“You will be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
“You will be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
Are they threat or promise? Marching order or guarantee? Something we are to do or something God in Christ has done? Are they Law or Gospel?
You will be holy. Holy. Not pretty good or basically decent. Holy in the way the Lord your God is holy. You will be perfect. Perfect. Not trying hard, not making good progress, not 95 on a scale of 100. Perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. If these are the kingdom standards, are you able to rise up to meet them? Jesus’ last two “but I say to you” sayings should put that notion to rest.
You’ve heard it said, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” It was the law of retaliation. It wasn’t, as some supposed and still do today, that it entitled you to your pound of flesh. It set a limit on retaliation. You could not exact more than was taken from you. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” You could take your pound of flesh but not an ounce more. Retaliation could not become revenge. You were not entitled to escalate a conflict. All well and good.
But Jesus takes this to a whole new level. Don’t even take what you’re entitled to. Don’t even resist one who is evil. If someone slaps you on one cheek, which was an incredible insult in Jesus’ day, offer him the other one too. If someone tries to sue the shirt off your back, give him your coat as well. If someone forces you to walk a mile, walk two. Give to beggar and borrower alike.
Oh, and be holy as the Lord, your God is holy. And perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.
How’s the holiness going? How are you doing on that perfection program? 60 out of 100. Eighty perhaps. When someone cuts you off, you just let him in with a smile on your face, right? When someone strikes you, you offer no resistance; rather you invite him to strike you again for good measure, right? You’d certainly offer to settle with someone who is suing you for twice what they are asking, right? And you’re always willing to go out of your way for someone. And beggars and borrowers always find something with you, don’t they?
Be holy as the Lord your God is holy. Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.
Jesus offered His cheek to His smiters. His back to those who whipped. He carried His cross down the lonely road of sorrows. He walked the extra mile with His enemies. He gave His tunic to those who gambled for it. He took no revenge on those who falsely accused him. Instead, He prayed for them. “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.” He gave to those who begged of Him. He still does. He is holy as the Lord is holy. He is perfect as His Father in heaven is perfect.
You’ve heard it said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” which seems terribly reasonable and even doable. Love those close to you – your family, your countrymen, the people of your community. And hate your enemy – those who would enslave or persecute you. In fact, if you have a chance, kill them. They’re the enemy after all. They deserve to die. In fact, you always demonize the enemy. That’s what you do in war. You give your enemy names; you demonize him, and make him less than human. It’s easier to justify killing him that way.
Again, Jesus takes things to a whole different level with His “but I say to you.” Love our enemies. That’s right. Love your enemies. Those who oppose you and want you out of their way. Love them. Pray for your persecutors. Don’t be like the world that loves the friend and hates the enemy. Be like your Father in heaven who causes the sun to rise on good and evil, on His friends and His foes, who sends rain on the just and the unjust. On saint and sinner alike. Even more than that, who sent His Son to take away the sin of the world, to redeem and justify the world in His own death, who came to save sinners and to die for the ungodly.
Love your haters. Pray for your persecutors. Go beyond the circle of those who like you and praise you and affirm you to those who despise you, slap you in the face, steal from you. When you go that extra mile with your enemy, you are venturing into Jesus-territory, the wilderness where love is for the loveless, mercy for the merciless, redemption for the unredeemable, salvation for the unsalvageable. And here you will find just how deep the corruption of Sin goes and how high the demands of the Law are. Step by step, law by law, iota by dot, Jesus has raised the bar of the law to insurmountable heights. From murder and divorce and adultery of the heart to love for the enemy and a second cheek to one who would smack you in the face.
Be holy as the Lord your God is holy. Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. Not pretty good and trying hard, but holy and perfect.
The Law can’t get you there. It can hold out the standard but it can’t help you meet it. It can raise the bar, but it can’t lift you over. It can hold out the hope of life with God, but it can only deliver you dead at His doorstep. Were you a sinless saint, this Law would be automatic. You would do it without thought or struggle. You would do it as naturally as breathing. You would automatically turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, give to beggar and borrower, love your enemy, pray for your persecutor. You would be Adam before the Fall. You would be the image of God who made you. You would be holy as the Lord your God is holy. You would be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. You would be His son. His Son.
There is One who is holy as the Lord our God. There is One who is perfect as His Father in heaven. There is one Man, who embodies all men, who does the Law down to the least little iota and the smallest dot of a detail. He loves His enemies. He prays for His persecutors. He gives His cheeks to those who slap Him. He carries His cross the extra mile. He dies for His enemies. In order to do this Law and live up to Jesus’ “but I say to you” you must be a sinless son of God. And there’s only one of those. No other human being in the history of this world lived this Law. No other person, no matter how holy and perfect in the eyes of men, lived up to the standards that Jesus sets here. Close doesn’t count. Trying hard doesn’t cut it. Forgiveness is not making up the difference after you’ve tried the best you could. James says it plainly; whoever is guilty in one point of the law is guilty of the whole law. The law can’t be cut apart into little pieces. It’s all or it’s nothing. Death or life. Curse or blessing. Hell or heaven.
Jesus came to do the Law. He left His Father’s glory; He emptied Himself of all the perks and privileges of being the eternal Son of God. He took up our humanity, our flesh and blood. He humbled Himself and became obedient to His own Law. He did it perfectly and it killed Him. The Law always kills. It killed Jesus. I know we can talk about the agents and instruments of His death, the Sanhedrin and Pontus Pilate and the others who conspired against Him. But underneath it all is the Law that always accuses, always demands, always kills. The wages of Sin is death. The power of Sin to kill is the Law. Jesus became Sin for us so that the Law would kill Him. Sin was put to death in His flesh in your place.
The Law still kills and it kills you. Sin must be put to death. Fortunately, the Law is not the last word. Christ is. The Law brings you to Christ. Not as a living saint, but as a dead sinner. The Law deposits you dead at the feet of Jesus. Just where you need to be. Just where every sinner needs to be. Dead at the feet of Jesus. “You were dead in your trespasses and sin, but God made you alive in Christ Jesus.” “He became Sin for us who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”
The Law drops us dead at the feet of Jesus, so that Jesus can raise us from the dead. In raising us, Jesus does two things for us. First, He forgives. He has taken your sin from you and placed it as far from you as the east is from the west. He has buried every infraction of the Law, all your murders, adulteries, divorces, your anger, resentment, bitterness, your failure to love the enemy and give to the beggar. You are forgiven in Christ. He has washed you in His blood, buried you in His death. You are baptized, a reborn child of God.
Second, He gives you something you don’t have: His holiness, His righteousness, His perfection under the Law. They’re yours in Him. In Him, you are holy. In Him, you are righteous. In Him you are innocent, blameless, perfect. Not in yourself. In Christ you are these things. He takes the Law into His own hands and gives it to you as a fulfilled gift. He is your holiness, your righteousness, your innocence and perfection under the Law so that when the devil, the world, or your conscience accuse you with the Law and say, “Look at you! How can you call yourself a child of God?” you hide behind Jesus in your Baptism and say with the Large Catechism, “Nevertheless, I am baptized! And if I am baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.”
He was made Sin for us who knew no Sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. In Christ, you are holy as the Lord your God is holy. In Christ, you are perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.
In the Name of Jesus,