When you read Jesus’s words, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matthew 5:48) it’s all too easy to wonder for a brief moment how that could be, and then go about your day, forgetful of the awkward sense of impossibility you felt, until the next time you read or hear that verse. But it’s always there, haunting the back of your mind: God demands perfection! That’s not me! What sacrifice is left for me?
There’s good news, of course, in the context, in the original language, and in the realization that, as James MacDonald likes to put it, God has made no provision for you to live the Christian life in your own strength, intelligence, or ability – it’s better than that!
In context, love both friend and enemy.
The first place to start when studying a verse is the immediate context. In this case, the common heading for this section is “Love Your Enemies,”
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
In this helpful Hermeneutics Stack Exchange answer, the author concisely lays out for us that just as God shows (acts out) love towards both those who are evil and those who are good–“He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous“–we too must love both friend and enemy, if we want to follow God.
The context reveals to us that the way in which we are to be perfect is to love one another. The same Stack Exchange answer answer mentioned above also answers the objections that it is overreaching to equate “perfection” with “love,” and quotes Romans, Galatians, James, and John, in support showing this is how the apostles understood love.
The Greek of Perfection
It’s helpful at this point to look at the original language, Greek*, in surviving manuscripts, for the word translated “perfect”. We are tempted to read the word “perfect” or “perfection” in personal terms, when reading Jesus’s teachings to us, and in all-encompassing terms in relation to our characteristics and abilities. We are not perfect, we know that, and we also know we, at our absolute best, will never, ever, be perfect. That’s about the moment it begins to feel awkward having Jesus tell us, ‘be perfect as I am perfect.‘
*The Book of Matthew is well understood to have been written in Hebrew or Aramaic, to fellow Jews in their own language, but our only surviving manuscripts found so far are in Greek.
Bible Hub.com is a great tool to easily look up words in the original language. Check out Matthew 5:48 on Bible Hub, then click Greek near the top-middle of the screen to view the Greek words in a table, then click the Greek word for “perfect,” τέλειοι (teleioi), to view a list of verses in the bible that use the same Greek word and how they are translated in English there. You’ll see translations of the Greek word such as be mature, be men, be full grown [in your thinking], and of course, perfect, entire, complete, etc.
In this sense, it helps me to understand what Jesus is saying is not simply ‘I must think/act/be perfect,’ as if I were able in my own abilities, but ‘I must fully understand love’ or ‘I must be complete in who I love.’ This helps us get away from focusing on our clear and obvious failings.
Oh, one more thing, you must think, act, and actually be perfect.
Didn’t I just say it’s not about being perfect? Ya, sort of, -ish, not really, though, because what I said was it’s “not simply” about thinking, acting, and being perfect. As Jesus said, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) This is when my mind reaches for that exasperated response of the Apostles, ‘Who then can be saved??’ (Luke 18:26; very out of context here but the exasperation is apt).
Now, the Pharisees were the ultra-perfect of the day. They kept the Law and they let everyone know it. Note how Jesus words it, though, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Ack! Who then can be saved?!
Seriously, Jesus seems to be saying contradictory things here. We must be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect and the Pharisees aren’t even perfect enough.
How does this even work?
One hint lies in the context where Jesus said those words,
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
The hint is there when Jesus said “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” The Law brought righteousness to those who could keep the Law. Nobody could keep the Law. Nobody was righteous. Then Jesus, who is God and righteous, came and kept the Law. He needed no sacrifice for sins.
So, when He hung and died on the cross, doing His Father’s Will, He was the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) Jesus was our sacrifice for our sins, and when God sees Jesus’s blood, attributed to those who believe Jesus is their only hope before the Heavenly Father, God passes over us. Selah. Pause, and calmly think on that. Jesus is our righteousness. Jesus is our perfection.
But, where is my righteousness now?
Jesus may have been our righteousness through His sacrifice on the cross but that happened a long time ago. Jesus ascended to Heaven. Where is my perfection now? I certainly don’t feel it.
This is the mystery God spoke from the beginning, revealed to you, and of which Paul said of the Holy Spirit given us after Jesus ascended,
The mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. –Colossians 1:26-27
Jesus, Christ, lives in you as the Holy Spirit. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one and three, the same but distinct. You have the Holy Spirit, you have Christ. Your perfection lives in you!
This feels like a ‘But wait, there’s more!’ moment. But it’s true, it gets better: Not only is Christ with you, your hope of glory, but Jesus at this very moment is praying for you,
Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. –Hebrews 7:23-25
Straight up awesome.
Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect – Jesus is my perfection.
To this day, whenever I hear those words, “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” I cringe a little bit. I have to process in my mind what it’s really saying. Then I have to remember what Jesus was really saying during the sermon on the mount.
Then I remember the truth.
God sees the blood, Jesus’s blood on the cross, and He passes over me, and I enter the Kingdom of Heaven, because I am perfect as my Heavenly Father is perfect, because Jesus is my perfection.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. –John 3:16