The Heart of the Law, part 4: Perfect Love

Posted: September 19, 2011 in Matthew

Matthew 5:43-48, “The Heart of the Law, part 4: Perfect Love”

“Practice makes perfect” – or so the saying goes.  That’s true regarding a lot of things: music, sports, math…even medicine (though hopefully the doctor has well achieved perfection before we ever see him/her!).  In a sense, it’s even true regarding our walk with Christ.  Few (if any) people are fully mature believers the moment they turn from their sins & trust Jesus alone for their salvation.  We all have a ways to go & the longer we walk with Christ, the more we can rest assured of His ongoing work in our lives through the work of the Holy Spirit.  Even then, we need to admit that we’ll never achieve a type of “sinless perfection” in this life – at least from the idea of becoming so utterly mature in the things of God that we never make another mistake as long as we live.

Of course, in all of those examples, that perfection (if we can call it that) came gradually as something that was developed over time.  Yet there’s another type of perfection that we need to consider: absolute perfection.  Think about it: perfection that is developed implies that there was at one point an imperfection of some sort.  Absolute perfection speaks of something that has never been imperfect.  A perfect diamond may have been covered in dirt & rock on the outside, but there’s never been a single impurity on the inside.

That absolute perfection is something we can never achieve; but miraculously it’s something that can be given to us.  The work of Jesus Christ on the cross & in the resurrection means that when He gives us His righteousness & He makes us new creations, the perfection that is His becomes ours.  Though we had indeed sinned in the past, in God’s eyes it is as if we never sinned at all.  The righteousness of Jesus makes us absolutely perfect in the sight of God.

When it comes to the law, THAT’s the perfection that the law demands & that’s the perfection that we receive in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Of course, that’s how Jesus sums up what theologians call the “antitheses” – the section in the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus compares the righteous law with the Jewish tradition with the heart of God.  Yet as He gets to this climax of the sermon, He comes to the last antithesis: hatred vs. love.  Jesus had already addressed hatred when speaking of our tendency to commit murder in our heart when we burn with wrath towards one another.  To carry a grudge is the negative response, and we need to be told not to do that.  Yet there is also a positive response: to replace hate with love – and with that comes a promise: that we will show ourselves to be children of the king.

Matthew 5:43–48 (NKJV)
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’

  1. The problem is the Jews got part of this right & part of it wrong.  They quoted the Law right – at least the part of it they wanted to pay attention to.  Leviticus 19:17–18, "(17) ‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. (18) You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD." []  This is the OT equivalent of “love the sinner, hate the sin.”  God does not excuse evil (nor does He ask His people to take a blind eye to it), but while the sin is being dealt with through holiness and righteousness, the person is to be dealt with through love.  A Hebrew may have been offended by someone else, but they were not to keep a grudge nor take vengeance nor hate his brother in his heart.  Ultimately, they were to treat their neighbor as themselves.  As a person loves himself, so ought he love his neighbor.
    1. This is the 2nd greatest commandment! When one of the Pharisees tested Jesus by attempting to trip Him up with the Law, Jesus went straight to the heart of God when He pointed out the greatest commandment: to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. (Mt 22:37)  What’s interesting is that although the Pharisee only asked for the greatest commandment, Jesus also gave him the 2nd greatest commandment & went to Lev 19:18.  Through all of the legalistic loopholes that the Pharisee gave themselves, they may have been able to claim (though wrongly) that they did love the Lord God – yet there’s no way any of them would have ever been able to claim to love their neighbor as themselves.  (Their own tradition directly taught otherwise!)
      1. How true this can be for so many!  Sometimes even Christians have a tendency to get spiritually snobby – where we claim a deep devotion to the Lord, but look down our noses at others.  Jesus points out that in reality, the two go hand-in-hand.  If we’re truly loving God with everything that we have, then we’re going to love our neighbor as well.
    2. This is the new commandment!  The night before Jesus’ arrest, He gave the disciples a new (but yet still old) commandment: to love one another as Jesus has loved us. (Jn 13:34)  The old?  “Love one another.”  The new?  The standard by which we’re to love.  No longer is the standard merely how we love ourselves, but as Jesus Himself loves us.  With one fell swoop, Jesus takes away all our excuses why we might not act in love, but still claim to love since at least we’re “loving” them as we love ourselves. …  Now the standard is Jesus’ love.  The Lord Jesus loved us enough to lay down His life for us while we still sinned against Him & hated God.  That’s how we’re to love one another!
    3. How important is this to a Christian?  It’s so important that the Holy Spirit tucked it throughout the entire New Testament!  It’s in all 4 gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) as the 2nd greatest commandment & the new commandment.  It’s the fulfillment of the Law according to Paul in both Romans & Galatians.  It’s the royal law according to James – 1 Peter tells us to love each other fervently & sincerely – 1 John tells us that our love for one another demonstrates a proof that we’ve been born of God – Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians was that they would abound in love & he went so far to state that he didn’t even need to teach them about it because God Himself taught them about it.  There’s simply no getting away from the idea that Christians are to love one another!  Aside from the cross & resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, it’s the central theme of the entire New Testament! 
      1. At CC Tyler, this is why we say so often we want to be a church that loves God, loves each other, and loves the lost.  To love one another goes to the heart of Christianity as a whole – we dare not leave it out!
  2. The problem was the tradition they tacked onto the Law directly contradicted what the Scripture had said!  The law was love; the tradition was hate.  Notice Lev 19:17 again – “You shall not hate your brother in your heart…”  Although the Pharisees would later quibble of the legal definition of “brother” & “neighbor,” the Law makes it absolutely plain that we are to love other people & NOT hate them.  God made all men in His own image & hatred of our brother is the 1st step to murdering them (Ch 5:22).
    1. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean we’re supposed to be “OK” with whatever someone does to us.  We’re not “OK” with sin & evil – there are certain things the Lord hates, and as His children we hate it too.  What it does mean is that it tells us how we are to deal with sin & evil.  With those who sin against us, we’re to love them so much that we do what it takes to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with them – we’re to pray for them & plead with them that they would turn from their wicked ways & trust Christ in order to live.
  3. Before we start pointing too many fingers at the Pharisees, we need to understand we do the same thing.  How many times do we read the Bible & when we find a point that might bring too much conviction, we start trying to twist & turn & find whatever possible interpretation we can find that would dilute down what the Bible actually says?  To be sure – we don’t want to take a few words from Jesus & make them mean something they aren’t supposed to mean (literally cutting off one’s hand, for example).  But we need to be careful not to go to the other extreme either, by saying since Jesus was being figurative that sin isn’t really a big deal at all.  Jesus used the symbolic language to show exactly how serious sin is!  Likewise when it comes to love & hate.  We understand we need to love those who our sitting beside us in church as our neighbors, but we sometimes tend to take the point of view of the Jews & hate our enemies.  Objection: “I don’t hate anyone!”  Take a personal inventory: how do you feel about people that have a different political opinion than you?  Or a different theology?  Or someone who’s completely lost in their sin, such as a homosexual?  Can we really say we don’t hate “anyone”?   We’re supposed to love!
    1. Keep in mind this is the whole point of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10).  To the Jewish mind, there WERE no “good” Samaritans.  Even to the some of the disciples, the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan. (After the Samaritans refused to receive Jesus, James & John asked for permission to call down fire from heaven – Lk 9:54.  Keep in mind, this was John – the disciple who later wrote the most about love!)  To the modern Israeli, Jesus would likely pick the category of a Palestinian Muslim.  A Samaritan had a false theology, and a hatred of the Jews (which was mutual among the Jewish nation).  Yet that Samaritan showed the very love of God that the Jews had been lacking.
    2. What pagans show more tangible examples of the love of God than some born-again believers?  May we be a people who are known by our love!  That was Jesus’ own desire for the Church. (Jn 13:35)

44 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you,

  1. The oldest surviving manuscripts have a much smaller version of this verse – the NASB says “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Yet the greatest majority of manuscripts have the text as is listed in the NKJV.  The idea obviously doesn’t change one iota between the versions, but the Majority Text certainly goes into greater detail, showing the fullness of what is being said.  Jesus gives 4 responses that directly contradict the tradition of the Jews.
  2. Response #1: love…the heart.  Instead of hating our enemies (as the Jewish tradition taught), we are to love our enemies.  This implies a radical heart change.  The type of love Jesus refers to is a sacrificial love – it’s the same “agape” love that He has for us.  It’s not merely uttering the words “I love you,” but truly changing our heart towards one another – acting in patience, kindness, without envy, without pride, etc., (1 Cor 13:5).
    1. The radical thing is that we would expect to seek to feel/act this way towards our friends – but Jesus specifically commands us to do this with our enemies.  Yet that is how the love of God is going to be demonstrated the greatest. (Bonhoeffer) “Love asks nothing in return, but seeks those who need it.  And who need our love more than those who are consumed with hatred and are utterly devoid of love?  Who in other words deserves our love more than our enemy?  Where is love more glorified than where she dwells in the midst of her enemies?”
  3. Response #2: bless…the mouth.  What is truly in our heart will come bubbling up through our mouths, and one of the ways we deal with our enemies in love is to bless them.  Interestingly enough, our mouths is generally the first way many Christians think it’s OK to work against our enemies.  We’ll curse someone on the road, or talk badly about someone who believes differently than us, or spread rumors under the guise of “prayer requests” that are really meant to tear down & not build up.  Yet instead of speaking badly about someone who speaks badly about us, we’re to use our words to bless them.  Usually people only think of blessing those who are closest to them (family & dearest friends) – and that’s the way we’re supposed to speak about those who would tear us down with their words.
    1. Be careful about the “Southern Exception.”  This isn’t speaking mean about someone & then ending it with “bless his heart.”  Jesus means that we are truly to bless them from OUR hearts.
  4. Response #3: do good…the hands.  Keep in mind that Jesus doesn’t mean that we are to simply say that we love our enemies in our heart & not actually do anything about it.  We are to live as if we love our enemies – and that it shown by our actions.  What would happen if you saw your enemy stuck on the side of the road – would you stop to change their tire & let them use your cell phone?  Remember that Jesus did not simply say that He loves us; He demonstrated it by physically going to the cross for us.  He is our standard.
  5. Response #4: pray…the spirit.  One of the truly sacrificial things we can do for someone is intercede in prayer for them.  That intercession is truly special when it’s made on behalf of someone who has hated you and/or persecuted you for your faith in Christ.  Obviously Jesus isn’t talking about imprecatory prayers (as David often prayed in the psalms), but rather prayers of pleading intercession.  Jesus Himself gives us the example when He prays for those who drove the spikes through His hands & feet: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (Lk 23:34)  [VOM]
    1. (Carson) “One manifestation of love for enemies will be in prayer; praying for an enemy and loving him will prove mutually reinforcing.  The more love, the more prayer; the more prayer, the more love.”
  6. These are all the opposite of human nature.  Typically, we want to respond in kind to how someone treats us.  If they slap us on the cheek, we want to slap them back.  Yet Jesus doesn’t want us to respond according to human nature; He wants us to respond according to HIS nature.  A person who has been born again of the Spirit is a new creation – we have a new nature.  We’ve been transformed by the work of God…  Thus we react differently than everyone else because we’re not supposed to be like everyone else any longer. …

45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

  1. The idea is that our tangible love for our neighbors (including both friends AND enemies) would be tangible evidence of our family relationship with God.  The only way someone can truly show forth the love of God is if he/she has been transformed by the Spirit of God & been adopted by the King.  We’re born of the Spirit…  Our love shows us to be children of the King.
  2. Keep in mind that God Himself sets the example.  The world is full of both people who love AND hate the Lord God Almighty – yet He still allows those who hate Him to live.  He commands the earth to continue to turn on its axis for both saint & sinner & when God waters the earth through the rain, there’s not a distinction between those who love God & hate God. The theological term for this is “common grace.”  There are certain things that God does for every human being, irrespective of their love for their Creator.  We wake up, breathe, experience love in our families, laugh, enjoy the fruit of the earth, etc.  God gives these things to everyone simply because He is God.  He is the common Father of all of mankind, so He gives common gifts to all in mankind;
  3. Question: why doesn’t God simply wipe out those who hate Him?  Why not simply send His rain & blessing on only those in Christ?  Several reasons:
    1. God is just.  Remember that Satan accused God of bribing Job to love Him because of all of the blessings God had given him.  The ensuing trials demonstrated the opposite: Job had faith in God simply because God is God.  But it illustrates that God is just & He doesn’t buy anyone off.  Hurricanes destroy both churches and strip-clubs, and when God spares a city everyone is spared, both sinner & saint.
    2. God is love.  Obviously this goes to the core of Jesus’ commandment.  Why is hatred wrong?  Because the character of God is love.  God loves ALL of His creation.  God loves the born-again Christian in Tyler, TX as much as He does the Buddhist in Shanghai, China.  Remember that we were not always born-again!  We were once lost in our sin – and God loved us even in our lost state.
      1. That’s not to say that God was pleased with us.  After all, we were in rebellion against Him & had we died in our sin, we would have faced God in judgment.  But God still loved us because He is our Father, just like He loves the rest of the world because He is the Father.
    3. God is patient.  Keep in mind that God wants all those who hate Him to come to repentance & be saved!  God’s desire is that all men would be saved & come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4), and God’s patience is demonstrated in the fact that He’s giving every person the same opportunity to come to Christ.  (2 Pet 3:9)
  4. This is the common grace of God towards us.  As His children, we ought to demonstrate it towards one another.

46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?

  1. 1st we show ourselves to be children of God; 2nd we show ourselves to be changed by God.  Those who are born again ought to act differently from the world.  How different are you as a Christian?  If someone compared you with your neighbor down the street, how would your life & attitudes look different from them other than your schedule on Sunday morning?  Understand that the Pharisees could attempt to claim to love one another among the other Pharisees.  They likely prayed for them & helped bear their burdens.  But that didn’t set them apart from the tax collectors in the city.  If the only difference between the Pharisees and the tax collectors was their knowledge of the Bible, that’s not nearly enough.  We certainly need the intellectual knowledge of God, but primarily we need the experiential knowledge of God – and that’s demonstrated through a life that’s been transformed by the Spirit of God.
  2. Vs. 47 shows another difference between the oldest texts & the majority texts.  NU describes the “gentiles,” the MT describes the “tax collectors” again.  To the Jews Jesus was speaking to, there wouldn’t have been much difference.  Granted, Jewish people could work as tax collectors (Matthew being a prime example!), but to the typical resident of Judea, the tax collector was a traitor to his people & no different than a Gentile.
  3. Question: is our salvation based upon our good works as a Christian?  At first glance, it may seem that Jesus is saying that exact thing.  No.  Our salvation is not based upon OUR work; it’s based upon Jesus’ work at the cross.  Yet our reward IS based upon our work.  Jesus said that if we only loved those who love us, we cannot expect a reward – which only underscores the fact that we as believers WILL face a judgment of reward when we see Jesus face-to-face.  And those things that we’ve done in the body while walking with Christ play a crucial role in determining what our reward will (or won’t) be.  [Bema seat – 1 Cor 3:14, 2 Cor 5:10]

48 Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.

  1. Vs. 48 isn’t simply a summary of this example; it’s a summary of this entire section of the Sermon on the Mount.  Keep in mind that Jesus was not preaching 5 different messages; He was preaching one sermon – and this is the statement that wrapped up all the thoughts about showing the heart of God within the law of God.  What made murder wrong?  Because God is life.  What made anger wrong?  Because God is peace.  What made adultery wrong?  God is faithful.  What makes lust wrong?  God is purity.  Lying is wrong because God is truth, etc.  When we put it all together, in showing us the heart of the Law, Jesus is showing us the heart & person of GOD.  God is perfect, thus we are to be perfect as well.
  2. What does it mean to be perfect?  It means all of what Jesus has taught about so far & will continue to teach during the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.  Actually, to the Jew of the 1st century, Jesus’ wording here would have undoubtedly called to mind an earlier commandment from the law of God: Leviticus 19:2, "Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy." []  God had called His people to be completely holy – set apart & dedicated unto Him alone – unlike the rest of the nations around them in order to be a witness to the nations around them.  They were to be a light unto the Gentiles to help them seek God. … The mission hasn’t changed for the disciple of Jesus Christ & a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.  We are to be perfect: perfectly holy & set apart unto God, reflecting the nature of God.  Why?  In order to be a lamp unto the world that we might point people back to the Lord God. (Ch 5:14-16)
  3. Think about this for a moment.  The law does not ask for “good” – it demands absolute perfection.  Yet there’s no possible way any of us can be perfect!   Jesus already told us that our righteousness needed to exceed that of the Pharisees. (vs. 20)
  4. What are we to do?  The only thing we CAN do: fall upon the grace & mercies of our Father. That’s exactly what the law is MEANT to do!  The Pharisees had taken the law, and turned it into so many legalistic pretzel-like interpretations that made it something that someone working very hard could actually achieve.  Jesus rips the heart directly out of that heresy!  The Pharisees (in all their study of the law) had failed to see how the Law of God shows the perfection of God, and there’s utterly no way anyone can achieve that.  It forces us to our knees, begging our Heavenly Father for mercy.  And that’s exactly what God wants all along…  This is what Jesus came to provide for us!  Through His work on the cross & His promises in the resurrection, we can be assured of:
    1. Absolute spiritual perfection in the sight of God because Jesus has justified us.
    2. Ongoing work towards perfection (completion) as Jesus continues to sanctify us through the Holy Spirit and the word of God.
    3. Future promise of physical perfection when we are given glorified bodies and stand in the presence of our Lord & King.
    4. God the Father commands perfection, God the Son provides the means, and God the Spirit provides the power! We need perfection, and that’s exactly what is made possible through the cross!

Conclusion:
Is perfection an impossible standard?  For human beings, yes – for God no.  With God, all things are possible!  The fact that Jesus calls us to an impossible standard means that it is Jesus is the one who makes it possible for us.  To be perfect means that show forth the perfection of God – the children of God show the character of our Heavenly Father.  In what way is this best demonstrated?  The command to love.

To love our enemies is not merely a nice ideal; it’s the very thing that is the basis of our salvation.  Understand, it’s been done already – Jesus did it when He died upon the cross.  Romans 5:6–8, "(6) For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. (7) For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. (8) But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." []  We weren’t merely outside of God’s will before we came to faith in Christ (though that would have been bad enough), we were God’s enemies!  And what did Jesus do?  He loved us from His heart – He blessed us with His lips – He did good among those who hated Him – He prayed for those who killed Him.  Truly Jesus loved us in every perfect way, paving the way for our salvation unto the glory of God.

Since Jesus loved us like that, how could we possibly withhold that same love from others?  Obviously the only possible response is to love one another as He loved us (as Jesus Himself commanded us to do).  That’s not to say that it will be easy.  We label people as “enemies” for a reason.  Yet this is exactly what we are commanded to do by Christ, and empowered to do by the Holy Spirit.  He calls us to love perfectly – may we follow His example in joy.

Let me challenge you today: take a few moments & consider those whom you might consider as enemies.  Think of those for whom you might harbor hatred in your hearts.  Ask God to bring conviction to your spirit & grant you a heart like Jesus to them.  Ask God to help you see those people through His eyes.  And then while you’re praying for yourself, pray also for them.  Let your heart break for them in their need for the gospel & pray that they may one day join you as a brother or a sister in the Lord.  (If your enemy is a Christian, you’ve got even MORE reason to intercede for them in order that you would be reconciled!)

Maybe you’re here today & you’ve never known the perfect love of God because you’ve never experienced it for yourself.  God does indeed love you – He’s already shown it through His common grace.  The fact you exist at all means that God loves you – He knit you together in your mother’s womb.  Yet His standard to live eternally in His love is perfection, and none of us are perfect.  The very word “sin” means that we’ve missed the mark (as in archery) – we’ve fallen short of perfection in every way.  (Hate, lust, lying, vengeance, etc.)  Our failings mean that we’ve sinned & all sin must be judged by our perfect God & found guilty.  The good news is that Jesus has taken your guilt & taken your punishment already when He went to the cross.  The proof that our sin can be forgiven is found in the empty tomb.  Turn to Jesus in faith today, humbly surrendering your life to Him. 

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