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March 6, 2019

Pursuing Perfection

Matthew 5:48

48“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”.— Jesus (Matthew 5:48)

I will never forget the night a student slammed a Bible down on the stage and said, “This is why I can’t follow Jesus. He just wants me to be perfect. I can’t do it!” He was sad. Angry. Confused. I moved his hand off the page and stared at Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:48. As a new minister, and fairly new believer, I had no clue what to tell him, other than, “Let’s dig into the passage together.” If nothing else, I knew this immediate response would save me time as I searched for a real lasting answer.

Have you ever been there? Has this verse or one like it ever triggered anxiety in you? Have you ever struggled to discern what Jesus really means when he makes some of his bolder statements?

I have. So, in this blog post I want to help you better understand the heart of this one verse.

You may have heard this taught, “Be matureas your heavenly Father is mature.” Pastors and teachers have often counseled us to focus on progressively maturing throughout our spiritual journeys. While there is truth to that, it still misses the full scope of what Jesus is dong at the end of this section of teaching. He has been casting vision for the flourishing life. A vision that appears to be non-flourishing. The ancient world put great emphasis on external things (from looks to the law) and Jesus was flipping the script, deepening the law, and making it about internal things. He was saying, “This is who you will become, and how you will love, if you build your life on me and do what I say.”

Matthew is stylistically helping his readers/hearers grasp the difference between natural love and divine love. Jesus has shown that divine love turns the other cheek, goes the extra mile, and sacrifices for its enemies. That’s because divine love is whole and complete, which is the best definition of the word translated in this verse as perfect. Ultimately, Jesus is not teaching us to just become more mature, rather he is saying that we must love “wholly” like God does. His love is not split or fractured. It is singularly focused. God does not love if, he loves because. This verse is not a command for moral perfection. It’s a loving plea for whole-person faithfulness as we learn to reciprocate the love that’s captured our hearts and is transforming our lives.

Dr. Jonathan Pennington writes about the similarities between this verse and 5:20, saying “Matthew 5:48 then provides an ultimate definition of what this greater righteousness looks like: being like God the Father himself who is whole and loves his enemies.”[1]The whole person we are becoming is capable of loving in a way that’s impossible for the fragmented sinful person we daily seek to put to death.

One last note, the hard truth is that God’s standard is perfection. It’s an impossible standard. We cannot meet it in our own power. The beauty of the Gospel message is that Jesus has met all of our needs and covered our sin with his perfect obedience, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection. When we surrender and he begins to transform our lives, we progressively become people who love differently, because we’ve been loved incredibly.

[1]Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), 78.

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