We’re surveying Jesus’ teaching about our Father God in the Sermon on the Mount, where there’s a cluster of references to the topic. We’ve noted that Jesus begins (Mt 5.16) with the almost off-handed comment, or assumption, that our purpose in life is to generate respect or honor for God as our Father.
The first chapter of the sermon includes a list of areas in which Jesus tells his hearers that they must do better than just what the Law of Moses required. He states his premise first: “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5.20). And then he lists several examples:
- Refraining from murder is not enough; you must refrain from even hating your brother (Mt 5.21-26).
- Refraining from adultery is not enough; you must refrain from lust (Mt 5.27-30).
- Following the legally prescribed procedure for divorce is not enough; you must remain united even through hard times (Mt 5.31-32).
- Keeping your vows is not enough; you must keep your word so faithfully that vows aren’t even needed (Mt 5.33-37).
- Limiting your vengeance to what is appropriate to the offense is not enough; you must “turn the other cheek” (Mt 5.38-42).
- Loving your neighbor is not enough; you must love your enemy as well (Mt 5.43-48).
It’s in this last section that he invokes the fatherhood of God. He says that we should love our enemies “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5.45).
Now this sounds as though Jesus is placing a works requirement on our relationship with God: “if you want to be a child of God, you’re going to have to love your enemies.” But I don’t think the context supports that interpretation at all. He goes on to describe what we call “common grace”; God gives rain to everyone, whether they’re good to him or not. In other words, God loves his enemies, and it only makes sense that those with his DNA should be like him in that respect. The point is not that if you want to be in God’s family, you’d better love your enemies; the point is that those who are in God’s family logically ought to resemble him, and by loving your enemy, you demonstrate that you do. Being like God is not a condition for being his; it’s evidence that you already are his.
Jesus adds to his thought with a logical argument: why should you get credit for loving people who love you? That’s just natural impulse, something that everybody does; you’re not so special in doing that. But if you love people who don’t love you back, well, then, that’s something extraordinary, something supernatural, something divine. That’s something that shows you are influenced by something—Someone—that most people aren’t.
And so Jesus ends the chapter by telling us to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5.48).
Now, this clearly requires some explanation. You and I will never be as morally perfect as God is. The unanimous testimony of centuries of Christians who have tried desperately to love God and their neighbor and their enemy is that they just can’t do it—they fall short, no matter how hard they try.
But remember the context. Jesus is not saying, “If you want a relationship with me—and my Father—you’d better be good!” That’s impossible, and he knows it’s impossible. He’s just said that our righteousness is going to have to be greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 5.20), and Jesus knew that in the minds of his hearers, nobody could be that righteous.
Jesus is demonstrating pedagogically what his Apostle Paul will later state directly: that the way to God is not in keeping the Law, for we all know that that’s impossible. The Law was good (Ro 7.12), but it was not intended to make us righteous (Ga 3.24); it was given to show us our sin, that we are not and cannot ever be righteous. And the Law, like everything else that God gives us, does its job exceedingly well.
The Law also teaches us that we need a substitute—a lamb. And Jesus is introduced by John the Baptist as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1.29). This Lamb will keep the Law in our place, and will die in our place, and his righteousness will be given freely to us (2Co 5.21).
And through his power, we can be perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect.
Sons and daughters are like their fathers. And so are we like Him.