Sermon Passage: Matthew 5:48
“Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, was an influential preacher in the seventeenth century. He boldly preached an intimate relationship with Jesus, who would save a person from their sins. Jesus, the Savior, was the mission statement proposed by the angel of the Lord at the birth of Christ, “And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). With a heart desiring to know Jesus, Wesley searched the Scriptures to understand what this meant.
In His search of the Scriptures, John Wesley discovered forgiveness was the first step in an intimate relationship with Jesus. God could not engage the darkened heart of a sinful man because “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). But forgiveness is not a problem for Jesus. His sacrificial death provided abundantly for the sin of the world. He is “faithful and just to forgive us our sins” (1 John 1:9). Wesley believed in real and abundant forgiveness for all, but a tendency or nature toward sin resides in every human. All theological persuasions agree with this premise and that God must cleanse the sinful nature of man before he can enter heaven. Many believed the evil nature dies a little at a time until physical death happens. However, this leaves humanity in a constant inward battle against sin, with many failures needing forgiveness. The Scripture that says Jesus is “faithful and just to forgive us our sins,” continues “and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). If the atoning cross of Jesus is adequate to forgive sin, can it not cleanse even the inner nature of sin? While humans continue to live in a sinful, imperfect world, is it not possible to have a perfect heart? Yes, which means man’s affections are no longer divided, and he has one focused love toward God. He aligns his being with the nature of the Father.
John Wesley proposed “Christian Perfection” is aligning with the nature of the Father. The term “perfection” repelled many people. It was unthinkable that anyone could be perfect. The only thing I know about perfection is that the person who thinks he is perfect is not! To those people who responded negatively and did not listen, Wesley explained what “Christian Perfection is not.” It is not perfection in knowledge, perfection in our actions, or perfection in location, because we can never be omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent like God. All human shortcomings, frailties, and imperfections remain present in all humans born in a fallen world. We are in a constant battle with our inability to understand, the tiredness of our flesh, and our emotional frailties; thus, there is no absolute perfection in our human limitations. It is questionable as to whether perfection on such a level will exist in the coming world. We will never have perfect omniscience, omnipresence, or omnipotence, which belong to God only.
Then what are we to do? God promised us complete deliverance, the wholeness of heart, and perfect love! The perfect love He promised is necessary and was a command of Jesus. “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). The main verb “shall be” (eimi) is in the future tense and indicative mood. This combination creates an imperative, translated “must be.” We must be perfect! Now you have a choice. You may do what many in John Wesley’s day did, not be open and not listen. They interpreted “perfection” according to their selfish definition and discarded the idea. But you can respond to Jesus with a desire to know the truth and to go beyond your present spiritual experience. We need to investigate the passage.
No one can read our passage without the deep awareness that the Father is the standard for perfection. Jesus uses the Greek word “hos,” translated “just as,” which is a comparative conjunction. “Just as” is a compelling comparison, which is foreign in our culture. We consistently compare ourselves to others but never to God, most often comparing ourselves to ourselves. In the competitive world, we measure ourselves by the standard of the person with whom we are competing.
Luke records a parable Jesus gave to those who trust in themselves (Luke 18:9-14). A Pharisee and a tax collector went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee stood and prayed with himself. The Greek word “pros” is translated “with.” It is a preposition of location, which gives direction such as “towards.” In other words, the Pharisee talked to himself and called it prayer. Judging himself, he said, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:11, 12). But the tax collector made no such comparison. He did not raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast and declared his sinfulness. Jesus said there is no justification in comparing ourselves to ourselves but is a means by which we exalt ourselves. Also, He promised that such a person would be brought down and humbled. Is it not a warning to us?
Now we return to saturation in our passage (Matthew 5:43-48). If this last verse (Matthew 5:48) is a climactic statement bringing summary to all six illustrations (especially the sixth illustration), what is the focus of the perfection? Jesus did not say we should be God. The premise of the Sermon on the Mount eliminates that possibility. Our helplessness (poor in spirit) is the opening statement of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3). Helplessness is not a condition from which God saves us; it is a condition we are to embrace (Matthew 5:4) continually. While our helplessness merges with the Spirit of God, we do not become God. We continue in our helplessness, which is the essence of the relationship creating the Kingdom person. The inward growth in the new Kingdom person is the consistent deepening awareness of helplessness.
Since we will never be God, can we set aside all that God possesses? He does not discuss His omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence in this chapter. The practical discussion is God allows the sun to shine on the good and the evil and rain to fall on the just and unjust (Matthew 5:45). This is a practical illustration of God’s love for His enemies. The call for perfection is in God’s perfect love. The Trinity God calls us to join Him, not in what He has but in who He is! God wants to join us, merge with us, and diffuse His nature throughout our nature of helplessness. His thoughts can fill our minds; we can have the mind of Christ. We can express His emotions in the stressful moments of our living, and His concerns can be ours. We can have the appetite of God!
We can be perfect in love! Perfect love is love without alloy. The New Testament described this love by using a different Greek word for God’s love. It is not “eros,” sexual attraction, not “philo,” brotherly love or friendship, and not “stergo,” family love. It is “agapa,” which is selfless, self-sacrificing love. It is love that never thinks about itself but always about the beloved one. It is love that is not conditional because it receives something in return. It is love formed within the heart of its love nature. Therefore, we cannot deter it. This love we cannot earn and can never stop. In our helplessness, God fills us with His nature of love, and we express who God is to our world. We are perfect in love as He is perfect in love.
If you see the “Standard” as unattainable, you would be correct. Jesus fulfilled Old Testament law in “love,” but no one living in the old covenant was able to keep that “love.” No matter how hard I try, how much I work, or how desperate I am in my efforts, I will never arrive at perfect love. But this is the premise of the Sermon on the Mount. I am helpless in my spirit, which sources my life (Matthew 5:3). I must embrace my helplessness at the beginning and the end of Christianity, living in the boundaries of this condition. I must never be cocky or arrogant and always live in the attitude of dependency.
Therefore, Jesus presents the substance of this perfection as the nature of God. Perfection is not in my helplessness; perfection is in His nature. Can my helplessness be filled with His nature? My helplessness is the fundamental proposition of the New Testament Scriptures! After highlighting the phrase “in Christ” or “in Him” numerous times, Paul thunders forth with the following statement. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them,” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Grace is “unmerited” favor, a gift from God, not of our effort, for we are helpless. We become the workmanship of God. The Greek word “poiema” is translated “workmanship,” coming from the Greek word “poieo,” a verb used consistently regarding trees “bearing” fruit (Matthew 7:17-20). It is the nature of the tree that births the fruit, not an assignment, rule, or duty; it is a result of nature. Paul proposed that the perfect nature of God indwells the helplessness of humanity and gives birth or bears the fruit of perfection. We were destined for this birthing beforehand!
In the Old Testament hour, God repeatedly said, “I am holy” (Leviticus11:44-45). However, we are confused by such a statement because we have no framework in which to understand its content. What does it mean for God to be holy? God wrote it down in a book called the Old Testament, the holy nature of God in written form. God was saying, “If I were a human being, here is how I would act.” In the New Testament, we see Jesus, the holy nature of God, lived in our world. The Old Testament was the written nature of God, and the New Testament is Jesus living the nature of God. Jesus is the visible image of an invisible God, and He invites us to share in His nature. Jesus demonstrates the written nature of God (the Law) in the living nature of God through us. Outwardly and inwardly, God shapes and produces us by His nature, the fruit of His perfection, perfect love!
Who could be against this? What denominational theology could say this should not be our deepest desire? Any other approach only engages self-pride in accomplishments of duty, ceremonies, and traditions. This self-centeredness is the heart nature of sin, refusing to embrace its helplessness. When self-centeredness manifests itself in the evil deeds of our world, we quickly recognize it. But we should equally accept it in the activities of religion birthed from the raging desires of self. It is not the activities of religion that we must eliminate but the appetite of the human heart not flowing from God’s nature. Again, who could be against this? Would not everyone serious about spiritual reality embrace the wonder of belonging to Jesus, wanting to merge with God’s nature and be His expression? Would this not eliminate sin (1 John 3:9)? Would we not dwell in perfect love?
We cannot contain Christianity in reform, New Year’s resolutions, doing better, self-helps, or discipline. Paul contrasted the “works of the flesh” with the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:19-23). The “works” we do contain the evil of our lives. It is a translation of the Greek word “erga,” meaning “something that people do or cause to happen.” But “fruit” is that birthed or produced by a plant or tree. “Works” is what one does, but “fruit” flows from the nature, the concept of “poieo” discussed earlier. If God merges His Divine nature with my helpless nature, what will I express? God will produce fruit from my life.
You will notice that “works” is plural because there is such a variety of expressions for the flesh. It goes from murders to outbursts of wrath, from sorcery to heresies, and the list is endless. The “fruit” is focused; it is love. Love is the substance of God’s nature! The last expression of this focus in “self-control.” It is not “self” controlling, but “Spirit” regulating self. The fruit is of the Spirit, not of self. Paul ended his presentation by saying there is no law against the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23)! Who can argue against perfect love? How can we not view the cross, Jesus dying to redeem others, with great admiration? Everyone exalts the person who risks his life for others in battle and scorns those who run in the face of conflict. All that I desire for my life is in the substance of the Father’s nature. I am constantly reminded of my helplessness because I cannot achieve those desires on my own. His nature must fill me; I must know Jesus!
The dictionary presents two views on the word “specification.” The first is the act of describing or identifying something precisely or stating a precise requirement. Therefore, our passage is a specification (Matthew 5:48). Jesus described and defined the exact requirement of being “sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:45). He described the fundamental expression of God’s nature, having no boundaries on His love but allowing it to rain on the just and the unjust and the sun to shine on the good and the evil. Allowing the same for good and evil is an expression of the perfect love of the Father’s nature. Treating all people the same is the specification, the precise requirement, of being a son of the Father!
The dictionary also describes “specification” as a detailed description of the design and materials used to make something. What does it mean to be “sons of your Father in heaven”? It is the perfect love of the Father’s nature. If I present to you the makeup of “sons of your Father in heaven,” it would be the perfect love of the Father’s nature. This climatic statement of Jesus is the blueprint of all He has described. It is not a goal or the final condition, but it is the beginning state. It is the righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus said that without this new righteousness, “you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Being filled with the nature of the Father is the entry-level into being this new Kingdom person.
Jesus began the sixth illustration contrasting the Old and New Covenants (Matthew 5:43-44). The Old Covenant embraced loving your neighbor but could not see the possibility of loving your enemy; therefore, hating your enemy was acceptable. The New Covenant does not allow hating your enemy. The boundaries of your love must be pushed to the furthest person from you, your enemy. After making this “proposition,” Jesus extended to us the “purpose” for such a response. It is “that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:45).
Jesus closes with this climactic statement, concluding the matter, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). In other words, if this specification or this conclusion is not right in your life, then you are not a son of “your Father in heaven.” It is not an achievement to reach; it is a state in which to dwell. God fills helplessness with His resource, merging His nature with our nature and producing a new creature. We are like our Father!