Can humans live a perfect life? In what way is...

Jesus, The Christian's Example

Harold J. Ockenga: Christians are called to follow Jesus Christ. When we worship Him as the God-man, the Mediator, the Savior, and the eternal King, there is a tendency to forget His human nature. Some years ago a sermon was published under the title, "The Peril of Worshiping Jesus." It was by a leading modernist. His argument was that the worship of Jesus removed Him from us as an example, a standard, and a companion. We, who worship Him as the Son of God, should recognize the danger of putting Him on a pedestal, elevating Him far above human experience, and thus removing Him as our Example.

The following of Jesus is as essential to the Christian life as is the worshiping of Christ. We should take Him as God to worship (John 20:28) and as Man to follow. This is the implication of His dual nature. His human nature leads us to follow Him in self-denial, in sacrifice, and in service. It is folly to leave this aspect of following to a modernist, who believes only in the moral influence of the Cross, not in its nature as the substitutionary Atonement; who accepts Jesus only as a man who appropriated God rather than as the unique Son of God, whom we worship (Matt. 14:33, 28:9).

The Threefold Commandment of Jesus

"For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: (22) Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: (23) Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: (24) Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. (25) For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls." (1 Peter 2:21-25)

Peter wrote these words to Christians scattered abroad through Asia Minor. His injunction to follow Jesus was stimulated by his own memory of the thrice-repeated commandment of the Lord to him. The first was given while he was engaged in the labor of fishing in the lake of Galilee. Jesus walked by the sea, saw Simon and his brother casting a net into the sea, and said unto them: "Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men" (Mark 1:16,17).

The next occasion was at Caesarea Philippi when Peter made his great confession of Christ's Deity, the confession that was followed by the revelation from Jesus about the inevitability of His Cross. Then Jesus said to His disciples, particularly Peter, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Matt. 16:24).

The third time was by the lake of Galilee, following the Resurrection of Jesus. He had appeared to His disciples, shared with them a post-resurrection meal, and elicited from Peter his confessions of love and faithfulness. When He was leaving, Peter followed Him. When Peter turned and saw John also following Him, Peter said to the Lord, "What shall this man do?" Jesus said to Simon, "If I will that he tarry until I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou me" (John 21:21,22). As Peter grew older the command "Follow me" lingered definitely in his mind.

The Jesus we are to follow is the Jesus who walked among men. This truth is illustrated in John 1:29 and the verses following. When John the Baptist and two of his disciples saw Jesus as He walked in their midst, John declared, "Behold the Lamb of God," and the disciples who heard him speak followed Jesus. It was as Jesus walked this way and that way in human circumstances that we are now to follow Him. We must follow Him in our business deals, in our social relationships, and at the points of stress in life. The daily walk of those who follow Jesus should be higher, nobler, and far better than that of the world. Jesus Himself asked His disciples, "What do ye more than others?" (Matt. 5:47) Are you more courteous, more honest, more pure, more kind, more generous, more useful, more helpful?

In years gone by children learned to write by following a copyhead placed either in a written display or on a blackboard. Laboriously we pupils learned how to imitate those letters of the alphabet. When my boy was five years of age he received several birthday gifts. Therefore he dictated a letter that his mother wrote, and he copied it laboriously in order to send it to those whom he wished to thank. This is the sort of copyhead that God has given us in the Person of Jesus Christ. His holiness, meekness, calmness, courtesy, and humility set an example that we should follow. Peter says that we should follow His steps. What then are the steps that we are to follow?

Was Jesus truly human?
Could Jesus have sinned?

The Bible explains that Jesus was tempted (tested) in all points like as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15) If Jesus could not sin, then he certainly wasn't tested like as we are. A test isn't a test unless we can fail it! Satan wouldn't have bothered with the 3 great temptations if he didn't think there was a chance Jesus would have sinned!

The Epistle to the Hebrews explains that Jesus is now our effective high priest in Heaven, and can intercede for us before God Our Father, because Jesus has been through everything we go through.
"Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people." Hebrews 2:17
If Jesus could not sin, then He was was not made like us. He certainly did not go through what we go through.

If Jesus had sinned, then the fate of every human being would have been eternal death, because there is only one name, Jesus, under Heaven whereby we can be saved (Acts 4:12). So if Jesus had failed, no one would be saved.

I. The Sinlessness of Our Savior

The first step that Peter singles out is the purity of the sinlessness of Christ. The Apostle says, "who did no sin, neither was guile to be found in his mouth" (1 Peter 2:22). The sinlessness of Christ is a doctrine plainly taught in the Bible and also affirmed in Christian teaching. He possessed a nature like unto ours. He did not take upon Him the nature of angels, but He took upon Him the seed of Abraham. "Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren" (Heb. 2:17). Thus He was tempted in all points like as we are, yet did not sin. Having been so tempted, He is able to help us when we are tempted (Heb. 2:17-18; 4:15,16).

The temptations, testings, and trials of Christ exhaust everything that befalls the believer. At the beginning of His ministry a great series of temptations occurred. First came the temptation to pride. After His fasting forty days in the wilderness, Satan said, "If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread" (Matt. 4:3). This was the temptation to use His power and authority selfishly. What politician, businessman, or leader has not met this temptation to pride?

The second was the temptation to presumption. The devil took Him to the Holy City and set Him on a pinnacle of the temple, and said, "If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, 'He shall give His angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone'" (Matt. 4:6). This was a quotation from the ninety-first psalm (Psa. 91:11), which was a Messianic passage containing the promise given of God directly to the Messiah. And yet, if Jesus had used His power for personal display, He would have presumed on the goodness and the grace of God. Presumption is a sin from which we all need to be preserved. So let each of us pray with David, "Keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins" (Psa. 19:13).

The third temptation was to position. Satan took him to an exceeding high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, and said, "All these things will I give thee if thou wilt fall down and worship me" (Matt. 4:9). In a moment of time, in kaleidoscopic fashion, the vision of the great kingdoms of the world passed before the mind of the Messiah. As the prince of this world Satan offered Him the Kingdom that was to be His rightfully, but only after He had obtained it through the sufferings and the humiliation of the Cross. For some such power and fame, men have surrendered virtue, integrity, and life itself.

In addition to this series of temptations, Jesus endured the grim demands made upon Him by hunger, weariness, sleeplessness, misunderstanding, mockery, hatred, and every other trial that can possibly come to a human being in a world of sin. Finally, in Gethsemane He faced the temptation of refusing to drink the cup that not only contained every human sorrow, but also the curse of the broken law, the guilt of sin, and the wrath of God. It was the facing of this temptation and trial that caused Him to agonize with sweat like drops of blood. That was a dark trial which demanded all His powers.

In all these temptations, trials, and testings Jesus was triumphant. He did not fall. In every form of human temptation all hell assailed Him, so that the inspired writer could say that He "was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15). Whatever your temptation, whatever your trial, whatever your tribulation, whatever your testing, remember that the Lord Jesus has met it before you and has triumphed over it all. Hence the testimony that Jesus had before men was one of sinlessness. In the Scriptures He is declared to be "holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners" (Heb. 7:26). Peter declares, "Neither was guile found in his mouth" (1 Peter 2:22). Thus Jesus announced, "The prince of this world cometh and findeth nothing in me" (John 14:30). Pilate declared, "I find no fault in this man" (Luke 23:4). The thief on the cross said, "He hath done nothing amiss" (Luke 23:41). The centurion who watched Him die exclaimed, "Truly this was the Son of God!" (Mark 15:39). Christ's own challenge to His generation was this, "Which of you convinceth [convicts] me of sin?" (John 8:46). What a life He led! He came to do the will of God (Heb. 10:7), and when Christ came to the end of His days He could declare, "I have finished the work thou gavest me to do" (John 17:4). Yes, Jesus lived a life without sin.

The Purity of His Character

What was the source of such a character? The answer is threefold. First, His knowledge of the Word. In the midst of His great temptations it was by the Word that He repulsed Satan. His quotations from the Bible came from the Book of Deuteronomy, which He accepted as the Word of God. In answer to the first temptation He declared, "Man shall not live by bread alone" (Deut. 8:8). To the second, "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God" (Deut. 6:16). To the third, "Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve" (Duet.6:13) - If the Lord Jesus was able to vanquish the devil by quotations from the Word of God, then the security of the believer must rest in the degree to which he has saturated his mind with the Word of God, and has it ready for use as the sword of the Spirit. Such a mastery can come only by constant reading, by memorization, and by meditation upon the Bible.

The second source of His sinless life was prayer. It is interesting to study the way that Jesus prayed. The Gospels tell us that He arose a great while before day and went out to commune with God; that He prayed at His meals; and that He uttered ejaculatory [exclamation] prayers. We read of seasons that He devoted to prayer, such as His forty days in the wilderness. We learn about nights that He spent in prayer, such as the night before He chose His disciples, the night following the day when people tried to make Him king, and the night in Gethsemane. What then shall we conclude about our need of prayer? If Jesus, the incarnation of the Word and the perfect Man, needed prayer for strength and help, for fellowship and victory, how much more do we as His followers need to pray without ceasing!

The third secret of victory in Jesus' life was the Holy Spirit. We read that the Father gave Him the Spirit without measure (John 3:34). When He began His public ministry it was with the quotation of a text from Isaiah 61: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he hath anointed me to preach the Gospel." Jesus needed the Holy Spirit in order to live in a way acceptable to God. How much more do we! In these days of our pilgrimage we stand desperately in need of what the Spirit did for Him in the days of His flesh. We need enlightenment and guidance, grace and empowering, all of which are mediated through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

If we are to follow in the steps of our Lord Jesus, there should be in us a similitude to His purity. Such purity we may obtain through the forgiveness of our sins and the cleansing from their guilt. Faith in the atoning Sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ upon the Cross brings the believer a declarative righteousness. The regeneration wrought by the Holy Spirit initiates a pure life. As a result there is lodged in the heart and mind of the believer a longing for purity and a hatred of anything that is impure.

Purity demands obedience to God, a walking in the light as God reveals to us His truth and way. "If we walk in the light as He is in the light we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin" (1 John 1:7). Whether it be in sport, in music, or in work, a parent does not give a child new lessons until he walks in the ones that he already has in hand. The same holds true in our spiritual lives. By observing the means of grace, by attention and heed to the Word of God, by the practice of prayer, by engaging in worship, by bearing testimony, we can achieve purity more and more like that of our Lord.

II. The Patience under Trial

The second step Peter here declares we are to follow is that of Christ's patience under trial. This He first revealed in His attitude toward others. Said Peter, "Who when he was reviled, reviled not again" (1 Peter 2:22). No man was ever more reviled than the Lord Jesus Christ. Before Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate they mocked Him, they set Him at naught, they examined Him, and they accused Him; but He bore it all meekly and patiently. In all this Peter had to learn that he was to follow the example of Christ.

Let us remember that the Lord Jesus had respect for men. He always treated an individual as an end in himself, and never as a means to an end. He conferred dignity, honor, and value upon the individual. Moreover, He always ministered to men in love, seeking to help them and heal them, one by one. He demonstrated a permanent concern in teaching, as in the Sermon on the Mount; in exhorting, as in His Parables, and in admonishing. Those who would follow Him now must develop His kind of patience in all sorts of human relations.

This is the antithesis of the world's attitude. As Peter said, "When he suffered he threatened not" (1 Peter 2:23). The world's view is that we ought to stand upon our rights, and claim our legal privileges; that we should endure nothing with patience, but return evil for evil, and blow for blow. In the Merchant of Venice Shakespeare expresses this point of view. In the famous speech of Shylock about the pound of flesh he says, "If it will do nothing else it will bait my revenge." But the world's attitude is not that of our Lord or of the Christian who follows His steps. He must be willing to bear evil rather than inflict it. He must be ready to forgive rather than seek revenge.

This truth is aptly expressed by our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:45-48). However, some declare that the Sermon on the Mount is not for this present age. Interestingly enough, in paraphrasing the Sermon on the Mount, Paul expresses the same truth as applicable to the Christian in his system of ethics now. Peter pronounces an song of praise upon the servant who endures grief, suffering wrongfully. This is thankworthy, because it goes beyond the powers of the natural man (1 Pet. 2:19,20).

Such patience under trial is the achievement of faith. Peter declared that Christ "committed himself to Him that judgeth righteously" (1 Peter 2:23). No one can take this attitude toward life unless He has committed himself to God. Such a committed life is dependent upon faith. One must believe in God as omnipotent and omniscient, as sovereign and holy. Only such a faith can undergird a committed life. It is because we believe in God that we are able to express our faith by a definite act of self-commitment to His goodness and control. This attitude of life expresses trust. It is submission to His working out of our problem, His answering our need, His undertaking on our behalf. This is the hardest lesson for faith to learn. It implies a sense of rest. He who commits a matter to God leaves it there. Such faith believes that in due time God will fully vindicate the Christian. Many times the vindication will come in this world, and again it may not come until the judgment. God is righteous, and we may leave our vindication with Him.

This sort of life is courageous. On the basis of such a philosophy, it is a life with ability to face with patience any kind of suffering, as Paul expresses it, "If we suffer with Him, we shall reign with him" (2 tim. 2:12). This is a conquering life. To such a life the Lord imparts a quality of peace and internal tranquility. It manifests power, and gains the victory over external obstacles. Look at the example of Jesus, with His calm acceptance of every emergency and every other situation in life. He never hurried. He was always in possession of Himself and in control of the situation.

III. His Purpose in Redemption

As an illustration of the third step we are to follow in the life of our Lord, Peter now introduces one of the greatest truths in all his writings. Here is one of the noblest statements about the vicarious Atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ, and yet it is introduced as an illustration of how we are to live. This corresponds with Paul's introduction of the Incarnation to illustrate our call to humility (Phil. 2:5-11). Peter said, "Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sin, should live unto righteousness" (1 Peter 2:24).

This describes the redemptive work of Christ. It places Peter squarely with Isaiah (53), with Paul (2 Cor. 5:21), with John (1:29; Rev. 1:7), and with the other Bible writers about His death on the Cross. That it was substitutionary was declared by the saying, "He bare our sins." That His Death on the Cross was a satisfaction for sin, and not a mere example for exhortation, is self-evident. Peter believed in the declarative expiation [atonement of sins past] and propitiation [reconciliation with God] of Christ; and as he here explained, it was sufficient to make the sinner righteous through faith. Peter here pictures the sufferings of Christ on Calvary as far more than a physical death. The Apostle shows that the sufferings constituted His taking of our sins in His own body, as the bearing of the penalty of judgment upon them. He was the Victim offered on the altar for sin.

Peter also revealed that such redemptive work bore regenerative fruit. "We being dead to sins should live unto righteousness" (1 Peter 2:24). Moral influence over the life of the believer flows from Calvary. Nothing so moves his heart and life as this loving sacrifice of Christ. It is the strongest impetus we have for the termination of the old life in sin, and the initiation of the new life in righteousness. Peter here suggests the mystical union of the believer with Christ in life and in death, all through faith. Christ not only died for us; we also died with Him. The result is that we should bear much fruit in righteousness; we should live the life of the Spirit and bear the fruits of the Spirit.

The Apostle then refers to the soundness, or healing, of the individual through this suffering of Christ. "By his stripes ye are healed" (1 Peter 2:24). Our healing is directly connected with the suffering of Christ. There is a possible connection between the healing of men and the undeserved suffering that the believer accepts in his redemptive living. In the proportion that he voluntarily identifies himself with the Cross of Christ he contributes to the healing of others (Cf. Col. 1:24-27). We may not be able to understand the full implications of this truth, but it has a bearing upon the lives of others. The perfection of the saints, like the perfection of their Leader, comes through suffering (Heb. 2:10). Therefore we ought not to despise suffering, but we should follow Christ in this step also. We are not greater than our Lord. There is a corresponding relationship between our suffering for Christ and our being glorified.

Peter then concludes with a look at Jesus as our Chief Shepherd. "For ye were as sheep going astray, but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls" (1 Peter 2:25). There is a definition of sin as "going astray." So Isaiah describes it: "everyone turned to his own way" (53:6). Whether in matters great or little, sin is the seeking of my will rather than God's. It is disobedience to law, asserting independence, revolt against authority. While we are in this condition, following the example of Jesus is futile. No one can become a Christian merely by following Christ's example. Far more than that is needed. First there must be reconciliation with God through acceptance of Christ's Death for us, and through our identity with Christ in life and in death.

Next, Peter describes conversion. "Ye . . . are now returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls." This is a picture of repentance and returning, of faith and obedience, all of which is postulated upon the redemptive work of Christ in taking our sins in His body on the tree. Past sin must be dealt with before present following is possible.

Then Peter speaks about the direction of one's life by the "Shepherd and Bishop of your souls." Thus we may follow, obey, and conform to the life of Jesus (Heb. 12:1,2). Let us therefore be followers of Christ.

Sermon preached by Harold J. Ockenga of the Park Street Church, Boston, 1958


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