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What Did Jesus Really Mean by 'Love Your Enemies'?

What Did Jesus Really Mean by 'Love Your Enemies'?

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you – Matthew 5:43-44

Many people have their favorite verses in scripture. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone quote this one as their favorite. After all, who really wants to do this, anyway? Love your friends, yes. Love the people who treat you nicely and respectfully, yes. Love your enemies? We might be thinking...maybe we need to check the original Greek to make sure this is what Jesus really meant. The word here used denotes moral love, as distinguished from the other word, which expresses personal affection. Usually, the former denotes "complacency in the character" of the person loved; but "love your enemies" here it denotes the benignant, compassionate outgoings of desire for another's good. (Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Bible) We must have a compassion for them, and a good will toward them. 

I can assure you this is what Jesus really meant. And those words are just as true today as they have ever been. Has there ever been a time in our society where we needed to put this into practice more than we need to now? 

If it’s truly your desire to be like Jesus, this is what it will take.

So I want to encourage you today. I’m going to share with you three real-world ways to love your enemies.

Forgive One Another, love your enemiesPhoto Credit: ©BethanyPyle

Two Major Principles of How to Love Your Enemies

Before we look at the real-world ways to love your enemies, I want to share two major points first because without these it will never happen

1. Loving your enemies starts on the Inside

Before you can show any outward display of loving your enemies there must first be an inward transformation. In other words, if you can’t love someone who is against you, the problem is because of what is inside you. The other person is not the problem.

For many years, I struggled to forgive my father. The problem wasn’t him, the problem was inside me. I know that is a tough pill to swallow but it is a necessary one if we’re ever going to really, truly love our enemies.

When you reflect on Jesus’ life and character, he demonstrated how much he loved those who were against him. Remember when he was on the cross, he said:

...“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” – Luke 23:34

This can only flow from a heart that has been transformed by the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. Just so you know, it’s not just something that Jesus did—you can do it, too. Let me remind you of Stephen. Here is how the Bible described him:

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. – Acts 6:8

If you are familiar with his story, eventually he was stoned to death for preaching the truth to the Sanhedrin. You can read the whole story in Acts 7. I need to focus your attention on the end of the story (sorry for the spoiler alert if you never read it):

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. – Acts 7:59-60

Why was Stephen able to do this? Because he was a man full of the Holy Spirit. His life had been transformed on the inside. If there ever was a real-world way to love your enemies on display, this was it. The good news is, if Stephen could do it, so can you. He is no different than any of us.

2. Be First to Forgive

The second major principle can only happen after God has changed your heart. Once he has done that this becomes a little easier. Here it is…be first. What does that mean? Be the first to offer forgiveness, before someone even asks for it.

Be the first to show love, even when you feel like they don’t deserve it. Be first to show kindness even if the person is not very nice.

Why do you need to do this? Because this is what Jesus did and by doing this you truly reflect his character. Consider his words:

If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? – Matthew 5:46-47

The reality is that when you display this type of love to your enemies, you are showing them Jesus. You are showing that you are different than the world. And that, my friends, is what being salt and light are all about.

bless and pray for enemiesPhoto Credit: ©GettyImages/Suze777

How to Love Your Enemies (Even Across Political Divide)

It’s sad that I have to even include politics in an article about loving your enemies but I must speak the truth. As Christians, we have really made a mess of our witness and testimony when you consider the political arena.

Not because you have a political viewpoint, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The problem is we don’t allow someone else to have a different viewpoint. A different political view has been made the equivalent of a declaration of war.

It’s like we have pledged allegiance to a donkey or an elephant and have somehow left the cross behind. By the way, if you’re not from America, those are the symbols of the two biggest political parties in our country.

If you really want to show the love of Christ, stop letting political differences divide you. Recognize that we as Christians are united under the cross and when it is all said and done there will only be one King of Kings and one Lord of Lords. And I promise you, he will not be sitting in any political office.

I hope that wasn’t too “soapboxy” but if it was, I pray you hear my heart and we don’t become enemies. Because if we do, you still have to love me anyway. As I will you. With that said, let’s look at three real-world ways to love your enemies.

1. Forgive Those Who Have Hurt You

This is spiritual and practical. Forgive if you have been hurt by anyone. If someone has spoken ill against you. If someone has done anything to bring harm to your character, your family, or you...then you must forgive them.

Forgiveness is not for that person; it is for you. Loving and forgiving your enemies actually frees you. There is another reason though:

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. – Matthew 5:46-47

Wait a second, did you read that correctly? Yes, you did. The forgiveness you receive is tied to the forgiveness you give. (God’s words not mine.) If you’re going to get to the other real-world ways to love your enemies you have to forgive them or you can’t get to the next steps because they won’t be genuine.

2. Flip the Script and Respond with Kindness

Honestly, there are some people who just won’t be very nice or kind to you. When you come in contact with these people and they show you hate, you respond with love and kindness. A good rule of thumb is to just follow what the Bible says:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. – Romans 12:17

On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12:20-21

Let me give you a few real-world examples. Try some of these things and it may catch people off-guard and could leave them wondering about the source of your kindness.

To the annoying co-worker (you know the one I am talking about) when you’re going out to buy lunch, ask them if they would like anything, and buy it for them, your treat.

Here’s another thought, when their birthday comes around, give them a birthday card. Don’t send an email—actually go to the store and buy one.

The point here is that regardless of who that enemy is...you must respond differently than they expect and, more importantly, than what you really want. This is what it means to flip the script. I know you really want to tell them “the truth” but that’s not always how it works.

Ultimately, remember we represent Christ. And if you really “give it to ‘em,” that can hurt your witness. Sometimes it takes a long time to recover your witness after that—and some never do.

3. Pray for Those Who Persecute You

The second part of loving your enemies is praying for those who persecute you. Now, you might be saying: it’s bad enough Jesus says I have to love them...now I have to pray for them, too? Are you absolutely certain your Greek translation is right? Again, the answer is yes. Here’s why. There is a higher purpose.

What Jesus displayed on the cross.

What Stephen displayed when he was being stoned.

They were more concerned about the eternal than the temporary. If you will remember that everyone who persecutes you has an eternal destination waiting for them, you will pray for them. By the way, don’t pray for God to get them; pray for grace to love them, forgive them, and show kindness to them. You never know, if they don’t know Jesus, your kindness may win them over. It could also mean they will never reciprocate or respond, but you can’t control that. But don’t worry—God will eventually deal with them. Just do your part:

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. – Romans 12:18


When it comes to real-world ways to love your enemies it will take some thought, some work, and a whole lot of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God working in you is what will cause you to react the way God wants you to, and not just follow what you want to do.

This may never change the way people treat you; after all, people did nail Jesus to a cross, but your conscience will be clear. Most importantly, you will bring honor and glory to God in the process. At the end of the day...that’s what matters most anyway.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Prostock-Studio

Clarence Haynes 1200x1200Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club.  He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. He has also just released his new book The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. Do you want to go deeper in your walk with the Lord but can’t seem to overcome the stuff that keeps getting in the way? This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com

This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

"Be Still and Know that I Am God"
"Pray Without Ceasing"
"Fearfully and Wonderfully Made"
"All Things Work Together for Good"
"Do Not Fear"

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