As Perfect as God?
Jesus now makes His last demonstration of the deficiency of the Pharisees teaching. Again Jesus reminds them of a part of the Scripture “You shall love your neighbor from the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Why the words “as yourself” is left off is puzzling. Jesus elsewhere when He quotes from Leviticus includes these words. Perhaps the Pharisees were the ones who cut the verse short. When we look at the second half of what Jesus says, this seems to be the case. There is nowhere in Scripture where we are commanded to hate our enemies. In fact, the Old Testament along with the New proclaims that we ware to love our enemies. Here is a major defect in the Pharisees teaching. Because they saw the commandment to love one’s neighbor implied that they should hate their enemy. This replaces the “as yourself”.
What Jesus says emphatically with the same authority as Scripture is to remind them that the Old Testament of which every jot and tittle is binding teaches love for one’s enemies. He goes on to explain that the true disciple of Jesus who hears His word and puts it into practice will pray in His enemies behalf. These people are truly God’s children.
Jesus then goes on to reflect on the character of His Father. He allows His sun to shine on everyone, both the evil and the good and rain to fall upon the righteous as well as the unrighteous. In theological terms, this is known as “common grace”. The willingness to display grace tells us something very important about God. We see this stated clearly in John 3:16 in God’s willingness that no one perish. If they will only look upon the Son as the Israelites looked upon the bronze serpent in the wilderness, they will be saved. So every ray of the sun and drop of rain testifies of the love and grace of God. Men should be thankful for this, but all too often, are not. Those who have been redeemed know that all good things come from God and are thankful. In addition, they are also thankful when difficult times come because they belong to Him. He has a purpose for our trials that come which He promises to work for our eventual good. However, the unregenerate thinks the sun and rain are by chance. They complain when it rains and complain when it is sunny. Unbelief always reveals itself in grumbling.
Jesus compares the love and grace of the Heavenly Father with the selfishness of men. He reminds us that the heathen were perfectly capable of loving those who love them. They greet one another in public just like the Jews greeted on another. The true disciple goes beyond what the tax collectors also do. The deficiency of the Pharisees and Scribes really comes to light here. They would only greet fellow Jews. Some would only greet those Jews whom they considered to be in good standing. The Pharisees hated the Jewish rabble who didn’t know the Law like they did nearly as much as they did tax collectors and Gentiles. But what Jesus basically calls these Pharisees and Scribes is that they are not Jews but Gentiles because their conduct did not rise above that of the very people they despised. This must have really cut deep into the Pharisees’ heart. Here Jesus is addressing His followers, which as we saw in “Who Heard the Greatest Sermon Ever Preached” (in this archive) that they were made up of a mixture of Gentiles and Jews, most of them of the common variety. He challenges the people that the Pharisees despised to live above the example of the Scribes and Pharisees. In fact the true disciple of Jesus who is a child of the Heavenly Father has to have a righteousness which exceeds this righteousness.
The final verse in this chapter sums up the righteousness God is expecting from us. He commands us to be perfect, just like the Heavenly Father is perfect. The word “perfect” here is a rich word in Greek and difficult to translate into English by a single word. The Greek “telos” of which the verb here is a derivative has the idea of something which has been completed exactly according to plan. A similar verb is used by Jesus on the cross when He cries out “It is finished”. This demonstrates the idea of perfection which we have just described. Jesus announced that the plan of salvation which was established before the creation of the world in eternity past had been faithfully and perfectly executed. There was no need of further work to add on to the work.
If we nuance the idea perfect here in Matthew, then the idea of perfection God is looking for in us is that we be exactly what He has planned for us to be. When we look at ourselves, knowing that we were originally created in God’s image, and we honestly look at our progress report to be restored to completeness, we would have to say along with the Scribes and Pharisees that we are quite deficient. Every time we come to communion table here in the United Methodist Church, we make the confession that “we have not loved our neighbors”. What a stunning indictment. We are worse than heathen. We don’t even love our own, no less our enemy! How shall we escape the righteous judgment of God? How will we ever become true disciples? How could we even dare to dream that we might enter the Kingdom?
If we had not been brought to utter despair earlier in this sermon, we cannot possibly avoid the feeling of despair brought on by verse 48. I am certain many of us have resolved to do better, to love more, to be more godly. We sing “To Be Like Jesus” heartily wanting to be like Him. We are lifted up for a moment before being thrown to the ground in despair. Who can be perfectly complete in the sense that Jesus is perfectly complete before the Father? Instead we cry out with Paul: “O wretched man that I am! Who shall save me from this body of death?”
We only need to go a little further into Romans to find the answer to this problem. Paul goes on to say “Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ!” There is the answer to the dilemma. Jesus has perfectly fulfilled this deficiency of righteousness in our behalf. This is why there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees is the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The Bible says that it is He who is our righteousness. He is the one who is perfect, even as the Heavenly Father is perfect. Jesus who as the Son in the divine Trinity was already complete or perfect within Himself as the Father and Holy Spirit have always been. Yet the book of Hebrews states that this same Son when He came in the flesh was made perfect through His suffering. This is a mystery beyond our comprehension. We believe it on faith because God has said it is thus in His Word. He bore our sins and imperfections in His own body and has clothed us in Him.
It is this same Jesus, who while we were still His enemies, died for us. He died praying for His enemies and forgiving those who ignorantly crucified Him. It is Jesus Christ and He alone whose finished work on the cross is our hope.
I must say when I like inside my life and recite the confession at the communion of all the things I have not been, I despair. Must we every time we come to communion confess our sin knowing full well the next time we come to the table we will have to repeat the same thing. It is not that I don’t try to do better. I like Paul find myself at war with myself. Luther puts it that we are simultaneously “just and sinners”. It is hard not to feel conflicted with what I see myself as being and what God has called me. But when I look to Jesus, I don’t see myself as a sinner but as righteous. He is my standing in the court of God.
I cannot perfect myself. My sin nature is that of a sheep. The sheep knows the flock he is in and the voice of his master and protector. I all too much identify with the words of the song “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. I believe that God has a plan, and despite all of my miserable failings, He will complete this plan in me. He who has begun this good work will complete it in the day of Jesus Christ. In that day, there will be no more conflict in my life. I will know by God’s grace that I am now fully in fact what God had called and planned for me from the beginning. But even then, this perfection is Christ in me, then no longer the hope of glory, but glory itself. He will ever be my righteousness. Thanks be to God for His inestimable gift!
I would encourage you to find the rest for your struggle in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Do not water down the righteousness of God to some lesser righteousness. The Pharisees and Scribes were guilty of doing this. They substituted their own human centered righteousness for the righteousness of God. God is holy, just, and perfect. If we are to be complete in His image, then we must in every way be like Him. The children must resemble the father or some will question whether he is truly their father. But the way to this better righteousness does not come by inward resolve but in our seeking the great shepherd of the sheep who leaves the 99 to find us when we stray. We have no faith in ourselves of ever attaining to perfect sanctification. The harder we try in ourselves, the farther we fall and the more wretchedly hopeless we feel. Instead we must come to God in faith through our Lord Jesus Christ.