Be Perfect As God is Perfect. So, Are You a Perfectionist?

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:48 (NRSV)

Be perfect, as God is perfect. So, are you a perfectionist, doing everything perfectly all the time? Do you keep the rules perfectly? Is that what Jesus means?

Perfectionism can affect the culture within a workplace, a family, a church family, an organization, or even within one’s own soul. Perfectionism can lead to a culture of excellence, with high standards coming from high expectations. However, perfectionism can also lead to a culture of judgement, a culture of fear, a culture of exclusion. We can be hard on others. We might be hardest on ourselves.

Is that what Jesus is calling us to? To be perfectionists? Let us look again at the words of Jesus in the context in which they are spoken.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSV) 

In the immediate context, Jesus is telling us to be perfect in love. Nowhere in the Old Testament does it actually say “love your neighbour and hate your enemy,” (verse 43) but some Jewish groups were indeed saying that. In contrast, Jesus tells us to love our enemies (verse 44), and in so doing we will demonstrate a family resemblance to God (verse 45). After all, God provides graciously for all people without distinction (verse 45). The original hearers could reflect on the fact that Roman, or “enemy,” farmers would receive the same amount of sun and rain as the Jewish farmer. Since God loves the enemy, we all should. In the immediate context, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” is not so much “follow all the rules perfectly, keeping a perfect spirituality, while being a perfect person,” as “love like God does.” To quote the Common English Bible translation:

Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” Matthew 5:48 (CEB)

In the larger context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is leading us to become the kind of people who reflect the goodness of God, in love, and in everything else. We looked last week at how the scribes and the Pharisees were meticulous in studying and keeping the rules, yet were not the kind of people God was calling them to be. Jesus said that we must have a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees (5:20). In pointing to a better kind of righteousness, Jesus was pointing out that those who were merely focused on the rules were no different from anyone else, no matter how perfectly they kept them:

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:47-48 (NRSV) 

As we pointed out last week, it is not about the rules, it is about you and me, the kind of people we are becoming in Christ, the kind of people who show a family resemblance with God in love, and in everything else.

In the even larger context of the whole Bible, Jesus is leading us toward a goal that God has brought within reach. God has a goal for us. What is that goal?

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. Romans 8:29 (NRSV emphasis added) 

And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him. Colossians 1:21-22 (NRSV emphasis added)

Being just like Jesus, made holy, blameless, and irreproachable before God; these are lofty goals which we could never attain on our ownGod makes it possible.

In speaking of the goal of perfection, there are two big theological words that are worth learning: justification & sanctification. To explain them, let me use an illustration. Suppose your driving instructor is the devil himself. You learn terrible driving habits, and indeed you rack up so many speeding and dangerous driving tickets, you cannot afford to pay them. You are to have your day in court, the evidence is overwhelming, you expect to be in jail for the rest of your life. Judgement day comes. The judge sets the fine, and indeed you cannot pay it. You are headed to jail for sure. The judge gets off his judgement seat, comes down to your level, gets out his chequebook and pays the fine on your behalf. That is justification. You are free to drive. There may be an accuser in the gallery shouting about how guilty you are, how strong the evidence is, and why you deserve to be in jail. However, while you could never justify why you belong on the roads, the judge who just paid your fine can. So what is sanctification? You get back into your car to drive off, and there sitting beside you in the passenger seat is your new driving instructor, the Holy Spirit. You begin driving, you become a better driver. You are not instantly a good driver, but you are improving with every mile. That is sanctification. 

Bible scholar Michael Wilkins talks of a “restful dissatisfaction.” We rest in the fact of God’s love and what God has done for us in the death and resurrection of Christ to enable us to reach the goal of perfection. Yet, we are dissatisfied if we do not experience movement towards that goal in the here and now. We are not concerned with how our lingering imperfections might disqualify us from belonging to God as His children. We are concerned with how our lingering imperfections can have a negative impact on our children, or anyone in relationships with us.

Are you perfect? If that is a question on an entrance exam for eternal life, then the answer can be yes; God offers to make you perfect in Jesus Christ. If that is a question we ask the people in our lives based on their experience of us, then no, we can likely make some improvements.

Are you a perfectionist? If you are the kind of person who loves like God loves, then you will not be. You will walk with imperfect people along a journey, putting up with their imperfections along the way. You may even learn to put up with your own imperfections. If you are a perfectionist, you may be hard on other people. You may be hardest on yourself. Perfectionism is not a part of love. God walks alongside us, not as a perfectionist judging our imperfections, ready to ditch us when we stumble, but as a Heavenly Father Who helps us walk better on our way to a wonderful goal.

(For a limited time, the full sermon can be heard at https://podpoint.com/calvary-baptist-church-cobourg-podcast)

Extra Rules from Jesus?

Do you have the rules and commandments given by Jesus memorized yet? Jesus tells us we are to have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 5:20. So on top of the Old Testament law we get extra rules as Jesus followers, right? For example, within the Old Testament there are rules about adultery, but now with Jesus we have a rule about lust as well:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28 (NRSV)

Is that what righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees looks like? Extra rules? Actually, no.

We can be meticulous in keeping the rules, yet still miss the mark. Let me give an example. Suppose my wife gives me plans to build a vehicle. Being an avid motorcyclist, I begin building a motorcycle. I pay careful attention to the instructions on making wheels, brakes, electrical components, and most importantly, engine components. Since the instructions are excellent, and I follow them meticulously, the motorcycle I build is excellent. However my wife is not happy. She tells me to look at the plans again, but this time take a step back and look at the big picture. I have been too focused on the little details to do that. Taking a step back, and taking in the big picture, I see my mistake. These were plans for a min-van! We have a family to cart around. Oops, I missed the bus!

We can be super meticulous in keeping the rules, yet we don’t become the kind of people God is calling us to become. We ‘miss the mark,’ which is what one of the words used in the Bible for ‘sin’ literally means. We can become so mired in the details of religion, that we miss the big picture of what God has in mind, what is on God’s heart. 

Jesus is not giving us new rules in his teaching, but rather is deepening our understanding of the kind of people God is looking for us to become. Continuing on in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, God is calling each of us to become . . .

  • the kind of person who does not blow their top at others. (See verses 21,22)
  • the kind of person who always seeks reconciliation, who seeks to have good relationships. (See verses 23-26)
  • the kind of person who gives their best to their spouse, in devotion and faithfulness. (see verses 27-32)
  • the kind of person who does not objectify others. (see again verses 27,28)
  • the kind of person who is honest and walks in integrity. (see verses 33-37)
  • the kind of person who handles offence with generosity. (see verses 38,39)
  • the kind of person who goes above and beyond in relationships, who goes above and beyond in making things right, who goes above and beyond in helping someone in need, who is generous, and who serves others. (See verses 40-42)
  • the kind of person who loves people like God loves people. (See verses 43-48)

Jesus is that kind of person! Jesus calls you to be that kind of person. It is not about the rules. It is about you and the kind of person you are.

Suppose you adopt a dog, and the adoption agency asks you to agree to a set of rules. You commit to walking the dog, feeding the dog, watering the dog, and keeping up with medications. You could keep all those rules, yet still be an awful dog owner. There is something lacking in the relationship, like; affection, time spent, and playfulness. Something is missing – you are! Your heart is not in it, and the dog knows that. That can happen with a strict rule-focused style of Christianity. Something is missing – you are! The rules are there because they will help the dog stay healthy. However, the dog needs more than your performance of the rules, the dog needs you. The dog needs you to be a certain kind of dog owner. My wife and children need more than my attention to the rules. They need me. They need me to be the kind of person who is an engaged husband and father. The people in our lives need more than scribes or Pharisees who can quote Scripture from memory. They need us! They need us to be the kind of people God is calling us to be, the kind of people God is helping us to become.

To change to an analogy from sports; God, the coach, is not looking for players who are fanatical about the rules. He is looking for players who score goals while being respectful of the rules. He wants people who are engaged in His Kingdom purposes in the world. The best way to keep the rules is live alone and stay at home. If we are followers of Jesus, we will follow him into the world where being the kind of person God is calling us to become will make a difference in the lives of others.

Our aim is to be Christ followers. Our aim is not to become Christian Pharisees. We want to be followers of Jesus, not scribes & Pharisees who have traded in Jewish rules for Christian ones, yet have still missed the mark. If we do that, then our righteousness has not surpassed that of the scribes and Pharisees, it is really no different.

We can be fanatical about the commands of Jesus yet miss the mark. When we lean into the teaching of Jesus, we see the kind of people God is calling us to become. When God leans into us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we become that kind of people.

(For a limited time, the full sermon can be heard at https://podpoint.com/calvary-baptist-church-cobourg-podcast)

“Unless Your Righteousness Exceeds That of the Scribes and Pharisees.” Should We Be Worried?

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:20 (NRSV)

Should we be worried? Is it even possible that our righteousness can exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? Keep in mind how meticulous they were at keeping the Old Testament laws. Jesus’ words here can stress us out. Are we good enough?

Let’s leave aside whether we are good enough for a moment. The scribes and Pharisees were certain, that Jesus was not good enough:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. . . . Matthew 5:17 (NRSV)

That is exactly what the scribes and Pharisees were thinking! Jesus often seemed to be very unJewish in not keeping the laws and customs as expected. Healing on the Sabbath was considered work and so Jesus was obviously a lawbreaker! Further, for his first miracle, Jesus used jars that had been set apart for religious purposes to turn water into wine at a party. Not only did Jesus seem to be unJewish, he even seemed to be irreligious. Therefore the scribes and Pharisees were obviously exceedingly more righteous than Jesus. Or so they thought.

Jesus set the record straight:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Matthew 5:17-18 (NRSV)

Though the actions of Jesus seemed to indicate that he didn’t care about the law, he declares that it is very important. The law and the prophets, a short-hand way of referring to all the writings of the Hebrew Bible, reveal the heart of God, and point to Jesus himself. Far from ditching the Old Testament, Jesus was the focus of the Old Testament!

In setting the record straight, it turns out the the scribes and the Pharisees were the ones who were not good enough:

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:19 (NRSV) 

Ironically, despite how meticulous the scribes and Pharisees were at keeping the rules, Jesus, in what he would go on to say, insinuated that they were the ones breaking the commandments and teaching others to do the same. They kept the letter of the law, but they missed the intent of the law, the purpose of the law. They might have been meticulous with regards to the rules, but they were heartless. It is possible to keep all the rules and yet be an awful person. In calling the people of Israel into existence, God was looking to establish a good people, not an awful people who kept the rules. If “love the Lord” and “love your neighbour” sum up the law, then the scribes and Pharisees were not keeping it well at all. They needed to have a better kind of righteousness if they wanted to impress God. They needed a deeper righteousness, a heart righteousness, a righteousness expressed through good character.

We can now ask, is anyone righteous enough?

In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul spends some time in chapters one and two establishing the fact that non-Jews have no right to a relationship with God. They are not righteous enough. Then he spends some time in chapters two and three establishing the fact that Jews also should have no right to a relationship with God. Though they have the law and the prophets, they also are not righteous enough. In conclusion,

. . . we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, 10 as it is written: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; Romans 3:9-10 (NRSV)

However, there is good news:

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. Romans 3:21-26 (NRSV)

Though the Scribes & Pharisees were thinking Jesus was not righteous, actually Jesus is the only righteous one. Are any of us righteous enough? No, but God is good, and offers to make us good. God makes this offer because of His love for us, not because we make a good impression on Him.

God came to us in Jesus so that we could be forgiven of all sin. We will stand before the judgement seat of God with a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. It is Christ’s righteousness placed on us. God comes to us in the Holy Spirit to change our hearts for the better. We grow into a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. That transformation of character is Holy Spirit work. Though we might not feel good enough for God, and really, we are not good enough, God is good and wants to do good for us, and in us.

Jesus says “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Should we be worried? Should we be concerned that we will not “make the cut?” Without Jesus, if you want to impress God, then surpassing righteousness is an obligation. Good luck with that. Even the scribes and Pharisees, with all their meticulous law-keeping, failed to make a good impression. However, with Jesus, and with the gift of the Spirit, surpassing righteousness is an opportunity, through which God will make an impression on the world. Changed hearts, hearts in tune with God’s heart, lead to a changed world. “Surpassing righteousness” should not be a source of stress, but a source of great hope, not only for ourselves, but for the people around us.