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Did He Say Perfect?

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Matthew 5:48

How many of you have read that verse and thought, well, I’m toast. How could anyone be as perfect as God? If that is what Jesus really meant, then there is no hope. We are all toast. Perhaps there is another way to see Jesus’ words. And I am not talking about making them mean something other than what they say. This is not some liberal ploy to have the words mean nothing. Perfection is the subject, and it is one that we have addressed before.

In Hebrews 5:5 – 11 we read about the perfection of Jesus Christ. He already possessed sinless perfection. But in some way, he became perfect in suffering. The English word perfection is used in these places to translate the Greek word τέλειος. This is the root word for teleology. That is the science of final meaning. To quote Wikipedia: “A teleology is any philosophical account which holds that final causes exist in nature, meaning that design and purpose analogous to that found in human actions are inherent also in the rest of nature. The word comes from the Greek τέλος - telos, root: τελε-, "end, purpose." Teleology was explored by Plato and Aristotle, by Saint Anselm around 1000 AD, and later by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment. It was fundamental to the speculative philosophy of Hegel.” Hegel has been incredibly important to modern thought, down to the difference between life and death for many innocent souls.

At its foundation τέλος meant the root of a thing; its end purpose. Jesus was destined to be perfected as a sacrifice after obedience, so he “learned” obedience and became perfect in his obedience. So we should think that the τέλος of God, his very perfection, might be held in something other than sinlessness. Jesus possessed sinlessness from before his birth, indeed from all eternity. So his perfection could have nothing to do with his sin: he possessed none. But in some sense he was less than perfect until he learned obedience in extremis, to use the Latin phrase.

The τέλος of God is found in several ways. The principle one would the plan that he has for humanity. Does the item in question match with his plan? Then we are talking perfection. You can see pretty quickly that sinless perfection is not necessary at every point in this situation. And the point is not that we want to brush aside sin. The point is rather that our sinful natures can accomplish the perfection of God because of his character, not ours. And ultimately, sinless perfection will be ours, for that is part of the τέλος of God for us.

Jesus’ words in Matthew are far removed from being hopeless. I admit that they are a challenge, especially given our situation today.

Last week, we saw that Jesus was teaching his disciples the reality of the Kingdom of God as it related to others. It is far too easy to put on a good show, pretending to follow the commandments, while we are not that interested in what was commanded. We would never openly think of killing someone, but there are quite a few out there who would qualify as fools by any objective standard. We concentrate on the surfaces issues of faithfulness and think that we have covered the major points. Law works on a number of levels, and when we get picky about when and how we are obedient, we may be fooling ourselves about the reality of our obedience.

Nowhere is that idea better to be seen than in the way that we treat those who mistreat us, the subject of our Gospel reading this morning. From the beginning, I want to make it clear that Jesus is not a pacifist. Even if he was, I do not think you could prove it from this passage. The terms he uses are specific to the context in which he is setting them. Civil society in the first century did not look much like what we experience today.

The enemies of God have long used the phrase “an eye for an eye” to illustrate how blood thirsty God is. What they fail to see is that this was a limit placed on the judges for what they could exact in justice for a criminal case. It was designed to get individuals out of the revenge business. Paul says much the same thing in Romans 13: the state carries the sword.

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