Godly Perfection.

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 or demand 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 live up to some kind of godly form of perfection? 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 12 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 live 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. Yes, He expected His law to be obeyed, but He knew that sinful men would never be able to keep His holy standard. The law 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” – a 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

Jesus was introducing the concept of godly perfection and preparing His listeners for the day when He would offer Himself as the payment for the sins of mankind and the means by which they mighty be made right with a holy God. Godly perfection would be made available to men through the death of the Son of God and through the power of the Spirit of God.

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

Live Like It.

17 And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, 18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. 20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.  – 1 Peter 1:17-21 ESV

Peter has appealed to his readers to see themselves as holy, because God has chosen them for salvation. They are His children and heirs of His Kingdom, so they should act and behave accordingly. In making his appeal to holy behavior, Peter is referencing an Old Testament passage found in the book of Leviticus.

44 For I am the Lord your God. You must consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. So do not defile yourselves with any of these small animals that scurry along the ground. 45 For I, the Lord, am the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt, that I might be your God. Therefore, you must be holy because I am holy. – Leviticus 11:44-34 NLT

This had been a recurring theme in Leviticus.

“Give the following instructions to the entire community of Israel. You must be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy. – Leviticus 19:2 NLT

So set yourselves apart to be holy, for I am the Lord your God. Keep all my decrees by putting them into practice, for I am the Lord who makes you holy. – Leviticus 20:7-8 NLT

God’s gracious favor on them should produce godly behavior in them. So, Peter warns them that, if they are able to call on God as their Father, it is because He has chosen them to be His own. And that same loving Father will examine their behavior, impartially and without any signs of favoritism, “according to each one’s deeds” (1 Peter 1:17 ESV). There is a common misconception among believers that, because we are God’s children, we are free from judgment. We look at verses like Roman 8:1 and make some false assumptions.

1 So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. – Romans 8:1 NLT

But notice that it says, “there is no condemnation”, not “there is no judgment.” As believers in Jesus Christ, and sons of daughters of God, we no longer face the condemnation associated with our former sins. We face no death penalty because of our rebellions against God. But that does not mean we are free to live as we want and to sin with abandon because we are forgiven. The apostle Paul kicked that misconception to the curb in a powerful, no-holds-barred way:

1 Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? – Romans 6:1-2 NLT

We may be free from condemnation, but we are not free to live as we wish. So, when Peter says that God is impartial, it is a reminder that He does not treat us any differently when it comes to judgment of our behavior. He is impartial. Now, it is true that, as believers, our sins have been paid for, in full, by Jesus Christ. We stand before God as righteous because of the imputed righteousness of Christ. God sees us as holy because His Son paid our sin debt with His own life. John will speak of this in the first of his three letters.

He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. – 1 John 2:2-3 ESV

God has been satisfied. Our debt has been paid. But that does not mean we are no longer required to live in accordance with the laws and commands of God. Look at what John says. The proof of our position as God’s children is our obedience to His commands. John drives that point home in a powerful way.

If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. – 1 John 2:4-6 NLT

Back to Peter’s letter. He warns his readers to “conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile” (1 Peter 1:17 ESV). Remember, he has already told them that they are exiles, living here on earth as they wait for their future inheritance. In the very next chapter, Peter will refer to his readers as “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11). He will warn them “to abstain from the passions of the flesh.” He will tell them to “get rid of all evil behavior. Be done with all deceit, hypocrisy, jealousy, and all unkind speech” (1 Peter 2:1 NLT). Peter will remind them that, while others in their community may reject Christ as Savior, they have not.

But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. – 1 Peter 2:10 NLT

They are chosen. They are set apart. They have been deemed by God to be His holy nation, His possession and kingdom of priests. And it should show up in their behavior. Their salvation was not just a designation, a stamp of godly authenticity, but it was to be a way of life. Back in verse 15 of chapter 1, Peter told them that because God is holy, they were to be holy in all their conduct.

15 But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. – 1 Peter 1:15 NLT

And Peter reminds them that God paid a high price so that they might be set free from their former lives of sin.

18 For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. 19 It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. – 1 Peter 1:18-19 NLT

Jesus spilled His blood so that they might be purified from their sins and set free from future enslavement to sin. He died so that they might live new lives, no longer captive to their former lusts. That’s why Peter had warned them:

Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better then. – 1 Peter 1:14 NLT

They knew better now. But Peter wanted to drive that knowledge deep into their hearts, so he refuses to take his foot off the gas. He keeps pressing home his point, in an attempt to get them to understand the gravity and greatness of what God has done. He tells them that this remarkable salvation was not a new idea or something God came up with at the last minute.

20 God chose him as your ransom long before the world began, but now in these last days he has been revealed for your sake. – 1 Peter 1:20 NLT

God had not been caught off guard by the fall of man. He had known it would happen, even before He had created mankind. The incarnation of Jesus, His coming to earth as a man, was not a knee-jerk reaction on God’s part, attempting to remedy man’s ongoing sinful state. The Ten Commandments were not a last-ditch effort on the part of God, to provide sinful men with some rules to follow, hoping they could get their spiritual act together and obey Him. God gave the Law in order to reveal to sinful men just how sinful they really were. The Law provided a black-and-white, no-questions-asked, not-to-be-argued-with description of the kind of life God required. And no one could live up to His holy standards. That is, until His Son came to earth and lived a sinless life, fully obedient to every command God had ever given. And His sinlessness made Him the perfect, sinless sacrifice and the only acceptable means of atoning for the sins of mankind. Remember what John said in his letter?

He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world. – 1 John 2:2 NLT

That was God’s plan, from before the foundations of the world. Christ was revealed to mankind in order that men might be made right with God. And Peter reminds his readers “Through Christ you have come to trust in God” (1 Peter 1:21 NLT). It was their faith in Jesus that had made their relationship with God possible. Had God not sent His Son, they would still be living in their sins, with no hope of ever reconciling themselves to God. But, Peter points out, “you have placed your faith and hope in God because he raised Christ from the dead and gave him great glory” (1 Peter 1:21 NLT). And that faith and hope should show up in a desire to live differently. It should reveal itself in godly behavior, in lives of holiness and set-apartness, and in a desire to obey God out of gratitude and love for God.

For Peter, the bottom line was that, if God had been powerful enough to raise Jesus back to life after three days in the tomb, could He not also raise us up to new life, right here, right now? Could He not give us the capacity to act and think differently, even while we live as sojourners and strangers in this land? The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” He could. He has. And we should.

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.

Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Devoted to Good Works.

When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there. Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way; see that they lack nothing. And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.

All who are with me send greetings to you. Greet those who love us in the faith.

Grace be with you all.  – Titus 3:12-15 ESV

As Paul wrapped up his letter to Titus, he let his young friend know that he was sending help. Either Artemas or Tychicus would be arriving to assist Titus with the work there on Crete. They would provide much-needed assistance in accomplishing Paul’s goals for the work there, but their presence would also allow Titus take some time off so that he might join Paul in Nicopolis. Paul thought very highly of Titus and looked on him like a son. Paul would be taking a break from his many missionary travels, and spending the winter in Nicopolis. Having Titus there would allow Paul ample time to provide further instruction and encouragement face-to-face rather than by letter. There was likely much that Paul still had to say to Titus and he was looking forward to delivering what he had to say to his friend in person.

Paul also instructed Titus to send Zenas and Apollos on their way. These two men had evidently been on Crete assisting with the spread of the gospel. But Paul encouraged Titus to allow them to leave so that they might take the gospel elsewhere. We know something about Apollos from the book of Acts.

Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. – Acts 18:24-25 ESV

Aquilla and Priscilla, two other disciples of Jesus, took Apollos under their wing and gave him further instructions on the gospel and the ways of God. They also helped him network with other Christians in Achaia, where he went and proved to be very helpful in convincing the Jews there of the validity of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah.

We know little of Zenas, only that he was a lawyer. This could mean that he was an expert in the Mosaic law, but it is more likely that, because of his Greek name, that he was a literal lawyer, having a thorough knowledge of Greek or Roman law. Paul urged Titus and the believers on Crete to take care of these two men and to send them on their way with all the provisions they may need for their journey. Paul had strong opinions about the care of those who helped spread the gospel, and he derived those opinions from Scripture. He wrote to the believers in Corinth, reminding them that he and Barnabas deserved to be cared for as messengers of the good news.

What soldier has to pay his own expenses? What farmer plants a vineyard and doesn’t have the right to eat some of its fruit? What shepherd cares for a flock of sheep and isn’t allowed to drink some of the milk? Am I expressing merely a human opinion, or does the law say the same thing? For the law of Moses says, “You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain.” Was God thinking only about oxen when he said this? Wasn’t he actually speaking to us? Yes, it was written for us, so that the one who plows and the one who threshes the grain might both expect a share of the harvest. – 1 Corinthians 9:7-10 NLT

Paul was simply stating that those who spent their lives spreading the gospel deserved to be cared for by the congregations to which they ministered. And Paul went on to tell the Corinthians, “In the same way, the Lord ordered that those who preach the Good News should be supported by those who benefit from it” (1 Corinthians 9:14 NLT).

And Paul demands that the Cretan not be stingy in their support of Zenas and Apollos. He told Titus to “see that they lack nothing” (Titus 3:13 ESV). Much of what Paul has addressed in this letter has had to do with good works – those visible manifestations of the inward change that has taken place in the life of a believer. And he ends his letter with a very tangible example of what those good works should look like. By supporting Zenas and Apollos, the Cretans would be living out their faith and revealing to the lost world around them a concrete example of the love of Christ. Paul told Titus, “Our people must learn to do good by meeting the urgent needs of others; then they will not be unproductive” (Titus 3:14 NLT). The Greek word translated as “unproductive” is akarpos and it means “without fruit” (“G175 – akarpos – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). Thayer’s Greek Lexicon describes it as meaning “destitute of good deeds.” For a believers to refuse to meet the urgent needs of others would be like an apple tree refusing to bear fruit. It would be useless, having failed to do what it was created to do. Paul told the Ephesians, “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (Ephesians 2:10 NLT). Even Jesus Himself, in His Sermon on the Mount, described the life of the believer as one marked by good deeds.

You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.” – Matthew 5:14-16 NLT

As far as Paul was concerned, the believers on Crete were to be devoted to good works. The Greek word he used was proïstēmi and it literally means to “stand over.” But it carries the idea of presiding over something. They were to care for and protect the practice of good works, knowing that it was their God-given responsibility to live our their faith and in doing so, bring glory to God. We are to do good works, not in order to receive glory from God, but to bring Him glory. We practice a life of good works, because we have been created and redeemed to do so. Man and woman were created to fulfill the will of God, but the fall marred that plan. Instead of doing good works, we sinned. And the book of Genesis reminds us of just how bad it had gotten.

The LORD observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. – Genesis 6:5 NLT

But God sent His Son in order that man might be restored to a right relationship with God and be freed from slavery to sin. Because of His death on the cross, men and women can be redeemed and provided with the power to accomplish the good deeds they were originally created to do. And when we do, we bring glory to God. Our good works are evidence of the life-transforming power of the gospel. Our good works provide proof of our having been saved by God and of our ongoing sanctification, made possible by His indwelling Spirit. We exist for the good of others and the glory of God.

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

Grace For Godliness.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. – Titus 2:11-15 ESV

Paul has just given Titus detailed descriptions of the kind of conduct he is to expect from those who have been exposed to sound doctrine. But now, Paul makes it clear that it is not the teaching of sound doctrine that produces life change. An understanding of theology doesn’t save anyone. A good grasp on doctrine will never earn anyone a right standing with God. And it can’t truly transform anyone’s behavior. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day knew doctrine and theology, but Jesus regularly referred to them as hypocrites. They knew the Hebrew Scriptures, that prophesied about the coming of the Messiah, but failed to recognize Him when He stood right in front of them. The reason Paul emphasized the teaching of sound doctrine was because he knew that God had equipped each and every believer with the capacity to apply that doctrine to their lives and experience true life change. And it was all because “the grace of God has appeared” (Titus 2:11 ESV). This is a clear reference to the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. Paul made a similar reference when he wrote his second letter to Timothy.

For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time—to show us his grace through Christ Jesus. And now he has made all of this plain to us by the appearing of Christ Jesus, our Savior. He broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News. – 2 Timothy 1:9-10 NLT

God showed us His grace by sending His son to provide us with a means of salvation. And notice what Paul says: God saved us and called us to live a holy life. That is exactly what Paul has just finished describing to Titus: what a holy life looks like for each and every believer in his local congregation. From the oldest to the youngest, male and female, and even bondservants, there was an expectation of godly behavior made possible by the grace of God. Jesus came, not only to bring salvation, but sanctification, and Paul describes it this way: “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12 ESV).

In other words, the salvation provided for us by the grace of God and made possible through the death of His Son, is not to be viewed as some kind of entry ticket to heaven. It isn’t a future pass into His Kingdom that has no present significance. No, Paul makes it clear that the grace of God includes our present and ongoing transformation into the likeness of Christ. We are to grow in godliness – in the present age. Paul even seems to indicate that heaven is not to be our hope, but the return of Jesus Christ is. We are to “look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed” (Titus 2:13 NLT). It is the hope of that promise that should motivate us to live godly lives here and now. But it is the grace of God that provides us with the power we need to pull it off. The apostle Peter reminds us: “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT).

Jesus Christ died for us, not just to get us into heaven, but to redeem us from the power of sin. And that process begins in this lifetime, not the next. Paul clearly states: “He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds” (Titus 2:14 NLT). Committed to doing good deeds when? In heaven? No, right here, right now. Jesus Himself stated: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 ESV). That abundant life begins at the point of salvation, not when we arrive in heaven. It is an ongoing process of transformation that takes place from the moment we place our faith in Jesus as Savior, and it will continue until He returns or the Father takes us home at the point of death. And Paul was so confident in God’s promise to transform each and every one of His children into the likeness of Christ, that he told the believers in Philippi: “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6 NLT).

Titus was to teach these truths to his people. He was to demand that they live lives of godliness, not in their own strength, but in the power and grace of God. Life change is possible. Character transformation is expected of each and every believer. And as far as Paul was concerned, a lack of change within the life of a professing believer was to be met with rebuke, not indifference. The author of Hebrews told his audience, “You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food” (Hebrews 5:12 NLT). Paul had to tell the believers in Corinth, “when I was with you I couldn’t talk to you as I would to spiritual people. I had to talk as though you belonged to this world or as though you were infants in the Christian life. I had to feed you with milk, not with solid food, because you weren’t ready for anything stronger. And you still aren’t ready, for you are still controlled by your sinful nature” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3 NLT). Spiritual growth in the life of a believer is not optional. Life transformation is an undeniable expectation and unavoidable outcome of the grace of God. Jesus did not die to leave us like we are. He set us free from slavery to sin. Paul provides the believers in Rome with these powerful words of reminder:

Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires. Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace. – Romans 6:12-14 NLT

The grace of God has set us free from the power of sin. We live under the freedom of God’s grace as provided by the death and resurrection of His Son. And Paul goes on to say, “Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living” (Romans 6:17-18 NLT). We have been given the grace to live godly lives. So, let’s do it.

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

Chosen, Called and Commissioned.

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior;

To Titus, my true child in a common faith:

Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior. – Titus 1:1-4 ESV

As the title of this letter reflects, Paul was writing to Titus, another one of his young disciples in the faith. This letter, like the ones Paul wrote to Timothy, are intended to encourage and instruct Titus as he ministers on behalf of the gospel. As we will shortly see, Paul had left Titus in Crete with the task of ministering to the faithful there. He had given Titus clear instructions to “put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5 ESV). Now, Paul was writing to this young man with further words of encouragement and instruction. But before Paul addresses Titus, he sets up his letter with a salutation or greeting. This was a common feature of most letters during that day. Unlike our letters, where we sign our name at the end, ancient letters began with a formal introduction of the one from whom the letter was being sent. All of Paul’s letters begin this way, with some featuring longer salutations than others. This is a particularly long one and is far more than simply a greeting or introduction. In it, Paul provides a summation of what he is going to be dealing with in the main content of his letter.

Paul begins with a dual description of himself as the servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ. Both of these designations are intended to support Paul’s authority and divine commission. The Greek word he used for servant is doulos and referred to a bond-servant or slave. Paul, a former Pharisee, was well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures and would have been very familiar with the use of this term in association with some of the great men of God of the past. Moses, David and Elijah were each referred to as servants or slaves of God. This was a designation of honor, not infamy. Each of these men had been chosen by God for His service. In essence, they belonged to Him. They were His servant and each of them saw this role as a privilege, not a burden. And Paul was claiming to have that same kind of relationship with God. He had been hand-picked by God and commissioned to accomplish the will of God on this earth. He served God, not man. He answered to God, not man. His was a divine calling, complete with authority and power given to Him by God Himself.

Secondly, Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ. The Greek word is apostolos and it refers to a delegate, messenger or one sent forth with orders (“G652 – apostolos – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). Paul was not only a servant of God, he had been delegated by Jesus Christ as His representative and had been given a very specific task to perform. We have the exact words of that commission recorded for us in the book of Acts. They are part of Paul’s testimony regarding his salvation experience on the road to Damascus.

“I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” – Acts 26:15-18 ESV

And Paul further clarifies for Titus the purpose behind his role as a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ.

I have been sent to proclaim faith to those God has chosen and to teach them to know the truth that shows them how to live godly lives. – Titus 1:1 ESV

In his role as servant and apostle, Paul had been sent to proclaim the message of salvation by faith in Christ so that all those whom God had chosen could hear it. And when those so chosen by God had placed their faith in Christ, Paul was obligated by God and His Son to teach them the truth, so that they might live godly lives. In other words, Paul had a dual responsibility: To play a role in the salvation of the lost, but also in the sanctification of the saved.

And one of the things Paul firmly believed and expressed to his young friend, Titus, was the doctrine of God’s election. He uses the term, “God’s elect” in order to refer to those who come to faith. The Greek word is eklektos and it means “picked out or chosen” (“G1588 – eklektos – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). In The New Living Translation, verse one reads: “I have been sent to proclaim faith to those God has chosen.” In Paul’s understanding of the gospel, God was the acting agent behind salvation. He did not leave anything up to chance. Just as God had chosen Paul for salvation, so He has pre-ordained all those who will come to faith in Christ. Paul played no role in his salvation. He was not seeking Christ. In fact, he was busy persecuting and eliminating all those who claimed to be followers of Christ. And yet, God had chosen him for salvation. And Paul believed that was true for everyone who came to faith in Christ, past, present or future.

The doctrine of divine election firmly establishes the believer’s eternal security. God has not left the believer’s assurance of salvation captive to changing feelings or faltering faith. Rather, the faithfulness of God demonstrated in his divine election secures the believer’s salvation in the will and purposes of God himself. – Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin Jr., 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, p. 265

For Paul, salvation, godliness and eternal life were all the work of God. None were possible without Him. And all of them were pre-ordained and promised by God “before the ages began” (Titus 1:2 ESV). And the message regarding salvation, godliness and eternal life was given at just the right time, through men like Paul, so that the elect might come to faith through the preaching of the good news.

Suffice it to say, Paul saw himself as a man with divine authority and a providential responsibility to spread the gospel so that others might come to faith in Christ and to ensure that those very same individuals grew in godliness. And he saw Titus as a sharing in that very same responsibility and calling. This young man, whom Paul saw as his child in the faith, was also carrying the heavy burden of ministering the gospel to the people of Crete, carrying on what Paul and others had begun. And in the rest of his letter to Titus, Paul will provide him with much-needed guidance and encouragement for the task that lay before him.

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

The Path of Love.

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.– Matthew 7:12-14 ESV

Verse 12 has come to be commonly referred to as The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is essentially a summation of all that Jesus has said and acts as a bookend to verse 17 of chapter five:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

These two verses comprise what is known as an inclusio, bracketing all that is contained between them and forming a single unit of thought. The over-arching theme has been Jesus’ treatment of the Law and the Prophets or the Old Testament revelation. Here, in verse 12, Jesus brings His thoughts to a conclusion, summarizing all that He has said in one succinct and simple statement: So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them. This is the law of love and it supersedes and fully expresses all that was written in the law. Paul summarizes it well:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. – Romans 13:8-10 ESV

He simplified it even more when he wrote to the believers in Galatia:

For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Galatians 5:14 NLT

And not long before Jesus was to go to the cross, He would tell His disciples:

“So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” – John 13:34-35 NLT

But it is essential that we understand just what Jesus is saying. In our sinful, self-centered state, it would be easy to draw from His words a faulty conclusion that allows us to focus on what we want from others. In other words, if we want our back scratched, we will reluctantly scratch someone else’s back, expecting them to do the same to us in return. So, our actions would be selfishly motivated. But that is not the kind of love Jesus is talking about. He is referring to a selfless kind of love that expects nothing in return. It is focused on giving, not getting. The apostle Paul warned against turning the law of love into some kind of self-centered mechanism to get what you want.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. – Philippians 2:1-4 ESV

No one enjoys being hated, so why would we choose to hate others? There is no joy in being taken advantage of, so why would we treat someone else that way? If the idea of someone having an affair with your spouse offends you, it should also prevent you from ever considering doing the same thing to someone else. Jesus’ statement is not intended to be self-centered, but other-focused. He is telling us that the law was essentially about loving God and loving others, not self. And those who have been approved by God will love as He loves. They will do as Jesus did, which Paul sums up in his letter to the Philippians:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. – Philippians 2:5-8 ESV

The life of love and self-sacrifice to which Jesus is calling His audience will not be easy. He knows His words have been difficult to hear and what He has been commanding is impossible to pull off. The crowds who had followed Jesus to the hillside in Galilee had been attracted by His miracles. They were enamored by His ability to heal the sick and cast out demons. There was something attractive about this man who could do the impossible. But now, they were hearing that He expected the impossible of them. He was teaching that if they wanted to be part of God’s kingdom, they were going to have to live radically different lives. There status as descendants of Abraham was not going to be enough. Their adherence to man-made laws and religious rules was not going to win them favor with God. In fact, Jesus breaks the news that the path to God was actually narrow and quite difficult, and the number of those who take that path will be quite small. But the path to hell is like a broad, sprawling avenue, filled with countless people who have chosen that way because it is easy and rather enjoyable.

Jesus was letting His listeners know that the way to God was not what they thought. It was not going to be through keeping the law. It would not be through their ethnic identity as Jews and descendants of Abraham. Jesus was presenting another, exclusive way to God: Himself.

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6 ESV

He would also present Himself as the gate or door that provides the sole means by which men and women might be saved and find entrance into God’s kingdom.

“Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures.” – John 10:9 NLT

Obviously, Jesus did not believe in universalism, the false, yet popular, doctrine that teaches all will eventually be welcomed into heaven by God because of His love. Jesus promoted Himself as the sole means by which anyone is made right with God. He is the way, not just one of many ways. He alone has satisfied the just demands of God and paid for the sins of mankind with His own life. And He offers Himself to any and all who will receive Him as their Savior and sin substitute. Those who accept His selfless sacrifice on their behalf receive forgiveness of their sins and enjoy a restored relationship with God the Father. But Jesus warns that few will take Him up on His offer. Because the gate is small. It’s narrow and limited. It requires faith. And the path beyond that gate is difficult. The Christian life is not an easy road. Salvation provides us with freedom from condemnation for our sins, but does not provide us with a trouble-free life on this earth. We will face tribulation and difficulty. Living out our faith in the midst of a fallen world will be trying at times. Too often, Christianity is sold as a panacea to all of life’s problems. We falsely advertise faith in Christ as a solution to difficulty and the key to happiness. It explains why a book with the title, Your Best Life Now can become an international best-seller. But that is not what Jesus came to bring. Jesus did not die in order for us to have our best life now. Yes, He did promise to give us life and life more abundantly, but not our own terms. The real benefit we receive from placing our faith in Christ is not our best life now, but eternal life to come. We have been promised a future sinless state, free from pain and suffering, sorrow and tears. We have been guaranteed a place in God’s kingdom and no one can take it from us. So with that in mind, we are encouraged to view our life on this earth as temporary. We are on a journey to a better place. We are on a path that will eventually lead us to our eternal home. Which is why the author of Hebrews encourages us to, “strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us” (Hebrews 12:1 NLT).

The prophet, Isaiah, tells us of another path, a highway that will lead through the barren and desolate land, a highway of holiness. It will provide a path for the redeemed into God’s earthly kingdom, where His Son will reign in Jerusalem. Those who enter the narrow now and walk the path provided by Jesus death and resurrection, will one day walk that Highway of Holiness, free from sorrow and sin.

And a great road will go through that once deserted land. It will be named the Highway of Holiness. Evil-minded people will never travel on it. It will be only for those who walk in God’s ways; fools will never walk there. Lions will not lurk along its course, nor any other ferocious beasts. There will be no other dangers. Only the redeemed will walk on it. Those who have been ransomed by the Lord will return. They will enter Jerusalem singing, crowned with everlasting joy. Sorrow and mourning will disappear, and they will be filled with joy and gladness. – Isaiah 35:8-10 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

Radical and Revolutionary.

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them… Matthew 5:1 ESV

It was Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, who first referred to this text as the Sermon on the Mount. But that title is somewhat of a misnomer, in that the content and the context appears to make it much more of a teaching, than what we would know as a sermon. Obviously, the setting is outdoors, on a hillside in Galilee, at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. It is early on in Jesus’ ministry and yet, we know from chapter four, that Jesus has already begun attracting huge crowds.

And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. – Matthew 4:23-25 ESV

Those who made up the audience sitting on the hillside that day to listen to Jesus speak, were made up of all kinds of people from all over the area. And within the crowd would have been disciples or followers of Jesus. This term was not exclusively used of the 12, but was commonly used to refer to any and all who followed Jesus and were attracted to His message and miracles. As John will make clear in his gospel, many of these individuals would later choose to abandon Jesus when His message became increasingly more convicting and the price of discipleship, more costly (John 6:66). Also in the crowd that day were the first four men whom Jesus called to be His official students. Chapter four also tells us how Jesus had called two brothers: Simon (Peter) and Andrew, as well as another two siblings: James and John. All four of them were common fishermen. But when Jesus extended the invitation to join His ranks as His disciples, they all willingly followed. The final group that listened to Jesus teach that day were the merely curious. They probably made up the largest contingent within the crowd. These were the people who were enamored with Jesus’ miracles and intrigued by what He taught, but were attracted by the novelty of it all. So, as Jesus sat down to teach, He found an audience made up of the called, the semi-committed and the curious. And it is important to keep these three groups in mind as we listen to Jesus’s words, because each of them will have a slightly different take on what He has to say.

The danger we face in reading a passage like this one is to do so from our modern point of view and with our unique perspective as modern believers who know how the story ends. In other words, we have insights the people in Jesus’ audience would not have had. We know about His death, burial and resurrection. We are well aware of the Holy Spirit and the role He plays in helping us live out the Christian life. We know that our salvation is based on faith alone in Christ alone, and not on words or human effort. We also know that our ongoing sanctification is based on faith as well. We can’t make ourselves more holy. We must depend upon the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit and the Word of God. So, when we read the Sermon on the Mount, we hear it with redeemed ears. We are privy to insider information that the original hearers would not have had. They were not yet sure who Jesus really was. Some would have thought Him to be the Messiah, but they would have been few in number. Even the four men whom Jesus called, probably only saw Him as a rabbi or teacher at this point in their relationship with Him. It would be some time later, after He had called all 12 of His disciples, that Jesus would ask them who the people believed Him to be. And they would respond, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say you are one of the other ancient prophets risen from the dead” (Luke 9:19 NLT). So, at this point, early on in His ministry, there would have been much debate about just who Jesus was. And that point will make what He has to say that much more important. How would they have heard His message? What kind of impact would His words have had on them? The challenge we face when reading this all-too-familiar passage, is to not allow our status as modern, 21st-Century Christians to taint or influence the message. Because we know how the story ends, we can have the unfortunate tendency to remove from Jesus’ words all their power and revolutionary nature. What Jesus had to say that day in that bucolic setting was radical and unheard of. Like fingers on a blackboard, His teachings would have grated on the ears of his listeners, causing them great confusion and raising all kinds of questions in their minds. For too many of us, because of over-familiarity, His words have long ago lost their power. The radical, counter-cultural calling found in the words of Jesus no longer have the same impact as they did the day He spoke them. It is almost as if we know too much. Our privileged insights into the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry, His death and resurrection, have robbed what He had to say that day of their intended impact and shocking significance.

My challenge to you is to read the Sermon on the Mount with fresh eyes. To the best of your ability, get into the mindset of someone hearing His words for the very first time. In fact, try to hear them like a 1st-Century Jew. It is important to remember that even the four disciples of Jesus: Simon, Andrew, James and John, were not yet technically believers. They had not heard all of His teachings. They knew nothing about His impending death. They had heard nothing about His coming resurrection. He had not yet told them about the future coming of the Holy Spirit. No one in the audience would have known what we know. So, listen to His words from their perspective. Hear what they would have heard. Allow yourself to be shocked by the radical nature of what He was saying and how it would have dramatically altered your concepts of life, religion, relationships, and God. Everything you knew to be true was about to be turned on its head. All you had been taught and had learned to lean on as reliable, right and non-negotiable, was about to get rocked.

There would be no mind-blowing miracles performed, no demons cast out or lame people healed. That hillside was not going to be some carnival sideshow, but a classroom. And the subject was going to be the kingdom of heaven. For the very first time, Jesus was going to expand on what He and John the Baptist had been preaching. Both of them had been declaring, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV). Now, Jesus was going to begin explaining what life in the kingdom was to be like. And it was going to be more mind-blowing then any miracle He could have performed. This was going to be radical stuff.
Jesus is going to teach persecution and poverty brings blessing, lust carries the same penalty as adultery, anger is equivalent to murder, enemies are to be loved, and reconciliation trumps revenge or retaliation. He is going to demand a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. And any righteous acts done in order to get noticed don’t count. He’s going to outlaw worrying and judging. He’s going to require that we put the needs of others ahead of our own, even those we hate. And to top it all off, Jesus is going to demand fruitfulness and, as if that was not enough, perfection. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 ESV).
It all sounds impossible. And it is. It all sounds so radical. And it was. So much so, that over the years, there have been many who have decided that Jesus’ words were never intended to be followed. They have concluded that this message was speaking of some future time when sin was eliminated and men were made perfect by God. In other words, Jesus was prophetically speaking of His Millennial Kingdom. But while there is some truth to this notion, I don’t believe Jesus would have said all He did if there was not some expectation on His part that obedience to these commands were not only possible, but non-negotiable. The key to understanding what Jesus was teaching is realizing the impossible nature of it all. Like the Law of Moses, Jesus words were exposing the inability of men to live up to the holy standards of God’s Kingdom. Jesus was not teaching a new set of rules or requirements in order for men to be made right with God. He was teaching a new way of life that would be made possible only by the power of God. The righteousness Jesus was demanding was not to be self-made, but Spirit-produced. The behavior that He was expecting would not be the result of human effort, but divine power.

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

Do What Is Right.

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test. But we pray to God that you may not do wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. Your restoration is what we pray for. For this reason I write these things while I am away from you, that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down. – 2 Corinthians 13:5-10 ESV

At first glance, it may appear that Paul is calling on the Corinthians to examine themselves in order to see if they are truly saved. But in reality, Paul is calling on them to do the right thing, because they are saved. They have Christ within them. Therefore, they have all they need to do what is right – what God would have them do. The real issue here is sanctification, not salvation. Paul wants them to live as who they are – children of God. He wants their behavior to match their confessed belief in Christ. He has no doubts as to whether they have the capacity to do the right thing. It is more a matter of commitment. Are they willing to do what is right? Paul is praying that they will and assures them that he “cannot do anything against the truth, but on for the truth” (2 Corinthians 13:8 ESV). He is unwilling to act in a way that would be contrary or detrimental to the gospel.

It is essential that much of what Paul has been saying throughout this letter has been a defense of his apostleship. There were those who were casting doubt and dispersions on Paul’s qualifications. So when he asks them to examine themselves, he is really challenging them to take a long hard look at their lives in order to see if they themselves are not the very proof they are looking for. In other words, their changed lives were the greatest testimony to Paul’s calling they would ever find. The gospel message Paul had brought to them had been effective, resulting in their conversions and proving his calling as a messenger of Jesus Christ.

But they had struggled in their sanctification. They had hit some tough spots along the way. Since Paul’s initial visit, there had been divisions and disunity erupt in the church. There were some moral indiscretions that had gone unpunished and that remained unconfessed. Paul has already told them that he feared he was going to find them still struggling with the same old problems of “quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder” (2 Corinthians 12:20 NLT). So he lets them know that he was praying for their restoration. Not only that, he was writing in a very blunt, in-your-face style because, when he arrived, he didn’t want to have to spend all his time playing bad cop. His goal was to build them up, not tear them down. He wanted to see them continue to grow in their salvation, increasing in their knowledge of Jesus Christ and developing an ever-deeper dependence upon God that resulted in a desire to do His will – to do the right thing.

In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul reminded them that God’s will for them was their holiness or sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3). In his first letter, the apostle Peter told his readers that it was God’s will that they do good (1 Peter 2:15). Doing good (what is right) and holiness go hand in hand. Our sanctification or growth in Christ-likeness should have an outward expression. It should manifest itself in godly living, doing what God would have us do. That is Paul’s prayer for the Corinthians. He wants them to live out their faith by stepping out in obedience to the will of God. We do good, not to win God’s favor, but because we have been the recipients of His favor. We do what is right, not to make God love us, but because He loved us enough to send His Son to die for us. Doing what is right brings God’s blessing. Doing what is wrong brings His discipline. Both are motivated by His love for us. But Paul would prefer that we learn to live obediently, doing what God deems best, even when it makes no sense. Paul would have us enjoy the benefits of a life lived within the will of God, faithfully doing what He deems right and good.

So Easily Deceived.

I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me! For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough. Indeed, I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things. Or did I commit a sin in humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached God’s gospel to you free of charge?  – 2 Corinthians 11:1-7 ESV

The debate that Paul was waging with his adversaries in Corinth was about far more than his authority and who was going to get credit for the spiritual state of the Corinthian church. This was about deception. Those who were standing against Paul and his ministry were actually leading the Corinthians astray. They were proclaiming another Jesus, promoting a different spirit, and preaching a different gospel. And the thing that bothered Paul the most was that the Corinthians “put up with it readily enough” (2 Corinthians 11:4b ESV). Maybe it was because these “super-apostles,” as he sarcastically refers to them, were skilled in speech and the Corinthians found themselves easily swayed by their rhetoric. With Paul physically out of the picture, it was easy for them to tear about his message and discredit his ministry. He was not here to defend himself. Which is what led him to write this letter. And Paul is forced to remind them of their long-standing relationship with him.

He begs them to bear with a “little foolishness” as he recounts his role in their “betrothal” to Christ. What makes it all so foolish is the fact that he is having to take time to remind them at all. Paul had been the one to introduce them to Christ. Like a father of a bride, he had given them in marriage to Jesus and his goal was to keep them pure until the day their marriage was consummated. It was not enough to Paul that they came to know Christ, he wanted them to remain pure until the day He returned for them or called them home. And yet, he found that they were easily deceived. He even compares them to Eve, who had been deceived and led astray from the truth of God by Satan in the garden. Her deception resulted in her banishment from presence of God. And Paul fears that the Corinthians, due to their willing reception of the false teaching of his critics, would be “led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3b ESV).

It is important to note that as Satan led Eve to question the veracity and reliability of God’s word, so these false teachers were causing the Corinthians to question the very heart and soul of the gospel that Paul had preached. They were offering a different gospel that promoted a different Jesus. While Paul does not elaborate on what their message was, it is clear that they were leading the Corinthians astray. The apostle John describes these kinds of people as having the spirit of the Antichrist.

But if someone claims to be a prophet and does not acknowledge the truth about Jesus, that person is not from God. Such a person has the spirit of the Antichrist, which you heard is coming into the world and indeed is already here. – 1 John 4:3 NLT

I say this because many deceivers have gone out into the world. They deny that Jesus Christ came in a real body. Such a person is a deceiver and an antichrist. – 2 John 1:7 NLT

Whether these people were denying the incarnation of Jesus or questioning His death and resurrection, we do not know. But it is clear that their message was in direct opposition to the one that Paul had preached. And they had found the Corinthians to be a willing and receptive audience. This was particularly disturbing to Paul, because he had sacrificed so much to ensure that they heard the unadulterated gospel. He brought them the good news of Jesus, free of charge, with no strings attached. He had not come to them demanding that they idolize him or treat him like a god. He humbled himself so that they might be exalted to a right relationship with God through a knowledge of Jesus Christ. He took a backseat, playing the role of the humble mouthpiece for God. He had simply been the messenger, the bearer of good news. And now, to hear that they were so easily accepting another version of the gospel, was disturbing and disconcerting. But Paul was not one to sit back and let his work among the Corinthians go to waste. He loved them too much.

The gospel is always under attack, and most often from within. Satan is the great deceiver and he would much rather promote a slightly false version of the truth than an outright lie. He tends to blend truth with just enough falsehood to make it palatable, but just as deadly. He is more than willing to have people accept Jesus, as long as it is a slightly different Jesus. He loves the idea of a Jesus who was a good man and lived a life worth emulating. He likes to promote Jesus as the great teacher and moral prophet. He prefers a Jesus who was nothing more than a martyr to a cause. But the Jesus Satan promotes is never the Son of God and Savior of the world. He is never the selfless, spotless sacrifice that paid the penalty for man’s sins. He is never the source of man’s justification and the power behind his sanctification. He is never the resurrected and ascended King of kings and Lord of lords who sits at the right hand of God the Father and is one day going to return. That is the Jesus of the gospel. And any other Jesus is a false Jesus.

Make Godliness Your Goal.

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. – 2 Corinthians 7:1 ESV

What promises? Paul has just quoted from several Old Testament passages containing the following promises from God:

I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people. – Leviticus 26:12 ESV

My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. – Ezekiel 37:27 ESV

I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. – 2 Samuel 7:14 ESV

Now, he declares, with those promises in mind, what should our reaction be? How should we respond? Paul is reminding his readers that they, like the Israelites of the Old Testament, have been set apart by God. He has chosen them to be His people and has graciously agreed to be there God. He has consecrated them, set the apart from the rest of the nations, to be His own possession. As children of God, they were to live separately and distinctively. That does not mean that Christians are to live their lives in isolation or in some kind of segregated society, separated from the rest of the world. This is not a call to monastic isolationism. But it is a call to sanctification or holiness. Paul expected the believers to he was writing to live in such a way that their behavior differentiated them from the rest of the world. As Jesus prayed in the garden on the night He was betrayed, they were to be in the world, but not of it.

I have given them your word. And the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. They do not belong to this world any more than I do. Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth. – John 17:14-17 NLT

The promise of citizenship in God’s Kingdom was to create in them a passion to live as who God had called them to be. They were His possession and their lives were to reflect that unique privilege and totally undeserved position. They were to cleanse themselves from every defilement of body and spirit. Like a stained and soiled garment, they required removal of the impurities that accompanied their sinful flesh. Their old habits and sinful predilections had to be systematically and regularly done away with. In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul emphasized the essential nature of this ongoing cleansing of the believer’s life.

God’s will is for you to be holy, so stay away from all sexual sin. Then each of you will control his own body and live in holiness and honor—not in lustful passion like the pagans who do not know God and his ways. Never harm or cheat a Christian brother in this matter by violating his wife, for the Lord avenges all such sins, as we have solemnly warned you before. God has called us to live holy lives, not impure lives. – 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7 NLT

The privilege of sonship carries with it responsibilities. As children of God, we are to behave in such a way that our lives honor our heavenly Father. Ongoing sin is not to be a defining characteristic of the child of God. Paul was not insinuating that Christians cannot and will not sin. He would have wholeheartedly agreed with the apostle John when he wrote:

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. – 1 John 1:8-10 NLT

The presence of and potential for sin is not eliminated when we come to faith in Christ, but sin’s power over us is. We are set free from its control over us. Because of the Holy Spirit’s presence within us, we have a capability to choose righteousness over unrighteousness. We can refuse to give in to the temptations that once captivated and controlled us. 

Paul’s point in all of this is that our salvation in Christ has a second step: Our sanctification. Coming to faith in Christ is to be accompanied by our ongoing transformation into His likeness. And it is as we cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit that we experience what Paul refers to as “bringing holiness to completion.” The goal of our salvation is our ultimate glorification by God. There is a day coming when He will complete the process of renewal and reformation of our lives by giving us a new body. Sin will be completely eliminated and our transformation into the likeness of Christ will be complete. John describes that day in the following way:

Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. – 1 John 3:2 NLT

In the meantime, while we wait for that day, we are to strive toward holiness. In order to accomplish that objective, we are required to put off our old sinful nature and put on our new nature. We are to allow the Holy Spirit to expose the sin in our lives so we can confess it and enjoy forgiveness for it. We are to flee sin and pursue righteousness.

Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. – 1 Corinthians 6:18 NLT

Run from anything that stimulates youthful lusts. Instead, pursue righteous living, faithfulness, love, and peace. Enjoy the companionship of those who call on the Lord with pure hearts. – 2 Timothy 2:22 NLT

…so run from all these evil things. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness.1 Timothy 6:11 NLT

Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. – 2 Timothy 2:21 ESV

So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you. Have nothing to do with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires. Don’t be greedy, for a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world. – Colossians 3:5 NLT

If you have been called by God to be His child, live like it. If you know the joy of having your debt to God paid for and your sins forgiven because of Jesus’ death on the cross, your lifestyle should reflect your gratitude and your recognition that you are a new creation with a new capacity to pursue holiness, not sinfulness. The behavior of children reflects back on their parents. Our behavior as sons and daughters of God reflects back on our heavenly Father. Our attitudes and actions should honor Him. Our behavior should bring glory to Him. It was Jesus who said, “let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:16 NLT). And it was Peter who echoed that sentiment when he wrote: “Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world” (1 Peter 2:12 NLT). Pursue holiness. Strive after righteousness. Make godliness your goal. For the glory of God and the good of others.