Jesus Called Christians to Be 'Perfect.' What Does That Mean?
An exploration of Matthew 5:48
“Be perfect, or you’re a failure.” — Jesus
OK, obviously, Jesus never said this.
We know Jesus; we understand that He is God wrapped in flesh, kind and ever-loving. And yet, we often become paralyzed at the mention of one short verse in which we assume Jesus says just that: Matthew 5:48. It reads, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
How many times have we heard this? How many times have we wilted in defeat, knowing we will never reach this level of God-like perfection? And why would we think we should be able to achieve this? We have heard it preached all our lives: We are a fallen people. We are nothing without Jesus and can do nothing apart from God.
So, what exactly did Jesus mean? He, of course, knew that humanity is unable to be perfect as God is perfect because He is, you know, God.
Jesus understood, even as He uttered these words, that perfection is impossible for human beings.
This realization brings about the next natural question: Why would Jesus command us to be perfect when He knew it was impossible? Was He just setting us up for failure? Toying with us?
TRANSLATION IS KEY
Let’s take a closer look at this verse: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The most important word in this verse is clear: perfect. But what if that is not the best English word to use to translate the original Hebrew word?
The original word used in this verse is tamim. Many scholars argue that this word may actually be better translated into English as whole or complete. If we read this verse as “be complete as your heavenly Father is complete,” it starts to look a little different. It asks us to wonder what being whole or complete in God looks like.
One of the synonyms of complete is integrated. To be integrated is to have all the aspects of our lives match up without conflict. It is to have what you believe on the inside match what you are doing on the outside.
In other words, it is practicing what you preach.
JESUS’ IDEA OF LOVE
But what if we really want to keep the English translation as we have heard it most often? Even if we choose to keep this word as perfect, we must look at the structure of this entire passage, not only this one verse.
When we read it all together, we see that verse 48 reads as a summary of Matthew 5:43-47, which is all about loving our enemies. If this is true, it seems that Jesus’ definition of perfection is completely wrapped up in love, and we could look at this verse as a command to love as God loves: completely and fully, with no bias or favoritism.
PERFECT DOES NOT MEAN PERFECT
Perhaps Jesus was not really telling us we must be perfect as we understand it today. Maybe all these years spent shaming ourselves (and each other) for never reaching perfection were completely unnecessary. Could it be that we have totally misunderstood Jesus’ command this whole time?
No matter which way we choose to look at this verse, it seems that Jesus was not actually telling us to be what we consider perfect: with no flaws or shortcomings.
So take a deep breath, stop worrying about perfection and simply follow in the ways of Jesus.