Ahaziah, the king of Israel, was sick. The prophet Elijah declared the Word of the Lord: because of the king's idolatry, he would not recover from his illness. Ahaziah sent three groups of soldiers in turn to fetch Elijah. In response, the prophet called down fire from heaven that consumed the first two groups. The captain of the third group begged for mercy, and he and his men received it (2 Kings 1). Now, let's move forward to the time of Christ. On their way to Jerusalem, Jesus and His disciples had to pass through a Samaritan village. Since Jews and Samaritans did not get along with each other, Jesus was not welcomed by the Samaritans. "And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?" (Luke 9:54). From an Old Testament perspective, this was a reasonable question. However, the Lord's response was quite different. "But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them. And they went to another village." (Luke 9:55-6).
Despite all their time at the Master's side, the apostles had yet to fully grasp the nature of the new kingdom that Christ was introducting. The earthly kingdom of Israel had used the sword in defense of its interests, just like the heathen nations surrounding it did. However, creating another earthly kingdom was not Jesus's plan; He was introducting something totally new. When Pilate questioned Him about His kingdom, "Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence." (John 18:36). This is the kingdom of God, which operates with fundamentally different rules than the kingdoms of the world. An obvious example of this is how citizens of the two kingdoms treat their enemies. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explained how His followers should respond to those who oppose them.
"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. 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."
Here, Christ quoted from the Law of Moses and then explained how His disciples are to follow a higher standard. This is the new spirit that James and John did not understand during the encounter with the Samaritans. Sadly, many professing Christians in the present day still do not understand this spirit. It is the mission of the Body of Christ to win lost souls to the Lord. However, this mission is harder to accomplish when Christians are not turning the other cheek to those who resist them. Paul wrote:
"Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. 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."
If someone attacks me, and I fight back, I may well save my life. But what about the attacker's soul? I thank my pastor for explaining the situation in the following light. If in the process of defending myself I kill my attacker, I have just sent an unbeliever to his grave without Christ. On the other hand, I have peace with God, so my death would mean I go to be with the Lord. Also, this would give the attacker more opportunities to repent and be saved. Now, I realize that in most similar situations these are not the only two options. There's nothing wrong with fleeing for your life, given the chance. However, as Jesus said, "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it." (Mark 8:35).
Now, let's tackle some more controversial applications to Christ's teaching on loving your enemies. Although born-again Christians have been transported into the kingdom of God (Colossians 1:13), they still physically reside in one of the kingdoms of this world. How should Christians respond to the demands of these two kingdoms? Immediately following the passage from Romans 12 I quoted above regarding the duties of believers, there is a discussion in Chapter 13 that outlines the duties of governments. Note the sharp distinctions between them. God has ordered earthly governments to maintain order in society, and to do this the governments have to use the sword. Is it wrong for a government to use force in this way? No, it is part of the authority granted to the government by God. The next question: is it right for a Christian to use the sword under the direction of his earthly rulers? I believe the answer to this question is an emphatic NO! If you kill an unbeliever on some foreign battlefield, this person goes to a Christ-less grave just the same as if you kill an unbeliever who tried to rob you as you were walking to your car. The Bible tells us, "We ought to obey God rather than men." (Acts 5:29). The Christian's obligation to be a law-abiding citizen ends when his nation asks him disobey Christ's commands. The primary allegiance should always be to the kingdom of God.
Furthermore, loving your enemies applies to more than just life-or-death situations. It is part of everyday Christian life. Jesus did not return evil for evil, whether it be physical violence, verbal abuse, or anything else (1 Peter 2:23). If we seek to get back at people who have wronged us, how are we different from the world? And how would the world see a benefit in coming to Christ? Instead, be gracious to the person who has wronged you, thus heaping coals of fire on this person's head. In other words, show the power of Christ to transform a sinner from the inside out by displaying love in response to a slap on the cheek. "Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing." (1 Peter 3:9).
Will practicing all of this be easy? Of course not. Believe me, I have had my share of failures. But, through the grace of God, it is possible. I will close with just one example of a believer who lived out these principles. In 1569, a man by the name of Dirk Willems was arrested in Holland. His crime? He was an Anabaptist Christian, which was a transgression deserving of death according to the state church. At one point, Dirk escaped from prison, but a thief-catcher was in hot pursuit. In the process, Dirk safely crossed a frozen pond, but the thief-catcher fell through the ice. This would seem like a perfect chance for Dirk to escape. However, Dirk Willems loved his enemy more than his own life. He turned around and pulled that thief-catcher out of the freezing water, saving his life. (This heroic event is depicted in the picture at the top of this page.) Consequently, Dirk was rearrested, and he was burned at the stake when he would not compromise his faith in Christ. This story has long been a challenge to me in my Christian walk. I hope that it may be for you as well. Let us walk according to the Lord's words in Matthew 10:16--"Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves."