How can I be Perfect? (Matthew 5:48) - Mondays with Mounce
Jesus asserts that unless a person’s righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and scribes, they will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:20). He is not calling for more obedience, but for a deeper obedience that comes from the heart. He then covers five examples of this deeper obedience (murder, adultery [including divorce], oath-taking, retaliation, and loving your enemies). V 48 then concludes this portion of the Sermon on the Mount with the admonition, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (NIV),. This is probably a citation of Leviticus 19:2, which uses “holy” and not “perfect” (Deut 18:13 speaks of being “blameless”).
“Perfect” is the translation of τέλειος, which occurs nineteen times in the New Testament. All major translations chose this same English word here, and certainly this meaning applies to God himself in our passage (“your heavenly Father is perfect”). Paul says that the “will of God is … good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2), and that heaven is the “perfect” that is coming (1 Cor 14:20). The author of Hebrews speaks of the more perfect tabernacle not made by human hands (9:11), and James talks about the “perfect law” (1:25).
τέλειος also carries the meaning of “mature,” not so much perfection but as that which is brought to its proper end. Jesus tells the rich young ruler, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matt 19:21). The NASB’s use of “complete” in this verse is trying to get at the idea of fully mature, something the ruler claimed for himself. Paul refers to “mature” believers (1 Cor 2:6; Eph 4:13; Phil 3:15; Col 1:28; 4:12) as does the author of Hebrews (5:14). James points out that the goal of suffering is that the believer become “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:4). Pairing τέλειος with “complete” (ὁλόκληρος) enforces the idea that the goal for the believers is not perfection but full maturity. If a person does not stumble, then he is τέλειος (Jam 3:2).
1 John 4:18 may combine both ideas. “There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment. So the one who fears is not complete [τελειόω] in love” (CSB). τελειόω is the cognate verb to τέλειος. The person who fears is not mature, since perfect love drives out fear.
Returning to our passage. there are two questions. The first is whether verse 48 is part of the paragraph on loving your enemy. All major translations keep verse 48 with the preceding paragraph. Or, should verse 48 be its own paragraph, serving as a conclusion for all five topics. For example, if your obedience comes from deep in your heart so that you do not lust and therefore do not commit adultery, then you are moving toward τέλειος. Since there is nothing in the final paragraph that would tie v 48 exclusively into vv 43–47, and since full maturity is the goal for all the five example, v 48 should be its own paragraph, summarizing everything from v. 20.
The other question is whether Jesus’ goal is our maturity or our perfection? On the one hand, perfection is impossible, which suggests Jesus is thinking of full maturity. However, this means the same word has two meanings in the same verse. It could also be that Jesus’ goal is out of our reach while still on earth, as all true goals often are. However, this runs the risk of exasperating his disciples since they are always striving and never attaining.
Jesus’ goal for all his children is full maturity, which will become perfection in heaven. My translation is, “Grow toward full mature, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
What this looks like is pretty much the same today as it was then. It means knowing that murder begins with anger in the heart. Adultery begins with lust in the heart. Breaking one’s promise begins with a lack of rigorous honesty. The ability to not hate your enemy begins with love in your heart.
Our Father is perfect, and his children are to look like him. This means we set as our goal a full measure of maturity, and the end of that process will be perfection in heaven. But it is a process, so we ask ourselves, where is our weak spot? Is it anger? Lust? Deceitfulness? Hatred? Pick one, examine your heart, and ask the Lord for the wisdom and the strength to pursue a deeper obedience that comes from the heart. Only then will our actions truly change, and will move toward maturity and eventually perfection.
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