The Hard Sayings of Jesus
Saying # 1 You Must Be Perfect (Matthew 5:48)
Saying # 1 You Must Be Perfect (Matthew 5:48)
The first question we must answer is, “What exactly does Jesus mean by perfect?”
The dictionary defines the word perfect as “free from any flaw, faultless.” When we think of the word perfect this is usually the definition that comes to mind. But using this definition of perfect means Jesus is asking the impossible. There must be another meaning.
The word translated perfect in our Bibles was originally spoken in Hebrew/Aramaic by Jesus and was the word Tamin. This Hebrew word was translated into the Greek word teleios. Teleios was translated into the Latin word perfectus. The word as it was originally spoken by Jesus means “mature or full grown, the state of being fulfilled or complete.”
When we start viewing the word “perfect” in this light it seems to be a little more doable.
This statement must also be viewed within the context of this whole section of Scripture. Too many people are guilty of pulling out just one verse from a passage and building a whole doctrine around it.
When you study the preceding material in this passage you discover that what Jesus is talking about is who and how to love. He makes it clear he expects us to strive to display the character of God not just in our behavior but in our relationships. Sinless perfection is beyond our reach, but living godly life is a Biblical concept that is very attainable.
Jesus is showing that holiness is not about strict adherence to all the rules. It is about developing a heart that is totally devoted to Him. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. Ch. 5-7), Jesus repeatedly shows that the Law always points to the perfection and holiness of God. God is the ultimate standard. When Jesus said, "Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matt. 5:48), He was saying, "Let your love be complete as God’s love." God loves all people, even evil ones. This is how we can be as "perfect" as God. Our love for our fellow-man needs to grow and mature -- including loving our enemies. If we do not love our enemies, we are not acting as sons of God ought to act.
Looking elsewhere in Scripture we see in Philippians 3:15, the apostle Paul speaks to "as many as be perfect" (KJV). The NKJV translates this phrase "as many as are mature." Paul also said, in Ephesians 5:1 that we are to be “imitators of God as dear children" (Eph. 5:1). In this passage, the apostle Paul also teaches us that God is the one we are to imitate. By again taking note of the context in which this passage is found, we can see that His example is in the realm of attitudes toward our fellow-man. The verses immediately preceding this text say: "Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you" (Eph. 4:31–32). This passage plainly teaches that our attitudes toward other people must be the same as those of our Father in heaven. If not, we have no right to claim to be His children.
Also elsewhere in Scripture, Peter says, "But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, 'Be holy, for I am holy’" (1 Pet. 1:15–16). This text impresses upon us the necessity of conforming our lives to the qualities and standards of divinity. Holy conduct arises from holy attitudes. If we are going to conduct ourselves in a proper manner toward our fellow-man, we must have the proper attitudes including the attitude to love even our enemies.
Now to the question of whether we can, in fact, achieve moral perfection in this world. If Jesus says to be perfect, the assumption would be that he would not require us to do something that is impossible for us to achieve. Therefore, there are Christians, many Christians, who believe that, indeed, it is possible for a person to reach a state of moral perfection in this life. That view is called perfectionism, and people develop a theology whereby there’s a special work of the Holy Spirit that gives them victory over all sin or all intentional sin that renders them morally perfect in this world. The mainstream of Christianity, however, has resisted the doctrine of perfectionism chiefly because we see the record of the greatest saints in biblical history and in church history who to a person confessed the fact that they, to their dying day, struggled with ongoing sin in their lives. Not the least of which, of course, was the apostle Paul, who talked about his ongoing struggle with sin.
Can a person be perfect? Theoretically, the answer to that is yes. The New Testament tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that with every temptation we meet, God gives us a way to escape that temptation. He always gives us enough grace to overcome sin. In that sense it may be possible; in that sense, we could theoretically be perfect. But let’s be realistic, none of us is.
When Jesus told his hearers that they are to be "be perfect" just as our heavenly Father is perfect in Matthew 5:48 he wasn’t talking about being “without sin.” He was speaking of the love that is to characterize those who are children of God. That love is to be complete, extending even to those who are your enemies, who hate you and spitefully use you. In this, as in all other things, we must strive to be as both Father and Son.
As Eugene Peterson says in his paraphrase The Message, “In a word, what I’m [Jesus] saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” I think that comes pretty close to the meaning of that word. Live as God created and desires you to live. Be all you were meant to be.