“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).
The Sermon on the Mount is one of the main sections of Scripture that non-believers go to to argue that Jesus only taught peace, love, and tolerance. Their opinion of Jesus seems to revolve around the idea that he will welcome all people into the family of God no matter who they are, what they have done, and what stance they take toward him. But I wonder how many of those non-believers have actually read the Sermon on the Mount.
Consider what Jesus says in Matthew 5:43-48. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Hmm… That’s pretty strong. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Earlier in Matthew 5:26, he said “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” I could go on and on describing the high standard that Jesus puts before his listeners in Matthew 5, 6, and 7. Jesus preaches and teaches love, but he absolutely presents a required standard for us to hold ourselves up against. William Farley says, “The standard for entrance into God’s kingdom is perfection!”
What do we do with Jesus’ teaching? How do we assess our own hearts and lives in light of Jesus’ high standard? How should this teaching inform our relationships with others? If we misunderstand Jesus’ purpose in placing this high standard on us, we will conclude that it is our responsibility to measure up, and that it is our responsibility to make sure that other people measure up, so we take it upon ourselves to play the moral police in their lives. But Jesus’ purpose in saying these things in the Sermon on the Mount was to make sure we all see that we cannot measure up. Plain and simple, we are unable to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.
This is where one of Jesus’ main purposes comes into view. Jesus lived on earth, perfectly obeying God’s law, rising to the standard that he himself set. He was perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. His righteousness did exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. He was tempted as we are, yet he was without sin. He is now able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses. As a result of Jesus’ obedience to the law, he can be the one to go to the cross instead of us. We can receive his righteousness in exchange for our sinfulness. We can be forgiven through Christ’s active obedience. This was precisely why Paul said, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14). We have nothing to boast of. Our attempts at measuring up to God’s standard leave us falling far short. Our only boast is truly in Christ and his work in this life and on the cross in our place!