The Case for Perfection (Matthew 5:48)
The Case for Perfection
(One Truth: Walk in Truth)
September 9th, 2018
I. Defining “Scandalous”
Scandalous. When you think about that word, what comes to mind?
Breaking news from Hollywood or Washington D.C.? Small town gossip you heard as a child? An inter-office memo about your company's disgraced CEO?
Listen to a couple definitions of the word scandalous:
Causing general public outrage by a perceived offense against morality or law.
Disgraceful; shameful or shocking; improper:
Did you know Jesus was no stranger to scandal or scandalous behavior? In fact the word “scandal” comes from the Greek word skandalon. And that word appears numerous times throughout the NT, usually translated by the phrase “stumbling block”. Not only did Jesus use the term and warn us about stumbling blocks, but He is also identified as a skandalon. Paul wrote in I Corinthians 1:23...but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.
Why was Jesus identified as scandalous? Because for the Jews who heard the message, the death of Jesus on a Roman cross, a criminal's death, made claims about his lordship improper, disgraceful, even offensive. This was the Messiah?
II. The Passage: "As Your...Father is Perfect" (5:48)
But did you know Jesus also said lots of things that are still considered scandalous today? I'd like to share one of those with you this morning. It comes from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5, verse 48. Listen to the words of Jesus Christ...
You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Let me say it one more time, in case you didn't hear it the first time...You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Wait a minute. What is Jesus saying? Perfect? No, not perfectly knowledgeable, not perfectly chiseled, not perfectly proper in terms of social mores, and not perfectly fabulous in terms of your hair, makeup, or Sunday best. Jesus is telling his followers that they must be, that we must be perfect...like God is perfect...as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Scandalous, right? Think about it. If I walked in here this morning, and simply said to you, “You must be perfect as God is perfect”, I think a lot of people would have trouble with that. Would you? If I went to every church in our city and delivered the same message, I think it would be considered fairly scandalous, don't you?
But these aren't my words. They are the words of Jesus. So why do they bother us so much? Are they too demanding? Are they too unrealistic? Are they too works-oriented? Before we can make sense of why this statement sounds scandalous, we need to know what Jesus means. Let's take a few minutes and use the three different contexts to make sure we understand what Jesus is saying. For example, let's think about...
1. Perfection in the “Sermon”
This scandalous verse is found in a sermon, a discourse, a message delivered by Jesus at the outset of his ministry, a message that stretches from the beginning of chapter 5, all the way to the end of chapter 7. At 111 verses, it is the longest continuous discourse of Jesus in the New Testament.
But can the rest of this sermon tell us anything about this scandalous verse? It can. Earlier in this same chapter Jesus made an equally scandalous statement. Are you ready? It's in Matthew 5:20...
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Whoa. Now remember, the scribes and the Pharisees were considered the most righteous people in Jewish society. So, like verse 48, Matthew 5:20 would have sounded extremely demanding...unrealistically demanding to the first listeners of this message. Now even though verse 48 doesn't use the word, it's also about righteousness...about moral uprightness.
Other verses throughout the sermon are also concerned about righteousness...5:13...“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? That's a verse about righteousness. 6:33...But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
2. Perfection in Matthew
But if we broadened our study to the whole book, we would discover this “perfect” righteousness is mentioned again in chap 19. Jesus tells a rich, young, spiritual seeker, that...
“If you would enter life, keep the commandments."  He said to him, "Which ones?" And Jesus said, "You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness,  Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself."  The young man said to him, "All these I have kept. What do I still lack?"  Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."  When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (19:17-22)
I think many who heard this conversation would have labeled the words of Jesus here, “scandalous”. “Sell everything you have? Give the proceeds to the poor? That's not one of the commandments,” some might have complained. But without recognizing it, this man was breaking the very first commandment, “You shall no other gods before me.” Sadly, money had become his god, and as we see here, he wasn't willing to renounce it.
3. Perfection in the New Testament
But what about the rest of the New Testament? Is this scandalous call to perfection only something Jesus emphasized? It's not. In fact the same Greek word translated as “perfect” in Matthew 5:48, is used throughout the New Testament, by several different writers. Listen for it in this verses...
Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. (I Corinthians 14:20)
Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (Colossians 1:28)
But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:14)
Do you hear that word? Yep, in all these verses, and many more, the same word is translated “mature” instead of “perfect”. Given the fact that many of these verses use some image of human growth, from child to adult, “mature” seems like a good translation.
Another writer, James, the half-brother of Jesus, used it in a way that could be translated either way. In the ESV it's translated at “perfect”. James 1:2–4...
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,  for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete [or mature and complete], lacking in nothing.
But the translation “mature” doesn't quite work in Matthew 5:48...You therefore must be mature, as your heavenly Father is...mature?
So do these contexts help us understand what Jesus means when he says, “You...must be perfect”? Maybe? Do his words still sound scandalous to you? Yes?
III. Our Imperfection, His Perfection
I think we struggle with this statement from Jesus because of how we think God's grace in Jesus. We might think, “Perfect? I'm not and never will be perfect. That's why I need God's grace. And since I have God's grace, through faith, I no longer need to measure up; because of Jesus, I don't need to pursue perfection.”
Would you agree? But if that's true, what do we do with Jesus' scandalous words in 5:48?
Brothers and sisters, friends, there is no problem with the words of Jesus. To some they may be scandalous. And yet, there is nothing improper or offensive about them.
It may be come as surprise to you that what's actually improper and disgraceful in this Matthew 5:48 dynamic is our thinking about grace. Jesus' call here, Jesus' kingdom call to perfect righteousness is all about grace. How? Because of what Jesus is pointing us to here.
In Matthew 5:48, Jesus is pointing us to both a radical inner righteousness, and a radical outer righteousness.
As we've already heard, this radical inner righteousness is like God's righteousness in that it doesn't simply consist of outward displays, but flows from inside, from out of the nature of the one who walks in righteousness. God doesn't simply act righteous. He is righteous. His very nature is righteous. He is holy.
This inner righteousness is not simply about doing good works; about doing the “right thing”. It is a righteousness that flows out of one's nature.
One clue in the context that helps us with this concept is that God is called “your Father”, and verse 45 talks about being “sons of your Father who is in heaven”. That language is found throughout this sermon, and points to something radical about our identity as followers of Jesus. Something new, something different has come.
But to understand that fully, we need to think about the radical outer righteousness Jesus is pointing us to in Matthew 5:48. Not outer righteousness in the sense of your actions. No, outer in terms of that which comes from outside us; from someplace else, not from me. Listen to the assurance Jesus gave right at the beginning of this sermon. Matthew 5:6...
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
For those who felt those hunger pains, who felt their own deep need, their own painful lack of righteousness, but were hungry and thirsty for it, there would be satisfaction. How? This is what the Apostle said...
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom. 1:16, 17)
A couple chapters later, he talked more about this righteousness...
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law [apart from the righteousness of perfect law-keeping...which none of us could fulfill], although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. (Romans 3:21, 22)
The same Jesus who called us to “perfect” righteousness is the same Jesus who offers us perfect righteousness (his spotless record of perfect law-keeping), his perfect righteousness, through faith alone. A couple verses later, Paul talks about how we are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God cannot demand anything less then perfection, can he? Can you imagine if a Supreme Court nominee was asked during confirmation hearings whether or not he would care about justice every time he presided, can you imagine what would happen if he or she said, “I will care about justice...most of the time”? That would be scandalous. That same is true about God. For God to be God, he must demand perfection, every time, all the time. He cannot compromise.
But we compromise. We have and we will fail. So because of the mercy of God, when you believe, grace positions you in a righteousness that comes from outside yourself, from God himself, the perfect record, the perfect standing of Jesus.
But His grace does more than just position us. It also powers us...power to pursue perfection, just as Jesus said. Listen to the way the Apostle Paul talked about the change that God effects in a life through the gospel. He writes in Ephesians 4:21–24...
...you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus,  to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,  and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds,  and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
God has transformed his children through Jesus. You have trusted Christ, then there is a new you, a new self, just as Paul talks about here. And that new self is “created after the likeness of God”. Sound familiar? “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That's “true righteousness and holiness”. That's the inner righteousness we talked about. It is not simply outer adherence to God's law. No, it actually flows from “the new self” to which Paul pointed his readers in Ephesians 4:24.
So the scandalous call of Christ in Matthew 5:48 exposes our desperate need for righteous-ness. But the Good News of Christ promises God's provision for that need.
In Matthew 5:48, Jesus is pointing us to both a radical inner righteousness, and a radical outer righteousness. And as we've seen, both of these come from God. God doesn't simply declare us righteous because of Jesus, he also begins a work of making us righteous because of Jesus, righteous from the inside out. Grace is not simply a position in which we stand. Wonderfully, it is that. But it is also power. It is all from Him. That's why God gets all the glory.
So the call of Jesus in Matthew 5:48 is not a call to measure up. It is a call to give up...to hunger for the righteousness only God can give through Jesus, and then seek his kingdom righteousness every day, in light of the power He provides. Do you see why this scandalous call is actually full of grace? It is loving for God to expose our inability, and therefore, the futility of our attempts to be righteous. Our nature is corrupt. It is loving because only then will we fully look to and depend on God's provision of righteousness.
Is it scandalous to say, “You must have as your goal obedience at all times, in every way”? It shouldn't be. Wouldn't the real scandal be for a grace-filled child of God to say, “My goal is not obey God in all things, in every way, at all times...because that's unrealistic”? How many of us, even if we don't say it out loud, actually live by that belief? I know I've fallen into that trap.
Will we fail? Of course. That's why we are positioned in the perfect righteousness of Jesus. Paul knew he had to tell the Ephesians to “put off the old self”. That struggle is part of what it means to follow Jesus. But that reality of failure does not mean we give up the goal. No, we give up on the idea that by my power, I can earn my position before God. But as we look to Him, with a hungry faith, we find power to keep saying, “I want to follow faithfully...I want to please you in every way, Father...I want to honor you at all times...in my attitude and actions.” That has to be what the NT writers had in mind when they wrote about “maturity”.
Is that your desire this morning? If it is, you must first let this call of Jesus, this call of perfection, you must let it drive you to surrender. Imperfect you must run to perfect Jesus, to receive both perfect grace and perfect righteousness. When that happens, your “I can't be perfect” will be coupled with a new declaration, “I can't be perfect...but I want to be...by your power, Father, I want to be.”
If that's the cry God has put in your heart through Jesus, then the sermon of Jesus in Matthew 5-7, this “Sermon on the Mount”, is for you. It represents God answering your cry in a wonderful way. In the coming months, we will dig deep into what Jesus taught, allowing it to drive us to both the outer and inner righteousness He alone can give.
Let's ask him now to help our hearts hunger and seek and celebrate those very things.