You know that Jesus told us to be perfect, right?
What did he mean by perfect?
Perfect like God, according to Jesus.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48
If Jesus expects us to be as perfect as God, frankly (and probably blasphemously), he’s just crazy. Right?
None of us are perfect and we all know it, even if some try to throw off that vibe from time to time.
So, what gives? Has Jesus given us an impossible standard to strive towards that we can never, ever dream of achieving but hope to make just a little bit of progress toward over our lives?
That’s what a lot of Christians seem to believe and teach.
And if perfect means perfect in the total sense that we understand the term, what else can it mean?
Be perfect like God. Yeah right.
Thankfully, I don’t believe that’s the case. And while many have weighed in on this over the course of church history, I’d like to simply make two observations.
The first starts with a reminder that the New Testament was written in Greek. For that reason, every English language Bible is a translation and translators always have challenges.
The Greek word – telios – is generally translated ‘perfect’ and I’m not arguing that it shouldn’t be. But words can have shades and variations of meaning in language. And those meanings as generally understood can vary over time.
We know that this is true when we think about the word love in its biblical use compared to our common use today.
Telios can mean that something or someone is complete or accomplishing its intended purpose or fully mature. The idea here is that perfection doesn’t necessarily mean that a person never makes a mistake or never, ever sins.
I think that for us, it’s more like the way that God intends us as real people to be.
Real. Not in some fantasy world.
The other major realization comes right from the biblical text itself.
The ‘therefore’ gives us the clue that we need to tie this statement back to what was said before it.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48
Given that context, I think it’s fair to say that Jesus’ point here about perfection primarily involves our love for others.
And we don’t have the space for it here, but biblical, agape love certainly means something different than the way we throw the word around today.
Jesus refers to the normal way of fallen humanity as loving those who love us.
What God is asking us to do is to take on his perspective toward the world.
Our default position is to want our enemies to be punished, or to go away at least.
But God loves everybody who he’s created and desires to have them back.
“Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” 2 Peter 3:9
Jesus’ call to us is to agree with God about this. When we hate our enemies, we are disagreeing with God and working against his purposes. And that’s ironic, sadly.
I’ll be writing more about this, but I want to make a bold claim.
In this context…
Perfection is possible. For us.
We will always stumble. We will have times of anger and the violence and evil around us will test our ability to maintain God’s perspective.
But it is possible that the settled perspective we keep on returning to will be that we agree with God on this.
For us to know God’s heart deeply, we must.
God doesn’t require this for us to come into relationship with him. But God desires it deeply of those who are in relationship with him. Those of us who have received God’s deep love and forgiveness.
“who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” 1 Timothy 2:4
We must love our enemies because we were once the enemy.
But God’s love changed that.
And it still works.