Monthly Archives: July 2019

Talking with God Face to Face (15:2)

Imagine the Father appearing visibly at the front of your church, or even better, in a cozy fellowship room. A group would gather around Him there, just as the crowds did around Jesus. Suppose we could talk there freely with God the Father for a whole hour. Would it be appropriate at the end for someone among us to rise and say, “This has been such a special occasion, don’t you think we ought to close this meeting with a word of prayer?” Or would it be correct to understand that, having just been in conversation with our God as with a friend, we have been praying the whole hour long?

Or could such a conversation only be possible with Jesus the Son? Is it even thinkable that we could converse with the Father, the awesome One, as with a friend? The disciples wondered about this. They were comfortable with Jesus, and appreciated how He wanted them to regard themselves as His friends. He said this more than once. One of those places is John 15:15, RSV: “I have called you friends. . . .” Their friendship with Jesus prompted Phillip to say, “Could the Father be like you?” John 14:8. You may remember Jesus’ answer: “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. . . . Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:7, 9, NIV).

Marvelous as that is, I think much of our theology and worship fails to recognize that magnificent truth, to know the Son is to know the Father. That is why Jesus went on to say those stunning words, hardly ever incorporated into Christian theology: “There is no need for me to pray to the Father for you, for the Father loves you Himself” (based on John 16:26-27). Notice Goodspeed’s translation of the same text: “I do not promise to intercede with the Father for you, for the Father loves you himself.”

How hard it has been for God to convince us that He really is our Friend. Centuries ago, when He came to speak to the people on Mount Sinai, they were so terrified (Exod 19:16) that they said to Moses, “Don’t let God speak to us, lest we die” (Exod 20:19). But Moses stood there in the midst of all the thunder and lightning and said to the people, “There is no need to be afraid” (Exod 20:20). You see, all those centuries before Christ, Moses already understood the truth that John wrote about: “There is no fear in love; perfect love drives out all fear. So then, love has not been made perfect in anyone who is afraid, because fear has to do with punishment” (1 John 4:18, GNB).

If you were ushered right now into the presence of God, would you be afraid He might hurt you? That He might hit you? Do you trust Him with His almighty power? On the day that every one of us approaches God, the way we approach Him will reveal the kind of person we are persuaded He really is. With this series of conversations in mind, then, let’s go back with renewed courage to the imaginary fellowship room where God is waiting. Whether the One there is Father, Son, or Holy Spirit should make no difference to us. For Paul said in Romans 8 that all three are on our side, all three are our Friends.

Now as we walk into the room, we know that God is the all powerful Creator of the whole vast universe. We know that the mighty angels, sinless as they are, stand overwhelmed with awe and wonder at the majesty and glory of God. Nevertheless, if we are afraid to go in, God has failed to convince us of the truth about Himself. And Jesus has also failed to convince us, not just with His words, but with what He has demonstrated to be true when He was here: That God is infinitely powerful, but equally gracious, and there is no need to be afraid. And so, overwhelmed with awe, we venture to go inside anyway.

God is seated there and we gather around Him. What should we say? Should one of us be the first to speak? Once we have started speaking, would we talk all the time? Or would we let God speak now and then? Normally, when we pray we do all the talking, don’t we? And when we’re done, we say “Amen” and go about our business, or go to sleep. That kind of prayer would be like meeting in a room with our heavenly Father, talking to Him incessantly for several minutes, and then saying, “Amen, thank you very much,” and then leaving. It wouldn’t make sense if He were there, would it? It certainly wouldn’t be the kind of conversation one has with a friend.

Chapter Fifteen: “Talking to God as a Friend” (15:1)

If the Father were to appear visibly among us, how would we address Him? What language would we use? Would we be too afraid to speak? Would we feel constrained to mention only the most lofty themes, or would we be free to talk candidly about what He already knows is in our hearts? Would it be easier to discuss such matters with the Son? Would it be more appropriate to speak or listen? How does one listen to the voice of God?

As you can see, the purpose of this chapter is to describe what prayer is all about. As with all the topics in our conversations, the way we pray depends upon the kind of person we believe our God to be. Surely no one knew better how to talk to God than the Son of God Himself, the one we call Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, you recall, He gave some very clear advice as to how to pray:

When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; they love to say their prayers . . . for everyone to see them. . . . But when you pray, go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is there in the secret place. . . . In your prayers do not go babbling on like the heathen, who imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard. . . . Your Father knows what your needs are before you ask him. This is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, thy name be hallowed; thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us the wrong we have done, as we have forgiven those who have wronged us. And do not bring us to the test, but save us from the evil one” (Matt 6:9-15, NEB).

If God already knows our needs before we ask Him, why should we take time to pray at all? That question assumes, of course, that the primary purpose of prayer is to lodge our requests with the Lord. But there are others who prefer to understand prayer as conversation with God as with a friend. It’s in the biblical record that the Son of God Himself engaged in many such conversations with His Father. We are told that “He went up into the hills by himself to pray” (Matt 14:23, RSV), often after a very busy day. “All night he continued in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12, RSV).

Have you ever prayed all night? How could Jesus pray to His Father all night long without a certain amount of repetition? Do you think Jesus babbled on like the heathen, supposing that the more He said the more likely His Father was to hear Him? That would be inconceivable, wouldn’t it? Or were His conversations with His Father so real that the night hours simply slipped away? Haven’t you had the experience of visiting with a friend of whom you are especially fond, and the hours just flew away? You see, everything depends on whether or not God is our friend. The way we pray reveals to others, and to ourselves, the kind of person we believe and understand our God to be.

Questions and Answers (14:10)

Lou: You mentioned baptism in the chapter. Would you comment on how baptism was changed from immersion to sprinkling, pouring, and a variety of other forms?

Graham: In response, let me cite a footnote in a Roman Catholic Bible translation. It says, “Admittedly, the early Christian method was immersion. However, on the authority of the Church and for convenience, it was changed.“ The sad thing is, though, that the change to sprinkling and to pouring has come with a change in the meaning. And that’s why churches can perform sprinkling and pouring on little infants who have no understanding that it represents the burial of the old nature and the rising to a newness of life. With the change of the method has come a change of the meaning, which is a loss to us. It ought to be a memorable occasion when I say, “I bury the old man, the man I used to be; I want to start all over again.“ The rich symbolism of baptism ties in with the subject of this chapter.

Lou: You’ve talked of Jesus as our example in this series of conversations about God. We’ve had several questions come in as to whether Jesus had an advantage over us. How could He be regarded as our example if He did have such an advantage? Let me refer to just one of these questions. “When Christ came to the world and took on human flesh, did He take on sinful flesh in essence or vicariously?” The kind of humanity Jesus had, I think, ties in here in an important way. Would you comment briefly on that question?

Graham: Well, I’ll cite Paul for that. He said, “Christ came in the likeness of sinful flesh to deal with sin” (based on Rom 8:3). I think the question is, can we really look to Jesus as an example of the perfection that we should have?
Was He exactly like us? There are some interesting differences. For one, He was born of the Holy Spirit. Some of us might be sixty-five before we’re born of the Holy Spirit. In that case, when we’re reborn, we’ve got sixty-five years of bad habits to fight with for the rest of our lives. Jesus, on the other hand, never acquired a bad habit. The only way you can develop a bad habit is to do something bad, which He never did. And so you say, “Well, then, He’s not an example for me.“ How low do we want Him to go? Do we want Him to wallow in the gutter as a wino, so that He can be an example as to how you can get out of the gutter? I don’t want Jesus to be more and more like me. I want to be more and more like Him. He came in human form, in the likeness of sinful flesh, using no power that is not available to us. And he showed that even little boys can be good. And that you can grow up to be good like that.
“But,” you say, “I have bad habits.”
“Look,“ He says, “I’m your Physician; I understand. I’ll be very patient. And I guarantee I’ll help you get over all of those things. Just trust Me.”
So how much more would we want Him to do before we accept Him as an example? He’s certainly enough of an example to show how we could have lived. The problem is that we didn’t. So what will He do with us now? He’s the Physician, and He knows exactly what it’s like to go through what we are going through. So you can count on Him to be patient. Are you still worried that the Father won’t be as patient as Jesus? Remember that Jesus came to show just how patient the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are. I think sometimes we run into problems when we raise the wrong questions about what He came to tell us, and what He came to show us.

Lou: One final question: “Is the healing we are talking about dependent upon perfect obedience to Christ’s teaching? Or does God’s mercy at times supersede even the doubts of those who question His divine authority?”

Graham: Oh, that’s true. I suppose we could refer to times when Jesus went places and healed everybody (Matt 4:24; 8:16; Mark 6:55-56; Luke 4:40). He went through entire villages, and when He left, nobody was sick. On one occasion He healed ten lepers, and only one came back to thank Him (Luke 17:12-19). I think on that occasion Jesus was saying that the Father is a healer, not a destroyer. Jesus often healed people whether they trusted Him or not (John 5:1-15).

Lou: That’s very comforting. What is our topic for Chapter Fifteen? How will the healing we talked about here change the way we relate to God?

Graham: That’s a very good question, because the topic of the next chapter is “Talking to God as a Friend.” What does God really want from us? Will He be satisfied with rote obedience to rules? Or does He desire genuine relationship with the free and diverse creatures He has made? How do we talk to a God we cannot see, hear or touch, but who nevertheless much prefers friends to servants? In the next chapter we will explore how our picture of God impacts the way we relate to Him, especially in the matter of prayer.

Questions and Answers (14:9)

Lou: I missed some words in this chapter that I’ve often heard associated with the subject of perfection. I didn’t hear you say that it is “Christ’s righteousness imputed“ or “the covering of Christ’s righteousness” that enables God to say, “You’re perfect.” Why didn’t you use phrases like that?

Graham: We need to be familiar with such phrases and use them at the right time. Actually those words belong to the legal model, which is an emergency model. In the legal model the righteousness of Christ is reckoned to us so that our account may look all right in the judgment. And that’s often attributed to the verse: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned (or imputed) to him as righteousness” (Rom 4:3, RSV, alluding to Gen 15:6). The Greek word there can actually mean, “considered, recognized.”
In the trust/healing model, however, I would translate that verse: “Abraham trusted God, and God said, ‘That’s good! That’s what I want. If you trust Me, all is well.’” All God ever asked of us is trust. And Abraham trusted Him enough to become His firmest friend (Exod 33:11; 2 Chr 20:7; Isa 41:8; James 2:23). Abraham really grew up and while he remained reverent, he was not afraid of God. Look at the relationship they had. That’s the ideal. And one does not need to explain their relationship in legal terms at all.
It’s the same way with the term “covered.” The legal model suggests that if I were to stand in the presence of the Father as a sinner, He would be very angry and destructive toward me if I were not covered. So I am covered with something that keeps God from seeing the way I really am. You can see how the legal model could have a comforting message for people who are afraid of God. “Don’t worry. God can’t really see you the way you are.” That’s emergency ‘talk.
In reality, however, the Lord knows exactly the way I am. And the Devil is reminding everyone of the way I am. But in the trust-healing model, God still treats me as if I had always been as loyal as His own Son. He treats me as if I had lived as righteously as Christ. I know I haven’t and so does He. But that’s how real and generous He is. And that’s a clearer and more marvelous picture than the other. So we can use phrases like, “the covering of Christ’s righteousness” when people need them. But whenever the audience is ready for it, we should also explain the healing model. The legal language has its place, but it’s a station along the way.

Lou: In the beginning of the chapter, you talked about it not being enough just to be forgiven. But if I’m forgiven, if I know that God has forgiven every sin, what more do I need to be saved?

Graham: Just to say a person is forgiven doesn’t heal the damage done. Just to forgive a Hitler or a Kim Jong Un would not make them very desirable neighbors in the hereafter unless they have changed. But if King Manasseh can be changed (2 Chr 33:11-23), so could they. We must leave that decision in God’s hands. But if I meet one of them in the Kingdom, I wouldn’t want to know whether he has been forgiven. I would want to know if he is safe to live next door to. When Isaiah meets King Manasseh in eternity, he won’t want to know if Manasseh has been forgiven. He will want to know if Manasseh can be trusted with a sharp saw, because Manasseh ordered that Isaiah be sawn in half inside a hollow log (based on 2 Kings 21:16, Heb 11:37 and the early Christian non-biblical text Martyrdom of Isaiah 4:12 – 5:14)!
So forgiveness alone is not enough. Just because God says, “I forgive you,” does not mean I’ve been changed in any way. Remember that Jesus on the cross forgave the people who rejected and tortured Him. They didn’t even want to be forgiven. So unless we respond to God’s forgiveness, and the kindness of God leads us to repentance and to trust, that forgiveness has done us no good. In the case of the centurion at the cross, at least, Jesus’ forgiveness changed his life.

Lou: So Jesus’ prayer for those who were crucifying Him represented the heart of God, how He actually felt towards them at that moment. But God’s forgiveness meant nothing to them unless they were open to receive it.

Graham: Right. Unless we respond, it will not make us safe to save.

Lou: I want to ask the same question, but in another way. Isn’t it enough to be justified? Do I also have to be sanctified? Are you saying here that the healing/trust model really challenges that kind of separation?

Graham: Very much so. Of course the words “justification” and “sanctification” do not occur in the Bible. They are English words drawn from the Latin. That doesn’t mean they are unimportant. But the Greek word (dikaiosunē) could be more literally translated “set right” or “put right” rather than “justification.” Now if a person has been set right with God, now loves and trusts Him, and is willing to listen; don’t you think that person would also say, “What else do You want me to do, Lord?”
“I want to heal you if you will cooperate.“
“Absolutely! Just tell me, and I’ll follow.”
Back to using the terms from your question, there’s no way to be justified without sanctification following. If you’re not willing to be kept right, you obviously haven’t been set right. So being set right and kept right are all part of the same package. They belong together.

Lou: But I worry a little about this. Consider the following question from the audience: “You’ve made it so complicated. There is so much to think about: justification, sanctification, and all of this. If what really is at stake is simply trusting God, why isn’t it enough to say, ‘I’m going to have the faith of a little child? I’ll just trust God, and don’t bother me with all the rest of this?’“

Graham: Let’s not underestimate the faith of a little child. The faith of a little child implies he or she is really willing to listen. So if we truly have the faith of a little child, we will be willing to listen and to be trusting, which is why small children need protection. They are too willing to trust just about anybody. But on the good side, the faith of a little child is wonderful. My grandchildren will sit there, listen, and believe anything Grandpa says. I could misuse that trust, but I won’t do it. Nevertheless, to have them sit and look and hang onto every word is beautiful. I love it. So if we have the faith of a little child, we’re sitting there listening to God and saying, “Tell me. Tell me more. Tell me more.” There’s no way to have the faith of a little child without following along and being healed. There’s no way to avoid it.

Lou: As I remember the little children in our house, they were trusting, but they also loved to ask “Why?”

Graham: Oh, that’s part of the faith of a little child.

Questions and Answers (14:8)

Lou: You referred to Job. If I remember correctly, God called Job a perfect person. And yet when you come to the end of the book of Job, it says he repented in dust and ashes. What did he have to repent of? What does repentance mean when God has said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? A good and perfect man”? Job 1:8.

Graham: That’s right. In the hearing of the on-looking universe God said, “Here is a perfect man.” And then the perfect man says, “I repent.” I think we are more inclined to point out Job’s repentance than God’s word that he is perfect. Under the pressure of bad advice from his friends, Job finally said, “God, I’m sorry I have talked about things beyond my understanding” (Job 42:1-3). And God immediately intervened and said, “Don’t give up, Job. You have done splendidly! You have said of Me what is right. Don’t let these three theologians discourage you. In fact, pray for them. They need a lot of help to know Me the way you do“ (Job 42:7-8).
We really need to take the book of Job as a whole. God said Job was perfect.
Job in his humility said, “God, I have said a lot, and I’ve said it with a great deal of feeling. If I seem the least bit irreverent, I repent.”
Then God could have said, “A man who is covered with boils and has lost his whole family; I can understand why you cry the way you have. You did not insult Me by this. You honored Me with your confidence.”
We will explore this in more depth in the next chapter, “Talking To God As A Friend.“ Job is a marvelous example of how freely we can talk to God, and still be reverent.

Lou: Let’s come back to this matter of perfection as “healing the damage done.” Does that include restoration both physically and mentally? It reminds me of a question someone sent in: “Will you please tell me why the people of the Old Testament lived longer than the people of our day? What gave them a longer life span? Does food have anything to do with our life span today?” I think that ties in with the topic of healing all the damage that has been done by sin.

Graham: It does. I love to read about Methuselah and how long he and his fellow patriarchs lived. Up until the Flood, they all lived a long time unless they were murdered, or translated, as Enoch was (based on Genesis 4 and 5—see especially Gen 4:23 and 5:23-24). I remember the first time I went through the sixty-six. And I wrote in my margin the declining ages of the patriarchs after the flood. It’s precipitous! Their ages drop from almost a thousand down to a little over a hundred. We have lost a great deal physically. We’re pygmies compared with Adam and Eve. Fortunately, we’ve all sort of withered up together so we look relatively respectable to each other, but if Adam and Eve were to walk into the room, we’d be embarrassed, wouldn’t we?
We need both physical healing and mental healing. But in this life, although we should do the best we can with the little that we have, we’re all getting older. Not until the earth made new will all that be restored. So some people say, “Well, if I can’t be physically and mentally perfect in this life, I guess I can’t be perfect in any way.“ No, spiritual perfection, perfection of character, is held out to us. God could say of us, as He did of Job, “I could trust you even through the Time of Trouble. I know you wouldn’t let Me down.“ Perfection is not a brittle thing. It is about being mature. It actually means just plain growing up. It is unnatural not to grow up.

Lou: Does a person have to be perfect in any sense of the term in order to be saved?

Graham: One can certainly be perfect in one’s willingness to listen. That willingness begins when one is converted, and to be converted is simply to reverse one’s course. The unconverted person is stubbornly unwilling to listen. The converted person is reverently and humbly willing to listen. One couldn’t do that if one didn’t have a new heart and a right spirit (Ezek 36:26). It is the marvelous work of the Holy Spirit that brings us to the conviction of truth (John 16:8-11), that leads me to want to reverse my direction. And since it is the work of God, it is perfectly done; but I would only be a perfect baby at that stage. God doesn’t need us to focus on our performance, but if I’m cheating in my willingness to listen, there’s something seriously wrong.

Questions and Answers (14:7)

Lou: As you were talking about perfection, I heard an emphasis on the generous gift of God, His eagerness to heal us and to make us well. It makes one wonder, who would want to be imperfect or continue to be ill when all this healing is available? Why do you think there has been so much debate on this subject?

Graham: Whole books have even been written about it. I suppose there are many reasons. One is that people who claim to be perfect can be quite insufferable. It has given perfection a bad name. Another reason people might avoid the subject is that perfection involves our behavior. And talking about behavior smacks of works, our having to do something. Many people are so concerned to make salvation by faith that they can’t fit this in.

Lou: How do you avoid the tendency to think in terms of your performance, to concentrate on how well or how poorly you’re doing?

Graham: I think your question goes back to things we’ve discussed before. What is it that went wrong in the universe, and what would it mean for God to set things right? If our problem is a legal one, our primary concern is to somehow set things right legally. In that case we might be trying to please the Father and persuade Him not to punish or destroy us. If my efforts toward perfection are in order to turn away His wrath and improve my legal standing, then that’s salvation by works.
In the case of the healing model, most of us have had a moment when we’ve not been well and have had to go to the physician. And we’ve heard the physician say, “Will you do the following?“ And the most logical thing in the world is to go home and do it. I don’t feel I’m being a legalist to do that. It seems to me that if I really trust my doctor, I will be willing to do what the doctor says. The only difference is my work is in harmony with the Divine Physician. I’m not trying to please the doctor, nor am I trying to improve my legal standing with the doctor. I’m trying to do what is for my own best good. The gracious Physician is saying, “Do the following. It will produce good results.” And I go home and work hard to follow the regimen that He recommends.

Lou: So it really is a question of motivation that makes all the difference.

Graham: Very much, your motivation and the model of salvation you are working with. The legal model has obscured the model of salvation as healing, and perfection as complete healing.

Lou: The concern with perfection sometimes leads people to evaluate one another on how well they are doing.

Graham: That’s another thing that has given perfection a bad name. It is the idea that “I have my own blueprint for perfection, and I’m getting closer and closer to it. But I can tell you’re pretty far behind in comparison!” Facing such an attitude can be quite discouraging. But who is it that does not want us to understand the good news that God would like to completely heal the damage done? The devil has many versions of perfection that are a corruption of the truth and are not good news. He uses one thing to confuse one person, and another thing to confuse another.

Lou: A lot of sincere discussion has centered around the question: Does perfection mean that one never makes a mistake? We might think, “If I could just be perfect, I wouldn’t make a mistake.“

Graham: This question recalls the time we discussed the meaning of sin. Sin is not just making a mistake. Sin is rebelliousness. Sin is a stubborn unwillingness to listen. Sin is a breach of trust. Imagine in the hereafter I plant a pomegranate tree a little too close to the house, and it gets bigger and bigger in the fertile soil there.
And the Lord comes by and says, “Say, you planted it too close to the house, didn’t you?”
And I’d say, “Yes, I did. Why didn’t You stop me?”
“It’s not a problem,” He’d say, “that’s how you learn. Pomegranate trees grow rather large up here. Plant it a little farther away.”
So I would proceed to move it.

Lou: You are making a distinction between a sin and a mistake.

Graham: Yes. There’s no sin in making a mistake like that. Not unless there is a spirit of rebelliousness within you, a stubborn unwillingness to accept advice, which would mean I’m not safe to have around in eternity.

Lou: But can a perfect person sin? Not just make mistakes, but actually sin?

Graham: What you are really asking is, can a perfect person ever rebel? Look at Lucifer, the most perfect of all God’s creation. He was still free and he exercised his freedom in rebellion. Think also of Adam and Eve. They were perfect, and they rebelled. So though God heals all the damage done by sin, He does not take away our freedom. We will still be free in the hereafter.

You Become Like the God(s) You Worship (14:6)

How does one grow up like this? How does one become perfect and mature? It is very simple, we are saved, we are healed, by faith. And faith, as we’ve discussed earlier, means trust. It means love. It means admiration. And that means a willingness to listen. It is a law in this orderly universe, that we will inevitably become like the person we worship and admire. We know that from experience. We also see it corroborated and confirmed in Scripture:

Then with unveiled faces we can all behold as in a mirror, the glory of the Lord. And we become changed into His likeness, from glory to glory, through the Spirit of the Lord working in us ( 2 Cor 3:18, Norlie).

This is how the Spirit works. He brings us the truth. He brings us the picture of God. He brings us all the evidence of Scripture. We look at the picture. We like what we see, and it changes us.

The same principle works in the other direction as well: “Those who make them [idols] will be like them, and so will all who trust in them” (Psa 115:8, NIV). It is inevitable that we will become like the person or the object we worship and admire. If we regard God as arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe, we too will become like that. History has borne out the truth of that, hasn’t it? Think of so many who have claimed to worship God, but having the devil’s picture of God, have been incredibly cruel in their treatment of other people, even as Paul was before the Damascus road.

On the other hand, we can look at God as He really is, as His Son proved Him to be, and as He is portrayed in the Scriptures. If we like and admire what we see there, if we worship the One we see there, then it is a law that we will become like Him. How absolutely essential, then, that we have a true picture of our God. The hazard of a false picture, if we prefer it, is that we will become like that. The trouble with this matter of perfection is that we tend to talk too much about perfection and not nearly enough about God. We tend to be preoccupied with our performance rather than being preoccupied with the truth about God.

Paul admits this was his error before the Damascus road. But when his picture of God changed, he became totally preoccupied with the truth, with Jesus Christ, with why Jesus had to die, and what this said about the Father. Look what it did to Paul from Damascus on, when he shifted his attention from his own performance to the good news about God. Look how he treated the problems in the city of Corinth with such incredible grace and skill. When he was through, he wrote: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ“ (1 Cor 11:1, RSV). Paul knew how it works. It is a law that we become like the one we worship and admire.

How very sad it is that God’s offer of perfect healing should be seen as a very forbidding and burdensome requirement. It is the cause of much anxiety and fear, and sometimes even the subject of heated criticism and debate. As our Physician Father, God has offered to make us completely well and to completely heal all the damage done. Our part is not to heal ourselves. Our part is to cooperate. As Jesus said to the paralytic at the pool, “Would you like to be well? Would you like to be made whole?” John 5:6. Perfection is not a command, it’s a generous offer. How could we possibly turn such an offer down?

The Meaning of Perfection (14:5)

What does it mean to be perfect? How perfect must one be in this life? Suppose you saw someone who never swore, never gambled, never smoked, never drank, never stole anything, never lost his temper, never broke the Sabbath. Would you be looking at a perfect person? I hope not, because you could be in an anatomy building, looking at a well-preserved corpse. Corpses never do anything bad, but they never do anything good either. They just never do anything, which is a rather popular view of perfection.

In the early days of the church, the number one exponent of that view was a man by the name of Simeon, a member of the church in Antioch. He so much wanted to overcome sin, that as soon as he could afford it, he got material and built himself a small pillar. He climbed up on top, but found it was not tall enough. So he got more material and built on it until it was sixty feet high. He perched on top of that pillar for 30 years until he died. Think of all the bad things you cannot do on top of a sixty-foot pillar. So they called him Saint Simeon Stylites.

Other members of the church envied his perfect life, and as soon as they could afford it, they built pillars all around the area. Pretty soon most of the members were perched on pillars. So Simeon founded a whole order in the church, known as the Order of the Stylites; the order of the pole-sitters. Is that how the saints are going to be found when the Lord comes, all perched on pillars? They are of no use to anybody, but they never do anything wrong either.
Is that the best definition of perfection? The absence of doing wrong?

There is a much more positive approach to perfection. That is to understand that the very word in the Bible (Greek: teleiotês) means “completed” or full-grown. When referring to animals or human beings, it means mature, or grown up physically. It is generally used in the New Testament for spiritual maturity (1 Cor 2:6; 14:20; Eph 4:13; Heb 5:14). So to be perfect means to be mature. And one version, at least, has it that way in Matthew 5:48: “You must become spiritually mature, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Norlie). You see, when someone is converted, when they are won back to trust, and the procedure of healing begins, the change is so great that it is like being born all over again. Jesus said this to Nicodemus: “I am telling you the truth: no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.” John 3:3, GNB. Do you remember Nicodemus’ response? He thought that was a little too much to believe (John 3:4). That is how great the change is.

That’s why Paul interpreted baptism the way he did. Baptism by immersion symbolizes the great change in a person’s life. “By our baptism we were buried with Him in death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glorious power, we also should live an entirely new life.” Rom 6:4, Weymouth. Baptism by immersion represents this new life best. It is like washing the dishes. It doesn’t do much good just to sprinkle them a little—though our children might try that short cut sometimes. The word “baptize” means to dip, to immerse.

This is recognized by many scholars, including Roman Catholic scholars. In a footnote to Romans 6:3-4 in the Roman Catholic New Testament by Kleist and Lilly, you can read the following: “St. Paul alludes to the manner in which baptism was ordinarily conferred in the primitive Church, by immersion. The descent into the water is suggestive of the descent of the body into the grave, and the ascent is suggestive of the resurrection to a new life.” Could it be said much better than that? That is why many Christians still symbolize the beginning of healing through baptism by immersion. At the time of baptism, of course, Christians are just beginners. Paul and Peter call them babes in the truth (Rom 2:20; 1 Cor 3:1; 1 Pet 2:2; Heb 5:13), and babies need a great deal of protection. Yet even at that beginning stage, God treats them as if they had never sinned, as if they had always been His loyal children.

Does that mean that since He is so generous, it is all right to remain “babes in the truth?” Or does God want us to grow up into perfection and maturity? We know from the Biblical record that it disturbed Paul a great deal when, even after a few months, he found that the Christian converts were still babes in the truth (1 Cor 3:1-3). When a child’s physical development is delayed, we become very worried, don’t we? When a child’s mental development is delayed, we are even more concerned. But when a Christian adult is spiritually immature, we say, “Isn’t that precious? Isn’t that sweet? He still has the faith of a little child.” But the most serious of all conditions is to be spiritually immaturity. Notice what the Bible says about this:

. . . though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truth of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature [Greek: teleiôs], who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity. . . . Heb 5:12 – 6:1, NIV.

The author of Hebrews essentially urges new believers to “grow up.” Compare that passage with Paul’s advice to the believers in Ephesus:

His gifts were made that Christians might . . . arrive at real maturity [Greek: teleion]. . . . We are not meant to remain as children, at the mercy of every chance wind of teaching, and of the jockeying of men who are expert in the crafty presentation of lies. But we are meant to speak the truth in love, and to grow up in every way into Christ. . . . Eph 4:12, 14-15, Phillips.

Paul says in Ephesians that the whole purpose of the church is to help people grow up to perfection and maturity. The Bible explains why. Daniel 12 (verse 10), the Book of Revelation (chapters 13 and 16), and the warnings of Christ (Matt 24:24-27) and of Paul (2 Thess 2:8-12), tell us that we face a time of confusion and deception such as the world has never seen. If we are still babes in the truth then, we will never survive. And so God in mercy waits for us to grow up, and to be as settled into the truth as Job was. This topic is so important for the church that we will invest a whole chapter (Eighteen) on it, under the title “God Waits For His Children To Grow Up.“ This is even the reason for His merciful delay of the Second Coming. You see, it is not an arbitrary requirement that we grow up. It is absolutely necessary if we’re going to survive in the end times. We must not be satisfied to be babes in the truth; but we must grow up and be able to distinguish between right and wrong.

There is another way of looking at perfection: we can look at it as perfect obedience to God’s law. The perfect person is the one who is perfectly obedient. That might sound arbitrary until one takes another look at God’s law. You see, God’s law is no threat to our freedom. All God asks of us is love. But what does it mean to love? “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Cor 13:4-5, RSV). Isn’t that the description of a grown-up person? To really obey God’s commandments is to simply grow up; to be a safe and pleasant person to live next door to.

Matt 5:48: Command or Promise? (14:4)

Let’s come back to Matthew 5:48. There is an issue in the translation of Matthew 5:48 (“Be ye therefore perfect,” KJV) that we need to look at. The original language here is not entirely clear. Is it a promise or is it a command? Does it read “you must be perfect,” or “you will be perfect?” The key word (Greek: esesthe) is in the future tense. It literally means, “You will be perfect.” You can’t tell from that if it is a promise or a command. It can be simply a future statement: “You will be perfect.” Or it can be a command, as when a sergeant puts up a sign saying, “There will be no smoking in the barracks.” That use of the future is the equivalent of a command.

Notice how other versions have rendered Matthew 5:48. First of all, from the Good News Bible: “You must be perfect.” Second, from the American Standard Version, “Ye therefore shall be perfect.” They each expressed their choice as strongly as possible. On the other hand, Goodspeed, ever the skillful translator, brought into English both meanings of the Greek (and others, like the NASB, have followed his example), “You are to be perfect.” Which is it, a promise or a command? Some of you are familiar with the words in Desire of Ages, “This command is a promise” (page 311). What insight that shows into the meaning of the verse! Now if it is a command, it could be terrifying. We have to be perfect or else! It would certainly be terrifying if we didn’t know the One who has asked us to be perfect. But that is the subject of all sixty-six books of the Bible and the subject of the earlier chapters of this book. Scripture as a whole reassures us about the One who said we must be, or will be perfect.

We find a beautiful picture of God in the cases of David and Solomon, as described in 1 Kings 9:4-5 and 11:4-6. God spoke to Solomon: “If you walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness. . . . I will establish your royal throne” (1 Kings 9:4-5, RSV). Do you remember David’s life and all the awful things he did? Yet here we have God describing David. “He walked before me with integrity of heart and uprightness.” Then it tells us, “When Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods. And his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father.” 1 Kings 11:4, RSV. “Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done.” 1 Kings 11:6, RSV. David did some terrible things, but evidently his heart stayed “wholly true” to God throughout! Can you imagine having to deal with David’s problems in a church board meeting? Most boards would censure and even disfellowship him periodically. Yet through it all God could say that David walked before Him with “integrity of heart.” What do you think of a God who would describe David in that way?

What about Solomon? How were his sins different than David? The Bible tells us that his heart went after other gods, some of them are even listed in verses 5 and 7. He did what David never did. David never left God to go after other gods. Solomon did. He even went after the most disgusting of the gods, as some of the versions translate it. Yet at the end of his life he came to his senses and God took him back. Did he become a second-class member of the family from then on? Not at all! God even said to Solomon, “Write Me another book for the Bible.” And Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes after living such a life. According to 2 Peter, what kind of people write books in the Bible? “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” 2 Pet 1:21, KJV. Holy people wrote the Bible.

How could God describe Solomon as one of the holy men of God? A man who devoted himself to abominable pagan gods? The lives of Solomon and David do not speak too well of them, but what does this passage tell us about our God? We like to cite the promise that He will treat us as if we had never sinned. But these stories are not promises; they are facts. They are evidence. God demonstrated in His treatment of David and Solomon that He really will treat us as if we had always been His loyal children. And there are many other examples like them in the Bible. That is the kind of God who wants us to be perfect. Do we have any need to be afraid of Him?

The Biblical Meaning of Salvation (14:3)

As we considered last time, we have all sinned and we continue to come short of God’s glorious ideal (based on Romans 3:23). You recall that sin is rebelliousness and disorderliness. Sin is cheating on our relationships. Sin is knowing what’s right to do and not doing it. Sin is a breakdown of trust. We have so damaged ourselves that, left alone, we would die. Would it be enough for God to say, “I forgive you?” Would forgiveness alone heal the damage done? Or would we still die?

If you believe that eternal torture is the penalty for sinning, then forgiveness would be your primary concern, so God won’t have to torture you after all. Just think how that cruel teaching about eternal torture has cast its hellish shadow over the picture of God and the plan of salvation.

If you are afraid of God, then it is wonderful to hear Him say, “I forgive you.” And He has said that, hasn’t He? Many times. But heaven is not going to be filled with pardoned criminals. It wouldn’t be safe. Heaven will be filled with healed, changed, trustworthy saints. God proposes to set right everything that has gone wrong, to completely heal the damage done by rebellion and distrust.

It is most significant to know that the word “salvation” means, essentially, healing. To be saved is to be healed. In a more legal understanding of the plan of salvation, to be saved is more to be forgiven. It is like having your fire insurance paid up, so you can be admitted to eternity. In the trust/healing model, on the other hand, salvation means healing the damage done. This is made plain in many places in Scripture.

Let’s use Luke 18:42 as an example. In the King James Version, Jesus said to the blind man: “Receive thy sight: thy faith hath saved thee.” But in the New International Version, it reads: “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” The Greek word is exactly the same, sôzô. This word is sometimes translated “I save” and sometimes “I heal.” This double meaning of sôzô can be found multiple times in the New Testament (Luke 7:50; 8:48, 50; 17:19; see also Acts 16:30, referenced above). Luke’s wording is powerful evidence for the trust/healing model of salvation. But there is much more.