Jesus being perfect does not matter.
I think we probably need to stop here. We tend to react strongly to a statement like the one above. The social gospel folks, the ones who reject the orthodox view of Jesus, shout for joy when they read something like this. The conservative branch of the church, on the other hand, violently slaps the heresy sticker on this short and simple sentence.
But, before we judge merits of this particular statement, we must define the essential term – perfect.
The highly reliable, hilarious, and usually inappropriate urbandictionary.com defines the adjective “perfect” flawlessly according to our culture. Multiple users on Urban Dictionary define a perfect person as someone without flaws. These people have accomplished a fullness of being in a particular aspect of their life. They live a flawless moral life; they live a flawless professional life; they live a flawless relational life. While we consciously know perfection is unattainable, we subconsciously hold ourselves and others to the standard of perfection. We even tend to characterize peoples actions as perfect – as flawless. If we were to think of an individual who embodies of perfection, we can instantly think of something or someone in our immediate life or at the very least, on the periphery of our current experience.
Maybe it is a friend or pastor who is squeaky clean morally, never transgressing against God’s law or the law of the Christian subculture. This person may or may not even consider themselves a Christian, yet they live perfectly within clear, perfectly acceptable moral standard. This perfection, at least in our minds, might be attributed to them because they humbly recognize their imperfection. Their humbleness only further validates the way we view them.
Or, maybe it is your office mate who fills out their paperwork without error, every time, never late, and in their uncanny joy of the monotonous, corrects the items you overlooked because of your disdain for the mundane. Now, I have no doubt, that these latter folks actually have reached the pinnacle of perfection! But, that is merely an aside…
For they have obtained perfection in every sense of our cultural definition – they are without flaw. We all know those who seem to be spotless in one way or another. You are probably thinking about them now. They come in all shapes and sizes; they are Christians and Muslims, atheists and agnostics. Within the construct of our society, they are perfect, and we view them as such. They are perfect in our eyes. We lift them up as the standard of how we are to live our own lives. “See how they fill out their reports. It is perfect. I must replicate their work!” They receive a plaque, and probably a semi-awkward picture, with the title of “employee of the month,” hanging on a wall in plain sight so all the others can be motivated by it. They would probably win the award every month if it wasn’t against company policy.
This mindset on the nature of perfection has become the telos of salvation. We have taken sanctification and marked its finality as flawlessness and being without moral blemish. Every moment of our life, every progression in faith, is a movement toward sinless-ness. We work to rid ourselves of all sins, real and imaginable, in order to be marked as righteous, not only by our Father, but also by those we live life with. We abstain from certain pleasures because of this desire to be perfect. If we were to indulge ourselves, we might accidently cause someone to stumble and our witness would be ruined.
But if we really thinking about it, what is our particular witness? What is it that we are witnessing to? Is it the hope of a flawless life? Is it even, teleologically, the primary hope for a life to come?
I’m not so sure that it is any of those things. Instead, I tend to gravitate toward another hope – a hope containing the former, but only as a byproduct of something else. The hope? A life filled with the Spirit, given to us as a beautiful, free gift because of Jesus’s perfection.
So with that, we come full circle, back to Jesus’s perfection. What perfection then did he obtain? Why does Jesus’s perfection not matter if it is the very thing which brings us the Spirit?
While Jesus was not doubt flawless, without sin, those around him did not see him and think he was “employee of the month” material. The CEOs of the time, the Pharisees, the ones who doled out the ancient awards, did not turn to their followers and say, “See this Jesus guy? Emulate him.” Instead, as we all know, they took offense to his radical understanding of perfection.
As my friend Kolby Kerr preached today at church, the Pharisees, in legislating new aspects of God’s covenant to the Israelites, intended to keep God’s people in communion with the Father out of fear for what God might do to them if they transgressed again. All too often the Israelites followed their own passions and desires, leading them to break their end of the bargain. In turn, God’s love revealed itself in the form of exiling his people – a form of discipline to grab the attention of those who sinned.
So, the Pharisees logically deduced the reasons for their problems and applied the following “if, then” syllogism to correct their past mistakes: If they follow this covenant flawlessly – perfectly – then God will stay his wrath. The original covenant, and the new bylaws ratified to create an extra level of security from God’s loving hand, must be scrupulously followed – or else, for Israel and the sinner.
Then, out of heaven, this perfect being comes into the picture and begins breaking the extra-covenantal rules and claiming, in the process, a supernatural relationship with the one the Pharisees were hoping to satiate. And people began listening to him. They began following him. You can imagine the fear welling up in the leaders’ hearts. A deep, multilayered fear predicated upon the remembrance of the past. Would Israel’s new desire to follow this radical new leader lead Rome to turn against them and ruin their fairly stable relationship with the Empire? This threat of God using his paddle on his people once again led to the eventual death of the perfect one.
Other than those seeking a right relationship with the Father understood that Jesus’s perfection did not rest in a flawlessness according to the culture’s standard. Jesus, in only a handful of ways, actually lived a perfect cultural existence. Society as a whole, religious rulers and their followers, probably saw Jesus as a terrific sinner and heretic.
Because of this, we need to qualify the type of perfection we refer to when we talk about Jesus being perfect. Naturally, we correlate his perfection with the actions he did and did not participate in since that is our cultural tendency. But, the perfection Jesus actually obtained was much different.
If we were to define the term “perfect” in connection to Jesus, it would be defined as such: a nature shared flawlessly with the Father. Jesus and the Father were perfectly one. Their souls were intertwined in such a way, you know, since Jesus was God incarnate, that his life fully represented the life of his Father.
As we seek perfection, I pray we (I!) begin to seek communion with the Father through the grace of Jesus the Christ instead of an outward perfection celebrated by our different subsets of secular and Christian societies. I pray, by God’s mercy, we begin to share more and more in his nature — a nature filled with his Spirit, making us more like his Son, on the earth as those are in heaven.