When Jesus Said, “Be Perfect as Your Heavenly Father is Perfect”, What Did He Mean?

Jesus talked about perfection in the context of love

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children 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. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.'”

Matthew 5:43‭-‬48 NIV

Be perfect. Really? No one is perfect, except God. Right?

I am reminded of the rich young ruler who called Jesus “good teacher”. (Luke 18:18) Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? Only one is good, and that is God.” (Luke 18:19) If no one is good but God alone, no one is good. Full stop.

Look at the context. He starts with this extreme statement: “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.” (Matt. 5:20)

The Pharisees were probably considered pretty righteous dudes. They knew their Bibles. They devoted their lives to studying the Law and living rightly before God. If I was standing there, I am certain I would be asking myself, “What does a guy have to do?!”

Just when people like me might begin to grasp for hope of a way out, Jesus ratcheted up the standard even higher:

“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.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” 

Matthew 5:21-22

And higher:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

Matt. 5:27-30

By this time, I might have understood the point: no one measures up. If we are judged by the things we think, and not just the things we do, we are sunk! Who can be saved?!

Then Jesus adds the requirement, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect!” could it get any worse?!

Paul backs us up into the same corner using the Old Testament: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) (Proverbs 20:9 (“Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’?”); and Ecclesiastes 7:20 (“Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.”)

If no one is good, and we have all fallen short, then no one can be perfect either. We don’t measure up. We are all doomed! We can’t gain our way into the kingdom of God because we aren’t good enough to enter.

The good news (the Gospel) is that we don’t have to measure up. We don’t get into the kingdom of God by earning our way; God offers it to us as a gift (otherwise, we would be able to boast about it). (Eph. 2:8-9) Jesus, who was good and perfect, redeemed us by his sacrificial death!

So, if we don’t have to be perfect, or even good, to enter the kingdom of God, does it not matter what we do?

Of course it does! If we are not going to earn our way in (like an employee working for a wage), but we want accept the gift God offers to those who become righteous by faith (Rom. 5:3-5) we need to accept all that goes with that gift: we become God’s children with the intention that we become like Him. (John 1:12)

Therefore, we should take goodness and perfection seriously. We can’t simply dismiss it because God has given us the gift of salvation with the intention that we would become like Him. In the rest of this meditation, I will focus on the perfection of love, which is the “excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31) we should seek to emulate God, the Father, as His children.

We might think of perfection, religious perfection, in the sense of personal piety. The things that we do and don’t do. We might think of perfection, human perfection, in the sense of accomplishment, physical excellence, self-discipline for achieving unprecedented feats of human prowess, etc.

When we think of perfection in terms of God, we might think of God’s omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. We might also think of God’s perfection in terms of holiness and righteousness.

When Jesus talked about perfection, however, he talked about perfection in the context of love: “Love your neighbor” and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”.

If we are going to focus on perfection as Jesus directed us, we need to focus on love. Paul calls it the most excellent way. Love, therefore, is excellence, and what could be more excellent than perfection?

But, how do we measure love? If we are going to strive to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, because we want to be live Him, what are we striving for? What is the measure of love/perfection?

Christians criticize the popular cultural movement that promotes the platitude, “Love is love.” As if it were that simple, right? (Nothing is ever that simple!)

Love, in this context, seems to be tolerance and acceptance, and not mere acceptance, but affirmation, of whatever view another person takes about religion, personal piety, spirituality, identity, etc. – as long as it isn’t an exclusive view. Of course, this tolerant and accepting view is exclusive (intolerant and rejecting) of any view that holds to objective truth about morality (especially Christians, not Muslims so much).

Ironically, people who hold to this view also also often believe that all people should recognize the obvious truth of this view. They reject any notion of objective moral truth (for “personal truth)”) while attempting to ground that view on a nebulous objectivity that is believed to be self-evident.

People who hold to such a view might be considered “enemies” of Christians who hold to the truth of the Bible, though we can hardly compare our “cultural” enemies to people who crucified Jesus and actually persecuted Christians, even to the point of death. They may say bad things about us, but they are not stoning us, crucifying us, or burning us at the stake.

As Christians, we believe that morality is based on the character of God, and love is equally an objective standard. Jesus didn’t leave us wondering what love is, either. He gave us examples of what love is.

Love isn’t a platitude or touchy, feely emotions. It isn’t mere tolerance, or acceptance, or some willingness to leave others to their own truth. Love has substance, and Jesus and the New Testament writers described for us what it is.

In the passage quoted above, Jesus said that love prays for those who persecute us. If love includes praying for people who persecute us, love would also include praying for people who do lesser bad things to us as well. We can start by praying for people who don’t like us and who are mean to us.

If God causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, we should treat people with the same kindness, patience, hospitality, and care whether they like us or not. We don’t have to earn God’s love, so other people should not have to earn our love.

Jesus described the pinnacle of love this way: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” (John 15:13-14)

And we shouldn’t think that laying down our lives is limited to friends, because Jesus already said that love must extend to our enemies if we are to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.

The point Jesus was making in the passage in John is that the disciples were his friends, and he was going to lay his life down for them, but we know that Jesus laid his life down for friends and foes alike:

“Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Romans 5:6-8

Love sees that all people are made in the image of God, and love understands that all people were made by God with the ability to be a unique reflection of the characteristics and nature of God. Love nose that even our enemies are loved by God, that God desires even our enemies to attain to the purposes for which God made them.

Paul describes love this way:

 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Love recognizes that all people have potential and a purpose created for them by God. Love does not seek to do anything to frustrate, or thwart, or deny, or undermine the purposes for which God created another person.

Love is perfection in God’s economy. We are made perfect in love, and perfect love casts out all fear. We love because God first loved us. We can do nothing of greater value than to reflect God’s love to other people – our friends, our neighbors, and even our enemies.

God did not wait for us to love Him or to become perfect before He loved us. Our love, therefore, cannot be conditioned on other people perfecting their love. Our love is perfected in loving others who are not perfect. 

We also cannot love others if we do not love ourselves. Who are we not to love ourselves when God loves us! If we are going to be perfected in love, we must love ourselves as we love others.

If we are going to be perfect as God is perfect, We will love those whom we like, and we will love those whom we dislike. We will love our friends, and we will love our enemies.

The world will know that we are children of God by our love for one another. If we do not love well people who are children of God, how can we love others? How can we even begin to be perfect?

I will end by saying that love also does not depend on another person’s worldview, politics, or identity. Full stop. Loving anyone, including people who don’t think like us and who even hate us, means being patient and kind with them, treating them as we want to be treated. It means protecting, preserving, trusting, and hoping for them.

I dare say it means having relationships with them. You actually have to be close enough to someone to be patient and kind to them. Going into all the world does not mean bypassing the people around you who might be considered you “enemies”. The perfection Jesus urges us to strive for is perfection in love.

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