Sue and I were on the Island of Patmos years ago, at the Grotto of St. John where, according to tradition, John was given the visions that make up our book of Revelation.
You might think that the secluded monastery in that place would be peaceful, but we had to laugh when we discovered that isn’t always the case.
Our leader on this particular tour was a Greek Orthodox nun. She was informative and insightful, and we appreciated her sincere piety. As we went down into the Grotto of St. John, we found that a separate tour was being conducted in another language just in front of us. Things began to get a little chaotic.
On top of that, it was Sunday, and services were being held as we were on our tour. The two tour guides got into some sort of conflict with the Greek priest who was conducting services, and before we knew it they were all hollering and yelling at one another in the monastery of St. John, in the cave of a sacred revelation.
My point is that even if you lived in a secluded monastery, even if you lived in a sacred cave on the Island of Patmos, you would still have to deal with the conflicts that are just a part of life.
Conflict is Inevitable
Do you know how to deal with the conflicts that will inevitably come? I recall preaching from the Sermon on the Mount a number of years ago. A young man came to me afterward and told me that he appreciated my sermon very much, except that it did not apply to him.
I asked why he thought that and he said, “Well, I don’t have any enemies.” I thought to myself, “Stick around awhile. Life will deal you a few enemies.”
The living Lord Himself has given us very specific instructions as to how we are to deal with those with whom we are in conflict. A good summary of these instructions may be found in Matthew 5-7. Let’s look at just a few verses:
You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ (Matthew 5:38)
This citation out of the Old Testament may sound harsh to us, but it is really much more positive than we typically assume. The culture to which it was first delivered was accustomed to a system of unlimited retaliation. If someone poked out one of your eyes, for example, you were entitled to take his or her life. In its Old Testament setting, “an eye for an eye” was a statement of equity, of justice, in contrast with the concept of unlimited retaliation.
Most modern legal systems are built on such notions of equity, justice, and compensation. It is appropriate for societies to live in such a way. It is interesting, though, that Jesus chose to give us instructions for how we ought to live. That is different from making a statement about how governments ought to be run. He was not dictating how societies are to function in terms of social politics, but rather how His followers are to deal with people:
You have heard it said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOU NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ (Matthew 5:43)
How Jesus Set the Record Straight
Notice that Jesus’ instructions have progressed from limited retaliation to unlimited love. Jesus cited Leviticus 19:18 in order to correct an apparently popular misapplication of it in his day:
You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.
Notice that this passage says nothing about hating your enemy. It only says, “You shall love your neighbor.” Some of the traditional Jewish commentaries of Jesus’ day had added an additional phrase to the ancient statement: “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Jesus quoted this passage in Matthew 5 in order to correct the Jewish commentary on Scripture:
But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44)
How do we respond to Jesus’ words?
This is the kind of behavior that is expected of followers of Jesus Christ. This is the kind of behavior that grows out of the character of God:
For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45)
God loves people who are evil and good. Therefore, just as God is comprehensive in His love for all mankind, so we too, Jesus says, “are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
It is unfortunate that Matthew 5:48 is so often translated using the word “perfect.” A better word here would be “comprehensive”– in other words, “be comprehensive, as your heavenly Father is comprehensive in His love.”
You and I are called upon to be a people who bear the character of God. The Old Testament Scriptures make it clear that ethical behavior is grounded in the character of God, and the New Testament teaches that we are to be transformed into the likeness of God through Jesus Christ.
Human experience is full of conflict. Don’t think that you can avoid conflict. When we learn to love and pray for those with whom we are in conflict, however, we become more and more the people God wants us to be. We begin to take on more of the character of God. We begin to become more truly human.
The preceding was adapted by Rachel Motte from a sermon Dr. Robert Sloan delivered at Tallowood Baptist Church on July 29, 1990.