Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.Matthew 5:48 NRSV
Growing up, my father taught me the extreme importance of knowing words’ true definitions. He would often say, “Melody, definition is SO important. Never say ‘jealous’ when you really mean ‘envious.’ They are two completely different ideas”. There were times when I rolled my eyes and thought that he was simply playing a game of semantics. I didn’t quite understand why these seemingly small and insignificant nuances were of such great relevance until I heard an interview many years later with talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
In this interview, Oprah described an experience she had in a church where the pastor was preaching on God being a jealous God. She spoke about her thoughts that day, saying, “I was caught up in the rapture of that moment until he said ‘jealous,’ and something struck me. I was like 27 or 28 and I’m thinking, ‘God is all. God is omnipresent. And God is also jealous? God is jealous of me?’ And something about that didn’t feel right in my spirit… and that is where the search for something more than doctrine started to stir within me.” That was a solidifying moment for me. I remember hearing that and finally realizing fully what my Dad had meant all those times.
To put it simply, Oprah’s misunderstanding of the definition of “jealousy” ultimately caused her to walk away from Scripture and, consequently, from the Gospel.
Now, why am I telling you this? I believe this principle applies when we read this extremely bold statement that Jesus makes in the Sermon on the Mount: “You therefore must be perfect, as Your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). At first glance, it seems like Jesus is calling us to lead perfect lives – sinless lives – just like our Heavenly Father. But why would He say this? Hasn’t Jesus called us, and specifically New City Church, to the idea of rest? How are we supposed to lead sinless lives with a fallen nature? Doesn’t this idea seem to contradict the Scriptures?
In many instances Scripture addresses this idea. Romans 3:23 states, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Once again, in Isaiah 64, it states, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”
So the question begs to be asked: What did Jesus mean by “perfect,” and how can we reconcile all these things?
If we look at the definition of the word “perfect” in the Greek (“τέλειος” or “telos”) it is defined as follows: “Brought to its end, finished; wanting nothing necessary to completeness; of mind and character; one who has reached the proper height of virtue and integrity.” This seems to suggest that this idea of “perfection” has less to do with a lack of sin and more to do with a level of maturity that Christ is calling us to. When we look at how this Greek word is used in other places in the New Testament, it seems that this latter definition proves more fitting. Here are some examples:
- 1 Corinthians 14:20: Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.
- Colossians 1:28: Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
- Hebrews 5:14: But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
- 1 John 4:18: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.
Furthermore, in order for us to understand what Jesus meant by “perfect,” we must look at the context in which this phrase is placed. Matthew 5:43-48 says
Jesus teaching the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus is not merely calling us to a general maturity in this instance, but is requiring of us that we learn how to love in a way that goes beyond selfishness. In the same way that the Father gives rain and sunshine both to the righteous AND the wicked, we are asked to pray for, serve, love, and acknowledge not only those who we enjoy being around, but in fact our enemies! I believe this is a call to love not only those who directly oppose us, but also the guy at work who drives us crazy, the coach who said hurtful things in the past, and the neighbor who has a different political opinion. If we are only capable of loving those who are convenient to love, we must ask ourselves if our love has been matured and completed, or if we are lacking. This perfected love that Jesus speaks of is a love that is unselfish, uncompromised, and unbiased. It does not love out of reaction, and it is not contingent upon how others treat us.
When we remember that while we were still enemies of Jesus, He was bruised, beaten, and crucified for us (Rom 5:10), we will be persuaded by the Holy Spirit to seek out our own enemies and to show them the mercy which we have been shown. My prayer for us is that by the grace of God we therefore will learn how to be perfected and matured in our love just as our Heavenly Father is perfected and matured in love.
Questions for us to wrestle with:
1) How can I go out of my way to love someone whom I normally would not this week?
2) When, in my own life, have I been shown love when I didn’t deserve it?
3) How is the Lord calling me to seek out and serve my enemies?