Sunday, May 7, 2017

Perfect


In our two Bible studies, we are working our way through Ephesians 4. At a recent study, we were looking at this verse.

until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, Ephesians 4:13

Though we have moved on in Ephesians 4 I found myself coming back to one particular word here: mature. And I was thinking, what exactly is that? What is Christian maturity? So, I did some study on this and came up with this morning’s sermon. We’re going to look at what it means to be mature.


Now, I think that you can guess where I’m going to start. I’m going to talk about a definition. But I’m not going to talk about the definition of the English word ‘mature’. Instead, I’m going to talk about the Greek word that is translated as ‘mature’. This word is actually elsewhere translated as ‘perfect’. That’s really what it means. Christian maturity is about being perfect.

Now, that can be jarring. ‘We’re supposed to be perfect? Are you kidding? That’s impossible. I could never become perfect!’ Well, take a breath. Let’s work to understand this word.

The key idea of the word ‘perfect’ is simply about being complete. It’s about fully matching the ideal instead of only being partially there. And when you come to see that I think that you will understand why our translation in Ephesians 4 rendered it ‘mature’. But there is a different feel when we use the word ‘perfect’ instead of the word ‘mature’. So, wherever this Greek word shows up in the various Scriptures that I will be reading to you, I will always render it as ‘perfect’.

So, let’s start with this. Jesus calls those who would be His disciples to be perfect. Remember how He said this to the rich, young ruler.

If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. Matthew 19:21

And He says this to all His disciples.

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:48

Then, according to what we see in the New Testament letters, the goal of the ministry of pastors is all about getting the people of God to perfection. Here are a few examples. First, from Paul.

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. Colossians 1:28

Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God. Colossians 4:12

And then, Hebrews has this.

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to perfection… Hebrews 6:1

So, being perfect is something that we are to be working toward. It’s a call to all of us from Jesus, and it’s the goal of pastoral ministry.

Now, it makes sense that Jesus requires this perfection of us because it was required of Him. That is, it was something that He also had to work toward. These verses are from Hebrews.

For it was fitting that [God], for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation [Jesus] perfect through suffering. Hebrews 2:10

And being made perfect, [Jesus] became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him…  Hebrews 5:9

Jesus also had an ideal that He was called to match, that He needed to attain. And it is fortunate for our sakes that He did match that ideal.

So, my first point is simply this. We are called to become perfect, to completely match the ideal that God has for us. And though that might make you feel a little uncomfortable, it’s what Jesus calls you to.

Now, where we go from here should be obvious. How do we do this? How do we become perfect?

I think that the first step is simply this: to accept that this is, in fact, our goal. Jesus really does call us to be perfect.

Doing this is important because it is far too easy for us to settle. It’s far too easy for us to look at our imperfect selves and say, ‘That’s good enough’. And we even justify our answer. ‘Hey, nobody’s perfect.’ But do you see the danger in that? When we opt for that kind of answer, we ignore Jesus’ call. We redefine His goal for us. And we coast.

Now, what’s a good word to describe this kind of attitude? How about ‘disobedience’? Jesus calls us to become perfect. We need to obey that call. And when we accept the fact that this really is what we are called to become, it provides the motivation that we need to work at it.

Now, of course, there is a problem. And the problem is reality. There is no way that we can work at this and become perfect. We know that, try as we may, we can’t make that happen. It’s important that we come to this conclusion. It’s as we understand reality, as we understand our weakness, that the Gospel becomes real.

It’s at this point that we grasp our need of the Spirit. Any ability to obey Jesus’ call to become perfect, any progress to that goal, only comes by the Spirit. It is when we see that that we can have hope. That’s when progress can happen.

So, we need the Spirit to do His work in us. What does that mean? How does He do that? What is required of us for Him to do this work? Let’s go back to Ephesians 4.13, where we started. Let me read again that verse but with a little more context.

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to perfect manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ… Ephesians 4:11-13

Paul talks about our attaining perfect manhood in the context of the ministry of the Church. That’s why he talks about Jesus’ gifts to the Church: apostles, prophets, evangelists and shepherdteachers. The Spirit uses the ministry of the Church - the preaching and teaching of the Word, the sacraments and prayer - to do His work of making us perfect. It seems to me that this is more important than what is commonly understood.

But that’s not all that the Spirit uses. What’s the point of what those leaders of the Church do? It’s ‘to equip the saints for the work of ministry’. What’s that about?

Something that Moses said is helpful here. In talking about God’s commands Moses said to Israel,

You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. Deuteronomy 6:7

This actually matches what Paul wrote in that section of Ephesians 4 that I read to you.

Here, we have the element of teaching God’s commands just as in Ephesians 4. But then there is also talking about them. Moses calls for the people of God to discuss among themselves these commands from God that are being taught. And whatever else fits into the saints’ work of ministry, surely this is a part of it.

So, the Spirit uses the teaching ministry of the Church and your talking together about the things of God. The Spirit uses these two tools so that we can become perfect.

Now, the teaching part is primarily on me as your pastor. But the talking part is primarily on all of you. The Spirit will use your words to perfect the other people in this room.

But be aware that the Spirit can do that only if you are, in fact, discussing the things of God with each other.

Now, there are some obstacles to this. If your experience is anything like mine has been, there can be a certain social discomfort when it comes to bringing up some spiritual topic in a conversation. It can feel weird. As a result, you don’t talk about such things. What has made the difference for me has been my getting to the point of caring more for the person I’m talking to than being afraid of what he or she might think of me. So, if talking about what the Father has been doing in your life is hard for you, I would suggest that you pray for a greater love for the other people here. That’s what made the difference for me.

So, if I may say it this way, the Spirit uses the teaching ministry of the Church and the talking ministry of the saints in order to make us all perfect.

Now, there is one more thing that I need to touch on here. When I mention Jesus’ call to become perfect, you just might tell yourself that since you certainly aren’t perfect, you need to push yourself to do that. But be careful. The solution for any failure here is not for you to become driven. Being driven is rooted in fear. And that’s not good.

So, some more Scripture that deals with that. Here’s the first.

For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. Hebrews 10:14

There is a sense in which we can say that we have already been perfected. This is true even though we still need to be sanctified. The point here is about how we have been made acceptable to the Father through Jesus. This is about our justification. So, no one should be stressed and driven when it comes to the call to become perfect. You are already accepted by the Father because of what Jesus has done on your behalf. Believe it. It’s the Gospel.

Now, you certainly are to work at obeying Jesus’ call to become perfect, and you are to work at that very diligently. But you don’t work at it because you think that the Father won’t like you until you have completed the task, until you have become perfect. If you think that way, every time you fail to make progress, you will be overwhelmed, convinced that the Father must hate you, or something like that. Don’t go down that path. Believe the Gospel that teaches that you are already fully accepted by the Father - and then get to work.

And then, another Scripture.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect…  Hebrews 12:22-23

The day will come, once you are finished with this life, that you will join the spirits of the righteous who have been made perfect. The Spirit will do His work in your life and complete it so that you also will match completely the ideal that God has established. So, your efforts toward this goal in the here and now are not in vain. They will be successful. By the power of the Spirit, you will become perfect. Believing this fact will encourage you to work really hard to obey Jesus’ call.

We are called to become perfect. That’s what being a mature Christian is all about. There are obstacles to our achieving that goal. But, by the grace of God, we will get there.

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