he said, How much better is it tous men philous euergetein, tous de echthrous philous poiein—to do good to our friends, and make friends of our enemies. This is heaping coals of fire on their heads.
Two reasons are here given to enforce this command (which sounds so harsh) of loving our enemies. We must do it,
[1.] That we may be like God our Father; “that ye may be, may approve yourselves to be, the children of your Father which is in heaven.” Can we write a better copy? It is a copy in which love to the worst of enemies is reconciled to, and consistent with, infinite purity and holiness. God maketh his sun to rise, and sendeth rain, on the just and the unjust, Matt. 5:45. Note, First, Sunshine and rain are great blessings to the world, and they come from God. It is his sun that shines, and the rain is sent by him. They do not come of course, or by chance, but from God. Secondly, Common mercies must be valued as instances and proofs of the goodness of God, who in them shows himself a bountiful Benefactor to the world of mankind, who would be very miserable without these favours, and are utterly unworthy of the least of them. Thirdly, These gifts of common providence are dispensed indifferently to good and evil, just and unjust; so that we cannot know love and hatred by what is before us, but by what is within us; not by the shining of the sun on our heads, but by the rising of the Sun of Righteousness in our hearts. Fourthly, The worst of men partake of the comforts of this life in common with others, though they abuse them, and fight against God with his own weapons; which is an amazing instance of God’s patience and bounty. It was but once that God forbade his sun to shine on the Egyptians, when the Israelites had light in their dwellings; God could make such a distinction every day. Fifthly, The gifts of God’s bounty to wicked men that are in rebellion against him, teach us to do good to those that hate us; especially considering, that though there is in us a carnal mind which is enmity to God, yet we share in his bounty. Sixthly, Those only will be accepted as the children of God, who study to resemble him, particularly in his goodness.
[2.] That we may herein do more than others, Matt. 5:46, 47. First, Publicans love their friends. Nature inclines them to it; interest directs them to it. To do good to them who do good to us, is a common piece of humanity, which even those whom the Jews hated and despised could give as good proofs as of the best of them. The publicans were men of no good fame, yet they were grateful to such as had helped them to their places, and courteous to those they had a dependence upon; and shall we be no better than they? In doing this we serve ourselves and consult our own advantage; and what reward can we expect for that, unless a regard to God, and a sense of duty, carrying us further than our natural inclination and worldly interest? Secondly, We must therefore love our enemies, that we may exceed them. If we must go beyond scribes and Pharisees, much more beyond publicans. Note, Christianity is something more than humanity. It is a serious question, and which we should frequently put to ourselves, “What do we more than others? What excelling thing do we do? We know more than others; we talk more of the things of God than others; we profess, and have promised, more than others; God has done more for us, and therefore justly expects more from us than from others; the glory of God is more concerned in us than in others; but what do we more than others? Wherein do we live above the rate of the children of this world? Are we not carnal, and do we not walk as men, below the character of Christians? In this especially we must do more than others, that while every one will render good for good, we must render good for evil; and this will speak a nobler principle, and is consonant to a higher rule, than the most of men act by. Others salute their brethren, they embrace those of their own party, and way, and opinion; but we must not so confine our respect, but love our enemies, otherwise what reward have we? We cannot expect the reward of Christians, if we rise no higher than the virtue of publicans.” Note, Those who promise themselves a reward above others must study to do more than others.
Lastly, Our Saviour concludes this subject with this exhortation (Matt. 5:48), Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. Which may be understood, 1. In general, including all those things wherein we must be followers of God as dear children. Note, It is the duty of Christians to desire, and aim at, and press toward a perfection in grace and holiness, Phil. 3:12-14. And therein we must study to conform ourselves to the example of our heavenly Father, 1 Pet. 1:15, 16. Or, 2. In this particular before mentioned, of doing good to our enemies; see Luke 6:36. It is God’s perfection to forgive injuries and to entertain strangers, and to do good to the evil and unthankful, and it will be ours to be like him. We that owe so much, that owe our all, to the divine bounty, ought to copy it out as well as we can.