With Springtime here and the Summer quickly approaching, the atmosphere is beginning to change in the Lyle household. While we typically enjoy all the seasons during a calendar year, the warm weather really seems to be a better friend to us than the darker, colder and rainy days of Fall and Winter. We downsized from our former home last August so that we could afford to build a pool in the backyard of the new home we bought. It has been finished since Christmas, but none of us except Landon felt brave enough to take a chilly plunge. The sun is now appearing more often, lingering longer in the sky and warming up the waters. Soon, we will take some time as a family to do nothing more than sit, soak and splash. I can hardly wait.
“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – Matthew 5:48
My wife, Amy, is much more at rest than I am. In our family, my daughter, Alicia, and I are pretty uptight compared to Amy and my son, Landon. Their default position is to be rested and relaxed while Alicia and I are more apt to be found focused and fretting. Pool or no pool, teaching from Jesus like the one listed above does not help to relieve my daughter and me from our natural intensity. Jesus tells His followers to be perfect. What?! Those words turn up my internal pressure cooker to level 11. Jesus’ teaching here stresses me out. While I am expending intentional effort to learn how to chill a little, to go to my happy place in the warmth and wetness of a new pool, I then feel the intrusive heaviness of this seemingly impossible command from the Son of God for me to be perfect. Immediately I want to flee the poolside, abandon my iced tea, dock the raft I was floating on and go work hard on being…perfect?
Maybe you too have been troubled by what Jesus says in Matthew 5:48. It could be that you also live under the presumed pressure of perfectionism. We need to really consider what Jesus meant when He gave this word to His followers. His command is actually the last verse in Matthew chapter five. In this chapter, He has been sharing transformational life-principles with the listeners who had gathered to hear Him preach. Jesus was calling them to an elevated understanding of what it means to live in His Kingdom. He was strongly dealing with their hearts. He was telling them that a human understanding of a “good life” was simply not a high enough aim for them. In essence, Jesus was opening up a whole new way of living to them. He was causing them to thirst. Perhaps the hardest part of His message came right before verse 48 when He told them that they must become people who were committed to love even their enemies. It was immediately after that when Jesus answered the listeners’ discomfort with His command to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
So, what does Jesus mean when He commands this of us?
We all have already failed to be perfect, so He cannot be requiring sinlessness of us. Neither is Jesus saying that we must live with the obsessive focus of never again sinning. Scripture is clear that we are all born into sin and, although we are born again spiritually through faith in Christ, the Apostle John teaches that all Christians will continue to commit occasional sin during their lives (1st John 1:8-9). Jesus is not saddling us with some moral code of perfect behavior when He calls us to be perfect. The Greek word translated twice in this verse as perfect is a word that signifies completeness and fullness. The Greek verb tense teaches us that we are being commanded by Jesus to live continually in an active commitment towards this goal for all our days. There is zero teaching in Scripture that we will ever fully attain this reality in this life but, in the pursuit of it, we grow in intimacy, love and likeness with the Father. Jesus is not commanding us that we agonize and strive for constant moral perfection as our chief aim in life. What He is imparting here is something much more than mastering the flesh and obeying the rules. So, how should we understand what the Savior is telling us when He calls us to be perfect like our heavenly Father?
Jesus is calling us to live toward the character of God. He is assigning us a trajectory in life. He is elevating our focus off even the best horizontal expectations, as He tells us that our goal for life is the personhood of the Father. Succinctly put, Jesus is calling us to always go after God with all that we are.
Watch how it plays out:
“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Perfect here is one of scores of adjectives we find in the bible which describe God to us. Holy, mighty, loving, glorious, wise, kind, just, faithful, sacrificial are all words that are used to describe the Father to us. We could replace perfect with any of these other adjectives, and not lose anything from our calling to become like Him. Yet I want to suggest that the adjective is not the main focus in what Jesus was teaching. Do not get me wrong – Jesus was clearly making a point here. Yet watch what happens when we take a step back and get a macro-view of what the Master is saying.
You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect
You must be as your heavenly Father is.
Be as your heavenly Father.
I hope I am not misunderstood here as advocating any kind of removal from what Jesus is teaching. What I am seeking to do is to elevate the focus and the fretting off the intimidating word perfect, and to clarify the big picture call on our lives to become like the Father. For some of us, when we consider Matthew 5:48, the immediate compulsion is to fixate on what it might mean to become perfect. We leap into action. We inventory the last 24 hours, the last week, the last year of our lives, and then start scurrying in our minds in an unhealthy concern over every place we might have failed. We lament our stumblings. We enter into regret. We panic as fear knocks on the door and as we are forced to confess aloud, “Oh no! I am NOT perfect!”
But are you becoming like your heavenly Father? Hopefully. Are you in process? Definitely. Is your trajectory pointing in the big-picture direction of your calling from Jesus? Are you intentionally living in such a way that, while yet being imperfect, you are still actually yielding to the work of the Holy Spirit as you are being perfected by Him? You see, if we grasp the larger understanding of Jesus calling us TO BE, rather than him calling us TO DO, we find ourselves moving into the person of the Father rather than running off to do something for the Father. Our calling is to the Father, not primarily for the Father. Our completion or fullness (the meaning of the Greek word translated as perfect) arises from our going after God with the understanding that this is a life-long pursuit. In our commitment to “be…as your heavenly Father is…”, we are processed by His presence and power toward the commanded fullness. I believe the best way for me to approach Jesus’ intentional use of the word perfect is to view it as a catalyst that motivates me toward pursuing completion and fullness in God for all my years. It is not there to frighten or intimidate me. It is there to free me and motivate me to pursue the personhood of the Father as the singular goal of my life.
The bottom line lesson for me is that most of us are hardwired to want to be without going through the reality of becoming. We want to arrive without traveling. We are more inclined to live as human doings rather than human beings. Maybe after considering these things today, you can release the internal pressure valve, embrace the Father’s provision of Jesus’ perfection on your behalf, and then rest in becoming as He is, rather than striving after obtaining what He has already provided you. Yes, Jesus commands us to be perfect just like our heavenly Father. Yet what we naturally hear is not the reality of what He is supernaturally calling us unto. He gives us the command, and then serves us as a chauffer unto the fulfillment of the command.
He brings us to the very place that He send us.
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