Be Perfect!

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:48 ESV

In all that Jesus has said up to this point, this one line jumps out like no other. And He makes it at the tail end of His discussion regarding love. Jesus has let them know that the kind of love God expects from those are blessed and approved by Him is a non-discriminatory love. It isn’t a love that has to be earned or deserved in some way. There is no expectation of love in return. In other words, it’s not reciprocal in nature. Human love says, “I’ll love you, as long as you love me back.” But that’s a self-centered kind of love. Jesus said, “If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that” (Matthew 4:47-48 NLT).

Our model for love is to be God, not man. Which is what led Jesus to say, “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:49 NLT). And if we’re honest, the very first thought that goes through our minds when we hear that statement is, “You’ve got to be kidding!” Is Jesus serious? Is He really asking us to be perfect, like God is perfect? Is He calling His listeners to do the impossible? YES!

What Jesus is demanding is righteousness. God’s brand of righteousness. Mankind is adept at producing flesh-based righteousness. That is what Jesus has been addressing during this opening section of His message. He knew that those in His audience tended to measure their righteousness based on external adherence to some set of rules or standards. Here’s how they approached righteousness:

“As long as I don’t commit adultery, I’m doing okay with God.”

“If I don’t kill anyone, I am keeping God’s law and keeping Him happy with me.”

“If I happen to divorce my wife, I’ll still be okay with God, as long as I do it in the prescribed manner, according to His law.”

“I thank God for oaths, that allow me to break my word, but in a way that God will accept, even if my friends don’t.”

“God even approves of me when I do harm to others, as long as I’m doing it to get even.”

“And I can keep God loving me as long as I love my neighbor and hate my enemies.”

But all of those thoughts are based on a human understanding of righteousness, a merit-based concept that connects righteousness to behavior. But Jesus is presenting a radically different view that teaches that God’s ultimate expectation of men is nothing short of sinless perfection. In fact, the Greek word Jesus uses that is translated “perfect”, is teleios and it means whole or complete. It was used to refer to consummate human integrity and virtue. Jesus wasn’t calling for a better, slightly improved version of human righteousness. He was calling for sinless perfection. And there wasn’t a single person in His audience that day who could pull it off, including His four disciples. We are all totally incapable of doing what Jesus is saying, without His help.

What Jesus is demanding is simply a reiteration of what His Father had demanded of the Israelites centuries earlier.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” – Leviticus 19:1-2 ESV

The Hebrew word translated as “holy” is the word qadowsh. It means “pure, clean; free from defilement of crimes, idolatry, and other unclean and profane things” (“H6918 – qadowsh – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). It was also used to speak of someone or something’s status as having been “set apart” by God for His use.

You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine. – Leviticus 20:26 ESV

It was a call to separation and distinctiveness. The people of Israel were to be holy, set apart by God for His use. But their holiness was not to be simply a positional reality. It was to have practical ramifications. God had expectations regarding their behavior, but also regarding the condition of their hearts. They were expected to “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5 ESV). And they were expected to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18 ESV).

The apostle Peter would echo the words of Jesus in his first letter.

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:14-16 ESV

Be holy – in all your conduct. Be perfect – just as your heavenly Father is perfect. Those are some staggering concepts to get your mind around. They come across as so far-fetched and impossible, that we end up treating them as some form of hyperbole or over-exaggeration on Jesus’ part. Surely, He can’t be expecting us to be holy like God is holy, or perfect in the same way God is perfect. But Jesus is simply revealing the standard of God. God doesn’t grade on a curve. He doesn’t dumb down the test because of the spiritual acumen of the students in His classroom. One of the issues Jesus is exposing in His message is that the Jews were guilty of lowering God’s holy and righteous standards so that they could somehow measure up. That’s why Jesus said, “if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:19 NLT). And He topped that off with the bombshell: “unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:20 NLT).

God has always expected and demanded perfection. He has always required that His people be holy, just as He is holy. There is no lower standard. God doesn’t take a look at mankind, recognize their inability to live up to His expectations, then lower the bar so more people can qualify. Later on, in this very same message, Jesus will reveal “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it” (Matthew 7:13-14 NLT). God’s way is not the easy way. The kind of righteousness He demands and expects is not easy to achieve. It’s impossible. The life of holiness He requires of those who would be His children is measured by His own holiness. It is a holiness and righteousness that is far superior to anything the Pharisees or teachers of religious law could ever hope to produce.

Holiness and godly perfection are high standards indeed. And they are impossible to produce in the flesh. You can’t manufacture what God is demanding. You can’t be like God without the help of God. The apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth and reminded them:

Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness? What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil? How can a believer be a partner with an unbeliever? And what union can there be between God’s temple and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God said:

“I will live in them
    and walk among them.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
Therefore, come out from among unbelievers,
    and separate yourselves from them, says the Lord.
Don’t touch their filthy things,
    and I will welcome you.
And I will be your Father,
    and you will be my sons and daughters,
    says the Lord Almighty.” – 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 NLT

Then he follows this up with the logical conclusion or application.

Because we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God. – 2 Corinthians 7:1 NLT

You see, there is an expectation of separation. We are to love differently and distinctively from those around us. Part of how our holiness should manifest itself is in the alternative way of living that we model. As God’s children, we have a capacity to live differently than all those around us. We have the ability to live truly righteous lives because we have received the righteousness of Christ. We have the Spirit of God living within us and empowering us to live like Christ. We have a high standard to live up to: Jesus Christ Himself. He is the model of righteousness we are to emulate. Not scribes, Pharisees, rabbis, pastors, teachers, evangelists, parents, or friends. That is, unless they are modeling their lives after Christ. Paul put it this way: “And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 NLT).

So, when Jesus said to the crowd seated on the hillside that day, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, He wasn’t presenting anything new.  He was simply reminding them that God’s standard had not changed. He had not lowered the bar. Human alterations and addendums to God’s laws might make them easier to live up to, but they couldn’t produce the kind of righteousness God was expecting. That’s why, as Paul reminds us, God did for us what the law could never have done.

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT

Holiness and perfection are not impossible, unless we try to produce them on our own. God never intended the law to be lived up to. It presented God’s divine criteria for holiness. It made painfully clear what God demanded in the way of behavior from mankind. But in the end, it was intended to reveal our sin and our need for outside help, what Martin Luther referred to as “alien righteousness” – an righteousness outside of ourselves.

God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. Therefore, as the Scriptures say, “If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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Follow the Servant-Leader.

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. – 1 Corinthians 11:1 ESV

If we didn’t know much about Paul, this simple statement could come across as little more than prideful arrogance. It sounds a lot like someone with an over-inflated sense of spiritual self-worth. But this is the same Paul who said, “‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ – and I am the worst of them all” (1 Timothy 1:15 NLT). He knew he was far from perfect and had a flawed past. “I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church” (1 Corinthians 15:9 NLT). At one point, he even referred to himself as “the very least of all the saints” (Ephesians 3:8 ESV). So Paul was far from a braggart. He wasn’t one to boast of his spiritual superiority or set himself up as some kind of icon of virtue. He was honest about his short-comings and always transparent about his life being a work in process.

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. – Philippians 3:12-14 NLT

So how could Paul have the audacity to say, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”? How could he set himself up as an example to follow? Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate for him to simply say, “Imitate Christ”? Shouldn’t He be our focus, and not Paul? But it is essential that we not take this verse out of its context. For three chapters Paul has been dealing with an issue within the body of Christ in Corinth involving the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Most of what he has addressed has had to do with the legitimate rights of believers and their freedom in Christ. But his point of emphasis has been that their rights were never to trump their obligation to live compassionately and sacrificially among their fellow believers, as well as the lost. First and foremost, their goal should be the glory of God and the spiritual good of those around them. In order for the gospel to be lived out and spread about, it will require that they die to themselves. Their rights will have to take a back seat to the will of God and the spiritual well-being of others. And Paul has used himself as an example of that very lifestyle. “Don’t give offense to Jews or Gentiles or the church of God. I, too, try to please everyone in everything I do. I don’t just do what is best for me; I do what is best for others so that many may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:32-33 NLT). Then he follows up this statement with his call, “And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 NLT).

Unlike the original 12 disciples, we don’t have the benefit of having seen Christ with our own two eyes. We have not been privileged to watch Him work, hear Him teach or witness His selfless lifestyle firsthand. On the very night He would be betrayed, He washed the feet of the disciples, then said to them: “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:12-15 ESV). This was not about washing feet, but about servant leadership. Jesus was their teacher and Lord, and yet He was willing to set aside His rights and privileges to serve them. He willingly stooped down and washed their filthy feet, rather than rightfully demanding that they wash His. Jesus went on to tell them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16 ESV). He was telling His disciples that they, His servants and messengers, were not to view themselves as somehow better than Him, unwilling to serve like He served and sacrifice as He sacrificed. They were to follow His example and serve those to whom He would send them.

It was the apostle John who wrote, “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:5-6 ESV). So in a sense, we are to emulate or imitate Christ. We are to walk as He walked. But at the same time, if that is the way we live our lives, we should be able to call others to follow our example. In doing so, we are not claiming to have arrived at Christ-like perfection, but that we are faithfully attempting to live our lives in keeping with the example of Christ. Paul knew that his rights were never to stand in the way of the gospel, because He knew that Jesus had never let His will get in the way of His Father’s divine plan for His life and for mankind’s redemption. On the night of His betrayal and arrest, as Jesus prayed in the garden, He pleaded with His Father, “if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine” (Luke 22:42 NLT). In His humanity, Jesus dreaded the pain and suffering He was about to face. His human nature was no more a fan of pain than your would be. But His divinity knew that He must accomplish the will of His Father, even though it meant that He must give His life. And Paul reminds us that, “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV).

Paul was willing to follow the example of Christ. He was willing to die if necessary for the sake of the gospel. And even if God did not require his life, Paul was willing to give up his rights and privileges to see that others came to know Christ. He was willing to sacrifice anything and everything to see that believers in Christ grew in their knowledge of Him and in their likeness to Him. They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery. So when we imitate Christ, we honor Him. And when we invite others to imitate our lives, we are taking a huge risk. We are telling them that they can do as we do and say as we say, because we are simply following the example of Christ Himself. And it all begins with sacrificial service and selfless love, putting the needs of others ahead of our own.

1 Corinthians 10:14-11:1

It’s Not All About You.

1 Corinthians 10:14-11:1

I, too, try to please everyone in everything I do. I don’t just do what is best for me; I do what is best for others so that many may be saved. – 1 Corinthians 10:33 NLT

The Christian life is a team sport, not an individual event. Yet, many of us, heavily influenced by a society that puts all the emphasis on the individual, have come to believe that everything revolves around us, including the Christian life. But Paul would beg to differ. He had a completely different perspective, and spent a great portion of his correspondence to the believers in the early church trying to convince them that individualism was antithetical to the Christian cause. A big part of the problem that Paul was trying to address concerning meat sacrificed to idols had to do with the selfish and self-centered attitude that was motivating the behavior of some of the Corinthian believers. While the logic behind their argument that they were completely free to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols was true, it still did not give them the freedom to do as they wished. They had to consider the well-being of others. Just because they could eat meat sacrificed to idols with a clear conscience didn’t mean that they should.

The response of these individuals had been, “I am allowed to do anything.” But Paul reminded them that not everything was good for them or beneficial. He gave them another way of looking at their situation that took the focus off their individual rights and put them on their role within the Body of Christ. “Don’t be concerned for your own good but for the good of others” (1 Corinthians 10:23 NLT). In other words, it’s wasn’t all about them! The universe didn’t revolve around them. They were not the center of all things and the sole inhabitant of the planet. In saving them, God had placed them in His family along with other brothers and sisters in Christ for whom they had a responsibility to love and protect.

For Paul, community was everything. Fellowship and loving concern for one another were the foundational principles of faith. Every believer was to live his or her life with a sense of shared responsibility and mutual concern for one another. Individual rights were to take a backseat to the corporate well-being of the flock. That required a daily dying to self and a willing sacrifice of legitimate rights and freedoms – all for the benefit of others. But Paul didn’t just write about this, he lived it. “I, too, try to please everyone in everything I do. I don’t just do what is best for me; I do what is best for others so that many may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:33 NLT). He had adopted this same attitude and lived it out in his daily life. Which is why he could say with a straight face, “you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 NLT).

Paul echoes this theme in his letter to the believers in Philippi. “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too” (Philippians 2:3-5 NLT). He then went on to describe in great detail the attitude that Christ possessed. He gave up His divine privileges as God, and took on human flesh. He came and served, becoming a slave to all men. He willingly obeyed His Father, even to the point of death – giving His life as a substitute for sinful man. We are to follow His example. We are to live our lives with the same selfless, sacrificial attitude. It isn’t all about us. It’s about Jesus Christ and His body, the church. It is about the Kingdom of God and His plan for the redemption of the world. It is about the benefit and well-being of the other members of Christ’s body for whom I have a responsibility to willingly give up my rights for their good. Loving God and loving others is our call. That requires sacrifice and selflessness. It demands that we have the same attitude or mindset that Christ had – like Paul had.

Father, give us the mind of Christ. Let us see our lives like He did. We need to give up our addiction to individuality and begin to think corporately and communally. Too often, we let our rights become a road block to mutual love and care for the body of Christ. Thanks for reminding me once again that it isn’t all about me. Amen.

Ken Miller
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men
kenm@christchapelbc.org