“You Must Be Perfect” – Matthew 5:48

The final line of this chapter may serve as a summary of the six expansions of Old Testament Law. Pennington argues this is the summary of all of Matthew 5 as well as a segue to the next set of teachings on practice (Sermon, 203). Matthew 5:20 introduced the Jesus’s teaching on keeping the Law by saying “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In 5:48 he goes even further, the true disciple of Jesus mush be perfect.

What does it mean to be perfect? The noun τέλειος (teleios) refers to being complete, mature, or whole. The point is not that the true disciple of Jesus score a perfect 100% on the holiness scale, but rather they become mature in their faith and practice so that the do consider their thoughts as more important than their actions, that they do in fact love their enemies as well as their neighbors.

100% Perfect iconPennington devotes a chapter to the meaning of “perfect” in his book on the Sermon on the Mount. There is a serious problem translating τέλειος (teleios) with the modern English word “perfect” since the connotation of the English word has the sense of absolute moral perfection, sinless, or purity. But as Pennington rightly points out, the word teleios is better translated “whole, complete” or even “virtuous” (Sermon, 70). When the disciple of Jesus tries to be perfect in the sense of completely sinless, they will fail since no one can be actually sinless. By connecting teleios with the concept of shalom in the Old Testament, Pennington argues the true disciples of Jesus will be whole, complete, and mature. In fact, Pennington says the idea of teleios is central to everything Jesus is teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.

For a Jewish person, keeping the Law perfectly was the goal, but no one was capable of fully keeping the Law (especially since “being holy” was far more than a moral state in the Law). The sacrifices covered lapses in holiness, but even with a sacrifice what really mattered was the state one one’s heart. Consider Psalm 51:10. When caught in a heinous sin, David begs the Lord to “create in me a clean heart” and in 51:16-17 he acknowledges God is not pleased with sacrifices, but with a “broken and contrite heart.”

In his six examples drawn from the Law, Jesus said one’s thoughts are as important as one’s actions. Internal anger is more damaging than murder. Internal lust is more damaging than adultery. Who could be considered perfect if our thoughts were exposed for all to see?

For this reason, McKnight argues perfection is not “the rigor of sinlessness” but rather the “rigor of utter devotion” (McKnight, Sermon, 146). The true disciple of Jesus is utterly devoted to God, pursuing righteousness in every way possible.

This is not the way most people think of perfection. A recent episode of the Simpsons the evangelical Christian Ned Flanders was teaching a Sunday School lesson on “how to get to heaven.” Several times he said something like “the only way to heaven is to be righteous.” That is not the case at all! The only way to get to heaven is to be forgiven. This is not a license to sin (Romans 6:1-4), but rather the freedom to grow in maturity, the freedom to embrace our wholeness in Christ.

How does this view of perfection as wholeness or maturity change the way the follower of Jesus lives out their life? It ought to relieve the disciple of Jesus from the guilt associated with failure to live up to perfection, but are there some other positive contributions to living out one’s faith?

10 thoughts on ““You Must Be Perfect” – Matthew 5:48

  1. I had a few family friends growing up that used this passage as one of the main reasons for believing that a Christian can reach perfection on earth. The father believed that He was perfect and he only made mistakes and did not sin. Eventually their family was kicked out of our church as He began to try to convince other people to join His theology. This being said, I think it is so important that we look to the original language as you do here and as McKnight does on page 146. This shows us that the perfect Jesus is speaking of is rather a maturing of our faith. The fact that this passage is after Jesus explains that lusting, and anger are just as bad as committing adultery and as murdering someone. It goes to show that we need to control our minds just as much as our actions, because what our minds dwell on, we will eventually act upon. For today’s society, this is a good reminder for us to strive to make our thoughts as holy and acceptable to God as our actions.

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  2. I have often wondered what perfect looks like in light of my Christian walk, I know that we are not supposed to be Jesus because we will never be as good as Jesus, and I think that may have been one of Jesus’s main points for coming in to the world, to show that none of us are perfect and that we will never be as good a Jesus. because of this blog post, and other things that I have read about this thought of being complete in our Christain walk, I have come to the conclusion that sin is a prerequisite for being a Christian. it is a good thing that we are sinners, because if we were not we would not need Christ. But on the other hand, now that I have received faith I will live out every day wanting to more like Christ because even if you are not a Christian, the Christian life is still a better way to live.

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  3. Perfection is impossible due to the sinful nature of human beings. Our view of perfection is not exactly the message that Jesus was trying to get across. The way that McKnight describes perfection is “rigor of utter devotion” (McKnight, p. 146). God does not expect us to be the world’s view of perfection, but rather to be utterly devoted to God’s will. “Perfection is to be the person who treats everyone as the neighbor, and this fulfills the entirety of God’s will” (McKnight, p. 147). I love how you say that we do not have permission to sin, but rather freedom to grow in maturity. We should not willingly do what is wrong; but if we make mistakes, God will forgive us. God knows that we need to mature and grow in our faith, therefore he does not place impossible expectations on us. This provides me with a great deal of comfort, but also makes me want to strive to live the way that God wants me to.

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  4. What does it mean to be perfect? To be perfect is to live a life exactly like Jesus did. Sinless, selfless, anger free, ect.. Unfortunately, as humans we can’t live perfect lives, even though Jesus Christ has called us to be perfect. Matthew speaks about the importance of striving to live a perfect life in the sense that as we try and strive to be perfect the closer we’ll get to living like Jesus did. Our intentions and motives will gradually begin to fall more inline with what Jesus desires of and from us. In today’s world it is impossible to live a life sinless, aside from the fact that we are sinless, the world is fallen and full of sin as well. Matthew reminds us that “out of the mouth, the heart speaks” — meaning that our heart drives what we do and if Jesus Christ lives in us then our heart will reflect Him and through our lives, Jesus will shine through. The Bible tells us to sine our light so that everyone can see it, this is more than living the perfect life for the sake of living it, this is living a perfect life because first, Jesus called us to and second, because we are image barres and reflect the very person of God and His testimony. McKnight says that “perfection is to be the person who treats everyone as the neighbor, and this fulfills the entirety of God’s will” (pg. 147) meaning that because we are fallen it doesn’t mean that we can’t strive to become as close to perfect as we can be and to do that is to obey God. Specifically in this case, McKnight is referring to treating others like yourself, showing kindness and friendliness. More importantly, because kindness and friendliness is what God showed us. Once God’s desires become our desires it’s only then that we can live a “perfect” life because our heart is casing after God’s and His righteousness as become our righteousness.

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  5. I will admit I never realized the true meaning of that word perfect in its historical context. That honestly takes a certain amount of pressure off, understanding that wholeness and completeness seems far more attainable than “Perfection”. Jesus is concerned here with our hearts, and is willing to pursue obedience and love, not the actual ability or strength we have to do it perfectly. This idea of being made perfect is also stated in James 1:4 as he is referring to perseverance through struggles and temptations, “And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” and also in Philippians 2:15, “That you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, ”. We know that when we are saved Jesus’ blood covers our past, present, and future sins so that as we continue on, we can be encouraged and strengthened in His grace and love for us and be more willing to fight against the flesh to be obedient to His will for our lives. As P. Long said in the article, “… the freedom to embrace our wholeness in Christ.”

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  6. Mary,
    I am going to add onto your post because I have a similar experience with a person that believed they were perfect. In this case, it was my dad’s previous pastor. This particular pastor (and obviously, not speaking for all) believed that you could reach perfection on earth, same as the man you talked about. He would constantly. judge, ridicule and mock people that were non-believers or even members of his own church if they made a mistake or if they did not believe what he believed. For example, my dad kept in touch with a close family from the church and they had told us that they had decided to leave the church (despite being there for 15 years) because of the pastor. The family took the virus seriously and so they refused to attend church in person, but joined every live stream the church did on Sunday’s, but that was considered not good enough for the pastor and he (Sunday after Sunday) mocked and condemned the family for refusing to attend in person and said that they did not have enough faith in God.
    So, I have a similar experience as you when it comes to someone that believes that have reached perfection and so they use that idea of perfection to sometimes speak harmful words or judgements on another people, but Jesus was not talking about the type of perfection we think of, but instead, as other people have said, the process of maturing in our faith. We are unable to completely be free of sin on Earth because of the sinful nature of man, but we can better ourselves and become more Christ-like by maturing in our faith and by sinning “less.”

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  7. It is important for us to understand that being a perfect disciple of Jesus does not mean to “score a perfect 100% on the holiness scale”, because if this were the case then nobody would be able to truly be a perfect disciple. However defining perfection as “complete” and mature in our faith allows us to understand that we can accomplish a sense of “perfection” and be a disciple of Jesus. I think that it is imperative for people of the church to stress that to be a perfect disciple does not mean to be without fault, and also express this to any non-believers as well. I believe this is important because if people have this idea that in order to be a good Christian you have to be without fault, then they will be discouraged by this thought and think they are not worthy enough to be a Christian at all. Our job is to bring people to Christ, rather than scare them and deter them. Everyone sins, and the only way that we are able to be made perfect is through Jesus, and the forgiveness of God.

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