I was reading some blogs and ran across an interesting question that was posed in the comments of one by the blog’s author and a frequent commenter here, Steve from theoldadam. The question revolves around Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5 that instructs us that we are to “be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect,” which is Matthew 5:48 to be specific. What does it mean to “be perfect?” Is this a serious instruction for us or is it some kind of expression intended to point to our inherent imperfection in some way?
There are many who would suggest that it is the latter. In fact, there are many who look at the entire Sermon on the Mount section of Matthew (chapters 5-7) as some kind of uberlaw that is unattainable and used to exaggerate our own sinful state. I even found myself in this same category for many years. I had long assumed that Jesus was “raising the bar” if you will and elevating lust to the level of adultery and hate to the level of murder. I believed that Jesus was pointing out the utter inability of humanity to attain to God’s standard at all. The last year or two has seen a shattering of that mode of interpretation for me. When I saw this question about the perfection statement; it got me to thinking again. What is Jesus trying to say?
Let’s take a look at the word behind the word that the translators used “perfect” for as a starting point. The Greek word is teleios, and it has a pretty wide range of meaning. It is Strong’s number 5046 if you want to check this out yourself, but the meanings are as follows:
1) brought to its end, finished
2) wanting nothing necessary to completeness
4) that which is perfect
a) consummate human integrity and virtue
b) of men
1) full grown, adult, of full age, mature
With a range of meaning that is so vast, and accounting for the fact that the word “perfect” in English is also quite ambiguous at times(think of the “perfect game” for instance), there is more that needs to be done to understand this statement by Jesus. Jesus only uses this word one other time, at least as far as the gospel record shows, and it is in his instruction to the rich young ruler in Matthew 19.
Paul uses this term several times though and it is interesting to note how the word is translated when Paul uses it. In Philippians 3, he speaks of perfection and maturity. Take a look at some verses, with notes from me in parentheses:
12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect(not the same word as in Matthew 5, but it has a similar root word), but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
15All of us who are mature(this is the same word translated “perfect” in Matthew 5) should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16Only let us live up to what we have already attained. (is this what Paul means by maturity?)
17Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. (sure sounds like Paul is suggesting some sort of guidelines or instructions here)
I think you can see from just this one passage that the meaning of “perfect” in Matthew 5 isn’t exactly what I always thought it to be before. Paul speaks of being mature and doing so by following a pattern that he gave to the Philippians. I can give you one guess as to what pattern that would be. Hebrews 12:1-2 give a pretty good summation of this way of thinking. Jesus set the pattern that we are to follow. This is what it really means to be His disciple. A disciple emulates his Master. It is also interesting to note that Paul used the word for “perfect” to describe himself in Philippians 3 as we saw above. It seems that Paul found this state something that wasn’t impossible, but rather expected in the life of those who are being transformed by the Spirit of God. While there is a perfection that is in view in the final sense, which Paul references and which Jesus was certainly speaking of as well, there is a type of perfection/maturity that is brought about in us by the working of God’s Spirit over time.
Let’s look at another place where Paul speaks of this perfection/maturity that we are to attain:
11And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. – Ephesians 4:11-16
Here the idea of this maturity is contrasted with being like a child or immature. This word for maturity in verse 13 is again the same Greek word used in Matthew 5:48. Paul indicates that this process of growth is facilitated by not just the Holy Spirit, but the work of believers with one another. It just so happens that there is a point to being a part of the body of Christ, i.e. His Church. It is used to bring us to maturity, so we can be “perfect” as our Father in heaven is “perfect.” It is to make us complete, one of the other meanings you might recall from above. Paul talks a little more about this Way of Life in the next verses:
17Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. – Ephesians 4:17-24
Paul makes a complete contrast here between the ways the Gentiles walk and the way that the followers of Christ are to walk. The Gentiles were “ignorant” of the way of God. This refers to the Torah and the instructions of God for living life His way, which they didn’t have (that is the textbook definition of ignorance). But he says this isn’t the way that they (or we) have learned Christ. Christ is the Word of God, the Way of God. He taught us how to walk and His Spirit within us teaches us to put off the old way that we walked in futility to learn a new Way. It never finds its completion(perfection) in this life, but it is the only way to walk.
So what does it mean to be “perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect?” It means walking His Way, in the power of His Spirit as He brings us to greater maturity day by day, remaking us in the “likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” as Paul said.