Matthew 5:17-48 | Be Perfect


Be Perfect


Matthew 5:17-48

Key Verse 5:48


“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”


After Jesus taught about the “Beatitudes”, he began to talk about some of the laws we find in the Old Testament— especially laws that deal directly with our relationship with one another. Jesus took those laws and began to elevate them to a higher standard, in case anyone thinks that he had come to put the Old Testament laws aside. So Jesus took these laws that deal with our relationship with each other, and elevated them from the human worldly level to the divine spiritual level as God always intended them to be. You hear him saying again and again: “You have heard that it was said,” and then he continues saying: “But I tell you…” When he’s done teaching us the spirit of the law, he ends it with the words: “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”. It’s important for us to reflect on these laws which Jesus himself here carefully chose and mentioned because we really need to understand that there is a huge difference between superficially following the law just to get by, and obeying God’s law from the heart. Let me emphasize that obeying these laws whether superficially or from the heart does not save us nor make us right with God. Being righteous or saved to eternal life is entirely the work of Christ on the cross and faith in him. But that does not absolve us from carefully listening to Jesus’ teaching and making it the passionate desire of our hearts. This section we are looking at today may seem like law after law. But in reality it reflects the heart of God and his desire for us to grow into perfection. And we can do that only when we put our faith in Christ and live our lives in him and through him. May God open our hearts to learn something deep and beautiful from Jesus’ teaching here.


Look at the last verse in this section, verse 48. Jesus says: “Be perfect, therefore, as your father in heaven is perfect”. Jesus was not hallucinating! He meant it— be perfect as your father God is perfect! He actually commands it. He actually wants us to be perfect. And yet he knows that not one of us can be perfect by our own effort, not even if we really really want to. And the reason is simple. We are by nature sinners incapable of achieving perfection no matter how hard we try. So what was Jesus talking about? That’s simple too. Jesus was teaching his disciples the way to become perfect. And the only way to become perfect is clear. You must despair of yourself and look to Christ who alone can make you perfect. In other words, after hearing his teaching, you must fully come to understand what a sinner you and I are, and how impossible it is for you and me to be as perfect as God wants us to be. We can never follow these laws to perfection— who can? In fact all people, no matter who they are, break them constantly. When we see this, we realize our imperfection and hopelessness to please God. But then Jesus hoped that his true disciples would turn their hearts to him in faith, because faith in him— that is, faith in his death and resurrection— assures us forgiveness of our sins, and empowers us with a new life— a life in which we can live this perfection in and through him.


That is where God’s people, especially the religious ones, the Priests and teachers of the law, were badly mistaken. They didn’t understand the essence of the laws of God. They maintained these laws only superficially and rather than despairing of themselves, they become self righteous and a stench to God. They never saw their sins. They never saw their failure to please God. They never saw their weaknesses and mistakes. Especially they never saw their horrible attitude toward the Law, towards each other and towards God! And they never saw their own condemnation before the perfect God. But Jesus trusted that his true disciples would learn the spirit of the law; would humble themselves before God; and would repent and turn their hearts to him in faith— always. And then by his grace alone, they would live out their Christian lives through that marvelous grace which God is so eager to shed on those who are humble. We as well need to see our imperfections through the law. And we need to learn how to turn to Christ in our helplessness so that Christ alone might help us grow in the perfection God requires of each of us who call ourselves Christians. Let’s look then at the laws that Jesus challenged us to perfect.


Look first at the entire passage, verses 17-48. I think it might be good for us to briefly review it to get familiar with what God expects from his children— from those who love him and call him Father. In other words, if you call God Father, this teaching is for you! In these teachings here Jesus makes a contrast between the Jewish traditional teaching of the day and what God really expects by giving these laws. Why was this necessary? Because the Jews only pretended to observe these Laws. They didn’t observe them for the sake of pleasing God. They didn’t follow them because they themselves were eager to be an influence of faith on each other. Rather they pretended to observe them only to gain merit and to be recognized by God and men alike as righteous. In other words, they did the things taught in the Bible, but they failed to do them for the right reason. They did what the Bible said for them to do, but only outwardly not from the heart. They were really blind to what the Bible is actually teaching when it taught God’s laws to men. So when Jesus came on the scene and began to teach the Bible speaking of loving God and of serving him; When Jesus spoke of self denial and self sacrifice; when he spoke of humility and meekness, of repentance and of faith, these traditional Jews thought that Jesus was ignoring the laws of God and changing them without regard for God’s laws. They didn’t understand Jesus’ heavenly teaching of the gospel at all. They mistook his teaching for him breaking the law. So the first thing Jesus did was to explain to them that he wasn’t breaking the laws of God at all. In fact he was fulfilling them, teaching them and living them exactly as God had intended for everyone to do.


Read verses 17-20. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”


There is here a deep lesson in wisdom regarding how we should all view the Bible, especially the Old Testament and the laws that it gives for us to live by. Jesus himself respected and loved the law of God. He did not come to do away with these beautiful laws that are the foundation of our life and relationship with God and with each other. Rather Jesus had actually come to fulfill them. He had come to obey them. To live them. To satisfy all their requirements (through his suffering death on the cross). Jesus had come to honor them as good and holy and divine and as absolutely vital for our life and for our relationship with God and with each other. Those who criticized Jesus or thought that he was ignoring the Bible teaching were wrong. In teaching us the gospel, in teaching us the good news of our salvation; in teaching us the necessity of repentance and of faith; and in living out the Bible himself, Jesus was showing all of us that God expects every one to live like this. He was showing us that God’s requirements are lofty and noble and holy, and they demand full obedience. Of course, we cannot live up to that, because fundamentally we are just weak and helpless sinners when it comes to these laws. But that’s exactly why Jesus had come. He had come to fulfill for us the very laws we could not fulfill ourselves. He had come to also make it possible for us to fulfill these laws— not by our own effort but by faith in him. He had also come to teach us how to live by these laws, not superficially but deeply from the heart. Look at verse 20. What Jesus meant here was that for us to enter the kingdom of God requires a whole lot more than obeying the Bible commands. It requires a kind of righteousness that only Jesus himself can fulfill and offer to those who would believe in him.


Jesus then begins to give several examples from the law to let all of us know what the spirit of the law is all about. In other words, what the spirit of law requires of us. Jesus would have us know that the spirit of the law is far more demanding and holy than simply doing what it says— that what it says to us has a profound meaning that reveals to us what God and his holiness are like, while showing us how far we ourselves have missed the point and fall short of it. After-all, sin is missing the mark. It is rebellion against God and his laws. It is outright hostility to God. We should take a good look at these laws Jesus brings out and examine our hearts. We should be honest with ourselves, knowing that we have missed the mark, and knowing that Jesus fulfilled them in our place so that we might not be condemned to death but have life and blessing in and through him. So give your heart to what he is teaching us in this passage.


First, Jesus talked about murder. Read verses 17-26. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.”  The first law Jesus brought up was the law about murder. As the 6th commandment says: “You shall not murder”. (Exodus 20:13) The traditional Jews believed that as long as one does not actually commit the act of murder, they remain righteous in the sight of the Lord and in his favor. They completely ignored the spirit of the law. Yet, Jesus taught us what the spirit of this law is all about. It was not only that we should not commit murder against our fellow man, but that we should preserve and bless the life of our fellow man. God willed that we not even let anger or angry words come between us. This is serious! We need to mark this teaching well, because we may be innocent of taking another person’s life, yet still guilty of breaking the 6th commandment.


Second, Jesus talked about adultery. Read verses 27-30. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” The second Law Jesus brought up was the law about adultery. As the 7th commandment says: “You shall not commit adultery”. (Exodus 20:14) But refraining from committing adultery still does not justify a person’s righteousness before God. Jesus taught us the truth about this law. He taught us that we break this command in our thoughts, in our hearts, in our imagination, even when our outward conduct is perfectly moral. The spirit of the law is far higher than simply not committing adultery. Our God whom we have to deal with looks far beyond our actions, such that even a wayward glance is a sin! Our God wills that we view our fellow human being with a pure heart and a pure mind. It’s what God wants. He wants his children to put away their lustful desires. How can we do so? Through the gospel of Jesus’ grace, we now have the privilege to repent and seek the cleansing power of his blood as well as the power in the cross to crucify our flesh with all its impurities.


Third, Jesus talked about divorce. Read verses 31-32. “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” In the law which God gave to his people, we read that a man may give a certificate of divorce to his wife if he wishes to divorce her. But Jesus explained elsewhere that God allowed this not because it is acceptable before God, but because their hearts were hard. Yet divorce can never be really justified in the sight of God. The truth is that Jesus forbid his people to divorce because for the most part divorce has nothing to do with one person being unfaithful to the other, and rather has much to do with our own sinful and unforgiving hearts. There was a time when Christian men and women worked out their problems through bearing one another’s weaknesses. There was a time when Christian men and women guarded their hearts from their own wayward thoughts through earnest prayer. But in our generation, divorce seems to be the acceptable norm, with no regard to the law of God. Today People divorce for any and every conceivable reason. What a tragedy it is!


Fourth, Jesus also talked about oaths. Read verses 33-37. “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” There was a custom among the ancient people of God of taking oaths, or of making binding promises, to one another as well as to God. But in reality because of the sinful heart of man, hardly anyone really kept their oaths or promises. It was an issue of trustworthiness, and most people felt they needed to swear an oath in order to be trusted with what they promised. But Jesus taught us differently. He taught us that oaths and promises can only be made in and through Christ, and they must be based on the truth we can only find in the word of God. So Jesus tells us “Simply let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’, and your ‘no’be ‘no’.” He tells us that any other swearing comes from the devil.


Fifth, Jesus talked about the law of justice, “an eye for an eye”.  Read verses 38-42. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” One of the most beautiful teachings in the Bible. When God’s people were liberated from their slavery in Egypt and went into the desert, they were utterly uncivilized and barbaric in their behavior towards one another. 400 years of slavery had reduced them to the animal level, biting and clawing at each other. So God gave them laws that they might respect human life as well as respect one another in their day to day dealings with one another. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was the just alternative for taking a man’s life just for hurting you. Yet the spirit of the Law was that no person should seek to hurt another person. For this reason Jesus taught his disciples to be spiritual in their dealing with each other. From a spiritual perspective, it is better to forgive the one who hurt you than to exact justice for the harm done to you. It is better to forgive rather seek to recover your stolen property through justice. In other words, it is better to win the spiritual battle in your life, than to win the physical battle and then be a loser spiritually.


Sixth, Jesus then talked about loving your enemies. Read verses 43-48. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The tradition was to “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But Jesus taught differently. Jesus taught us to love anyway! Your Love should be divine— it should be unconditional much like God’s love. In other words, your love for others must be to give without expecting in return. Your Love also should mature from that which is basic to that which is divine. It must be the kind of love that prays for others. Actually one of the best expressions of love for friends or enemies is prayer. Look at verse 48 again. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We cannot! But we can if we learn and practice the spirit of the law by depending on God. (Romans 3:20) Let’s thank Jesus for coming and fulfilling the law so that we might be able to live by it.


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