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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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I came across this answer today for the first time and it seemed to me very similar to my logic on this answer, do you agree? –  Jack Douglas Jun 22 at 18:32
    
I absolutely agree. Well said. –  Matthew Miller Jul 14 at 18:43
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Let me suggest to you an alternative reading.

Much of Jesus' teachings on the Sermon of the Mount represent a point of view quite similar to the rabbis (the Pharisees) of his generation as reflected in their teachings recorded later in the Mishna and the Tosefta and in the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures. This point of view can be supported by Jesus' own words where he says in Matthew 5:17-20:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,[c] not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks[d] one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

See also Matthew 23:2-3 ("The scribes and the Pharisees sit in the seat of Moses; therefore all they tell you, do and observe....").

Taken at its face, Jesus wants his followers to observe Torah exactly as the Pharisees were teaching and as opposed to the teachings of the Sadduccees (who at the time had one of its own as the High Priest, and who rejected the concept of life after death and punishment for sins after death, concepts which the Pharisees supported).

The rabbis taught that a person should strive to observe the 613 Torah commandments (365 negative commandments -- i.e. "thou shalt not..." and 248 positive commandments, i.e. "thou shalt..."). They would see little difference between Jesus' advice to be perfect on account that God is perfect. This parallels the teaching of Leviticus 19:2-3 where God tells Moses to tell the Jews, "You shall be holy kedoshim because "I the Lord your God am holy." The rabbis would only have said that the use of the word "perfect" for "holy" is a translation error. Being holy, or kodesh, is not a matter of being "perfect" per se. It is a striving to sanctify oneself to God. The same root is used for the word for the marriage ceremony, kidushin where the husband wife sanctify themselves to each other to the exclusion of everyone else. Many of the commandments regarding our relationship with God -- e.g. keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, prayer, laws of ritual purity -- are designed to make us more sanctified to God and divorced from secularism.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 also lays out the importance of God of obedience to His commandments:

15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God[a] that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Although these verses assert God desire that the Jewish people follow God's commandments, it does not speak of perfection. The prophets did not see perfection in Torah observance as a requirement for righteousness because a lifetime of perfect observance is an impossibility. King Solomon, writing in Ecclesiastes 7:20, states "For there is not a righteous man upon earth that does good and does not sin." King David, writing in Psalm 19:8-14, praises God as perfect, the Torah laws as correct, enlightening and true, but notes that if he were judged on sins he was unaware of, he could never achieve "perfection." Accordingly, he asks God to help him to avoid sinning intentionally and to forgive and overlook his hidden sins, so that "then I will be perfect and I will be cleansed of much transgression."

This and much of Jesus' teachings on the Sermon on the Mount contradict the writings of later church leaders who questioned the point of observing the commandments at all, placing faith over actions. But if you look at Jesus as a rabbi of his era, this verse in Matthew is not complicated at all. I think he and the rabbis would agree that man's goal should be to reach perfection, and we should never cease pursuing that goal.

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The word ‘perfect’ essentially means ‘nothing which belongs left out’. This can be illustrated well by looking at how the Greek word is used in the LXX and the meaning of the Hebrew equivalents. Notice the large blue section, the most frequent use ‘intact, untouched, complete, perfect, whole, undivided’.

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When speaking of love, Jesus contrasts how the children of the father should live in contrast to the ethics of the religious people of his day. They would allow their love to be divided, often looking down on those they thought were morally inferior to themselves and hating their pagan enemies while only loving their own. They allowed their love to be divided and incomplete, unlike the Father who sent rain and both those who love him and those who despise him. If God shows kindness and love to all, then if we want to be like God we should do the same, i.e. do not let our love be divided, leaving something essential left out of our aim.

The word ‘perfect’ sometimes brings to our minds the ‘absolute perfect’, which would immediately pressure us to misinterpret the meaning. The New Testament never expects a believer to be ‘absolutely’ perfect but rather teaching the impossibility of being so. Neither is being ‘perfect’ a state that can be externally measured, as it is an internal private perfection, an internal complete attitude. It was the Pharisees who were very zealous of good works under the law and were trying to attain a perfection that could be codified and presented to others as proof positive in order to obtain praises and honor form men. It is no coincidence that this reminder is placed right after the command to be perfect so as to make sure we are not trying to be like Pharisees in our drive toward the divine:

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. 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. (NIV, Mt 5:48–6:1)

The idea of moral perfection for a believer is not an attainable one but one of striving to be like God without any essential aspect excluded in the goal. There is not a point where we can identify ‘this is what is now a perfect state’ but rather this is the attitude one should have when striving for the perfect state not reachable in this life:

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, 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, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (NIV, Php 3:12–14).

Horton in ‘A Devotional Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew’ summarizes it very well:

Ye shall be in character like God. Love is the fulfilling of the Law. When you love, and are merciful (Luke 6:36), you approach His perfection. The Law of Moses is the germ, but it must blossom into the law of love if you are to be like God.’ Phil. 3:12 shows how perfection in a creature is only the attitude of aiming at and striving after the Divine character. ‘Ye shall be perfect’ is the formula; but never on earth ‘Ye are perfect’, and still less ‘I am perfect’.( Horton, R. F. A Devotional Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, p. 47)

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In Matthew 5:48, the word “perfect” is teleios, and the Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words defines it as “signifies having reached its end (telos), finished, complete, perfect.” For its use in this verse: “complete, conveying the idea of goodness without necessary reference to maturity…”

To get a fuller sense of Matt. 5:48, we must read the entire Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7), of which this verse is a part. But the gist of the matter is that the perfection God desires of us is to have a heart inclined toward God in surrender and humility, and toward people as a sympathetic helper, as one who shares in their frail humanity (that is, does not think himself as superior to others).

“Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (5:44) are all expressions of this inward state of humility before God and man. It is not a natural state; our natural bent is to put ourselves first. It’s the state of a person who has allowed God to fashion him according to His will.

In all these helpful actions, the victim sees in his enemies, haters, and persecutors people who do such things because they do not know God and are acting out of personal weakness. As Jesus said from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). There is no retaliation because the victim himself knows this frailty and has found God sustaining him. The victim doesn’t take it personally, but exhibits something of the grace that God has for sinners. God is love (among many other attributes -- don’t make Him a one-dimensional God!), and His desired end is that we be those who act out of love as well.

Showing love to others who don’t deserve it is what perfection looks like to God.

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