Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:48
Nobody is perfect is one of the few remaining truisms that has nearly universal agreement among people of every cultural milieu, philosophical system, or religious ideology. It is the standard way of accounting for our short comings both major and minor. We may want to do better and we may want others to do better but there is always the caveat that we know perfection is impossible.
Yet here comes Jesus again with one of his incredibly uncomfortable statements, “Be perfect just like God is perfect”. Talk about raising the bar to a ridiculous level! At least it certainly seems that way. How in the world are we supposed to be perfect like God the Father when we already know that as human beings we can’t be perfect. Jesus Himself seems to acknowledge that we will continue to sin when He teaches the disciples to pray and tells the to ask to be forgiven just as we forgive others. A prayer like that assumes that sin will be an ongoing reality even in the life of the most dedicated of Christ-followers. If that is the case, then how are we to be “perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect”.
Well like all verses in the Bible, context is everything. We need to read the first 47 verses in Chapter 5, the beginning of what know of as The Sermon on the Mount. It is Jesus’ most complete teaching on what the life of a Christ-follower should look like. In what He has already said He has consistently raised the bar. Murder is not just physically killing someone, it is also hating them from the heart. Adultery follows a similar ideal. Retaliating against a person who slaps us, loving our enemies, and being a person who forgives are among the hard things Jesus calls us to in those verses. Each of those things follows on the heels of Jesus saying that He came not to abolish but to fulfill the law. So in some way, what He is teaching has always been the intent of God’s law. There is a sense that what Jesus is saying is that we have stopped short of understanding what the Father has always called for. We have restricted our definitions of what is right and wrong to what we can accomplish with a minimal of effort. What Jesus is saying is that we can not and must not sell ourselves or God short.
This idea of not coming up short is found in the word He uses for “perfect”. It is the Greek word, “telos”. Among other things it has the idea of reaching the goal or the end. A “tele-vision” is something that sends a picture to an end user, just as a tele-phone sends a voice to the end or goal. Telos also has the idea of something being complete. So when Jesus tells us to be perfect as the Father is perfect we need to understand that He is placing before us a goal. There is something that we are striving for. The goal is in fact to become complete in Christ. In order for that to happen there must be no halfway measures. We can’t say, “I never killed someone so I must be okay”. We must ask about our heart and our attitude towards others, not just the external appearance or action. We can’t be content with a little cleaning up of our lives that is better than most. We must always be looking to the Father for the model of how we live.
There are two dangers however that we must be aware of. One is pride. We can easily become spiritually proud thinking that we have accomplished perfection on our own. This was the sin of so many of the Pharisees in Jesus day. The second danger is despair and a feeling that we can’t be good enough to be perfect like God so we give up. I think in both cases that Philippians 1:6 guards us against both these errors, “He who began a good work in you, will bring it to completion at the Day of Christ Jesus”. The word for completion in that verse is the root word “telos”. God is working in you to bring you to complete perfection in Christ. So you need not despair because He WILL see it through and you can not be proud because HE will see it through.
Of course as in all things in our walk with Christ, we are required to put our whole self in. There are no halfway measure or efforts that are acceptable. We are to be radically, provocatively, sold out 100% for Jesus. Yet in being sold to Jesus, we will all the while know that when we fail, He forgives us and carries us on to the goal and that when we succeed, it is ultimately because of His grace and for His glory.