(Part 2 on this subject)
“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Would the Lord issue a command He does not expect to be obeyed?
We may as well raise the question before some reader does it for me and uses it to dismiss everything that follows.
Short answer: He’s trying to get something across, to teach us something important, by issuing the command.
Longer answer: everything that follows.
In His”Sermon on the Mount,” the Lord Jesus sets the bar alarmingly high for all who would live as His disciples.
–When persecuted, we are to rejoice (Matthew 5:12).
–If anyone breaks even the least of “these commandments,” and then “teaches men so,” you go to the back of the line (“shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven”) (5:19).
–Be angry with your brother for no good reason and you are in danger of the judgment (5:22). Think that’s tough? It gets worse: “Whoever says to his brother ‘you fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (5:22).
–And the clincher for the guys in the audience: Whoever even lusts after a woman has committed adultery with her in his heart (5:28).
Is there anyone among us not caught in that snare, not guilty of that transgression?
The list of incredible commands goes on from there: no divorce, no oath-taking, no swearing, turn the other cheek, love your enemy.
Anyone get the impression the Lord wants something from His followers we are constituionally unable to give? If so, you’re right.
We are naturally–and even supernaturally, I submit–unable to live up to such a standard.
And in case anyone misses the point of that, at the end of this stunning fifth chapter of Matthew (only the intro to the Sermon on the Mount!), our Lord adds, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
After our recent article on the cruel burden of perfectionism which Christians place on themselves and one another–basing it on this verse!–a friend suggested we do a treatment on the theology of Matthew 5:48. (My wife said,”I thought you did, of a sort.” My thought exactly, but clearly there is much more to be said on this subject. I hope what we do here will not further muddy the water but make it clearer.)
First, a tiny bit of word study. The Greek word for “end” is “telos.” The word “teleios,” translated here in the KJV as “perfect,” means “something that has come to the end.” It frequently refers to a body that is fully grown, that has reached its full potential, and thus maturity, an adult. If referring to a crop, it is fully developed, ripe, mature.
How in the world someone decided to make “teleios” mean “perfect” is beyond me. But there it is, in the KJV at least.
But, for our purposes here, let’s assume the word means “perfect,” and that our Lord Jesus was saying that we are to be perfect just as our Father in Heaven is perfect.
What are we to make of that?
Our answer is divided into three parts, with three statements each about God, man, and our situation in this world.
1. Three realities about God…
a) God is perfect and He is holy. We could elaborate here, but the description truly fits our Lord God as it does no other. “Holy, holy, holy. The whole earth is filled with His glory” (Isaiah 6).
b) Jesus is sinless and holy. “He knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). “Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth” (I Peter 2:22). He is perfection embodied.
c) God’s standard is perfection, make no mistake about that. It is what it is. Consider all those accolades the Psalmist sends Heavenward about God’s Word, His Law, His testimony, however we want to phrase it. Each of the 176 verses of Psalm 119 praises the perfection of God’s standard, His Law.
2. Three realities about humans…
a) We are sinful. Flawed. Man is a sinner by birth and by choice. “There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10) and “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (3:23).
b) After salvation, we do not suddenly become perfect or capable of perfection in this life. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). “Who can say, ‘I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin?” (Proverbs 20:9). I was a sinner before salvation, and now am a sinner saved by grace. The nature of my sinning has changed, as have a hundred other things, but make no mistake, I have not become perfect nor capable of achieving perfection.
c) Perfection comes only at the end of this life and the beginning of the next, the moment of glorification, when we see the Lord. “We know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (I John 3:3). “Then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12). “We shall all be changed” (I Corinthians 15:51,52).
Perfection is a characteristic bestowed on mortals, not in this life, but at the moment Christ returns and we see the Lord. This is called our “glorification.”
At this point, someone raises his hand and suggests that “In Christ, we are perfect,” that “God looks at us and sees Jesus.” This is called “imputed righteousness.” And it’s true. But this is not what Matthew 5:48 is talking about friend. Those are two separate things.
3. Three realities about God’s children in this world…
a) We are made of humble stuff and God knows it. He is not naive. He does not issue commands impossible to fulfil and then go off, leaving us to struggle with intolerable burdens. “He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:14). God is under no illusion about you and me.
b) By giving His perfect standards (His Law, His Word), He is making a statement of HIs holiness. He is perfect, completely righteous, totally holy.
In saying God is “holy,” we mean He is “other than us.” “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so great is His lovingkindness (“chesedh”) toward those who fear Him” (Psalm 103:11). In the same manner, as the heavens are higher than the earth, so superior is His holiness to the best we can produce as offerings to Him.
Don’t rush past this. We need constant reminding that God is holy and we are not. In Psalm 50, God told Israel, “You cheated and lied and slandered and stole. You did all this and I kept silent, and because I kept silent, you thought I was just like you!” (50:21).
The old saying puts it like this: “In the beginning, God created man in His likeness, and ever since, man has been returning the favor.” That is idolatry, and God will have none of it. That’s why the first commandment says “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” and the second warns against idolatry.
c) The only appropriate response then for those who would serve Him is humility, repentance, childlikeness, in constant and neverending doses.
We always live in His mercy and depend on His strength. There is no other way to live this Christian life. There is no room for human boasting, as though we had summoned all our resources and talents and presented to Him a worthy offering, a perfect one. Not going to happen!
God has so arranged the Christian life that we who are Jesus’ disciples always live in a sense of inadequacy, our own unworthiness, and a total dependence on Him.
That is the plan. That’s how He wanted it from the beginning.
What to do now? Answer: Go forward on your knees, thanking HIm for His mercy and grace, trusting Him for strength and all the resources to do whatever He requires.
We must always guard against the temptation to think we can be perfect or should be perfect. Not in this life. Nothing in Scripture teaches us to expect this from ourselves or one another.
We must always be alert to teachers and pastors putting such impossible standards on God’s people. This kind of teaching and preaching always results in two reactions from God’s people, both of them terrible: either we become discouraged and give up since we cannot measure up, or we become hypocrites who claim that we are when we are not.
Ruth Bell Graham once said, “Christianity is like good music, in that it is written better than it can be played.”
Let us go forward on our knees, always humbling ourselves before Almighty God and looking to Him for everything required to live this life. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13) but “Without Him, I can do nothing” (John 15:5).