“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
One of the greatest misconceptions about God, even among many Christians, is that God expects us to be perfect – as he is – and is continually unhappy with us when we are not. Jesus’ words “Be perfect…” from the Sermon on the Mount are so well-known that it is sometimes hard to see past what they are commonly thought to say to what they really mean.
To get a proper perspective on what God does expect of us, we must first look at Jesus’ words in context. In Matthew, Jesus clearly tells us to be perfect as God is perfect, but if we read the same account in the Gospel of Luke his words are recorded as “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Why the difference? Both Gospels show in context that Jesus was talking about love (see Matthew 5:43-47 and Luke 6:27-35). Matthew’s Gospel stresses that our love should be perfect and Luke’s Gospel stresses that our love should be merciful – doubtless Jesus talked about both aspects of love.
But when we look closely at the expression “Be perfect,” we see the situation even more clearly. The Greek word translated “perfect” in Matthew is a form of teleios which does mean “perfect,” but in the sense of being mature or complete. Notice 1 Corinthians 14:20, for example, where we find: “Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults”– and the word “adults” is the word teleios. In Hebrews 5:14 we find the same word translated mature: “… solid food is for the mature…”
In the context of love we find in Matthew 5:48 that Christ urged his followers to be mature and complete in their love – like God who is himself Love. Only a few verses before saying “be perfect” Jesus had said: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45), once again showing we should be like God in our love.
Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount does not mean that God expects us to always be perfect. In fact, the New Testament shows repeatedly that God knows we cannot be perfect in every way (1 John 1:8-10). That is why God accepts Christ’s perfect life in place of ours, just as he accepts Christ’s death on our behalf (Romans 5:10). But that does not mean that we need not strive in our own lives toward the goal of perfection (John 14:23-24) – as long as we realize that our efforts will never gain our salvation. Our motivation for trying to be as perfect as possible must be our love of God.
This fact brings us full circle. When we realize that God knows we cannot be perfect in this life, but that he does encourage us to grow up in him – to become more like him as we live each day – we see God in better perspective. We see that the God of love has made a way for us to be perfect in his sight through Christ’s life in our stead. But the God of love also offers to give us his love to enable us to continually grow to be more like him.
God does desire to see perfection in us, but he looks beyond us for that perfection. God does not expect continued perfection in our own daily lives – just continued progress. The statement that we must “be perfect” is not a command to do the impossible, it is an encouragement to become mature in fulfilling God’s law of love (Romans 13:10, Galatians 5:14).