Matthew 5:48 (NASB)
48 “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
OK, 1—2—3—Go! Are you perfect yet? No? Me neither. So what does this mean?
A good place to start is to define this word, perfect. Literally, it means complete. Depending on the context, it is variously translated, complete, perfect, or mature.
So what is the context in Matthew chapter 5? This command is given as part of the sermon on mount. Not many verses before, Jesus tells Jews that their righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and the pharisees (who were considered to have the market cornered on piety) if they hoped to get into heaven.
First, be more righteous than the most highly respected religious leaders of the day, and now be perfect? Impossible! Sounds like the kind of sermon where you hang your head and go home having no idea how to fix your miserable self—except that between those two statements Jesus explains very clearly what being perfect means.
To the Jews in Jesus day it meant looking beyond the outward observance of the law to the intent of God’s heart that is revealed in it. Even if you don’t actually murder someone, your heart is far from God if you harbor malice in your heart toward that person (21-22). Your heart is not pure because you don’t physically commit adultery, if instead, you intentionally entertain lustful imaginations (27-28). You can do the very least the law requires to love and serve those around you, but when you have a heart that is near to God you will have compassion and find ways to love and serve even those who mistreat you (38-47).
So what does it mean for us today?
It means looking beyond the place of Christian devotion that makes us comfortable with ourselves or acceptable to our peer group. It means having every little corner of our heart, mind, habits, and life driven by a passion and commitment to love God and serve others. It means finding out what pleases God and then consistently, relentlessly, and comprehensively applying those things to our everyday lives. It means continually assessing our motives.
A Christianity that says, “God knows I’m not perfect, and He doesn’t expect me to be” is not Biblical. Certainly he knows. He offers grace to help us and He forgives us when we fail, but He does expect us to be perfect.
Will we ever reach a state of permanent, sinless perfection in this life? No. But, as God’s children, we should be trying to grow up to be like Him. A thing is perfect when it is complete, when it has attained it’s goal. We were meant to mature and develop a character that looks like God’s own. I believe that this command to be perfect means we are to take the precepts from God’s word and live them out to their fullest intent—To not settle for anything less than reflecting the very heart and character of our Heavenly Father in every area of our lives.
And don’t talk to me about pride… We desperately need God’s help in this endeavor—and attempting to be perfect in this way will always keep us humble.