Sermon preached on Matthew 5:48 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 6/1/2014 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
We continue today in the Sermon on the Mount, and come to the last verse of chapter 5. At first I did not intend to preach a sermon on this one verse, but then I changed my mind. I was hesitant to preach on this verse, because it really drives home what we’ve been repeatedly talking about over the last several sermons. And yet it is such a climactic verse at this point in the Sermon on the Mount. I didn’t want us to miss its impact. And I also believe that meditating on this verse can help us to make the important distinction in this sermon between law and gospel. And so today’s sermon will in part be a bit of a review — a chance to look back at this first of the three chapters in the Sermon on the Mount. And yet this will not only be some review, but it will also be a chance to see the import of this climatic call to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect: That we would have this verse impress upon us what it means for us to be perfect.
So then, let’s begin in verse 48 with the word “therefore.” That connects verse 48 with what was said before. It might be tempting to think that the connection is just with the last few verses, verses 43-47. That was the last “saying of old” that Jesus discussed. There Jesus talks about us showing ourselves to be sons of our heavenly Father, and so we could see how that idea would naturally flow into verse 48: We want to show ourselves to be sons of our heavenly father, therefore we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father. Well, I do see a connection there, but it seems that the word “therefore” in verse 48 is there for even more reason as well.
Just remember what we’ve been studying so far. The Sermon on the Mount begins with the beatitudes. They are describing the blessings that come to those who are in Christ’s kingdom. But then right after those beatitudes Jesus tells the people how important the law and righteousness is to his kingdom. He said in verses 17 and 18 that he didn’t come to get rid of the law, but to fulfill it. And then in verse 20 he contrasts this with the lacking righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. He said in verse 20 that no one will enter the kingdom of heaven, unless they have a righteousness better than they have. Jesus then proceeds to give six examples of the failing righteousness and the scribes and Pharisees. He shows in those six examples how the scribes and Pharisees has misinterpreted and/or misapplied the Scriptures. Then comes this climatic call to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. This “therefore” seems to connect then back with verse 20, with verse 20 and all that he says between verse 20 and here. Verse 20 introduced the need for the better righteousness, then he gives six examples of the lacking righteousness, and then he concludes his thinking here with this call for perfection. That’s the standard of righteousness that Jesus is calling them and us to. That’s the standard that is better than that of the scribes and Pharisees. It is the standard of perfection. And it is something heavenly and divine, modeled after the heavenly Father. At this point then in the Sermon on the Mount, verse 48 becomes a turning point. In the remaining two chapters the tone switches. It’s still the basic subject about what it looks like to have a better righteousness than the scribes and the Pharisees, but it’s no longer focused in negative terms to critique their faulty teachings. It’s rather then put in more positive terms describing what Christ’s call to righteousness looks like lived out. Verse 48 serves as this turning point, and a bold description of just the kind of righteousness Jesus says his disciples should seek — perfect, full, complete, holistic, righteousness, of the divine sort.
Let’s then delve into this perfection that Jesus calls us to. When we think of this call to perfection in verse 48, observe right away that this is law. It is not strictly gospel. It’s law. It’s about what you are supposed to be and do. Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect. Three points about this call to perfection come to mind. First, it shows our need to be saved by grace, to find a way to be perfect in this way, even though we are not. This is what the Christian has now already found in the past. Second, it informs how a disciple of Christ is to live. This is important for the present life of the believer. Third, it holds out the final outcome of the Christian — where the Christian will end up by grace in the future. From someone who has already become a Christian then, this represents the past, present, and future, of the Christian’s life. We’ll think about verse 48 then from those three vantage points, this call to be perfect in terms of the past, present, and future for a disciple of Christ. And so to be fair, I’ll be doing more than just explicitly expositing this text right now. I’m going to approach this with a systematic consideration of this idea of us being perfect. I’m drawing in teachings from here, and elsewhere in Matthew, and other parts of the Bible to think more fully about this kind of perfection that we are called to be. And so to that end, we’ll talk about this perfection in terms of the past, present, and future.
Let’s begin with the past. When you come to verse 48, the Christian is someone who has already experienced a past perfecting when they came to put their faith and trust in Christ. I’ll talk about that in a moment, but let’s first slow down and appreciate the impact of verse 48 and this chapter. Here we read in this chapter that there is this standard that is better than the most religious leaders of the day. It’s a standard of perfection. What someone should be wrestling with at this point as they read this, is how can I ever meet this standard? That’s what the law should to do someone at first; it’s the first use of the law. If this is the standard, then who is going to be right before God? Who then can be saved? This is the tension in the Gospel of Matthew at this point. In Matthew’s gospel, as you keep reading, this tension continues to build. It comes to a climax of sorts in Matthew 19:25 when the disciples ask, under a similar confrontation with God’s standard of righteousness, “Who then can be saved?” It’s that response I keep mentioning: Jesus says, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” You see, that’s what verse 48 should do to someone. It should leave them feeling it is an impossible standard for us to meet. How then can any human be perfect so as to meet the standard of Christ’s kingdom? Well, the solution is shown as you keep reading on in the book of Matthew. At the last supper, in Matthew 26:28, Jesus says about the cup, “For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. In other words, the way imperfect sinners can be considered perfect, is through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross that atones for our sins.
And so this is where the Christian has found a way to already meet this standard of perfection. In one sense, a Christian is someone who has already been made perfect like their heavenly father. Now to clarify, I’m talking about our standing with God. I’m talking about our justification. This is of course what these scribes and Pharisees hadn’t found. The New Testament shows how they tried to justify themselves before God. They thought their keeping of the law would make them right before God. To them, Jesus says, that their record is not good enough. The standard is perfection, and that is not something they have merited. This chapter shows that.
Of course, then this justification that we are talking about is by grace. Hebrews 10:14 talks about this grace. It says, “For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.” What I love about that verse, is it puts things in terms of perfection. Christians have already, in the past, been perfected. Keep that in mind whenever you come to read verse 48. Realize that if you try to keep verse 48 in order to be justified, you will fail. That’s because the standard is perfection, specifically the perfection of God. God’s perfect righteousness is the standard. You will never be able to meet that standard of perfection by yourself — for each of us already have a record that’s marred by our personal sin; we all come to verse 48 already imperfect by our sin. Unless your sin is atoned for, you will never be able to measure up to that standard. We’ll just keep missing the mark.
But that’s why it’s about grace. In God’s grace, that Hebrews passage says we’ve been perfected by that one offering. That’s the offering of Jesus Christ on the cross. He was offered for us, for our sin, for our salvation. His offering atones for our sin. It covers up that sin. It obliterates the way we have repeatedly missed the mark in terms of God’s standard of righteousness. As we turn in faith to Christ, we receive this benefit. We are perfected by faith in Christ, in that sense — our record of sin is wiped clean and we are seen by God as righteous. Christ’s righteous record replaces our sinful record. And so, when Jesus calls us to be perfect, we realize that first and foremost this is what we must seek. That perfection that comes to us upon faith in Christ. A perfection that is a pronouncement about our standing before God. In that sense, the true believer has already been perfected — past tense!
But that leads us to the second sense in which we are to think about perfection — that presently we are being made perfect. In other words, when we come to verse 48, and hear this call to be perfect, we should not think that this call has nothing more to do with us after we have been perfected in terms of our justification. The fact that we have been accounted perfect in the eyes of God, the fact that our sins have been covered up, this obviously does not mean that we actually are living perfect lives of righteousness. It is Christ’s call to then as Christians to continue to seek out to actually live a life of perfect righteousness. True, here and now none of us will achieve this. It is not biblical to say that a Christian can reach of a point of perfection in this life, in terms of their personal righteousness. And yet Christ calls us to seek to be perfect, even in terms of our personal righteousness. That’s at the heart of verse 48. This is describing our sanctification. This is another use of this command then in verse 48 — a real call to pursue holiness in our living as Christians. And the standard of what we are to pursue is God’s perfection.
Now let me clarify that this too is a work of God’s grace in our life. A good example of this is in 1 Corinthians 5:10. There Paul talks about how hard he has worked for the gospel, but twice in that verse he clarifies that such was by the grace of God working within him. It is one of those mysteries of Scripture — that God calls us to pursue perfection in terms of our righteousness. As we grow in that righteousness, we realize it was the grace of God at work in our life. Grace to grow us in that righteous living; to bear such fruit in our lives.
And yet, as much as Paul could talk of the grace of God in him to work in such way, this perfection is not complete in this life. Paul himself said so of himself in Philippians 3:12, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” And so we are being perfected presently, by the grace of God, and in light of that, he calls us to pursue this perfection — be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect.
So then, God becomes the model for our righteousness. In this present pursuit of righteousness, we are to model our living after God. What a demand! And yet at the same time, what a glorious goal and pursuit. The Christian does not strive toward mediocrity. The Christian strives for greatness. The greatest of greatness; glory of glories; perfection of perfections! So when Jesus later in this sermon says seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, this is the kind of righteousness he is talking about. Perfect righteousness; perfect in every way, because the model of what this looks like is none other than the righteousness of God. This is what the people in Christ’s kingdom hunger and thirst after — that kind of righteousness. Yes, it is a struggle with our old self. Yes, our current growth in this perfection is not normally linear — you will have ups and downs. But by the grace of God, the true Christian seeks to respond to verse 48 with an earnest seeking to be perfect as God is perfect. That is the sense in which the true believer is being perfected right now — present tense!
The third sense in which we can think about our Christian perfection is in terms of the future. I’m getting at what is often described as our glorification. There will come a time beyond your life in this age, when you are finally perfected in the full. When you die and go to be with the Lord, your perfection will be made complete on that day. Or if you are alive when Christ returns, he will complete it then. Either way, in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, your perfection will be made complete. Then you will actually live out a perfect righteousness. Your perfection will consist not just of Christ’s righteousness imputed or accounted to you; but you will actually be perfect in your own righteous living.
On a side note, an interesting fact about the Greek grammar in verse 48 is that technically it is a future tense. Please don’t misunderstand me — without getting into the reasons, it’s rightly translated as a command here; but it is somewhat ironic that it is literally a future tense, because it’s in the future when this will ultimately be realized. We will be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect.
I love the encouragement of Scripture on this point. Philippians 1:6, Paul says, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus is both the founder and the perfecter of our faith. Paul can say that “to die is gain” because in part of this hope of perfection in glory. John in 1 John 3 speaks of the future day when we will be like Christ, and that he says is why we even seek to purify ourselves even here and now.
And so when we think of verse 48 calling us to perfection, perfect as our heavenly father, we realize that this will be our final outcome. We will be perfect as he is perfect. That image that was marred at the fall will be abundantly restored as we will be perfect as he is. Now, yes, he will still express his perfection in an infinite way, and us in a finite way. God will always still be God, and we will always still be creatures. But we will have a righteousness that is the image or likeness of his perfect righteousness — the finite reflection of his infinite righteousness. If the standard of his righteousness overwhelms us and drives us to find salvation by faith — how amazing is it that we will be perfected in this way.
And so we have been called to perfection. Theologically, we have reviewed how that idea of perfection is realized in the Christian’s life: past, present, and future. In our last main point for today, I’d like to think about how God being our Father, as it acknowledges in this verse, should encourage us. With that note, begin by observing the word “you” in verse 48. As he speaks in this sermon, he is speaking to the visible church. The word “you” is emphatic here. Read this in light of the last few verses. The enemies of God’s people, and the tax collectors, and the Gentiles, they live in a certain way; a worldly way; a way that has a very basic form, but lacking form, of righteousness among men — one that, for example, loves those who love them. But “you” — “you” — live differently. “You” live not like them in their worldly subpar version of righteousness. “You” live with this heavenly, perfect, divine righteousness. This “you” comes to the visible church at Christ’s day. And that means this “you” comes to us today. You, Trinity Presbyterian Church, you, be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect. See yourself in the text.
And yet I emphasize the “you”, to actually focus now on the last part of verse 48. You have a heavenly father. You have God as your heavenly father. As Jesus makes this stunning command of perfection to us, we should be even all the more stunned and simultaneously encouraged that he refers to God as our father. This is the same Jesus who elsewhere tells some of the heretical leaders among the Jews that their father was Satan. But here, he speaks to those who are truly God’s own by faith, and he acknowledges that God is their father.
Let me help you to further see how amazing this is. In this same Sermon on the Mount, talking to the same people, in 7:11, he calls them evil. In other words, they are not perfect like their heavenly father is perfect. They are far from it. They are evil. We are evil. And yet again in 7:11, in the same exact verse where he calls them evil, he again refers to God as their father in heaven. There in 7:11, his point is that we can ask our heavenly Father for good gifts, and know that he will give them to us. Luke 11:13 records Jesus giving a similar teaching, and specifically talks about how the heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to us who ask him. Ask our Father for the Holy Spirit, and he will give it!
Let me try to connect the dots then here. Us evil, imperfect, people, now have a Father in heaven who is perfect. What we’ve talked about today, helps us to realize what this means. Because God has already perfected us in Christ, that then is the basis for God being our father. God’s current perfecting of us is modeled after God as our father. God’s future perfecting of us is the goal and ultimate result of his fatherhood in our lives. And all this should encourage you that he has worked, is working, and will work in our lives. And this is where his call to ask for the Holy Spirit is so central to all of this. Jesus says it’s our Father’s good pleasure to give us of his Spirit. And I love how Paul calls that Spirit in Romans 8 as the Spirit of Adoption. We know God truly as our father, because his spirit on sonship has taken up residence in our hearts. We who are evil have the perfecting spirit of the perfect God living within us. That Spirit drew us to the Father through faith in Christ in the first place, perfecting us already. That spirit bears fruit in our life as he’s teaching us here and now what it means to be a child of God, thus perfecting us currently. And that same Spirit is keeping us in the faith, persevering us, until the day of Christ, when we will go to be with Christ and our Heavenly Father, that same day when he will finish the perfecting in us in the future.
Do not miss then the encouragement that comes in verse 48. It does not say “Be perfect as God is perfect.” That alone would be true enough. But he tells sinners, ” Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Us saved sinners, imperfect as we are, have a Heavenly Father. Us saved sinners, imperfect as we are, have been perfected by grace, and are being perfected by grace, and will be perfectly perfected by grace. Us saved sinners, imperfect as we are, are not left as orphans in this world. We have the Spirit of Adoption, and a Heavenly Father, and are never truly alone in this life.
So then, let us truly strive for this perfection. Let us strive with all that we have. Strive trusting that God will provide for us in the striving. And strive with the things he has equipped you with. Strive while you feast on the Word of your Father. Strive while you lift your prayers and petitions to your Father. Strive as you meditate on the perfections of your Heavenly Father. Strive as you assembly regularly with the other children of your father, to use that gifts of the Father to bless and build up one another. See how the Perfect One is all about our perfecting. Praise be to God.
Copyright © 2014 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.