You Must Be Perfect

MATTHEW 5:21-48

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” 
– Matthew 5:48

Is there a more daunting command in all of Scripture than this?

If Jesus’ will for the citizens of His Kingdom can be summarized in this imperative (as I think it can), then what hope is there? Our reaction will likely be similar to the reaction of the disciples after Jesus spoke to the rich young ruler: “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus’ answer is fitting: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:25-26).

So how in the world can we fulfill Jesus’ call to perfection? How can we possibly follow in His footsteps, keeping the law perfectly? That is the question Jesus wants us to think about as we read the second half of Matthew 5. How is any of this possible?

Jesus has just reconfirmed the rule of the Law in the lives of His followers. He has not come to abolish, but to fulfill. He has come to bring about the ultimate purpose of the Law; to bring the blessings of the Law to the people of Israel and beyond, to establish a Kingdom that “cannot be shaken” (Heb. 12:28). And now, beginning in verse 21, He begins to explore what this new life under the Law looks like as a Kingdom citizen – and it is genuinely daunting.

Jesus walks His hearers through six examples of the Law in the Kingdom, using some form of the phrase: “You have heard that it was said…” (vv. 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43), and in this section Jesus covers a wide array of topics, from those that seem easy for most of us (murder), to those that seem almost impossible to fully follow (loving our neighbors). In between are teachings on adultery, divorce, swearing oaths, and retaliation.

In each of these cases, Jesus takes the original Law, straight from the Pentateuch, and without re-writing it, intensifies it. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (5:27-28). Suddenly, a command that seemed like something we could obey (do not commit adultery), has been turned into something almost impossible (do not even desire to commit adultery). And the same is true for each of the other examples.

In other words, Jesus has taken a Law that could potentially be followed, and turned it into a law that is far beyond our abilities. He has required, to return to the original question, a law that requires perfection.

So how do we do it? Where do we even begin? Do we start making practical plans to root out all anger and lust and evil intent in our lives so that we can obey the letter of Jesus’ new Law? There is some wisdom to this, but I don’t think that gets to the heart of what Jesus is trying to say. I think Jesus wants us to look at this message and say, “That’s impossible! I can’t possibly do that!” He wants us to really consider this, to think about why He would be asking for perfection, knowing perfectly well that we will never live up to His standard.

The answer, as I discussed in the previous post, is found in God’s promises through the Old Testament prophets. Jeremiah writes to a people who have continually broken the Law of Moses, who have found even that Law impossible to keep, and He makes them a bold promise:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a New Covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the Covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my Covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” – Jer. 31:31-33

Later, Ezekiel provides additional details about what this New Covenant would look like:

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a New Heart, and a New Spirit I will put within you.  And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” – Ezek. 36:26-28

As Jesus is establishing the identity of the citizens of His Kingdom, established under a New Covenant made in His own blood, He is already pointing back to show how the promises of the Prophets are coming true.

God demands perfection – that much is true and it is overwhelming – but God also provides perfection.

That should give endless comfort to those of us who continue to struggle. When Jesus declares that, if we are to truly keep the law, we need to rid our hearts of anger, and lust, and greed, and thoughts of vengeance, He is speaking of the same heart which God has promised to renew with the implanting of the Law, with the indwelling of His Spirit. This is the same stony heart that He has promised to transform into a heart of flesh.

Even as you continue to struggle, even as you feel less than perfect, God, in Christ, has made you perfect if you have your trust in Him. So what feels at first like a terrifying, daunting new list of rules handed down by Jesus, is actually a bold, refreshing declaration of the Good News (The Gospel) of Salvation.