A Courteous Contrararian

Real Perfection

Written By: Jon - Jul• 09•12

We don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood except that he grew in wisdom and stature. That he grew in stature is apparent; we’re first told of an infant and later we see him as a grown man. At first thought, the idea that he grew in wisdom was much more interesting. But then I realized that he didn’t speak parables that first Silent Night. Wisdom and stature were linked, as is common to all of us.

Jesus progressed like we do. At twelve, he amazed the teachers at the Temple. About that time, he must have attained sexual maturity. He faced the same temptations we do, yet was without sin.

We’re told he began his ministry at about 30 years of age. I wonder how old he looked. Perhaps he looked younger, untouched by the early ravages of sin.  Or older, bearing the face of the man who had the weight of the world on his shoulders. “O Jerusalem … how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” – Matthew 23:37 NIV

What if Jerusalem had been willing? What if he had indeed gathered her children together?

I’m not an alternate history buff, but it seems like it must have at least been a possibility. If it wasn’t possible, if it was only a fantasy, why would Jesus have longed for it so often. I’d like to entertain the possibility for a few paragraphs.

Perhaps he would have become what the OT predicted, but all at once: the victorious Messiah come to rule first Israel and then all the world in peace and justice. But then what?

Wouldn’t he have gotten old and died? That was the arc of his life; the way he was headed. He was a man, a descendant of Mary and of Adam, and death had spread to all men.

Yet he was without sin. We’ve been taught that the wages of sin is death. How could he die without a reason? Where would be the justice in that?

Maybe he would be alive today, having just celebrated his 2015th birthday. Since he matured at the common pace, if not faster, in wisdom and stature, he would look unimaginably old. I’m not glad that he had to die but I’m glad he got the first glorified body.

Maybe in our glorified bodies, we will look like ourselves at eighteen, or better yet, what we would have looked like at eighteen if we were sinless. Maybe that’s why the disciples didn’t recognize him at first. Maybe they thought, I know that face but I just can’t place it.  They wouldn’t have scanned their memories for the faces of dead people. And then he spoke, or moved in a certain way, with a certain mannerism, and they knew.

In our alternate universe, if Jesus had died at a ripe old age, what would it mean? Would his death have accomplished penal substitution? In this future, we would not be his killers, he would have succumbed to the laws of our fallen world. Could he have atoned for us without the accompanying shame, rejection, and torture?

I think the rules of penal substitution would force us to answer in the affirmative. Either way, he died sinless to counterbalance our receiving life while yet sinful. Either way, the demands of substitutionary atonement would have been met. But then why did he have to endure all he did? Why were his years cut so tragically short?

Hebrews tells us Jesus was made perfect through suffering. I knew he was the perfect man, but I hadn’t known that he didn’t achieve perfection until the end. How could a sinless man not be perfect? We keep piling up questions in our little thought experiment as we attempt answers. Hebrews tells us he had to suffer. But did he have to suffer for us or did he have to suffer to become perfect?

The answer that occurred to me comes from a passage in The Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus explained perfection. He first taught that we’ve got no shot at staying sinless (because of pride) in Matthew 5:20-7. Then he gave us something different to strive for. He wanted us to give witness through extraordinary acts. In 44-47, Jesus tells us to love our enemies because the Father loves everyone. It is our only shot at perfection; not to be sinless, but to love everyone like the Father loves everyone. How do we know this? By the therefore in verse 48. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:48 NIV.

This is how Jesus was perfected as a man, I think. By showing that much love.  It’s not that he didn’t show that much love prior to the Passion, it’s just that he had to show it to the end, despite the torture, shame, and rejection. His degree of suffering was meant to show he loves us no matter what. No matter what what he had to endure and no matter what we do. That was his goal.

His goal wasn’t to die. Death was just the means, the instrument he played. Had he died a natural death, it would have been the same. Either way would have been efficacious as long as he rose from the dead. Death was the tool and death was the enemy. He defeated death through spiritual judo, he used the weight of death against death. He defeated death by dying, and rising again.

Love was the reason he had to suffer. He can say he lived a perfect live from beginning to end, because he loves us no matter what.

There is a debate afoot: Penal Substitution vs. Christus Victor. Christ’s victory is defeating sin and death. Both sides generally concede that both sides are true, but argue about which is more prominent. Is the greatest act in human history to save us from wrath by taking that wrath upon himself? Or was it to lead the captives free through irrational, perfect love?

Did he die so the Father could love us or did he love us so much he was willing to die? Which was the motivating factor? If it is the first, we have a logic problem. We have a Savior who loved us so much as to die for us at a time when the Father was incapable of embracing us because of our sin. The unity of God would be destroyed as we see Jesus doing something he didn’t see his Father doing.

Jesus’ perfection through suffering, his love despite the pain, and his willingness to take that pain as an emblem of how much he loves us, leaves us with the ultimate reassurance. God is love and always has been.

Divine atonement was God’s radical solution, and necessary, but it was motivated by his love for humanity. Love is preeminent.




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