The Distinguishing Mark of a Child of God
Jesus claimed that loving enemies was a precondition for being considered a child of God. “[L]ove your enemies,” he taught, “that you may be children of your Father…” (Mt. 5:44-45, emphasis added). And again, “love your enemies, do good to them… Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High…” (Lk 6:35, emphasis added). Thus, Feldmeier and Spieckermann rightly conclude:
When [Jesus’] followers reflect this overflowing love that includes even the enemy, they become God’s “sons” (Matt 5:45; Luke 6:35), and, thus, themselves “perfect” (Matt 5:48). As a response to the nature of God, therefore, the New Testament regards the love commandment as the “fulfillment of the law” (Rom 13:10; cf. Gal 5:14), praises love as the highest of all the gifts of the Spirit (I Cor 13:13), and makes it the sum of the Christian ethos.1
The logic behind Jesus’ astonishing teaching is that, since God’s nature is reflected in his indiscriminate, self-sacrificial, non-violent, servant love toward enemies—the kind of love that would soon be unambiguously displayed in Jesus’ crucifixion—then only those who replicated this kind of cruciform love in their own lives could be considered to look like this God, and in this sense be considered the children of this God.
In this light, it’s hardly coincidental that the definitive proof Jesus offered Pilate that his kingdom was “not of this world” was that, if his kingdom had been of this world, he says, “my servants would fight to prevent my arrest…” (Jn 18:36). Actually, one of his misguided followers had earlier tried to use “justified” violence to defend Jesus, but Jesus sternly rebuked him, reminding him of that the assumption that violence is ever justified lies behind the cyclical violence that characterizes all of human history: “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Mt 26:53, cf. Jn 18:11).
Jesus’ remark to Pilate thus suggests that a distinctive characteristic of all who belong to his kingdom, and that distinguishes his kingdom from the kingdoms of this world, is that they do not fight, even when they would be considered justified to do so—as Peter’s use of violence certainly was. The way soldiers in Jesus’ kingdom wage war is by healing threatening enemies and blessing them in any other possible way rather than injuring them (Luke 22:51).
In this light, it should be clear that, contrary to the way most Christians today view the matter, the call to manifest God’s indiscriminate, self-sacrificial love and to unconditionally refrain from violence cannot be considered an optional aspect of what it means to follow Jesus. Rather, as cruciform love is the most definitive distinguishing characteristic of God’s nature, so manifesting cruciform love must be considered the sine qua non feature of all who are the children of this God.
1 God of the Living (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2015), 128.