Pray for Your Enemies
Jesus relates prayer even to His followers' relations with the hostile. This teaching appears in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). Many consider this the same message as the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-49), simply condensed in the latter version.
At its heart, the sermon's theme is captured in a nutshell in Matthew 5:20. Jesus emphasized that unless His hearers' righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees, they would not enter the kingdom of heaven. He disowned a pseudo righteousness, a mock religion, and pressed for authentic godliness as a manifestation of being saved.
In the more complete version of Matthew 5-7, Jesus' point develops in these steps. He opens with features of such righteousness, the famous Beatitudes (5:3-12), goes on with figures of it, salt and light (5:13-16), then the foundation for such righteousness in the law of God (5:17-7:12). For this foundation, Jesus articulates the standard (5:17-20), then twelve samples in which such righteousness can be manifested—related to dealing with anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, avenging, almsgiving, prayer, fasting, treasures, anxiety, judging others, and again prayer. After the standard and the samples, he gives a summary of the righteousness in a capsule, the golden rule expressing love (7:12).
The Lord's final focus is on the folly of spurious righteousness (7:13-29). Here He presses for a verdict, a choice between two ways, two trees, and two foundations. At the end Matthew notes the reaction of those who heard the sermon, amazement in the presence of such kingly authority.
Prayer in 5:44 fits, then, in a thematic flow, urging a life with spiritual fruit exemplifying genuine righteousness.
This immediate context orientates the way prayer helps carry out the theme: righteousness in action. Love that seeks the welfare even of enemies as distinct from partiality that favors some shows righteousness greater than people naturally generate at work. Jesus' followers as true sons of God's family (v. 45) live by the standard that He displays. For He plays no favorites as in providing benefits all people can enjoy, for example sunshine and rain. His righteousness is on a higher level than the mere best that humans naturally reflect. This is clear in examples of worldly tax gatherers loving those who love them, and Gentiles greeting only their brothers. So those really in the Father's family—the genuinely righteous—are to live by the Father's perfection in this matter of impartiality as opposed to drawing lines of favoritism.
Being "perfect" is in this matter that the context itself carefully defines. It is not focusing on being absolutely, sinlessly perfect, a standard only God meets.
How believers manifest this standard of righteousness in real life situations is now the point. Jesus gives two examples in verse 44 and others in the surrounding verses of both Matthew 5 and Luke 6.
Love your enemies. Love shines obviously in reaching out to those who would not expect such care; they look for a partiality that ignores or shuts them out. Jesus gives illustrations of love at work. One case features turning the other cheek to an enemy who has slapped the face, rather than lashing back (v. 39). Another is in being magnanimous rather than nasty to a person who hauls one into court (v. 40). Still another is refusing to hate an authority requiring a person to break his or her day's schedule, being cheerful to go even further out of the way than he asks to help him (v. 41). A fourth case is in lending to the needy (v. 42), without demanding repayment (Luke 6:34). Luke adds Jesus' encouragement that the Father will give great reward to the trusting (6:35).
In this spotlighting of love, prayer fits naturally. Prayer is love on its knees.
Pray for those who persecute you. This requires supernatural grace if it is to be of God, not mere human stoicism or a "grit the teeth bravado" by the flesh. God will give, and give what is "good" to those who ask Him (Matt. 7:11). The follower of Jesus who prays for others can also pray for sufficiency to "pray in a good spirit" for them.
Prayer for enemies could voice many particulars: asking that God open their hearts to forgiveness (Luke 23:34); affirming one's own tender desire to forgive (2 Cor. 2:10); interceding that God will open their eyes to His salvation (cf. Rom. 10:1); pleading for wisdom for those in authority to exercise this wisely (1 Tim. 2:1, 2); praise that they have not gone as far as they might go in sin; petition for God yet, if He will, to provide an open door of further witness to them.
Prayer for the unsaved is a part of God's Word. Ezra 6:10 speaks of the Persian king's desire that elders of Judah pray for him and his sons. Daniel 2 reveals Daniel in prayer to gain safety for himself and his three friends, but also to secure the interpretation of a dream for Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah 29:7 shows God's will that Israeli exiles to Babylon pray for the welfare of Babylon. Jesus prays for those as yet unsaved to come to oneness with others who are saved (John 17:20). Paul intercedes that God will save the lost of Israel (Rom. 10:1), and urges prayers for those in authority in a context in which being saved is one of the prime issues (1 Tim. 2:1, 4). Even for those who teach that prayer is only for those God chose for salvation, the prayer is for people who at the moment are unsaved.
Other examples. Luke's parallel to Matthew 5 at this point summons disciples to do good to those who hate them. Jesus presses this right after loving enemies, so it is the loving goodness that shows care for the spiteful. Luke also mentions blessing those who wished a curse. This is more than in words; it requires even the attitude and action that back up the words sincerely. Blessing others would probably be not only in words wishing blessing, but in a spirit prompting prayer for God to bless the offender. For Luke's very next expression from Jesus is "pray for those who revile (mistreat) you" (6:28).
Luke puts in the same context Jesus' all-inclusive principle, whatever good one can want others to do to him he ought to treat them this same way (6:31). Matthew's record has this golden rule as the summary wrap-up, gathering in a nutshell the essence of the sermon (7:12). Prayer can be one of the most potent outlets to show this standard.
What principles emerge for prayer here? One is that genuine prayer is among the evidences of authentic righteousness as God weighs values. A second one is that prayer is not an easy pastime but a force with clout even in the face of harsh difficulty. Third, prayer is placed in the same unified life with love, just as often in other Scripture (John 15:7-12; Eph. 3:14-21).
Fourth, prayer is a key part of living in valid expectation of entering the kingdom, the vital theme of the sermon. Fifth, prayer is within the kaleidoscope of factors that model before people the Father's perfect character in extending His kindness without playing favorites. Sixth, even all-out prayer in love should not be with a greedy eye to getting a return of reward, but done even when men offer no reward. God offers one, and it will be great, far above all the effort.
The Devil at Prayer
Four features define the setting for Jesus' temptation in the wilderness.
The power of the Spirit (v. 1). Matthew styles Jesus as being "led by the Spirit," flitting his theme of Jesus as the king. Mark says the Spirit "impelled" or "drove" Jesus to go to this area, which suits the situation of a servant going under another's impulse, here to do the will of God. Luke describes Jesus as "full of the Holy Spirit" (4:1), and adds that with the temptation past, Jesus returned to Galilee "in the power of the Spirit" (v. 14). As a king, servant, and son of man Jesus met the ordeal in the enablement that God's Spirit supplied.
The peril by the Devil (v. 1). Matthew says this was the purpose of Jesus going there, and Mark and Luke stress that he was being tempted continually. The devil kept at his evil effort.
The poverty in regard to food (2). All three records describe the forty days of fasting; Luke even adds that "He ate nothing during those days." Both Matthew and Luke emphasize that Jesus felt hungry after that long period. These days set the stage for Jesus' painful temptation to indulge Himself with food.
The presence of animals (Mark 1:13). Only Mark supplies this detail. His purpose is probably to accentuate the difficult environment, along with the mention of the wilderness. The first Adam faced temptation in a bountiful area, the last Adam in a barren, bleak situation. And as Adam was in a habitat of animals, so was the last Adam, though the animals' wildness in His case puts a focus on added danger He had to face.
Prayer now leaps into the spotlight, for prayer is what talking with God is, in essence. Readers look in on three scenes and overhear the devil talking to the God-man. In other passages, the devil's prayers are accusing (Job 1; Zech. 3:1). Here, they are alluring. An outright fiend who slanders in the other passages, he comes to Jesus under the subtle guise of being a friend who can satisfy.
The first phase (3-4). Matthew says that it was "the tempter" who came, peddling his enticement. The devil's opening words are a clever spin-off from the truth, "If you are the Son of God." Seizing such a privilege, he urges, "command that these stones be made bread." In other words, use your advantage with God as an occasion to get your own will, and satisfy your sense of need. Do this without reference to God's will, or depending on Him. Just act independently and indulge yourself on what He has been negligent to supply.
Jesus meets the temptation that misuses prayer, showing perfect dependence on God, not independence from Him. He insists on being sensitive to what God's Word says (Deut. 8:3). His priority is to draw an appropriation from the supply that God provides, sufficient to sustain Him to do His will. God had said that "man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God." Jesus' freedom and happiness did not consist of gratifying desires but in submission to God's desire. He showed humans as God wants them to be, those who depend on and appropriate God's spiritual food that sustains them, and who are adequate to face temptation with victory. God will meet the needs, such as physical food, when He is ready in His wisdom and will.
To make His own way softer, Jesus did not work a miracle here. He would begin to work miracles by turning water into wine at Cana, but sensitively, only when His hour (fitting time) had come as God's will led Him (John 2:4).
The answer to the devil's prayer is "No."
The second phase (5-7). In essence the devil's deceitful line is this. "If you are living by the word of God, as you say, then what I have to offer is only consistent with that. Attempt a daring act, and put that word to an ultimate test. Press the matter. Cast yourself down from a towering place, and show how far this God you trust in can back up His word."
Cleverly, the devil cites right out of Psalm 91:11, 12. That passage refers to God's faithful care for His servant who is walking in His will (v. 1, abiding under the shadow of the Almighty) in the normal pursuits of life. The devil withholds the truth, however, that the psalm is not focusing on situations in which a person plays a game using God as a tool; he rashly, presumptuously, and unsubmissively sets up situations in his own arbitrary self-will. This is to act without trust that awaits God's timing and way. It falsely puts God on trial.
The answer to the prayer again is "No." Jesus with confidence in God vindicates His character. He replies in essence, "It is written again [in Deut. 6:16]." Perfect trust does not have to test. A test in such a case as trumping up a situation to demand special protection from injury in falling would expose a basic lack of trust. The person who tests another acts with doubt; he is not sure of him, but has to check up to prove that he is worthy to be trusted.
If a wife genuinely trusts her husband with regard to other women, she does not hire a private eye to shadow the husband all day.
The third phase (8-10). Now Jesus shows consecration to the worship of God, demonstrating perfect obedience. The devil's spurious line can be stated in its essence. He no longer says, "If you are the son of God." Rather he directly assumes Christ's sonship and His destiny to have a kingdom. So now he appeals to him to make it a splendid kingdom—but in subordination to him, the devil. He entices, "You may have the splendor of possessions by a short-cut, a softer way; it will bypass the shame and suffering of the cross. All of this is yours, if you will fall down and worship me."
As prince of this world, under God's permission (John 12:31), in one sense the devil could offer this. But ultimately, since all belongs to God (Ps. 24:1), the earth is not the tempter's to give, outside of God's will. Yet this is a deliberate attempt by the devil to deceive the last Adam as he had hoodwinked the first Adam. By this he sought to prevent the creation of a new race.
Jesus' answer to the prayer again is a flat "No." He says, in effect, "You suggest that I may reach the goal my Father set before me by a method apart from the Father's method. This is a lie. I can accomplish His will only in His pathway. To worship you carries with it that I must serve and render obedience to you. I insist again that I choose to live in a way true to His Word that stands written. So I will worship in holy service the Lord my God, only Him."
What transpires here fits within Jesus' rights to the kingship in God's will as Matthew is developing them. Here is the sequence: His legal right (Chap. 1); His prophetical right (Chap. 2); His moral right (3, 4; note "fulfill all righteousness," 3:17); His judicial right, speaking as a king giving His standards (5-7); and His executive right, acting with authority as a mighty king executes His will (8:1-11:1).
These particular temptations are finished. The tempter's prayers have been denied (cf. Ps. 66:18). The God-man walks in the will of the Father, where all prayer of a true kind has its success.
Two details reveal the result of insisting on God's will related to prayer.
The flight of the devil. "Then," when Jesus had denied all, vetoed the temptations and given bogus prayer its "No" answers, the devil departed from the victor. James later expressed the principle for tempted believers who will be like Jesus. "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you" (James 4:7b).
The fellowship of the angels. Angels came and ministered to Jesus.
These were often active in His ministry (John 1:49-51). God had promised Jacob that they would be involved in servant phases of carrying out His covenant with Abraham (Gen. 28:11ff.). True to this, they appear often in Scripture fulfilling phases of such servant devotion.
With the three examples of devilish prayer, one can wonder about Jesus praying in these cases. Nothing is said of this, but he probably did pray as several details suggest. (1) Luke 3:21 in the preceding account of His baptism notes that He was praying, and he would reasonably pray in a special forty-day focus on seeking God's will; (2) fasting (Matt. 4:2) is often linked with prayer in Scripture; (3) Jesus would be consistent to live by counsel that he would give His disciples to fast and pray lest they enter into temptation (Matt. 26:41); (4) worship to the Lord, serving Him only (4:10), intimates a spirit of prayer; (5) would Jesus fail to pray about "everything" as Paul later counsels those who follow Him (Phil. 4:6)? Would He fail to be "casting all your care on Him, for He cares for you" (1 Pet. 5:7)?
Principles of prayer permeate the passage. First, a Spirit-led person is alert to discern how to meet temptation, even against false prayer. Second, the devil, here directly at work, can also voice his spurious prayers, using lips of others. God can perceive falseness in any case (cf. Ps. 139:1-4). Third, as the devil so cleverly does in this case, one who is false in purpose can manipulate Scripture to plead what is not God's will. "Lord, you want me to be satisfied; grant me this woman to be my wife." Imagine the loss when she is not God's will for a life that will give Him preeminence.
Fourth, seek pure answers in the path of obeying the whole Word, its parts related together in a sound way. Fifth, the will of God fulfilled with integrity is a great key in God's school of prayer. Sixth, rather than flitting from one self-serving prayer to another as the devil does here, keep short accounts with sin and cultivate tender sensitivity to grasp and carry out God's will.
Seventh, be watchful to discern the devil's presence, and insist that he be gone! Eighth, stand against the devil, and wrong prayer, then the devil does flee (cf. James 4:7b), and God's angels touch us (cf. John 14:21-23; Heb. 1:14).