God’s Perfect Life (Matthew 5:38-48)

In order to understand what Jesus is saying to us in these last verses of chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel, I want to first ask a question:

Who is your enemy?

We could theorize and theologize about this text for hours, but we only start to enter into the radical nature of what Jesus is teaching us as his disciples when we hear them in the context of a concrete situation. For example, we can think of an ‘enemy’ as someone who has wronged us in some way, or annoys us, or makes life hard for us, or who is just hard to live with. An ‘enemy’ can be anyone who we feel has done wrong to you or with whom we are in conflict.

Now, read passage again with that person in mind…

Can you do what Jesus teaches? Can you treat that person better than they have treated you, which is one way to understand what Jesus is saying in verses 38 to 42? Jesus is telling us to literally go the extra mile for that person, even if that person is hostile, critical or unkind towards us. Can you love that person with the kind of love that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13, being patient, kind, not being rude or proud, not demanding your own way, keeping no record of wrongs, and so on? Are you able to pray for God to do good in that person’s life, even though that person may have wronged you?

When we contemplate Jesus’ teaching with our ‘enemies’ in mind, we come face to face with the reality of what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus.

What is important, however, is not just what we do, but our reason for treating people better than they treat us. Jesus says that when we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, we are ‘acting as true children’ of our Father in heaven (v45). As an illustration of the love and grace our heavenly Father shows to all people, Jesus points us to the sun and rain. We all need sunlight and rain to live. We might complain about them sometimes, but God provides each for us to exist and grow on this earth. Jesus is saying that God is indiscriminate with his gift of sunshine and rain. He doesn’t send more rain to good people or withhold it from bad. He doesn’t give extra sunny days to people in one place because they are better than those living in another. Instead, Jesus teaches, our heavenly Father knows what we all need and blesses us with both sunny and rainy days, not because of our behaviours, but because of his love for us. This is God’s grace to all people – that he lovingly provides us with what we need, whether we acknowledge him or not, whether we believe in him or not, whether we are good or evil in our thoughts, words or deeds.

And he asks us to do the same. Jesus concludes by saying that we ‘are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect’ (v48). I find a lot of people like to justify the wrongs they may have done by confessing that they are not perfect. From one point of view, there is truth in that statement, and Jesus’ command that we need to be perfect can sound like an unachievable goal. And if there’s no hope in being perfect, why should we even try?

But there is another way to understand what Jesus is saying here which goes beyond setting us an unachievable goal. When Jesus says, ‘You will be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect,’ we can also hear these words as a promise!

As we heard a couple of weeks ago, when we are made one with Jesus through faith, God gives us the righteousness of Jesus as a gift. As we live in Jesus and he lives in us by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus gives all he has and all he is to us as his brothers and sisters. That means he also gives us his perfection. As the forgiven children of God, he makes us perfect in his eyes through the work of the Holy Spirit. To live as a disciple of Jesus, then, means to grow in our identity as God’s perfect people by growing in the perfection we have been given.

We need to understand, though, that the perfection Jesus talks about is not keeping rules or getting a prefect moral score. Instead, as we hear Jesus’ words in this passage, he defines perfection as showing grace to people as we turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give to anyone who asks, love our enemies and pray for those who treat us badly. As we grow in our faith in God’s perfect grace towards us, to be a disciple of Jesus means to also be growing in our displays of indiscriminate grace to the people around us, no matter how they treat us or whether we think they deserve it or not.

So, based in these words of Jesus, I am thinking that…

Discipleship is…
… growing in God’s perfect grace to us and indiscriminately sharing his grace with others.

Living in this way isn’t easy, especially when we are being treated badly by another person. Jesus knew how hard it was – it cost him is life. That is why we need to be continually wrestling with what it means to love our enemies, and how to love them with the love of Christ. That is why discipleship is something we grow in for our whole lives and we need to be doing together.

So who is your ‘enemy’? Who is someone with whom you might be in conflict or treats you badly? In the perfect grace God gives to you through Jesus, how will you love that person this week?

More to think about:

  • What do you like about Jesus’ teachings in this passage from the Sermon on the Mount? What do you find most challenging about it?
  • When someone wrongs you, what is your natural reaction – to treat them in a similar way to how they have treated you? Or to treat them better than you think they deserve?
  • When we do wrong by God how does he treat us – in the way we deserve? Or, for the sake of Jesus, better than we deserve?
  • Do you tend to hear v48 as a command or a promise? How might today/this week look different if you could cling to the promise God is making through it that God is perfecting you through the Holy Spirit’s work?
  • How can you display God’s perfect grace to a person who might not be treating you well or with whom you are in conflict this week?

A New Standard (Matthew 5:21-37)

philippe-petit-wtc-tight-rope-walk

This text is making me feel a lot like I’m walking a tightrope. As we hear what Jesus teaches about anger, adultery, divorce and making oaths, it is easy on the one hand to understand them legalistically. We can hear Jesus’ teachings as hard and fast rules that we need to try to keep, and if we fail we are going to be judged. A legalistic understanding of Jesus’ teachings usually ends up with people being burdened with guilt or thinking that we are better people than others who do not keep the rules as well as we do.

The opposite danger we can fall into is thinking that Jesus’ teachings don’t apply to us. We can think that we are now under grace so we don’t need to listen to the way Jesus wants us to live. This is often called ‘cheap grace’ and is really no grace at all. Or we can think that Jesus gave these teachings so long ago that society has changed and we don’t need to listen to them. Whatever our reason might be, however, Jesus has already warned us that ‘if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Matthew 5:19a NLT).

So how do we listen to Jesus’ teachings as his followers and take them seriously while we walk the fine line between legalism and cheap grace?

To begin, we need to listen to what Jesus is saying and realize that we need God’s grace. Jesus sets a new ethical and moral standard. He teaches that the righteousness God is looking for goes much deeper than our behaviours. He is looking for pure hearts, as Jesus has already said in the Beatitudes (v8). My concern is that some will listen to Jesus’ words and think that he is pointing an accusing finger specifically at them, when really we are all the same. As the Apostle Paul says, we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). If you are feeling uncomfortable with what Jesus is saying here, please believe me when I say that I am right there with you.

Jesus shows us the state of our hearts to show us grace and mercy. As Paul says in Galatians 3:24, “the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith” (NIV). Jesus is pointing to himself as the one who makes us right by giving us his own righteousness through faith. It is only when we see the stark reality of our flawed existence before God that we begin to look for a righteousness outside of ourselves. As I said last week, we find a righteousness that is “better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees” (v20) when we begin to rely on God grace. In this grace, God not only forgives us for the times we have been wrong. In this grace, God also gives to us the righteousness of Jesus. His perfect life, innocent death and death-defeating resurrection is God’s free gift to us through the work of the Holy Spirit. If you’re reading Jesus’ teachings in this passage and feeling as uncomfortable as I do, Christ Jesus is calling you to himself to remove our guilt, cleanse our hearts, and give us new lives as his holy and righteous people.

In the freedom that God’s grace gives, we can now hear Jesus’ teachings in a new, relational way. They show us how to live in ways that extend God’s grace to the people around us. It is impossible for us to be angry with others when we trust that God wants to show them forgiveness. It is impossible for us to call someone an idiot when God calls that person his child whom he loves. When we believe in the extreme lengths God went to in Jesus to reconcile himself with us, we will also do whatever we can to reconcile with those whom we have wronged. When we see others as people whom God has created and for whom Christ has given his life, how can we objectify them by looking at them with desire and lust? I know that relationships breakdown for a lot of complicated reasons, but when we trust in God’s faithfulness to us, we will do whatever we can to be faithful to our promises to each other. And when we trust in what God says to us through his word, we won’t need to make oaths to try to get people to believe what we are saying. We will be able to say simply yes or no because people will trust what we are saying to them.

What we end up with are two ways we can hear Jesus’ teachings. On the one hand, they do show us something about ourselves that we would often prefer not to see. We need to be clear, though, that Jesus’ purpose is not to burden us with guilt, but instead to draw us to himself where we can find forgiveness and new life through faith in his death and resurrection for us. We can then return to Jesus’ teachings with a new heart and hear them as instructions on how to live out the righteousness he gives us in our relationships with others.

As we continue to explore discipleship, then, based on these words of Jesus I am thinking that…

Discipleship is … recognizing that we need God’s grace & living by a different set of standards in the grace that Jesus gives us

Jesus isn’t giving us an impossible set of standards that we need to keep by ourselves. When we listen to Jesus and take his instruction seriously, two things happen: we find grace in his gift of a righteous life to us and we begin see others through God’s eyes.

More to think about:

  • As you listen to what Jesus is teaching his followers in Matthew 5:21-37, which section is challenging you most – being angry, the need to reconcile, adultery, divorce or taking oaths? What do you find challenging about it?
  • Do you think Jesus’ teachings still apply to his followers today? Explain why/why not.
  • How do Jesus’ teachings sound different if we understand them relationally (how to live in relationship with other people) instead of legalistically (a set of rules to follow)?
  • How might your life be different if, in the grace God supplies, you were able to live as Jesus teaches?
  • Based on Jesus’ teachings, and as a person who has been made right through Christ, what is something that you might need to make right in your own life this week?