Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Is this attainable? Would Jesus ask for the impossible?
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This text is extremely controversial because it is used, by some, to suggest that we can attain sinless perfection in this life. Therefore, the question is, what is the "perfection" being discussed in Matt 5:48?
We can readily dismiss one possibility: Matt 5:48 is definitely NOT discussing sinless perfection for two simple reasons:
So, what is Matt 5:48 discussing? What is the perfection? It is possible to answer this question from just two considerations:
CONTEXT - Matt 5:38-47 - Love your enemies
Jesus' instruction in Matt 5:28-48 is an expansion of the that in the Torah found in Lev 24:17-23 about loving your enemies.
44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons 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.
Jesus concludes with the statement, in V48 which is widely misunderstood. The operative word here is τέλειος meaning (a) complete in all its parts, (b) full grown, of full age, (c) specially of the completeness of Christian character (Strongs). Thus, God is asking His people to be as mature about their dealings with people, even those that are not their friends. V48 could that be translated:
Therefore, be mature in your dealings with people just as your Father is kind and mature in His dealings with even the wicked. (Dottard's paraphrase)
PARALLEL - Luke 6:27-36 - Love your enemies
The same instruction to love your enemies is recorded by Luke who concludes, V36 -
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
The conjunction οὖν (“therefore”) connects the following clause with what precedes it. What precedes the conjunction provides the reason why or the manner in which they should “be perfect, just as your Father who is in heaven is perfect.”
What precedes in vv. 43–47 is a lesson on the proper fulfillment of the commandment to love one’s neighbor. Do not only love those who love you, the Lord Jesus Christ says, but love even those who hate you:
44 ...Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you.
If you demonstrate such “perfect love” (ἡ τελεία ἀγάπη),1 you will be “perfected in love”2 like the Father in heaven who Himself demonstrates such perfect love, for He Himself is love.3
In summary, yes, Christians can be perfect—perfect in love—if they love their brothers, both those who love them, and even those who hate them. This is the love that God expects of His children, as this is the love that God demonstrates toward His creation.4
|1 1 John 4:18
3 1 John 4:8, 4:16
4 Matt. 5:45 cf. Rom. 5:8
Matthew 5:48: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Perhaps we might ask this question: If we have been baptized into Christ, have all our sins not been washed away just as we have been promised? While we will be tested, and fail the test, we must brush ourselves off and continue to "walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light." (1 Jn. 1:7a) This results in our being "[cleansed] from all sin" (1 Jn. 1:7b). Note that this is an ongoing process of purification throughout the remainder of our lives in Christ.
If this were not true, how could we ever stand before God holy, blameless, and beyond reproach (Col. 1:21)? How does God treat imperfection in His presence? Obviously, no human being is perfect; but they can be continually purified, and that is the point that many seem to overlook.
Consider more of what the New Testament has to say. Note the many times that God has proclaimed (or implied) that while we walk in the Light, we are not to be judged:
John 3:18a: “He who believes in Him is not judged" (emphasis added).
Only two chapters later we read:
John 5:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, the one who hears [obeys] My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (emphasis added).
How can we reconcile these passages if, after our faithful obedience to Christ, we are not spiritually perfect? Why would Christ ever make such claims (those emphasized in Jn. 3:18a, 5:24, Matt.5:48)? Of course, He is addressing those who have exercised obedience to His Word. Take a look at the next passage that speaks to the status of the saints:
Romans 8:1: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (emphasis added).
This passage appears to demonstrate that once we have clothed ourselves with Christ -- and keep our garments on, there is nothing to judge, we are spiritually flawless. Otherwise, how can we stand before God (as we do right now) with a clear conscience?
Those in Christ should understand that they have passed from being slaves of disobedience (imperfection) to become slaves of righteousness (Rom. 6:18, perfection) as the children of God. Consider Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, which argues the point more emphatically:
Colossians 1:21-22: “And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet [Christ] has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before [the Father] holy and blameless and beyond reproach…” (emphasis added).
We were once alienated and hostile to God. We were “engaged in evil deeds” just as the text reads in verse 21. That is how God sees everyone outside of Christ, irrespective of whether we consider them “good” or “bad” because what we happen to think is irrelevant.
Paul’s letter to the saints at Corinth echoes the same sentiments as those in his Letter to the Colossians:
1 Corinthians 6:11: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God!” (emphasis added).
As before, note the similarity of the words to Col. 1:21-22: “washed,” “sanctified,” “justified.” Of course, those who have not been washed (baptized), sanctified (set apart), and justified (removal of condemnation, guilt, and sin) are filling up the measure of their wrath before the Throne of God right now.
As we walk in the Light, we have done all that is humanly possible to please God. Otherwise, we must ask ourselves this question: How do the words washed, sanctified, and justified as well as holy, blameless, and beyond reproach, not equate to spiritual perfection? (1 Cor. 6:11, Col. 1:21). Are there other such qualifications that do, and just what might those be?
Here are another set of relevant passages:
1 Thessalonians 4:17: “Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.”
What is missing here? Well, where is there any mention of judgment as imperfect humans? Are we to insert words that do not exist such as: “Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up to judgment and later be together with them in the clouds…”? How does such reasoning not imply that we are to stand in judgment for sins that have been washed by the blood of the Lamb?
Note what the writer of Hebrews has to tell us:
Hebrews 9:28: “[So] Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him” (emphasis added).
How can we read this and not understand that Christ will appear a second time without reference to sin. What does it mean to appear “without reference to sin”? Is this not equivalent to saying that we are perfect before God? When does God allow anything imperfect into paradise?
Elsewhere, Paul reveals the destiny of the saints when absent from the physical body:
2 Corinthians 5:8: “[We] are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.”
How is anyone “at home with the Lord” if they are still in sin -- imperfection? These are questions that beg to be asked.
Lastly, there are these two vital passages to consider:
1 John 1:7: [If] we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.
Only two verses later, this message is repeated, as though God is emphasizing the text for our benefit:
1 John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
Of what sin and righteousness are we "cleansed"? That would be all sin and all unrighteousness. There is nothing but “glory and honor and peace” (Rom. 2:10) for those who have attained everlasting life through perfection in Christ, as long as we remain perfected.
The saints will always exist with God because they are "holy, blameless, and beyond reproach" (Col. 1:21-22).
It is our allegiance to God's Word that keeps us in this perfected state (1 Jn. 1:7, 9).
Yes! Perfection is attainable and Jesus would not ask for the impossible.
11 "If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent?
12 Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion?
13 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit [baptism; Acts 1:5;8] to them that ask him?" (Luke 11:11-13)!
Consequently, when Paul was given a "night vision" in Acts 18:9-10, Jesus revealed to him "the way of God more perfectly" (Acts 18:26) for baptism rather than a water baptism (Acts 18:25) which is how we "Be ye perfect..." (Matthew 5:48) when Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Ghost" (John 1:33; Acts 1:5) and we "receive POWER (Acts 1:8) to become the sons of GOD" (John 1:12-13).