New International Version (1984)
‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
I’ve always been fascinated by these few words. They are charged with enigma, which is hardly surprising considering their source. What do they mean? Is Jesus actually commanding his disciples to be as perfect as God or have we got the wrong end of the stick?
Let me just say that Jesus being truly perfect would have been perfectly realistic. His followers were (and are) to go on being flawed and messy builders of the kingdom until kingdom come. In fact, we ought to be very wary of purportedly ‘sinless’ Christians:
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” 1 John 1:8
We can however, claim to be righteous and forgiven of our sins:
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us”. 1 John 1:9-10
But that isn’t the same thing as saying we are sinless now is it?
So what does Jesus mean when he tells us to be perfect?
It’s important to note that ‘perfect’ in the bible has more than one meaning. It can be used to mean ‘spotless’ or ‘faultless’ which is our typical understanding, but it also can be used to mean ‘mature’ or ‘completed’. It is in the second sense that Matthew 5 utilizes it. So the command is to be consistent, and mature in our faith, which lets be fair is achievable. Barnes’ Notes state this:
Applied to people, [perfect] refers to completeness of parts, or perfection, where no part is defective or wanting. Thus, Job (Job 1:1) is said to be “perfect;” that is, not holy as God, or “sinless” – for fault is afterward found with him (Job 9:20; Job 42:6); but his piety was “proportionate” – had a completeness of parts was consistent and regular. He exhibited his religion as a prince, a father, an individual, a benefactor of the poor. He was not merely a pious man in one place, but uniformly. He was consistent everywhere.
Perhaps this could be the crux of Matthew 5:48. Does this speak to you? It certainly speaks to me. The command for my faith to be consistent and complete is a high calling. I must be the same with friends and enemies, at work and rest, in public and in private.
It’s a calling I intend to pursue with all my heart, knowing that one day Christ will complete the good work in me, and my duty shall become my choice. “Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect. (ASV)” Yes I shall be, and I look forward to it.