Because so many persons seem to feel that the command of Jesus to love our enemies is impossible to obey, we determined to make a more serious study of the matter in order to try to impress upon our hearers and readers the fact that God never gave a command which was impossible to fulfill. It is our opinion that even such an astute scholar as McGarvey slightly missed the point when he says in his comments on Mt. 5:48, “The command, `Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,’ makes the moral perfection of God our mode. It is, of course impossible for man to attain to this perfection (emp. mine. TPB); yet anything short of it is short of what we ought to be.” If that comment means anything, it surely means that God gave a command which we OUGHT to obey, but which we CANNOT. We deny the implications of such a statement, and believe than an erroneous exegesis of the passage is the only thing that could have led to such a conclusion. It is our firm conviction that God never gave us a command that we OUGHT to obey, but CANNOT.

When a disciple of Christ loves his enemies and is able to bless them that curse him, he has attained unto the “perfection,” the “completeness,” the “maturity” enjoined by this verse. In fact, when we have obeyed God’s command in any sphere, we have attained perfection in that sphere. If not, why not? What would perfection be? This in no sense implies that a man reaches the place where he can not sin, nor does it suggest that the nature or degree of love you may have for your enemies is equal to God’s love. God never commanded us to love as MUCH as He loves, but He does command the same kind of love in this context — the love of enemies. When we do it, we have obeyed the command to be perfect even as He is perfect. A perfect sphere one-inch in diameter is as perfect as another sphere one foot in diameter. So, when we have done what God demands of us — and we can — we are like God in this respect — perfect. He did not ask that we be gods and love, but we love as humans can love.

In order for us to understand more completely the Bible teaching on the necessity and nature of love, let us be aware that there are a variety of Greek words that may be translated by the English word “love.” There is the word “agapao,” translated “love” 135 times in the NT, and having reference to a love founded in admiration, veneration, and esteem. The word “phileo” is translated “love” 22 times, and denotes an inclination of affection prompted by sense and emotion. As far as we know the word “eros,” indicating sexual love and “stergo” indicating love characterized by satisfaction or complacency — as a love of a family member for another — are not used in the New Testament.

We suggest these words for the purpose of impressing you with the fact that the Greeks had a more exact word for the various kinds of love which we recognize as existing, but for which we have only one word. For example, I know existentially that there are different kinds of love. I love God in one way, my mother in another, my children in another, my friends in another, my enemies in another, and my wife in many others. But I use the word “love” in reference to all of them.

One of the points we want to emphasize is that God never asked us, in loving our enemies, to have the same sort of feeling toward them that we have toward our friends. We are not supposed to have the same feeling of love toward the other good, godly women of the church as we have toward our own wives. The preacher who does not know that is already in serious trouble! “Thou that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?” Many seem to have a sense of hopeless rebellion against God’s commandments when they do not, and realize they cannot, feel the same affection for an enemy that they have toward a friend or brother in Christ. God never asked us to do that!

If we can arrive at an understanding of the basic meaning of “love” and realize that it does not necessarily involve what we commonly mean by the term “like,” it should be of value to us. This definition I have derived from my study of the term “love” (agape) in every passage it is found in the Bible, and all the Greek literature in which I have been able to find it: “Love is that attitude of an individual which causes him to be willing to sacrifice of what he is or has for the welfare or satisfaction of another. It is NOT an emotion at all.” This can be commanded and developed. Try as you may, my personality, disposition or habits may be such that you can not like to be in my presence, but that need not prevent you from being willing to sacrifice of what you are and have for my welfare — and it WILL NOT, if you love me.

We find it difficult, if not impossible, by the very nature of the situation, to LIKE a person we do not know. If we use the word “like” (phileo) to indicate a kind of pleasant attraction which is created in us by another, then I feel sure that I do not, and can not, like the savage in Africa whom I have never seen. But I can love him, and must love him if I am to be pleasing to God.

When God so loved the world that He gave His Son to die for us, He used the word “agapao.” This is the word he used when he commanded us to love our enemies. The fact that Jesus could say concerning the men who nailed him to the cross, “Father, forgive them,” does not mean he felt any personal attraction to them, nor does it remotely imply that he had a feeling of personal pleasure out of being close to the Roman soldier who pierced his side with the spear. But he loved them — he gave of what he was and had for them.

In John 21:15-17, when Jesus asked Peter, “Lovest thou me more than these?” he used the word “agapao,” but when Peter answered, “Thou knowest that I love thee,” he used the word, “phileo.” Jesus wanted to know if Peter had a sacrificial love for him. Peter replied, in effect, that he had an affectionate, brotherly love. That was not then, nor is it now, good enough! We should have an affectionate feeling for Christ, as Paul puts it in 1 Cor. 16:22, “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema.”  He uses the word, “phileo.” But having a tender feeling of affection for him is not enough. There must be such a love that will constrain us to deny self, take up the cross and follow him.

The primary point of this article is the fact that God never commanded us to like our enemies, but he does command us to love them. Whether our personalities are such that we would appreciate being in the presence of another for an extended period is not so important. The important thing is that we have so much of the nature of the Son of God in our beings that we are willing to sacrifice what we are and have for his welfare. “Love worketh no ill to his neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans13:10).

We need to realize, however, that it is not sufficient toward our brethren to merely have a sacrificial love (agape). Romans12:10says, “Be kindly affectioned one to another, with brotherly love.”  This means that we should cultivate a feeling of affection toward our brethren. This word is “philostorgoi,” and has reference to a feeling of affection one has for a relative or family member. The “agape”-love — willingness to sacrifice of what we are and have — is far more basic, and deeper than a simple feeling of affection, but toward our brethren we should have both.

These are some conclusions that we may draw from what the scriptures teach: 1. God does NOT command us to have the love (phileo) toward our enemies that we should have toward our brother. 2. God DOES command the love (agapao) toward our brother and wife that He commands toward our enemy. 3. It is possible for me to love (agapao) my enemies and NOT at that time have a feeling of attraction to them, but I must have a feeling of CONCERN FOR his welfare. 4. When a person learns properly to show love (agape) for his enemies, he may learn to develop a love (philos) for them, and may even make brothers out of them!

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