Like the Publicans or Like God

Rev. VanderWal is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Matthew 5:43-48

Much ink has been spilled over this passage of Holy Scripture. Especially the 45th verse of Matthew 5 has seen its share of controversy. It has figured prominently in the controversy over common grace. Adherents of common grace have used it in support of their error. The Protestant Reformed Churches had their beginning in this controversy. Its founders were expelled from the Christian Reformed Church for their rejection of common grace.

As is true of every controversy, especially those that involve the beginning of a new denomination, so here, each side attempted to defend its teachings and actions. The Christian Reformed Church did so. It declared that the teachings of Hoeksema, Ophoff, and Danhof were contrary to the Scriptures, 
Matthew 5:45 among others, and that they therefore properly fell under discipline for their teachings.

These three men, and others with them, also defended their teachings and actions. They countered that common grace is not taught in the Scriptures, not even in 
Matthew 5:45. Because common grace is an unbiblical doctrine, they said, it was to be rejected.

As these two sides engaged in this controversy, 
Matthew 5:45had its corresponding treatment. The side promoting common grace poured a certain content into Matthew 5:45, as into a bucket. That content was the doctrine of common grace. The line rejecting common grace took the bucket of Matthew 5:45, and emptied out that same content.

There is one important reason why there is no room in the bucket of 
Matthew 5:45 for the teaching of common grace: the bucket is already full. We must see and enjoy its fullness, the clear waters of the Word of God. Drinking in that fullness, we must see even more clearly that there is no room to pollute its waters with the teaching of common grace.


Matthew 5:45 can be properly understood, first, only in light of its context. That context,Matthew 5:43-48, partakes of the same nature as its larger context, verses 17-48. The King of this kingdom, Jesus Christ, instructs His people in the righteousness of His kingdom. He has set His instruction in sharp contrast to what was said "by them of old time." The righteousness of the kingdom Christ has shown to be far greater than the traditions of men. However, Christ is not giving any new law. He has not come to destroy but to fulfill. To this end He teaches the fullest implication of the commandments of God. That fullness of the law carries two points for us. First, we must feel the weighty obligation of the law upon us. We must know exactly what we must do. Second, we must know exactly what we may not do. This knowledge must lead us to the King. We must be clothed with His righteousness, and we must rest wholly upon His grace. Only by His grace can we do the things He commands.

Matthew 5:43-48 also develops the thought of those verses which immediately precede. We saw that the righteousness of the kingdom excludes the motive of personal vengeance. Whenever we are tempted to personal vengeance, we must labor to give more than is required, even to our enemy. The passage before us now develops this same matter further. Not only must we be taught to deny ourselves, even in the face of the enemy, but we are taught how, positively, we must treat our enemies.

This, then, is the clear water of 
Matthew 5:42-48: with definite particular deeds we must treat our enemies just as we do our friends. We are to love them. We must bless them. We are obligated to do good to them and to pray for them.

The Positive Example: God

In verse 45 Christ shows us the example we must follow. We are to be the children of our heavenly Father. He calls us to follow God with respect to His actions toward men, specifically toward the just and the unjust. Upon them both He sends rain and sunshine alike.

Exactly what does this mean? In the first place, it means these gifts are good. According to the context of this passage, Christ does not refer to the sunshine of drought, or to the rain of destructive floods. The goodness of the rain and sunshine is that they are conducive to the earthly life of men. By means of these gifts both the righteous and the unrighteous have life and they are able to conduct their affairs on the face of the earth. This goodness is, however, of a very limited nature. It applies only to the nature of the things in themselves. In fact, this goodness is so limited that it does not change its recipients. The evil remain evil. The unjust remain unjust. They even use the rain and sunshine to strengthen themselves in their wickedness. Scripture records the testimony of such unjust: they use the rain and sunshine to prove to themselves that God will not judge them because of their wickedness (
Ps. 10:4-6Ps. 49:11, 12;II Peter 3:3, 4).

We must also understand that the God who gives those gifts is good. This is the fundamental reason why God is the example we must follow. We must be good, just as God is good, in giving these gifts. Such is also the testimony of many Scriptures. God is upright in all His ways. Even these gifts themselves bear eloquent witness to the goodness of the Giver. All men, receiving them, are obligated to confess the goodness of their Giver. They are obligated to love, serve, and worship Him alone. That obligation belongs both to the evil and the good, to the just and the unjust.

However, the point of verse 45 is neither the condition of these gifts, nor the goodness of their Giver. It is not even the obligation of the recipients toward God. The point is the condition of those receiving these good gifts. They are divided into two groups. The one group is described as good and just. The other is described as evil and unjust. In the distribution of these gifts, God does not withhold from the one, the evil and the unjust, while He gives abundantly to the other, the good and the just. In the realm of rain and sunshine, the good and evil alike have the sunshine, and the just and unjust alike receive the rain. Here is the point: God does not look to the condition of the recipients before He bestows these gifts. The evil and the unjust are the enemies of God—yet He gives them the same gifts as He gives to the good and the just, His friends.

This divine activity Christ presents to the citizens of His kingdom as an example. He calls them to be like Him. We find it quite natural to love them that love us, to bless them that bless us, to do good to them that do good to us, and to pray for them that pray for us. However, we find it natural to do only that, and no more. We easily do what "hath been said," in verse 43: to love our neighbor and hate our enemy.

The Negative Example: The Publicans

In that condition, loving only the neighbor and hating the enemy, we are not like God. We feel the rebuke. However, God is not the only example in this passage. Our Lord gives another, this time negative, example: the loathed, hated publicans. 

These publicans had their neighbors. Since the vast majority of Jews considered them the enemy, the publicans' neighborhood was small, but tightly knit. In that neighborhood they exercised love for one another. Since the average Jew would not salute them, the publicans shared greetings with one another, and with other "sinners."

Understand the weight and emphasis of this example. First, there is a harmony between Jesus' words in verse 43 and the actions of the publicans. This "law" they fulfilled! They did what "hath been said." Second, these publicans, who fulfilled that law, were the enemies of the Jews! The Jews hated them. Yet, in their actions, the Jews were like their enemies, whom they hated, and unlike God, whom they claimed to love!


There is another point to the deep contrast between these two examples, God and the publicans. The publicans were the bitter enemies of those to whom Jesus spoke these words. In the thinking of His audience, part of their godliness was their hatred for the publicans. The typical Jew expressed that hatred. He refused to love the publicans. He refused to salute the publicans. However, God sent rain upon those publicans. God caused His sun to shine upon the publicans. 

Here is where the Jew (and we with him) fall far short of the glory of God. God does not discriminate in His distribution of rain and sunshine. Contrary to the example of God, we do discriminate. Once we reckon a man as our enemy, any goodness we might otherwise bestow on him we withhold. We withhold our love, our blessing, our good, and our prayers. Instead we hate, we wish him destroyed, we work for his destruction, and we certainly refuse to pray for him. We would love to see him to come begging to us, so that we might shut our door in his face.

We see, then, how far we fall short of the glory of God. Our righteousness falls far below the standard Christ impresses upon us in the last verse. "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect."

However, we also see in this requirement the perfection of the King of the kingdom. He is the fulfillment even of this Word. We were His enemies, certainly no children of our "Father which is in heaven." Yet, the King did not hate us. Instead He laid down His life for us. He does not curse us. Instead He blesses us with the blessings of salvation. He does not harm us, but does us good, translating us into His kingdom of grace, bringing us to God our Father. He prays for us, even in heaven.

This was His fulfillment of the law. He fulfilled it for us, His enemies. By that fulfillment He has worked our reconciliation. Loving His enemies, He brings upon us the blessings of salvation, even eternal happiness with Him, before the face of our Father which is in heaven. The same law that we could not keep He fulfilled in our behalf.

The Love Commanded

By the love of our gracious King, He equips us now to love in the same manner. The King of the kingdom has made us children of His kingdom. By His blood we are adopted, and by His Spirit we are actually born again into that kingdom. The grace of the King is that He sheds abroad in our hearts even this love for our enemies.


Let us look narrowly at what all of these things mean.

Let us look specifically at the manner of this love. Here we must attend to the command of the King of the kingdom of heaven. He commands us, "Love your enemies." This is, of course, the most broad and general of the commandments recorded in verse 44. It is in complete contrast to what "hath been said...." Rather than giving the command, "Hate thine enemy," our Lord commands, "Love your enemies." 

This love is distinctive. It is not necessarily an embrace of the enemy. That is impossible if the enemy is also an enemy of God. In such a case, that love ought to have fellowship as an ultimate goal. However, such a goal cannot be realized unless that enemy is converted to God by His grace. Love will seek that enemy's conversion to God. Love will do that even though that enemy has committed great offense. That love is also sacrificial. It seeks to bestow great good, even at great cost, even one's own life.

The second word is a command to bless those that curse. Cursing calls down divine destruction upon the cursed. With this word, the enemy breathes out destruction and slaughter against the child of the kingdom. The response must not be a curse, but a blessing. The Christian speaks good things to such a cursing enemy.

The third word is the very point of doing good. While the hatred of the enemy is bent on destruction, the response is that of actually doing good. One works to discover what the enemy needs, and then supplies that need, even at great cost perhaps. We are reminded of the words of the apostle Paul, in 
Romans 12:20, 21: "Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good."


The fourth word is to pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you. Here we go to the depths of the matter. The first three speak of acts which may be seen and felt. This one is within the heart. Before God His Father in heaven the child of the kingdom comes. With his heart open before the living God, he sends petitions heavenward. Those petitions are for the welfare of those that despitefully use him and persecute him. He prays, not for their temporal blessing, but for their eternal blessedness: the salvation of God in Jesus Christ.


This is, indeed, a high calling. Looking at it, we see our need of grace. We are hardly, by nature, children of our Father which is in heaven, so far short we fall. We need the grace of the King to forgive. We need His power to act as the children of our Father in heaven. These things we find through the proper worship of God. Knowing our need we are prepared to enter into our Lord's teaching concerning the proper worship of the Father, in Matthew 6. Drinking this clear water of Holy Scripture must lead us to its Fountain, to praise and glorify Him, our Father in Heaven.

Questions for Meditation and Further Study

1.How must we reconcile the commandments of this passage with our calling with respect to the enemies of God, e.g., Psalm 139:21?

2.Consider the rest of the Sermon of 
Matthew 5-7. What other passages refute the teaching of common grace erroneously drawn out of this passage?

3.Are there any instances in which God does love His enemies? How does He love them? How does this love show itself to be wholly particular and not common at all?

4.What reasons are there for the calling to perfection in verse 48? Is this a proper goal to strive after, even in this life?