Last Sunday we had a guest speaker at church who gave a wonderful sermon. He is a seminary student, and like his father who is a pastor, his sermon style is more what I would call teaching than preaching. The lesson he shared on Sunday helped me to look at a piece of scripture in a new and exciting light, so I wanted to share what he taught and my reflections on his lesson.
The topic of his sermon was “Desiring Holiness.” He shared what he has learned are five characteristics of holiness that throughout the history of the Christian faith different people or groups have believed were the core of holiness. Those five characteristics are:
- Following the moral code set forth by God.
- Being pure and unblemished.
- Being set apart from unbelievers for God.
- Total devotion to God or complete conviction of faith in God.
- Perfection or sinlessness.
While each of these characteristics is a component of holiness, he asserted his belief that none is the true core of holiness. In addition, each of these characteristics, taken to the extreme, can actually lead to the opposite of holiness or result in a crisis of faith when one is unable to live up to their own expectations under each standard.
Then he shared what he believes — and I tend to agree or I wouldn’t be sharing this — is the core of holiness: Love. Without knowing it, the Gospel lesson he chose to speak on in support of his conclusion was the same scripture we had read for our Wordstrong passage just the day before. As a result, the majority of the congregation had recently been thinking about this very passage.
Love for Enemies
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children 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. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Matthew 5:43-48 (NIV).
The last sentence of this passage is often quoted in support of the idea that to be holy we must be perfect, sinless, pure, set apart, and that we must follow all of God’s moral law. But our speaker pointed out that we must view Jesus command to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” in the context of the whole passage. The Greek word for “perfect” in this passages is telios which means complete. In the context of this passage in which Jesus is speaking about loving not only your neighbor but your enemy as well, perfection is properly viewed as complete love.
Jesus is our perfect example of holiness. It is true that He led a sinless life, that He was pure and unblemished, that He was totally devoted to the Father, and that He followed the moral code of God perfectly. But that is not what makes Him truly holy. If He had done all of those things and then lived to a ripe old age, dying in His sleep of natural causes, He would not be our perfect example of holiness.
Jesus is our perfect example of holiness because He modeled for us complete love. He came and died not only for the righteous, but for sinners. He came to die for the enemies of God because He loved us with a perfect and complete love. He loved in a way that put all others before His own life and comfort. And as He hung on the cross and was about to die, He prayed for those who persecuted Him.
If we want to be holy we must do more than follow rules or set ourselves apart from those who do not; we must do more than seek sinless perfection. If we want to be holy we must love with a complete and perfect love that does not discriminate, but loves all the same.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Colossians 3:12-14 (NIV).