Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Nobody’s perfect! How often have we uttered this phrase in defense of some mistake we’ve made? We mess up at work, forget an important appointment with a friend, or act harshly towards our spouses and we shrug and say, “Nobody’s perfect.”
In a very real sense, we’re speaking the truth. Indeed, none of us is, has, or will be perfect on this earth. We fail every day, often times more than once. And yet, we come to verse 48 in today’s reading and we’re struck right between the eyes with the words of Jesus: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
WHAT? I have to be perfect? Before we give up on the prospect, let’s back up and take a look at the context.
Remember, Jesus was giving a public discourse, but He was talking directly to His disciples (see verse Matthew 5:1-2). Thus, by extension, He spoke to all those who claimed to be His disciples.
If that’s really so, what are we to make of a seemingly impossible standard? We might be tempted to take Jesus literally and try our hardest to be perfect. But as many have found, including a young man who claimed to be perfect, it’s simply not possible (see Matthew 16:16-22).
On the other hand, we might be tempted to give up entirely, concluding that no matter what we do we’ll never measure up. Neither of these answers satisfies, so what are we to do?
Let’s look more closely at the language Jesus used. The original manuscripts of the New Testament were written in Greek, much to the chagrin of many seminary students (including me). But even though I complain about having to learn the language aside, there are times that exploring the original vocabulary is helpful. This passage is one such time.
The word “complete” comes from the Greek word telios. Without getting into too much detail, the basic thrust of this word has to do with completion and maturity. In fact, Jesus used a similar word on the cross when He declared, “It is finished.”
Our aim here isn’t to play with words or find some hidden meaning tucked away in the original text. But rather we want to come to a more complete understanding of what it means to be perfect, as God is perfect.
Keep in mind, God cannot mature, grow, or become more perfect. God is and has always been perfect. And as for us, we can’t claim the same. In fact, left to ourselves, we’ll never be perfect. If we left out the phrase “left to ourselves,” there would be no hope. But, praise be to God, we’re not left to ourselves.
We need look no further than John the Baptist’s description of Jesus, found in John 1:29. “Behold,” John says, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (ESV). That single statement gives us hope now and in eternity.
Without question, we’ll stand before a Holy Judge on the final day and give an account for our willful rebellion against a perfect God. And what will we say? If we’ve trusted in Christ, we’ll claim the righteousness only He can give us. We’ll enjoy the reward of eternal fellowship with God that only He could’ve earned for us.
If we’re not found in Christ, we’ll be without an advocate and will be held eternally accountable for our transgressions. (See Romans 5—particularly verses 6-11.)
We’re commanded to be perfect. If we attempt to do so apart from God’s gracious provision of a perfect substitute in the person of Jesus Christ, we’ll fail—both in this world and the next.
However, if we take seriously Jesus’ call to salvation and discipleship, we receive His free gift of grace and the power of the Holy Spirit to live in the ways Jesus expects us to. So, let us claim the promise of salvation and get serious about the task of following the Savior.
- Have you ever tried to be perfect at something—perhaps a job, hobby, relationship? How did it turn out?
- More importantly, have you attempted to adhere to the perfect standards God expects of you? At what point did you realize that, in your own effort, it wasn’t possible?
- What part or parts of your life do you need to completely release to the grace and provision of Jesus? This isn’t a matter of will power, but rather a matter of trust. What do you need to more fully entrust the Savior?