Monday, June 05, 2006

"Be perfect"

Many Christians understand Jesus' sermon on the mount as an "ideal" for Christian living, albeit an unrealistic or impossible ideal. This view is reinforced by the time we get to the first 'climax' in the sermon: "Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matt 5:48). This seems like an impossibly high ideal if Jesus is speaking of moral perfection. However, the word translated "perfect" (Greek teleios) means "complete, whole, full-grown or fully integrated". In the context it means to be all-inclusive. In the sermon it follows the command to love our enemies (and connects to it with a "therefore"): "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous ... Therefore, be perfect ...". Jesus is saying that God loves both the evil and the good person, both the righteous and unrighteous person. We too should love our enemies as well as our friends. "Therefore, be all-inclusive, as your Father is all-inclusive".

In earlier messages I've emphasised that Jesus' message was the Gospel of the Kingdom. The sermon on the mount is the largest body of teaching in the gospels and encompasses the core teachings of Jesus. It begins with a reference to the Kingdom (the beatitudes begin and end with "... for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven"). Understanding the sermon on the mount is crucial to understanding the Gospel of the Kingdom.

John Thomas, and Christadelphians generally, have been right in identifying the centrality of the Kingdom to the Gospel. However, in his "exposition of the Kingdom of God" (Elpis Israel) John Thomas pays little attention to the sermon on the mount. Christadelphianism primarily sees the Kingdom as something which is future, and the sermon on the mount as a code of behaviour which, if followed to the best of ones limited ability, will be rewarded with a place in the future Kingdom. Christadelphains do not see the sermon as being substantially about the Kingdom. To this way of thinking the Olivet prophecy (Matt 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) with its future eschatology and its apocalyptic language is kingdom stuff, but not the sermon on the mount. Apart from the words "the meek will inherit the earth" the sermon on the mount would rarely rate a mention in a Christadelphian exposition of the Kingdom. Yet Matthew says Jesus came "preaching the Kingdom of God" (4:23) and immediately launches into his account of the sermon on the mount (chapters 5-7). This is the heart of Jesus' kingdom-message, and the first climax in the sermon is "Love your enemies ... be all-inclusive, as your Father is all-inclusive, loving good and bad, righteous and unrighteous".

This is the opposite of exclusivism, of withdrawing from others in order to maintain doctrinal purity. Jesus' kingdom-message here stands in stark contrast to the attitude of the Pharisees, and to John Thomas. In his exposition of the Kingdom Thomas missed this point completely.

If you missed my posts on the Lord's table, dealing with His table-fellowship practices, go back and read them now. You will see that in both His behaviour and in His sermon on the mount Jesus is teaching that Kingdom-people are inclusive, not exclusive. They are unconcerned with defilement by others because they radiate holiness. They look for common ground rather than points of disagreement. They tear down walls rather than erecting barriers. Theirs is a ministry of reconciliation, rather than withdrawing from others.

This message follows on from my series on early influences on Christadelphianism. If Thomas had remained connected with all those with whom he had so much in common and worked with them rather than against them, how different might things have been. If Roberts had recognised the talents and the contributions of early Christadelphian leaders rather than forcing them out of the community, how different might the community have been. Instead of the constant fighting, controversies, divisions and disfellowships, those who had been taught or influenced by Thomas might have recognised their place within a broader body of believers who genuinely endeavoured to restore the beliefs and practices of early Christianity. They may have had a greater influence for good on the Christian world than they did. Is it too late to change?

For those of you who may have been receiving my articles on "Understanding Jesus' Teachings" I apologise for the hiatus in writing. I plan to resume the series shortly with some articles on the sermon on the mount and the Gospel of the Kingdom.

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