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13. Perfection: Be Merciful Like Your Father


– Chapter 13 –

Perfection: Be Merciful Like Your Father

Perfection is required

The ultimate goal of regeneration and renewal is perfection, which is to be like Christ. It is lamentable that Christ-like­ness — the final goal of the new life in Christ — is ignored in the churches today even though it is a vital con­cept in Scripture. Yet the Lord Jesus didn’t just teach perfection as a desirable ideal for us to contem­plate, he requires it: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt.5:48)

In Matthew 5, the whole section leading up to verse 48 (and linked by the word “there­fore”) is instruct­ional, but it also has an imperative character. This is already seen from verse 21 onwards, where Jesus cites Old Testament commands, and then explains their application on the spiritual level in the present age for his disciples. The connective “therefore” in verse 48 brings out the content and nature of the perfection he expects of us. Perfection is expected of every Christian, not just the “higher level” Christians.

How do I fulfill the requirements of perfection? If I don’t under­stand what perfection is, how can I know where to start? In an earlier chapter we described perfection in terms of holiness. But few Christ­ians today understand what holiness is. We may try to define “holy” as “set apart for God,” but again few understand what this means. We might try to describe holiness in terms of total commit­ment, but that might not be clear to some people. It would be helpful to meditate on the whole section Matthew 5:21-48 and let the Spirit illuminate our hearts regarding the spirit (as opposed to the letter, 2Cor.3:6) of the perfection he calls us to. We now look at perfection in Matthew 5:48 from the point of view of the parallel verse given in the Gospel of Luke.

Eight Points for Understanding and Implementing the Life-Transforming Teaching on Mercy in Scripture

(1) Perfection as mercy: Be merciful as your Father is merciful

The Lord Jesus provides us with a parallel definition or descript­ion of perfection: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merci­ful” (Luke 6:36). On the surface its meaning seems clear enough, yet it is not easy to fathom the depth of this statement. Let us search out its spiritual riches, guided by the Spirit. To get the context, we read from verse 32:

32 And if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sin­ners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to receive back the same amount. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32-36)

The last statement, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” is the one we will consider. From the fact that it stands as a parallel to the words in Matthew (“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”), it is evident that “merciful” and “perfect” are to be taken as spiritual synony­ms, the one defining or describing the other.

Perfection may be an abstract concept to us, but if Jesus tells us to be merciful, the whole picture becomes concrete. “Merciful” is a word that most of us understand because it finds expression in action, as in the term “acts of mercy”.

Of course it is more complex than that. When we study the Biblical mean­ing of mercy, we will soon see that it is something beyond human strength and ability to attain. Left to our human capacity without the benefit of regeneration and renewal, we can never attain to the kind of mercy to which Jesus calls us. That is why we are studying regenera­tion and renewal, without which we can never attain to merciful­ness in the Biblical sense. I may give a dollar to a beggar, and that is undeniably an act of mercy. But it is beyond our human capacity to show mercy as a consistent quality of life, and emanating from a spiritual motive. Anyone who has ever tried to be merciful consistently will know this from personal experience.

(2) What is mercy?

Let us look at the Biblical concept of mercy. I emphasize “Biblical” because we tend to define a term according to our own understand­ing of it and not according to the Bible’s definition. Biblical concepts must be defined accord­ing to the Bible, not just according to Oxford Dictionary or our own understanding.

What is the Biblical concept of mercy? A basic principle of exegesis is to examine the context. In the immediate context of our passage, Jesus equates kindness and mercy: “He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil[1] men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (vv.35-36).

Here Jesus equates mercy and kindness, not mere human kind­ness but divine kindness, God’s kindness, a kindness not motivated by human feelings but by God’s self-giving love. We may be kind to those who are kind to us — a reciprocal kindness — but God is kind even to the ungrateful and the selfish. We can never do that by our human nature. I can be kind to those who are kind to me, but the Lord calls for more than that, for “even sinners do the same” (v.33).

If you are kind to a sinner, he may return you kindness. If you show him love, he may return you some love. That is entirely human. But in the long term, he won’t show you kindness consistently unless he gets something from you or you reciprocate his kindness. He won’t be kind to you consistently without being motivated by reward. A business­man may invite you to dinner even if he hardly knows you. Rest assured that he invited you to a nice restaurant to get something from you. The world operates on the principle that nothing is free in the world, with no “free lunches”. Every act of kind­ness is an invest­ment motivated by reward.

But Jesus makes an astonishing statement: “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return” (v.35). Expect nothing in return? Yes, it takes great faith to believe that your reward will come from God and not from the one to whom you showed kindness.

It takes faith to expect things from God. Many Christians are acutely aware of their little faith. When we run into visa problems, financial problems, or health problems, our faith starts to wobble. We have limited confidence in God’s power. So we do things in a human way: Give only when there is a possibility of a return.

In our minds, the ex­change of favors is the normal decency of social life.[2] If I give you something, it is only proper that you give me some­thing in return. If you fail to return my favor, don’t expect any more favors from me. This is a universal principle of human relation­ships in the world.

But Jesus reverses the principles of society: Give without expect­ing anything in return. Give away something as if it will never come back. This way of thinking is impossible to our human nature.

Even less is it in our nature to give to “ungrateful and evil men” (v.35), even when they are in genuine need. Why should we give to the ungrateful or the wicked? We justify our refusal to give to them on the grounds that this will only serve to reinforce their ingratitude and wickedness. So we give our­selves a seemingly plausible argument for not giving to them. But that is not the Biblical understanding of mercy.

(3) Mercy as practical kindness

Mercy is not a mere ideal but something intensely practical. The Bibli­cal teaching on mercy points us to a new spiritual level that far exceeds our present level. I thank God that something beautiful is happen­ing in some of our churches. I see an increasing concern among the brothers and sisters for one another. I am touched by the fact that some people have anonymously paid the camp fees for those who couldn’t afford them. This is genuine concern for the brethren.

I imagine them saying to themselves, “I wish this brother or sister could go to the camp because it will benefit them spirit­ually, but I know that he or she can’t afford the fees.” So they paid the fees anony­mous­ly. I see a growing mutual concern among the brothers and sisters, and I thank God that we have moved beyond our former spiritual level. It was not long ago that we were quite lacking in this kind of care and concern. We may have heard something about brotherly love, but we found it hard to fulfill. We were too busy coping with our personal problems to think of others.

By God’s grace, we have moved past the first stage. We still have a long way to go, so we must never be complacent. Let us press towards the mark of perfection even if it is still some distance away, and strive for a new level of concern (a vital element of mercy) that is expressed even to people we may not like. This is not easy, but by God’s grace, we have at least reached a basic level of concern for each other. If we haven’t arrived at this basic level, how can we talk about caring for the ungrateful and the selfish?

By nature you and I cannot achieve this. It is hard enough to love a brother or sister who has a modicum of concern for us. But loving the ungrateful and the wicked seems to be some­thing not of this world. Yet Jesus commands us to be merci­ful, to be perfect. The imperative voice indi­cates that it is more than a suggestion. If we are truly “sons of the Most High” (v.35), then we ought to be as he is, and do as he does. Jesus sets a goal before us, and we press towards it.

In striving for perfection and Christ-like merci­fulness, a spiritual prin­ciple comes into play: We will receive spiritual power, for it is in giving that we receive: “Give and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:38). What we give may be material and temp­oral, but what God gives us in return is spirit­ual and eternal. As we press towards the mark of being merciful, we will grow in spiritual strength, and will be empow­ered to accomplish something for God in this world. It takes spiritual power to accomplish anything for God. Many people by their own admission have accomplished little for Him despite having university and seminary degrees.

A friend of mine, a distinguished professor in London, has a collection of degrees that will dazzle you. He has garnered the high­est honors that England could bestow on her scientists in his field of research. This professor also stud­ied the Bible for many years. Yet one day he told me in grief that he was spiritually power­less. That is ironic and saddening because many Christians in England know and respect his name, and he has drawn many to Christian conferences.

Brothers and sisters, we need God’s power if we are to accom­plish anything for God’s kingdom. It doesn’t depend on our theological or academic qualifications. By the authority of God’s word, I say without apology that those who press on towards perfect­ion — practicing mercy as God is merciful — will experience commun­ion with Him and will receive from Him the spiritual power to do His work in this generation.

(4) Mercy is shown to the undeserving

“He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Here mercy is synonymous with kind­ness, but not kind­ness as we usually understand it. The Lord Jesus is talking about a kindness that is shown even to the undeserving. That is true grace and mercy. We, as recip­ients of God’s grace, must in turn show grace and mercy to others. Jesus says, “Freely you received, freely give” (Mt.10:8).

The Lord fulfilled this level of kindness in his own life when he loved us even while we were sinners and his enemies (Rom.5:8,10). His power came into our lives and transformed us from being hostile enemies of God into saints, the holy ones, the children of God. It is astonishing that the Bible would call us saints. Paul’s letters are addressed to the saints, the very people who used to be God’s enemies.

We in turn show unmerited grace to the equally undeserving. God in His mercy makes the sun rise on the good and the evil, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Mt.5:45). Here is God’s universal mercy. He doesn’t just shine the sun on the garden of the righteous man while the rest of the world lies in darkness. Nor does He concentrate His rain on the farm of the righteous man while the rest of the world becomes a desert. He gives rain and sunshine to all, to the righteous and the unrighteous. But over and above that, the magnifi­cent scope of His love is revealed through the wondrous cross of Christ. Though we may be unable to fathom the cross in its full depth and magnitude, what matters is that it can be experienced in our hearts.

Mercy may be hard to fathom, yet can be deeply felt by the one to whom we show the undeserved kindness that God first showed us. The one who receives unmerited mercy will wonder why it was given him. If we could, by God’s grace, consist­ently pass on His mercy to the undeserving, would that not result in a spiritual revolution?

I have met Christians who are unhappy with God’s universal mercy. “I belong to You, Lord. Send more sunshine in my direction, less in theirs! The other guy doesn’t even know You, yet his harvest is better than mine. I go to church every Sunday and put money in the offering, but the other guy doesn’t give a cent.” We often feel that it’s unfair that a non-Christ­ian earns more money or drives a better car. Where is God’s justice in the world? That is a real problem in the minds of some Christians. “Why does God treat the righteous and the unrighteous alike?” The Bible’s answer is plain and simple: God is merciful to the very people we dislike, even God’s enemies.

How different is God’s character from ours! If we are to be like God, we must let Him change our notions about Him. Many worldly and self-centered attitudes have polluted the life of the church, causing us to fall far short of God’s intentions for us. Rather than understand­ing God according to our image (the Greeks imagined their gods to be higher versions of man), we need to be transformed into His image.

(5) Mercy is deep concern

In the Bible, “mercy” means sympathy, pity and compassion. It em­pa­thizes with those who mourn and suffer. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Mt.5:4). This is a familiar beat­itude, yet how many understand it? It doesn’t refer to those who mourn for them­selves out of self-pity. As Christians we should have gone past the stage of mourning over our past sins which we have truly repented of, and which have been forgiven through the blood of Jesus.

“Blessed are those who mourn” goes deeper than our self-centered thinking. It refers to those who mourn for the wretched­ness and piti­ful estate of others. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Rom.12:15). If we cannot weep with those who weep, how can we rejoice with those who rejoice? Let us learn to weep with those who are stricken with grief. Or do we weep only for ourselves? Many Christians who go to church solely for their own comfort and welfare. “God bless my father, my mother, my children, and especially me.” Even when we read the Scriptures, we do it in a self-centered way: “God’s promises in the Bible are there to bless me.”

(6) Mercy is rooted in selflessness

In chapter 1 of this book, we discussed the death of our old self. Let me define this concisely in one sentence: Death to self means that we cease to be concerned for ourselves, and become concerned for others. This definition may seem simplistic, but it is in accord with Scripture. If a person is dead to self, where are his concerns now? Is a dead man concerned about food and cloth­ing, buying a house, and worldly ambitions? These things concerned us in the old way of life before we became new persons in Christ. Of course, we are now still living in this world in our fleshly bodies, so we do need food and clothing; but these are no longer our central concerns when we become new people in Christ.

We died with Christ, were buried with him, and were raised into newness of life. We now have the mind of Christ (1Cor.2:16; Phil.2:5). It is a mind that is finished with the self and goes out to others. Freed from our own interests and preoccu­p­ations, we turn our attention to the needs of others.

Whenever I listen to the church brothers and sisters share about their visa or financial problems, it brings back memories of my earlier years of walking with God. I have gone through more visa pro­blems than most people in a lifetime. I lived in England 17 years, and had 17 years of visa prob­lems. My visa was up for review every year, some­times twice a year. The approval process was complicated by the fact that I came from China which at that time, the 1950s and 1960s, had diplo­matic relations with few countries, and was regarded by most countries with distrust if not hostility. I learned to leave the visa matters to God without worrying about them. I would say to Him, “Lord, if You want me to stay in England, please keep me here. But if You have some other plans for me, then put me anywhere else in the world.” I didn’t waste my time worrying about these problems.

Some of you are facing financial problems. I empathize with you because I was often penniless or near-penniless. An empty pocket was my familiar friend. If I had worried about money, my hair would have turned gray in my twenties. By God’s grace, I would simply forget about myself and get on with the work He had entrusted to me, know­ing that my heavenly Father will provide for all my needs — and this He has never failed to do.

I studied at the Bible Institute with no assurance of financial sup­port and no certainty of being able to complete my studies there. By God’s grace, I completed my studies. It was the same when I went on to another Bible college. Later, I entered university with no assurance that I could even pay my first term’s fees. I didn’t rely on anyone to help me in my financial need, but looked only to the Lord. This situation repeated itself annually when it was time to pay the fees. But I thank God that anxiety was far from me. I simply told Him, “A degree means nothing to me. Whether You want me to have it or not, I will be grateful either way.” In the end, He saw to it that I completed my studies.

We must learn to forget about ourselves and our never-ending problems. We encounter many problems in our Christian lives that exasperate us because they get in our way. We want to advance in our pursuit of the Lord, but these problems distract us, consume our time and energy, and even cause us to feel resentful. We want to move for­ward but these problems pull us back to the self — the very thing we want to forget. But let us be deter­mined by God’s grace to finish with the self, in order that, like Paul, our eyes may be focused on the goal before us in Christ. “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” (Heb.12:2).

Paul says, “Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attit­ude” (Phil.3:15). Here “perfect” is the same word as in the Greek text of Matthew 5:48 (“be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”). Those who are perfect ought to have “this attitude” of fixing our eyes on the goal before us, forgetting ourselves and our past, and pressing on. “Let us lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin that so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb.12:1).

Brothers and sisters, we are called to finish with the self. This high call­ing is not limited to “higher” or “spiritual” Christians, but applies to every Christian. Death to self should have taken place at baptism. The old life should have ended there, as the pulse of the new Christ-life begins to beat in us.

We must be freed from the self in order to be merciful or per­fect, for no self-centered person could possibly be merciful. The merciful person goes out to others, especially those in need, but the self-cen­tered person is imprisoned in his own shell. When we visit a church, we can often assess its spiritual condition in a few minutes. In many churches, people don’t greet you when you walk in. You are like an invisible ghost who walks by. After the service you get up and go, like an invisible ghost. In some churches you receive a smile and a handshake. In only a few churches will you find people who really care about you, taking the time to chat with you. Of course what we are aiming for is genuine concern, not a show of politeness.

(7) The merciful are not fixated on their own salvation

Why should I be kind to the ungrateful and the evildoers? How does that benefit me? Our sole reason for being kind to them is a concern for their salvation and eternal welfare. Yet many go to church for their own salvation with no con­cern for the eternal welfare of others.

The genuine Christian, because he has exper­ienced God’s grace and salvation, will not be preoccupied with his own salva­tion, but will be concerned with the eternal well-being of others. Paul shows remark­ably little concern for his own salvation; he is willing to forfeit his own salvation if that could lead to the salvation of Israel (Romans 9:3). I know of Christians who are offended by that statement. But Paul is closer to the mind of Christ than most of us are.

Paul was simply imitating Jesus. When the Lord was dying on the cross, some mocked him: “He saved others; he cannot save himself” (Mt.27:42). In fact he could have saved himself, but he would not; for if he saved himself, he could not have saved others. That is what Christ is like. To be Christ-like is to have this way of thinking. That is what the call to perfection is all about.

For better or worse, most people in the church are intellect­uals, and mostly for the worse because we have trained ourselves to think for our own interests. We study hard to benefit ourselves, but show little concern for others, even our brethren in Christ. “I must study hard, do my assignments, write my exams, and get good grades.”

We justify our indifference to others by saying, “I must finish my studies, then I can spare time to think of others.” In reality, that day will never come because you will then pursue other goals after com­pleting your education. There is no limit to the pursuit of knowledge or success.

Frankly speaking, our acad­emic achieve­ments benefit mainly our­selves. We rationalize our self-centeredness by saying that if we get good grades, we can eventually do something for others. In reality, when the time comes, our thinking will be so deeply entrenched in selfish­ness that it will be humanly impossible to change. It is hard to change a way of thinking that has been cultivated over many years in the pursuit of education and a career.

Yet Jesus tells us to do what is humanly impossible: turn away from self-preoccupa­tion and self-betterment to a concern for the salvation of others.

(8) Being perfect or merciful is not a matter of self-improvement

This leads to a vital point: we often confuse perfection with self-improvement. Is attaining perfection a matter of striving to improve myself in this area or that? That is how the world understands the attainment of perfection.

How do I become a good tennis player? I practice tennis day in and day out, improving my serve, improving my lob, improv­ing my return, improving my drop shot. I take multi-vitamins, and jog for hours on end, building up my stamina. I pract­ice my swing and improve my accuracy. All these things help me to achieve perfection in tennis. This is perfection in terms of self-improvement, but if that is our concept of spiritual perfection, we are on the wrong track!

The Bible does not teach self-perfection because self-perfection focuses on the self. Using self-improvement to improve ourselves spirit­ually, we could go to a quiet monastery, and lock ourselves in a room in order to avoid people who distract us. Today we will pray three hours, tomorrow four hours, the day after five hours, and one of these days, 24 hours! I climb a ladder to heaven and achieve perfection and mystical union with God! In my self-improvement, I avoid irksome people and focus on God. I forget about human misery and think blessed thoughts about God, and arrive at perfect holiness.

We are not denying the value of having times of quietness and communion with God. When we are engaged in a busy ministry, such times are not only valuable, but even necessary to refocus on God, and to draw strength and inspiration from Him. What we are denying is that holiness is a­chieved by isolation as a way of life.

The human concept of self-improvement influences the way we think of the attainment of holiness. We think that a holy person is one who spends four hours praying in the morning. But what mean­ing can prayer have if it is not motivated by mercy? Intercession is a significant part of prayer. Worship, too, is an essential part of prayer.

Interestingly, the gospels do not portray Jesus as one who spent all his time kneeling in prayer. The picture of mercy comes out more strongly, for he was so busy doing things for people that he some­times didn’t have time to eat (Mk.3:20; 6:31). So how could the Lord spend four hours in prayer every day? Yet he did pray much, for he was in constant communion with the Father.

He did some­times pray through the night, sacrificing much needed rest. Was he praying for himself or for others? For one whose whole life was driven by mercy and concern for the salva­tion of others, the answer is clear.

Self-improvement goes against Christ-like mercifulness

Christ-like mercy is rooted in selflessness whereas self-improvement is preoccupied with the self. It is clear that these two are opposites. The “new man” (or “new self,” in some Bibles) grows in the renewal of the new life. But the Bible never says that the new man pro­gresses by means of self-improvement. The old man tries to improve himself, but the new man is concerned with growing in Christ.

Biblical perfection has nothing to do with self-improvement, even when it involves long prayers and Bible reading. Prayer and Bible study are certainly important, but only if we have finished with the old self. If the self has not died, everything will simply cater to the self. Bible knowledge will become dangerous because the self will revel in its superiority over others: “I’m a Bible expert!” Knowledge puffs up (1Cor.8:1), so Bible know­ledge can be dangerous if the self has not died.

Our prayer life, too, can become a cause of pride. “I pray many hours, and my trousers are getting thin at the knees.” We become proud of our supposed spiritual superior­ity, as were the Pharisees. Hence Jesus warns his disciples of the leaven of the Pharisees (Luke 12:1). A little leaven (yeast) will make the whole lump of dough useless for the Passover (1Cor.5:6-8).

“Whoever wants to saves his life (Greek psychē, sometimes trans­lated ‘soul’) will lose it, but whoever loses his life — forgets his life, denies himself — for me will find it” (Mt.16:25). If we attend church primarily for our own salvation (to save our own soul or life), that may be the one thing we will not receive. Those who put God’s kingship and the salvation of others above their own interests, are the ones whom God chooses to save.

There is so much “breath and length and height and depth” (Eph. 3:18) to God’s mercy and wisdom; or as the apostle puts it in another place: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathom­able His ways!” (Romans 11:33)

[1] Ponēros, πονηρός, here refers to an “evil-intentioned person, evildoer,” cf. BAG, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 2.a.

[2] The Chinese would say li shang wang lai (courtesy calls for recipro­city).


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