The Perfection Which the King Requires (Exposition of Matthew 5:48)

The question is often asked, “How can a loving God send people to hell?” But a more appropriate question biblically is, “How can a holy God send anyone to heaven?” This is a question that is raised by Jesus’ words in the last verse of Matthew 5 where the King demands, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:48

I. The Perfection Which God Possesses.
Jesus simply states in verse 48 that God the Father is perfect, “as your Father in heaven is perfect.” The perfection of God is an attribute of God which summarizes all His other attributes, i.e., His love is a perfect love, His holiness is a perfect holiness, His grace is a perfect grace, His wrath is a perfect wrath, etc. Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology (p. 218) defines God’s perfection as follows:

God’s perfection means that God completely possesses all excellent qualities and lacks no part of any qualities that would be desirable for him.

Another way to speak of God’s perfection is to speak of His holiness or His righteousness. These terms refer to the moral perfection of God. He is completely or wholly other. He is the standard of all morality and righteousness.

The prophet Isaiah was overwhelmed by the moral perfection of God’s holiness when he saw the LORD in the temple when King Uzziah died in Isaiah 6. After seeing the One whom the angelic beings called seraphims worshiped by crying out to each other, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD of hosts.”, Isaiah cried out in horror, “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” In Ezekiel 43, the LORD appeared to the prophet Ezekiel and the prophet fell on his face! This gives us an idea of the degree of perfection which God possesses that even the holiest of men are scandalized in His presence. The God who sits enthroned in heaven is perfect!

II. The Perfection Which God Requires.
But not only do we see the perfection which God possesses in verse 48, we also see the perfection which God requires! “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” This is a high standard, an impossible standard! But this command issued by King Jesus in verse 48 echoes that which is found three times in the book of Leviticus (11:44, 19:2, and 20:26) and quoted by the apostle Peter (1 Pet. 1:16). In the words of Leviticus 19:2 that command is, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” The author of Hebrews likewise holds forth this high standard when he wrote, “Pursue … holiness without which no one will see the Lord:” (Heb. 12:14).

The greatest example of what Jesus means when He demands perfection of His followers is in the context itself. Beginning in verse 20, Jesus has described in this section of His Sermon on the Mount the degree of righteousness which He requires of His followers who would be a part of His kingdom. Their righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees! This was no small task, for the scribes and Pharisees were the most outwardly righteous of their day. But it was only an outward righteousness. There was outward conformity to the law of God, but no inward obedience. This is the difference between the scribes and Pharisees and those who are a part of Christ’s New Covenant community. It is illustrated in the six antitheses which fill the space between verse 20 and this morning’s text, verse 48. In those 27 verses Jesus both exposes the false righteousness of the Pharisees and illustrates the true righteousness that is the characteristic of those whom He calls His disciples. This is the perfection which the King requires. Not mere external obedience, but inward conformity to God’s laws. It is not enough to not murder, one cannot be angry. It is not enough not to commit adultery, one must not lust. It is not enough to love one’s neighbors, one must also love one’s enemies. This is the high standard which is required to enter heaven. This is a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees and is nothing less than God’s own perfection. It is an impossible standard!

III. The Perfection Which God Provides.
If Matthew 5:48 were all that we knew, we would be totally without hope! That would be the ultimate bad news, but there is good news. The gospel message is that the perfection which God both possesses and requires, He also graciously provides through the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ.

This perfection is supplied by God to the believing sinner in three ways: positionally, practically, and permanently.

First, Scripture teaches that God provides the righteousness of Christ to the believing sinner positionally. This is the doctrine of justification by faith alone which states that God forgives sin and declares the sinner righteous on the basis of the life and death of Jesus by faith alone. In other words, the moment that a sinner truly trusts in Christ’s finished work on the cross, his/her sins are forgiven and they are seen to be sinlessly perfect in the eyes of God. This is because God has credited the sinner’s sin to Jesus, while crediting Jesus’ righteousness to the sinner. The justified are now treated just as if they were as perfect as Jesus Himself, who never sinned! (Rom. 5:1; 2 Cor. 5:21; and 1 Pet. 3:18).

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, the day when we remember those soldiers who have died in the service of our country. The Vietnam War Memorial was dedicated on November 13, 1982, honoring the 58,000 American troops who died in that conflict. In 1966, Marine Sergeant George Hutchings of 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Division, Charlie Company, had over two hundred men killed around him during an ambush by the Viet Cong. Months later, after numerous battles, he was shot three times, bayoneted and left for dead, but he survived and was awarded the Purple Heart. Speaking about the Vietnam Memorial, George Hutchings said: “On that wall is the name of Corporal Quinton Bice, who was hit in the chest with a rocket running a patrol in my place. A Christian, he had shared the Gospel with me, but I didn’t understand it till he gave his life in my place.”

The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ took the rocket of God’s holy judgment upon sin in the place of all who believe. This is how God is able to forgive our sins and declare us to be perfect in His eyes.

Not only does God provide righteousness positionally, Scripture teaches that God provides the righteousness of Christ to the believing sinner practically. This is the doctrine of sanctification which states that all whose whom God has justified by faith, He begins to work in them to produce a righteousness of heart and action. Whereas justification is immediate, sanctification is a progressive or gradual work of God. It is God’s work of making us in this life into what He has already declared us to be: righteous. This is why there are commands in Scripture which call the believer to holiness in life.

1Peter 1:13-16 Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; 14 as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; 15 but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.”

Hebrews 12:14 Pursue … holiness, without which no one will see the Lord:

If this pursuit of holiness is not a characteristic of your life, then you have not experienced God’s salvation. Because God’s salvation involves not only the forgiveness of sin, but also the changing of the sinner into the image of Christ.

Not only does God provide righteousness positionally and practically, Scripture also teaches that God provides righteousness to the believing sinner permanently. This is the doctrine of glorification which states that at the return of Christ our bodies which are now plagued by sin and sickness will be transformed into perfectly sinless bodies without the effects of sin: sickness and death.

Philippians 3:20-21 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.

1John 3:2 Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

Romans 8:28-30 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. 29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. 30 Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.

Thus, we see that the perfection which God possesses and requires, He freely provides by faith in Christ to the believer! This how a holy God sends anyone to heaven. There is no other way!

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