It’s sometimes tough to begin a semester and read in the syllabus what the professor expects of you. And we have a similar experience in reading the New Testament. There is some rather intimidating news in the six chapters Paul mails to his fledgling Christian friends living in Ephesus. He tells us that God chose us before Creation Week to be His adopted children, and to be perfect and blameless. We’re supposed to grow into great wisdom; we’re supposed to shed our sins and be alive in Christ. We’re supposed to do good works, which is actually the reason God even made us in the first place. We’re supposed to experience wonderful unity with all sorts of people, including enemies and people very different from ourselves. We’re expected to be humble, gentle, patient, forgiving, mature in our doctrinal understanding, solid in our convictions, unshakable in our loyalty. We’re supposed to put away lust, reject corruption, not let the sun go down on our anger. God’s plan is for us to have zero sexual immorality, no off-color jokes, no conversations in bad taste. We’re supposed to have fantastic marriages and be wonderful parents. Finally, we’re supposed to put on the whole armor of God.
How do you feel? There’s the list. When God makes up the report card at the end of each year, this is what He goes by. What kind of GPA could you and I expect? By the way, all of these things are supposed to be done to perfection. Ephesians 4:12 says in the King James that we are given teachers and prophets and the Holy Spirit for what purpose? For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.
There’s a cute story about a young man many decades ago who was thinking about being a preacher when he grew up. So as he went to Bible college classes, he worked up several really good sermons and practiced by delivering them to the cows and sheep on the farm. One evening the local pastor decided to give him a shot at prayer meeting. Bostwick Baptist Church. There were about 40 people present, mostly farmers and simple country folk, watching with curiosity to see their fellow local yokel get up and share from God’s Word. This young man got up, terrified, clammy palms, perspiration streaming from every pore, and launched into his sermon. But he was so nervous that within seconds, it seemed, it was already over. So he whipped out the second one too. True story: he blasted through all four of his sermons in a total of eight minutes. I don’t know if they had any thematic connection or not, but he just strung them together with theological baling wire. He finished #4, tucked them all away, sat back down, and all the people went: What was that? It was like trying to get a drink from a fire hydrant: four full-length sermons in eight minutes. And that happens to have been the preaching debut of a young man named Billy Frank Graham.
Now, what’s my point? As a pulpiteer, young Billy Graham had an inauspicious start. And over the years, he would be the first to say that he has made mistakes in his career. Just a few years ago, there were some White House tape transcripts revealed that had Graham talking in the White House with President Nixon and concurring with him in some rather anti-Semitic remarks. And Pastor Graham was just hugely embarrassed and ashamed. “I don’t know why I did that,” he confessed. “What was I thinking? I didn’t truly feel that way, but I guess, being in the Oval Office, I wanted to please. I wanted to go along and be accepted by the President.” He offered to crawl on his knees to speak to Jewish leaders and beg their forgiveness. But here is a man who, over the course of some 70 years of ministry, has made mistakes but also clearly tried to be faithful to God. All of you are astute enough to know that I have demonstrated flaws, and so did the pastor who served here before me.
Here’s a question: would we say that most gospel ministers have been faithful to God in the same spirit as Noah? Noah preached about the flood for 120 years, and Christian leaders like Graham have put in more than half that time. Here’s why I make the comparison. How does the Bible describe Noah? In the King James we find his resumé: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God (Genesis 6:9). “Noah was perfect,” says the Bible. The NIV: Righteous and blameless. The Clear Word: A good man, one who had total confidence in God.
Now, some of you who have good memories going back to Adventist elementary school probably remember a less-than-uplifting story happening on the muddy back side of the flood. This perfect man, this blameless paragon of virtue, went on a drinking binge one day and made a fool of himself, staggering around intoxicated and undressed. He committed a grievous sin and yet the Bible tells us he was a perfect and blameless kind of man.
If you want to read some colorful tales, stagger through the books of First and Second Kings. You talk about people messing up! There was just one bad, disastrous king after another. And of course, God’s people were living in two parallel kingdoms: Israel and Judah. Sometimes both empires had wicked kings simultaneously; they would almost get together and have sinning contests.
But in I Kings 15:4, Judah finally had a king named Asa come along. And he was a good guy. In the King James: Asa’s heart was perfect with the Lord all his days.
Now, what did he do that was good? The land was rife with heathen practices and temple prostitutes: both male and female. King Asa organized a campaign and got the whores out of there; he drove them to cover. There were idols on every corner; he got rid of them. Baal and Asherah were fertility gods whose worship was extremely lascivious; he got rid of the Asherah poles which dotted the landscape.
However, the worship places themselves—the groves and temples—somehow he didn’t succeed in getting those destroyed. Whether it was a lack of political will or just too big an agenda item, we don’t know. But on a scale of one through ten, he cleaned up Judah maybe to a “seven.”
And yet, the Bible tells us: “This man had a perfect heart.” Why? Because his heart was in the right place. He wanted to serve God; he wanted to take Judah toward a new loyalty.
I made a discovery earlier in this same chapter: I Kings 15. Before Asa, Judah had a king named Abijah, who was not described as “perfect.” He sat on the throne for just three years and committed many sins, just like his fathers. But notice verse 3: His heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his forefather had been. And we say: King David? What about him sleeping with Bathsheba and then murdering her husband? What about all the blood feuds he was involved in? What about his conducting a census of Israel—which was essentially a statement of “no confidence” in God’s protecting power, and which caused God to destroy 70,000 people
Those were heartbreaking transgressions. But the text notes make this point: “Although David fell into grievous sin, his heart was never divided between serving the Lord and serving the nature deities of the Canaanites.” So it appears that the Bible uses the word “perfect” as a concept dealing more with attitudes and the direction of the soul than it does day-to-day performance.
I believe it’s plain from the Bible’s many statements that, first, perfection is not the basis of our salvation, of our home in heaven. We will not be saved because we’re perfect, or two-thirds of the way to being perfect. If any kind of absolute perfection is demanded of us fallen sinners, then salvation is not a free gift. You don’t put qualifications on gifts; otherwise, they are not gifts but transactions. The perfection of Jesus—not our perfection—is going to be our passport to heaven. There won’t be a single person in heaven who can truthfully say, “I’m here because of how well I did in life.” Instead we’re going to testify through all eternity: “I’m here because of how well Jesus did on the cross.”
The second point is that we still do aim for perfection. Our goal in this Christian life is always a 4.0, not a 1.0. Perfection is a positive and wonderful goal to strive for, not a negative thing to shun. It is not a requirement but an invitation. There’s a wonderful prayer expressed by Jesus in John 17, and He says this on behalf of His followers: I in them, and Thou [the Father] in Me, that they may be made perfect in one.
At the very end of Paul’s second letter to His Christian friends in Corinth, he gives them this challenge: Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect; be of good comfort, be of one mind.
Does the idea of aiming for perfection make us nervous? No! What else would we aim for? Would we aim for imperfection? Of course not. In spiritual golf, we aim at the pin, not the water or the sand trap. Now, if my home in heaven depended on my golf score, on never going into the water, if your home in heaven depended on how well you succeed in obedience day by day here on earth, that would be a serious worry. But we get into heaven based on Jesus’ golf score, not ours.
Now, there’s a foundational principle regarding all that the Bible says about perfection, and we discover it when we think about the checkered service of Billy Graham, the up-and-down performance of Noah, the R-rated dedication of King David, the partial victories of King Asa. Most of the time, it’s going to be in the King James Version of the Bible where we find the command to be perfect. Now, I’m not saying we should avoid the concept as being archaic, or not try to obey God’s law because we find a friendlier version of the Bible down at the Christian bookstore. But let’s do a little bit of side-by-side comparing and see if we can comprehend heaven’s broader principles when it gives us this command.
Here is Ephesians 4:13 in the King James: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a PERFECT man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of God. That we henceforth be no more children. Obviously we would embrace these goals. We want unity, we want to know more and more about Jesus, we want to be perfect people, and while we want to be childlike in our faith, we don’t want to be childish in our maturity or obedience.
Now here’s the same verse in the NIV: Until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become MATURE, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of God. Then we will no longer be infants.
Over and over, we make this heartening discovery: when the Bible challenges us to be perfect, it’s essentially talking about loyalty and about growing up. Becoming mature in Jesus.
Billy Graham went from those immature, babbling, four-sermons-in-eight-minutes beginnings, and finally ended up sharing Jesus in Madison Square Garden, speaking before kings and prime ministers and presidents. He ended up writing books that were mature and thoughtful.
And what this idea of perfect / mature means for us is to simply grow up as Christian men and women. Going from shallow devotions to deeper ones, from shorter prayers to more in-depth times of worship, from casual praise to really focused singing and reflecting. Taking it to the next level.
For many of you worshiping here today, your partnership with this special church has involved a growing-up process for you. There was a time when it might have been easy to come to this place because of the social scene. You met a life partner here; social events gave you a chance to mingle and broaden your circle of contacts. Now you’re a married person with one or two small children. And the time comes when you have to support a body of believers less for the fringe benefits, the fun, the Saturday nights . . . and more for the simple reality that you have become a mature disciple of Jesus Christ, and you are passionate about the idea that He will have healthy churches in every community, with this particular one being yours.
A film a few years ago, entitled Invincible, has a young man from Philadelphia, a nobody, making it onto the Eagles football team just from down on the street corner. And the point of the film is that it took hard work, sacrifice, pain, struggling, determination, exercise for him to succeed at that level. There were open community tryouts, and one guy, weighing 350 pounds with a huge beer belly and no training or muscles, wearing a comic, superhero green cape, came to camp and made a fool of himself. But mature Christian life is going to involve hard moments and discipline and sacrifice and washing the feet of others.
Paul makes an interesting confession in his letter to the Philippians, chapter 3. After writing about his deep desire to know nothing except Jesus, to know the power of His resurrection, he admits in verse 12: Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect. I’m not there yet. I have a ways to go. I aim for the pin but still hit the water hazards a lot of the time. But then he says: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. So far so good, I think. But we struggle with verse 15: Let us therefore, as many as BE perfect, be thus minded.
And for a moment we scratch our heads. Paul is saying to us: “I’m not perfect yet, but for those of you who are, here’s the goal: knowing Jesus intimately. Full surrender”? But here’s the NIV: All of us who are MATURE should take such a view of things. The Clear Word, which is a paraphrase: Those who are spiritually MATURE should all participate in this race.
So this is very encouraging news. When the Bible speaks about perfection, it is essentially calling us to unity, to an increased knowledge of Jesus, and then especially to maturity. Growing up. Going from shallow to deep. Getting to where we are settled in our faith and not blown off course by every wind of doctrine or discouragement to come along. We might say: going from first love to steady love.
I heard about a kid who came back to work one afternoon after a tumultuous lunch, and the boss asked: “What’s the matter? You look all beat up.” And the teenager responded: “Oh, man, it’s me and my girlfriend. We’re busted up for sure now.” The boss said: “That’s no big deal. You two have broken up before. Lots of times.” And the kid replied: “Yeah, but this is only the second time where we’ve broken up for good.” But even if God never puts us through a Job-like valley of death, He is looking for us to grow into the experience where we make up our minds that we are with heaven for the long haul, that we will never, ever again cast our gaze upon false gods.
One more question: how does this happen in our lives? How does maturity take place?
Have you ever needed a new muffler for your car? You get out the yellow pages and find a place called Kenny’s Discount Muffler House: $79. While You Wait! All major credit cards accepted.
You drive down to the place thinking: $79. This is going to hurt to the tune of $79. I don’t like that, but I can handle it. Well, the man is very nice. He puts your car up on the hoist, looks at it, and then goes tsk tsk tsk with his tongue. “What’s the matter?” you ask. And he tells you that you really need to get the muffler and the pipe and the extender and the joints all done at once. In fact, that’s the only way they sell them. The muffler is $79, like the ad said, but the entire package is $232 out the door. Oh, man. It seem like false advertising to offer a $79 part that you can’t get as one piece, but that is the package.
As you’re wondering if maybe you can get an advance on your paycheck, the man takes a closer look and says to you: “Actually, your brakes are bad too. And your struts are thrashed. Your universal joint is about 50 miles away from killing your whole family in an eight-car pileup. More realistically, we’re talking about $1,300. Maybe a bit more if I replace the windshield wipers and the seats and the engine.”
Well, obviously, you freak out. You shout at him: “I came in here thinking $79, and you have me taking out a home equity line of credit. I can’t emotionally go from $79 to $1,300 in one morning.”
But here’s my point. God says to us: This needs fixing and so does that. The brakes are bad; the muffler needs replacing. Your quick temper causes hurt to the body of Christ; your vocabulary is sometimes a bad influence. Just like all My other children, you tend to be greedy and selfish. You find it hard to give me any tithe or a seventh day of rest.
However, God then makes us an offer: Let ME do these things in your life. You don’t pay the bill; I pay the bill. That’s why you go to “Kenny’s” Muffler House . . . because your own father is Kenny. And he lovingly and generously points to things that need fixing and then offers to dig in and pay for the work himself.
C. S. Lewis writes how, when he was a little boy, he would sometimes lay in bed at night with a bad toothache. And I mean, really throbbing. Now, he knew if he got up he could go to his mom and get some aspirin or ointment which would temporarily take away the pain. So why didn’t he go? He tells us in a Mere Christianity chapter entitled “Count the Cost.”
“I did not go to my mother,” he writes, “at least, not till the pain became very bad. And the reason I did not go was this. I did not doubt she would give me the aspirin; but I knew she would also do something else. I knew she would take me to the dentist next morning. I could not get what I wanted out of her without getting something more, which I did not want. I wanted immediate relief from pain: but I could not get it without having my teeth set permanently right. And I knew those dentists; I knew they started fiddling about with all sort of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. They would not let sleeping dogs lie; if you gave them an inch they took an ell.” Which is a British way of saying “yard.”
Now, God looks at me in my struggles, my immaturity, my lapses, the difficulty I have in being humble or focused. And He says to me in Matthew 5:48: Be ye therefore perfect. I expect you to get all the way up to perfect. Every single rattle and squeak in the car has got to go; every cavity has got to be filled.
But we read in I John 1:9: If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and HE will cleanse us from all unrighteousness. He will make us strong and healthy and mature. He will take us by the hand and make us into pillars. Whatever destination perfection is, however the Bible defines it, it’s God’s plan to take us there Himself.
Notice the lead-in paragraph to this chapter by Lewis, before he gets into the toothache dilemma. “I find a good many people,” he writes, “have been bothered by what I said in the last chapter about Our Lord’s words, ‘Be ye perfect.’ Some people seem to think this means ‘Unless you are perfect, I will not help you’; and as we cannot be perfect, then, if He meant that, our position is hopeless. But I do not think He did mean that. I think He meant ‘The only help I will give is help to become perfect. You may want something less: but I will give you nothing less.’”
What do you think about that? And we link God’s promise about cleansing us from unrighteousness, found in I John 1:9, with this guarantee over in Hebrews 13:20, 21: Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, MAKE you perfect in every good work to do His will – this is King James English – working IN you that which is well-pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ. Again, in the NIV, where it says “make you perfect,” the translators render it this way: Equip you with everything good for doing His will.
I believe this is an entirely biblical principle: “Perfection” means that we grow up, becoming more mature in Jesus. And however the Bible describes it, it’s always for the purpose of honoring God’s kingdom, not earning a place in that kingdom. What’s more, our perfection is God’s business; He makes it happen in His way, according to His timing and His timetable. Our part is to cooperate and be willing to have Him do the work. Our part is to put ourselves in circumstances where it can happen. We do need to present ourselves at the front door of the body shop.
From where I stand, I can sense you with your rapidly growing children. I’ve been there too; believe me, I empathize with the unique challenges you’re facing in this year of tumult. I know how busy and tired and stressed you are. But you’re getting to the point of tennis lessons, and music lessons, and math assignments and social studies posters and grades. You have a parent’s desire for your child to do well, to enjoy success, to be happy. You don’t want high grades so that they can qualify to be your children; you want high grades for them because they already are your children, and together you are building a heavenly kingdom.
Lewis closes his chapter with this poignant bit of encouragement. “The practical upshot is this. On the one hand, God’s demand for perfection need not discourage you in the least in your present attempts to be good, or even in your present failures. Each time you fall He will pick you up again. And He knows perfectly well that your own efforts are never going to bring you anywhere near perfection. On the other hand, you must realize from the outset that the goal towards which He is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, can prevent Him from taking you to that goal. That is what you are in for.”
Please do me a favor right now for a quiet moment before we close. Picture something new for me—and it’s not a new car with a shiny muffler, or a new mouth full of straight, cavity-free teeth autographed by one of our dentists. But a new YOU—the perfect, mature, holy you who will someday live in God’s kingdom. That’s right. If you’ve given your life to Jesus Christ, man, you’re going to be there. But how? As the new you. Possessing a loyalty that is as sturdy as the Rocky Mountains, a love that never waxes cold. Perfect in body and perfect in soul.
And you won’t be perfect simply because you stopped doing bad things and saying bad words. No, you’ll be restored to the Eden model; you’ll be perfect in the ways that Adam and Eve were before the fall. You’ll be living completely up to the divine potential God always had in mind for you.
Can you picture that you? It’s rather impossible, isn’t it? But this is where God is going to take us. He’s going to make us perfect—and by His definition, which is infinitely greater and grander than the most well-behaved church saint we know down here on Planet Earth.
C. S. Lewis just can’t help but add one line to his little essay about sore teeth and a determined God: “We have not yet had the slightest notion of the tremendous thing He means to make of us.” Shall we pray?
Lord, We know we’re like children, and we’re thankful that You seem to love children in their frailty and with their faults. But please take us by the hand and lead us to Eden; make us adult, mature citizens of that perfect land. Help us to cooperate with Your loving and gentle reclamation project. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Submitted by David B. Smith. Better Sermons © 2005-2008. Click here for usage guidelines.