Matthew 5: 43 – 48; Mark 12: 28 – 34.
When challenged by the scribes to name the most important commandment, Jesus’ emphatic reply was, “The foremost is, Hear O Israel! The Lord, our God, is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this; you shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31). His answer reflected the Shema (Deut 6:4-9), which Jews continue to repeat at least twice daily to this day. The principal objective at the time was to distinguish Israel’s spirituality from the surrounding nations: Yahweh is the only One that mattered to them for all their varied needs, not the pantheon of gods and goddesses, each for a season and requirement. They were to cherish and worship Him with their whole self-identity because they were made in His image. Hence, to worship anything or anyone else is viewed as flagrant idolatry. The Shema implies that when they sinned, it was due to their disregard of the first commandment i.e., against God Himself (Deut 5:7-10; c.f., Lev 19 and the repeated suffix: “I am the Lord”); where apparent neglect of the commandment led to sinfulness in every sphere of their world.
When Scripture speaks of the love of God, its context remains a definitive guide to what the writer intended to convey. For instance, there is the intra-Trinitarian love (John 3:35) or the beneficial love for all mankind – the good and the evil (Matt 5:44-45), the salvific love for the lost (John 3:16) or the elective love for certain others (Rom 9:10-13; 1 Thess 1:4), or love for the obedient (John 14:15). Although we may have appeared to have differentiated ‘love,’ these references share the same Greek root word ‘agape,’ the word God used for Himself (1 John 4:8). Yahweh’s variable motivation for ‘agape’ varies for diverse settings, but the quality and depth of it remains constant. However, to focus strictly on one rationale for ‘agape’ to the exclusion of others would merely make a mockery of what God intended: viz., if we were to interpret that He only loves those who are ‘good,’ then merit-making seems likely to become our focus, or if His love is due to His ‘strict’ election, then evangelism and prayer may seem to be superfluous. When God addressed the issue of loving our enemies (Matt 5:43), He is not referring to His redemptive nor His elective love but giving His temporal blessings to all.
The public justice system demanded ‘an eye for an eye,’ but personal revenge is undeniably eschewed in the Mosaic Law and by Jesus, to end the interminable enmity and bitterness seeded by a motive to exact retribution that has plagued humanity since time immemorial (Lev 19:17-18; Matt 5:44-45). God sends rain on both the just as well as the unjust, and He had declared that He would be the final Judge on behalf of the righteous (Rom 12:78-21). How does one transcend evil especially when you are persecuted? It needs to be clarified that loving our enemies cannot be our consummate desire – it cannot replace loving our God. Without a doubt, God expects His people to embrace ‘agape,’ the same ‘agape’ that exists within the Trinity unreservedly, simply because Christ inhabits all believers born again by the Spirit of God (John 17:24-26). The Spirit of Christ constrains us as we seek to obey God’s command even to love our enemies, and when we find that to be humanly challenging, He encourages us to turn to prayer for them (Matt 5:44). For it is in this intercessory mode that we begin to discover the hideousness of our soul engendered by our hatred for our enemies (c.f., 1 John 2:9-11). “By this, we know that we have come to know Him if we keep His commandments. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whosoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him; the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (I John 2:3-6).