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Note: this is not the same question as those which seek the meaning of "Be Perfect" in itself. Here, the question is what "Be Perfect" refers to in the text.

In Matthew 5:48 Jesus teaches "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect." The verses immediately preceding this deal with loving one's enemy:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The inclusion of the word "therefore" seems to imply that that direction to be perfect follows logically on what has just be said. So the question is: should we understand "be perfect" as an exhortation to love our enemies as God does, a summary of the Sermon on the Mount, or a general commandment?

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  • Up-voted +1. Since Abraham was exhorted to walk before God and to be perfect, Genesis 17:1, it must be assumed that any godly person will seek perfection per se. But in the context of Jesus' teaching from the mount, it does seem necessary to see the exhortation to perfection attached either to the whole 'sermon', or to the immediate context of loving one's neighbour.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 26, 2023 at 5:06
  • I'm tempted to ask "who is my neighbor?" (The immediate context is loving one's enemy.) Mar 26, 2023 at 17:07
  • Why cant it be all: standalone, summary and conclusion? If youre asking whether the last phrase or verse is limited and isolated within the immediate passage, then it is definitely wrong, since you can have countless similar commandments. Be holy for your father is holy. etc. The whole bible commands this repeatedly consistently.
    – Michael16
    Mar 26, 2023 at 17:10

5 Answers 5

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I must strongly agree that the presence in Matt 5:48 of the conjunction οὖν (= therefore) means that the following conclusion is drawn from that which immediately precedes.

However, "perfect" is a very incomplete translation of the word τέλειος (teleios) which might be more helpfully translated, "complete, mature". Thus, Matt 5:48 is actually saying something like this:

Because God is kind to the wicked/evil people and does not hate His enemies, we must also be kind to the wicked/evil people and mature enough to love them and not hate them; just as God is mature enough not to hate them.

This is confirmed by the parallel passage in Luke 6:34-36 which instructs Christ's followers to be kind and merciful because God is kind and merciful to all, including His enemies.

This teaching is part of the most pervasive idea in the NT - imitate God's character - a doctrine called, The imitation of Christ". See appendix below.

APPENDIX - The Imitation of Christ

Perhaps the most pervasive doctrine of the NT is the imitation of Christ - here is a sample:

  • Be imitators of God. Eph 5:1.
  • Made like God. Gen 1:26, 27, 5:1, 9:6, Eph 4:20-24, 1 John 3:2. Note that this means that one of the purposes of salvation is to restore the likeness of God in humans that sin has erased.
  • Walk as Jesus walked. 1 John 2:6.
  • Jesus was led by the Spirit Matt 4:1. The Christian must be born of the Spirit (John 3:5) by receiving the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:38) and walk by the Spirit (Gal 5:25, John 6:63, Phil 3:3, John 4:24). In fact, the whole life of Christian is to put aside the “psychical” mind and live by the Spirit (1 Cor 2:14, 1 Cor 15:44-46, Gal 5:17, Jude 19, John 6:63, 1 Peter 3:18).
  • Love as Jesus loved. John 13:34, 35, 15:12, 1 John 4:8, 11, 19, Eph 5:1, 2.
  • Lay down life for friends. John 15:13, Eph 5:2.
  • Jesus’ suffering leaves us an example. John 16:33, 1 Cor 7:28, 2 Tim 1:4, Heb 13:12, 13, 1 Peter 2:21, 4:14, 5:8, 9.
  • Because Jesus was persecuted, so are His followers. John 15:20, 21.
  • Conformed to the likeness of the Son. Rom 8:29.
  • Transforming our will and bodies to conform to God’s will. Rom 12:1, 2.
  • Jesus was baptized (Matt 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21, 22) and so should we be baptized, Matt 28:19, Acts 2:38, 10:48, 16:31, 22:16, Rom 6:1-9, etc. See “Baptism”.
  • Forgive as Jesus forgave. Matt 6:12, 14, 15, 18:35, Eph 4:32, Col 3:13.
  • Be holy as Jesus is holy. Lev 11:44, 45, 1 Peter 1:15, 16.
  • Be pure as He is pure. 1 John 3:3.
  • Partakers of the divine nature. 2 Peter 1:4.
  • We are being changed into Christ’s glory (= reputation). 2 Cor 3:18.
  • Pray as Jesus prayed. Luke 11:1.
  • We are to have the mind of Christ. Phil 2:5, 1 Cor 2:16.
  • Be kind because God is kind. Luke 6:34, 35.
  • Be merciful because God is merciful. Luke 6:36.
  • Be servants to others as Jesus was. John 13:15-17, 1 Peter 4:11b, Matt 20:24-28.
  • Be patient as Jesus was patient. 1 Tim 1:16.
  • Talk/speak as Jesus speaks. 1 Peter 4:11a.
  • Be “perfect” (= mature and generous to enemies) as the Father is. Matt 5:48.
  • Husbands should love their wives as Christ loved His people and gave Himself for her. Eph 5:25.
  • Keep the commandments as Jesus kept the commandments. John 14:15, 15:10.
  • Abide in Christ as Christ abides in us. John 15:4.
  • Jesus is the “beginning and the end” (Rev 22:13) and Jesus is the beginning and end of our faith (Heb 12:2).
  • We are co-heirs with Christ of glory. Rom 8:17.
  • Jesus gave his all and we must give up all things for Him. Rom 8:32.
  • Jesus is called the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29, 1 Cor 5:7, 1 Peter 1:19) and so are His followers (John 10:1-18, 21:15-17)
  • Jesus washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17) and so should we (John 13:14-17)
  • Jesus is the light of the world (John 1:4, 9, 8:12, 9:5) and so are we (Matt 5:14-16, Phil 2:14)
  • Jesus is the “firstborn” Luke 2:7, Rom 8:29, Col 1:15, 18, Heb 1:6, Rev 1:5, and we are to compose the church/assembly of the firstborn, Heb 12:23; see also Rom 8:23 & Rev 14:4 where we are also called first-fruits to God and the Lamb.
  • Jesus is our sacrifice of atonement and likened to a sacrificial lamb offered for us John 1:29, 1 Cor 5:7, Eph 5:2, 1 John 2:2, 4:10, Heb 10:10, 12, Rom 3:25, 1 Peter 1:19, etc. Similarly, the life of a Christian is lived sacrificially for Christ Rom 12:1, Phil 2:17, Heb 13:15.
  • Jesus, by His sacrifice on the cross, reconciled sinners to God (Rom 5:10, Col 2:16, 1:20, 22, 2 Cor 5:19), and we must also be involved in the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18, 19) as “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor 5:20).
  • Jesus died to sin and was raised to a new life, never to die again. This is also the process of every sinner in Jesus will also die to sin (at baptism) and be raised to a new eternal life, free of sin. See Rom 6:8-11.
  • Jesus is our great high priest (Heb 4:14, 15, 7:26-28), so too, we are a holy nation of priests. 1 Peter 2:9.
  • Jesus is the chief corner-stone and we are also stones in the building. 1 Peter 2:4-6.
  • Jesus is the chief shepherd, and elders are to shepherd the flock as He would. 1 Peter 5:1-4.
  • We are to be conduits of Jesus’ “water of life”. John 4:13, 14.
  • The Levitical Laws are almost all set in the context of “I am the LORD”, essentially saying that, “This is who I am, do likewise”. See Lev 18 and 19 among many others.
  • Jesus is the promised “seed” (Gen 13:15, 24:7) of Abraham (Gal 3:16) and so are we (Gal 3:29, Rom 9:8).
  • After His ascension, Jesus was seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven (Ps 110:1, 5, Luke 22:69, Matt 26:64, Acts 2:33, 7:56, Rom 8:34, Eph 1:20, Col 3:1, Heb 1:3, 10:12, 12:2, 1 Peter 3:22), and so will we (Rev 3:21, see also Eph 2:6).
  • Jesus is “THE Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32, Mark 5:7, 8:28) and Christians are called “sons of the Most High” (Luke 6:35).
  • Jesus was sent by God to preach and live the Gospel (John 1:33, 4:34, 5:24, 36, 36, 38, 39, 44, 6:57, 7:28, 33, 8:16, 18, 42, 9:4, 12:44, 45, 49, 14:24, 15:21, 16:5, 20:21) and we are sent to preach the Gospel (Matt 28:19, 20, John 20:21, Gal 1:1).
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  • Note how this is translated into Hebrew: לָכֵן הֱיוּ שְׁלֵמִים כַּאֲשֶׁר אֲבִיכֶם שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם שָׁלֵם הוּא׃ -- Franz Julius Delitzsch. (n.d.). Delitzsch Hebrew New Testament (Matt 5:48).
    – Perry Webb
    Mar 26, 2023 at 10:35
  • @PerryWebb - that would be a better translation
    – Dottard
    Mar 26, 2023 at 19:46
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The Gospel of Matthew is a compilation of Jesus' teachings, organized into various themes. It includes five significant sermons that remain relevant for discipleship training today. One of these sermons, known as the Sermon on the Mount, begins with Matthew 5:1.

To better understand the conclusion presented in Matthew 5:48, it's helpful to start from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:1. By examining the contrast between perfection and imperfection throughout the passage, readers can gain a deeper understanding of the meaning behind this verse.

The NIV version of the Gospel of Matthew provides excellent subtopics for dividing up the passage, highlighting key themes and concepts. This can be particularly useful when studying Matthew 5:1-48, which contains the Sermon on the Mount and culminates in the powerful message of perfection presented in Matthew 5:48.

  1. The Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12)
  2. Salt and Light (Matt 5:13-16)
  3. The Fulfillment of the Law (Matt 5:17-20)
  4. Murder (Matt 5:21-26)
  5. Adultery (Matt 5:27-30)
  6. Divorce (Matt 5:31-32)
  7. Oaths (Matt 5:33-37)
  8. Eye for Eye (Matt 5:38-42)
  9. Love for Enemies (Matt 5:43-48)

In his final sentence, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect," Matthew intended to summarize all the perfect teachings of Jesus discussed in the previous topics. Moreover, this verse encompasses related principles that can be further elaborated on. By reflecting on this call for perfection, readers can gain a deeper understanding of the standard that Jesus set for his followers and how they can strive to emulate their heavenly Father's perfection in their daily lives.

The Beatitudes are the principle, then came the examples;

Salt and Light - that we are the light of the world and do things to glorify our Father. (vv16)

The Fulfillment of the Law - our righteousness must surpass the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. (vv20)

Murder - Do not hate anyone (vv22)

Adultery - willing to sacrifice for the holiness

Divorce - loyalty

Oaths - honesty

Eye for eye - no revenge

Love for Enemies - love is the greatest of all

Matthew's definition of perfection is not limited to the teachings discussed above, as there are likely many other aspects that he would consider to be perfect.

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Perhaps a process of elimination might help determine which of the possibilities you suggest cannot hold good, leaving the answer standing clear.

1) Is "Be perfect" a summary of the Sermon on the Mount?

This section starts at chapter 5 verse 1, where Jesus is on a mountain, his disciples approach him, and he starts to teach them. The section ends at chapter 7 verse 29, for the next verse says Jesus came down from the mountain.

It is hardly possible for a summary of three long chapters of teaching to be given in the middle, and that statement is right in the middle, at chapter 5 verse 48.

However, if you mean whether "Be perfect" could be our way of expressing a summary of the whole Sermon on the Mount, that is really a different question. That is because the phrase, "Be perfect" (as Father God is perfect), is only stated once by Jesus in the middle of his discourse. Jesus chooses to end his instruction with the parable of the foolish man building his house on sand seeing his work destroyed; such is the man who hears Jesus' words but does not obey them. That really sums up Jesus' teaching on the mountain - having heard, go do.

2) Is "Be perfect" the conclusion of the teaching on loving one's enemy?

Certainly, perfect love includes loving one's enemies, but there is a lot more to it than that. Jesus said in John's gospel (15:13) that there is no love greater than a man laying down his life for his friends.

Jesus mentions 'love' three times in that bit in the sermon about one's enemies - chapter 5 verses 43, 44 and 46. Then he goes on to warn about hypocrisy, teaches his disciples how to pray, and many other things.

So, there is some warrant in thinking that when he says "Be perfect" at the end of those six verses speaking about one's enemies, that could be his conclusion on teaching about loving one's enemies. The only difficulty with that is that we have made an artificial division here between six verses teaching about one's enemies, and all the other instructions contained in about 20 previous verses. One could equally say 5:48 is a summary of all the verses before, up till then.

3) Is "Be perfect" a stand-alone commandment?

There are some clear 'stand-alone' commandments in the Bible, such as "Do not murder", "Do not steal", "Do not commit adultery", "This is his commandment, that we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another" (1 John 3:23).

However, "Be perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" cannot stand alone, because it requires all the details Jesus has just expounded to make sense. Even more significantly, it requires the enabling of the indwelling Holy Spirit in believers to understand, and then to strive to be.

Conclusion: Because understanding of that instruction only becomes clear once we have understood what Jesus meant by it, we are putting the cart before the horse trying to choose one of the three options suggested. Only once we have been enlightened as to what Jesus meant by that saying can we know if it requires to be 'positioned' in any respect to our thinking about the Sermon on the Mount. Although it is a clear instruction, it does not apply 'only' to loving one's enemies, as Jesus shows in all of his teaching (not just that sermon, at that time, in that place.)

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Matthew 48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

is a reference to

Leviticus 11:44 For I am the LORD your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

Leviticus 11:45 For I am the LORD that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.

The same passage is referred to in 1 Peter.

1 Peter 1:16 Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.

After examining these passages, I would draw your attention next to the phrase, the Lord that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt. A word study there might profit.

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It is very plausible and pertinent that this commandment is connected semantically to loving of enemies, because this commandment cannot be in principle fulfilled without God doing it in and with us. By human power it is ontologically impossible.

Thus, by this commandment we are told to become God’s agents and voluntary instruments, to become gods through participation in God and His activity, co-acting with the latter.

But then it becomes necessary to die for one’s human desire of avenging. This is extremely difficult, for even the highest form of a sexual delectation completely fades in comparison with a sweetness of a vengeance, when your enemy licks dust in front of you (Psalm 72:9). Nothing, nothing can be tastier and more desirable; but also hardly anything can be as damaging for soul as a vengeance. For which there is a British saying: “Before avenging, dig two graves”.

Yes, difficult to follow Christ, for it means dying for oneself and being born in Spirit to live for Him (2 Cor. 5:15). Vast majority of the baptized and nominally Christians in all Christian denominations are perfectly unready to follow this path, thus remaining pagans in a Christian guise. I am one of such, but acknowledge my weakness and even make yet feeble but still sincere and diligent first attempts to overcome it through faith in and grace of the Lord.

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