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Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:48 NKJV)

What is the text commanding here—what does "perfect" mean? Is there a different range of meaning for the Greek word translated "perfect" than its English counterpart?

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Short Answer: In context "you are to be perfect" means "you are to love as God loves: without partiality"

Justification

First, consider the immediate context:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. -Matthew 5:43-48

Here Jesus is clarifying that (despite popular opinion) the intent of God's commandment was for His people to love everyone -- even their enemies. He then goes on to provide evidence that God exhibits this kind of impartial love (by citing His care for the wicked), thereby establishing the basis for His clarification of God's commandment. Jesus then clarifies that the attitude that you will "love those who love you" is nothing special; even the wicked do this. He then concludes with the following:

"Therefore you are to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect."

In other words, having just explained how the Father is "perfect," and instructing God's people to behave similarly, He is now concluding with a summary statement.

So the flow of the paragraph could be summarized as follows:

You have heard "love with partiality" but I say to you "love impartially" so you can be sons of the Father; for the Father loves impartially. If you love with partiality, you are nothing special... even the wicked do that. Therefore, you are to love perfectly as the Father loves perfectly.

Answering the critics

Summarizing "perfection" as "love" may be a shock to modern interpreters, but it would not have been to the Apostles. For example, Paul wrote:

Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. -Romans 13:8

For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” -Galatians 5:14

James likewise contrasted partiality with fulfilling the "royal law":

If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. -James 2:8-9

Jesus Himself clarified that the sign of a true disciple was his love for others:

By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” -John 13:35

(The list goes on, but that should suffice for now.)

So it is not hard to see from Scripture that "perfection" (or "completeness" / "maturity"), "fulfilling the Law," and "loving others" are synonymous.

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+1 Good Answer. "Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect" does double duty. It is both a summation of Jesus' teaching on love and his teaching concerning the law. –  Matthew Miller May 25 '13 at 22:46
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In context, Jesus is telling his disciples their standard is not to be the letter of the law but the perfection of God. The statement appears at the end of a segment in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus specifically deals with his disciples relationship with the law (Matthew 5:17-48). The section begins

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus then continues, contrasting the explicit commandments of the law with a more difficult and internal command which he has set. The section is held together by a consistent refrain "you have heard it said... but I say to you."

Murder

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.

Adultery

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’[e] 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Oaths

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Justice

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

Love

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

The next verse after Matthew 5:48 begins a new section in which Jesus addresses a new topic.

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

He covers giving, praying and fasting with a new refrain, "Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Matthew 6:1-18).

The statement "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect" is thus the summation of Jesus' new law. The standard of those who follow Christ is not simply the law but the spirit of the law which is God himself. This is the perfection that Jesus calls his disciples too.

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