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God’s Agape Love and Martin Luther King, Jr.

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“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43-45 NIV).

On November 17, 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a sermon to his Montgomery, Alabama, congregation titled “Loving Your Enemies.” As a principle essential to King’s philosophy of life, loving one’s enemies was a topic he preached at least once a year. Confronted with the persistent reality of society’s political and social evils, King found a new resolve to overcome hatred by yielding to the depth of God’s love. Reflecting on the healing power of love, King remarked:  

“The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls ‘the image of God,’ you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there.”

Despite the world’s callous hatred, King acknowledged everyone has good in them by virtue of being made in God’s image. We may not be naturally inclined to see good in our enemies, but if we make a point to do so, energized by God’s love, we will discover love for them. If everyone—including the person, nation, or race that has caused us the most pain—is made in God’s image, then somewhere within them lies the imprint of God’s character.

In the Bible’s opening chapter, the creation narrative refers three times to humanity as being made in His image (Genesis 1:26–27). The mark of God’s likeness distinguishes humans from the rest of creation. Regardless of what nation or ethnicity you belong to, you and I share a uniqueness among all other creatures as bearers of the divine image. The innate goodness of God’s character resides in each of us so that in loving others, we are loving what God made. 

Because we are made like God, we can love others with God’s love. His superior love is known as agape love. Only through agape love, King maintained, can one be freed from the cycle of hate: “When you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likable, but because God loves them.” The real test of love is loving our enemies. When we genuinely love our enemies, we prove that our love is rooted in and reflects God’s agape love.

In the Sermon on the Mount, the Greek term agape is used to convey the true measure of love. Jesus explained that anyone can love their friend. However, by loving our enemies, we demonstrate that we are the children of God (Matthew 5:45).

God’s agape love knows no bounds. It is the same conquering, redemptive love exhibited in God’s love for the world:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

When we were lost in opposition and rebellion toward God, He went the distance to show us His love. Loving our enemies means showing the same overcoming agape love God showed on the Cross. It is this kind of love, loving others for no other reason than that we are each alike made in God’s image, which has the strength to stem the tide of hatred and mend the hostility that divides us.


Scripture is quoted from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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About The Author

Dr. Paul Palma
Dr. Paul J.

Dr. Paul J. Palma is a Regent University professor and the author of three books, including Embracing Our Roots: Rediscovering the Value of Faith, Family, and Tradition. He’s also a worship leader, husband, and father of three who enjoys spending time with his family on walks, trips to the beach, and reading.

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