What did Jesus mean when he said, “You shall be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect”?
I get a lot of questions about this particular saying of Jesus. It’s one of those quotes that gets used in the wrong way and sometimes leads to creating more problems than it solves.
It’s from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:48).
Perfectionism is not the answer
Some people, because of this verse, put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfectionists. Some legalistic churches expect their members to always be perfect in everything they do.
This perfectionist attitude is, quite frankly, not healthy.
It causes people to live a life of appearances, so others will think they are doing everything right. They, in turn, see others putting on the outward show of doing everything right and feel they are failing.
This produces a lot of unhealthy comparisons. It’s way too easy to think that someone else has their act together and what you’re doing is just not good enough because you’re not perfect in everything you do.
What did Jesus want from us?
Is this what Jesus was talking about when he told us we should be perfect?
There’s a lot of talk these days about the fact that too many people are trying to be perfectionists. They’ve been taught by their families, their cultures, their churches, their jobs, and even society in general that they need to do everything the “right” way, all the time.
We have set an amazingly high standard for human behavior when we try to be perfect in everything we do. This kind of attitude causes a lot of problems when we don’t achieve that illusive perfection.
In case you hadn’t noticed, human perfection just doesn’t happen, even if you’re working at it.
Some folks swing the opposite direction and make little or no effort to strive for excellence.
And one of the popular sayings these days by many very successful people is: Quit trying to be perfect. Strive for excellence and just do the best you can.
There’s certainly value in that advice to some degree. I know some people who never actually get a task started because they worry so much about it wanting something to be perfect.
Why do we think we have to be perfect?
So why do we feel the need to be perfect or do something perfectly?
I think there is something innate in us, since we are made in the image and likeness of God, that impels us to strive for perfection, to be more like who God created us to be. But if our striving is just human will and egotism, it will not satisfy us.
When the human ego is trying to be perfect, we might be motivated by pride. Or it could be insecurity that wants to be noticed and appreciated by others. We want to be accepted and valued. And a host of other reasons.
Let’s did deeper
Let’s dig down into this verse from Matthew and see what we can learn from Jesus’s words.
“Therefore you shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
First, let’s look at the original meaning of the word perfect, which in Greek is teleios. It means: “brought to its end, finished; wanting nothing necessary to completeness; perfect; that which is perfect.” That’s from Strong’s concordance.
Basically, it means to be complete, which in English means to be filled all the way. Sort of the same thing.
One Bible commentator says teleios also has the connotation of meaning appropriate for a task or function: a shoe that fits, the right size and type of tool for a particular job.
So, you can breathe a little sigh of relief. It only means complete.
That doesn’t seem so demanding as this extreme perfectionism we impose on ourselves. But remember, Jesus says we are to be perfect as God is perfect, as complete as God is complete.
So, that gets us back to a pretty high standard.
Verb tense is important
Now, let’s look at the verb tense in Matthew 5:48. The verb “be” is in the future indicative tense and in second person plural. What does all that mean?
The indicative tense “indicates” that something is a fact. The future tense means it will be true in the future. It’s not just a possibility but something that will actually happen, be, or exist.
Second person plural means Jesus was not just talking to one person, but to all of his listeners. That includes you and me today.
Jesus is saying our completeness, our perfection, is a fact that will become clearer to us in the future. It’s not just a future possibility. It’s a fact.
Jesus didn’t expect perfectionism from us
But Jesus is not talking about human perfectionism.
You’re probably thinking to yourself, “James, how do you know that? Doesn’t Jesus want us to do everything perfectly?”
You’re right, I don’t know exactly what Jesus was thinking, but look at how he interacted with his disciples.
He had no illusions that they wouldn’t make mistakes.
He knew Judas would betray him. He knew Peter would deny him three times.
That didn’t stop Jesus from nurturing and ministering to them.
He saw the shortcomings of all his disciples. But Jesus knew they could still do so much good, in spite of their flaws.
Unfortunately, Judas couldn’t bear what he had done and committed suicide. But Peter was able to move past his mistakes and preach the gospel successfully for many years.
How does this apply to you and me?
Think of all the people in the Bible who carried out God’s purpose.
Most of them had some serious character flaws, some more than others. They were not humanly perfect, but surprise! God used them anyway!
So right now, just quit trying to be humanly perfect.
All that effort on your part at perfectionism is really self-will and egotism disguised at trying to do what’s right.
The key here is that it is human effort. Sort of like Paul, when he was Saul the Pharisee, obeying all the Jewish laws perfectly.
He refers to himself in Philippians 3:6 being found blameless as far as the righteousness of the law goes.
Did all that effort at perfect obedience to the Law actually make him holy and righteous? Did it make him perfect? He probably felt so at the time, but later he could look back and realize it was worthless.
Jesus rebuked this type of perfectionism
Jesus actually called out this attitude of the Pharisees.
In chapter 24 of Matthew, Jesus cuts right to the heart of the Pharisee’s problems. Here are just a few of the things he said in rebuking the Pharisees:
Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence.
Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Matthew 23:24, 25, 28 NKJV
The Pharisees were striving for perfectionism in obeying the Jewish Law. There’s nothing wrong with trying to always obey the law of God, but Jesus disapproved of their outward appearance of obedience when their hearts were disobedient.
Context adds more meaning
Okay, let’s get back to this verse in Matthew 5:48 and look at the context.
In the verses just before Jesus says we are to be perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect, he says,
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you,
that you may be sons of your Father 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 have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?
Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48 NKJV
This section of the Sermon on the Mount is about how we love, especially how we love our enemies. Jesus is telling us we can and will love our enemies as perfectly and completely as God does.
This is actually a promise, not just of what is possible but of what is inevitable.
It’s about how we love
The word for love here, in Greek, is agape. It means a deep, spiritual, unconditional love. We are to love our enemies with this unconditional love, just as God loves the righteous and the unrighteous unconditionally.
There are many different words in Greek to convey different kinds of love. Jesus is not telling us to love our enemies the way we love our family and friends, or the way you love your spouse. We are to love them the way God loves them, unconditionally.
When we love this way, our love is perfect. It’s complete.
And when you get to the point where you can love your enemies this way, you are walking side by side with Christ.
Do you have any “enemies” you need to love?
Let’s take a minute right here.
Is there anyone in your life who seems like an enemy? Is there anyone who has cursed you, hates you, has taken advantage of you, or persecuted you? Hopefully not.
Maybe there’s no one you know who feels this way toward you, but what about someone who doesn’t know you but is strongly opposed to and hateful toward your religious, political, and social values?
Can you say with complete honesty that you love these people? It is certainly a goal to work toward, especially in today’s climate of political and religious polarization and divisiveness.
Let’s come back one more time to this promise of Jesus that we shall be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect and dig a little deeper.
What if Jesus is saying that we are to be perfect, just as God is perfect and not just in regard to the way we love people?
Jesus summed up his purpose this way when he was talking to Pilate:
For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. John 18:37 NKJV
To bear witness to the truth…
What was the truth Jesus came to bear witness to?
I am convinced that it was the great truth he proclaimed from the very beginning of and throughout his ministry, that the “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17 NKJV)
The truth Jesus bore witness to was the fact that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
I talk a lot about this on the podcast. It is so important for us to catch the spirit of what Jesus is telling us.
Jesus saw what is true in the kingdom of heaven
Jesus could see the kingdom of heaven as present, even though it was invisible to the five material senses. He could see it with his spiritual vision.
In this always-present kingdom of heaven, even if we can’t see it, everything is truly and completely perfect in every way. Jesus knew this.
When a sick person asked him for healing, Jesus knew that in the kingdom of heaven at hand, there could be no sickness.
He could see their perfection, or completeness, in heaven right then, and not just as something off in the future.
He saw this so clearly that the sickness dissolved, the same way darkness disappears when you turn on the light switch in a dark room.
This is the way Jesus looked at people. Where the Pharisees saw a multitude of hopeless sinners, Jesus saw the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Jesus bore witness to what was true about them in the kingdom of heaven.
Our “perfection” is a comes from God’s perfection
When Jesus tells us we shall be perfect, he actually ties our perfection to God’s perfection.
Our perfection doesn’t come because of anything we do or human effort we make. Our perfection can only come as a result and consequence of God’s perfection.
Jesus saw people as God had originally made them, in the image and likeness of God (see Genesis 1:26).
Here again is the truth Jesus was bearing witness to. This is what brought healing to the sick, sight to the blind, feet to the lame, and redeemed the sinner.
So when Jesus says we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, he’s referring to the fact that we are perfect in the kingdom of heaven, which is at hand. And he is referring to the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of God, which is perfect, complete.
Let me re-emphasize, Jesus is not talking about human perfection or perfectionism. He talking about spiritual perfection in the kingdom of heaven. He explains that we will come to understand and experience this perfection in what we call the future, but it is already true right now, because the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Quit trying to be perfect
So please, quit trying with your human will and ego to be perfect. Even if you achieve what you consider to be perfection in this way, it will never satisfy your spiritual needs. You can’t make yourself perfect.
Jesus wants us to bear witness to our present spiritual perfection in the kingdom of heaven. The more we can see ourselves in this light of what is already true in heaven, it will appear more here on earth.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.
Several years ago my leg was swollen and I was in a lot of pain. I had a hard time walking and sitting, and especially going up and down the stairs.
The more I prayed about it, the more I came to see how I was created in the image and likeness of God.
I was learning to bear witness to what was true about me in the kingdom of heaven, where there is no pain, but I am complete and perfect in every way.
One morning I got up and was in more pain that usual.
I reached out to God with all my heart and just wanted to be close to Him.
I suddenly had an epiphany that this pain and swelling were not part of me as the image and likeness of God in the kingdom of heaven. I had prayed these words many times, but now I felt the truth of them.
Even though I was still in pain, I felt a deep calm and freedom, a peace I hadn’t felt for a long time.
Within a day or two, the pain and swelling dissolved and I was completely well.
I was so grateful for this healing, but even more grateful for the glimpse I got of myself spiritually.
I bore witness to myself as the image and likeness of God, complete and whole. I saw that what was true about me in the kingdom of heaven was true right that moment and every moment. I glimpsed my spiritual perfection.
Right now, you can bear witness to your spiritual perfection in the kingdom of heaven. Every time you pray the Lord’s Prayer for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, you are praying to see more of this perfection here and now in your life.
James Early is a Bible teacher, speaker, and podcaster and conducts Bible workshops online and in person. His focus is on getting back to the original Christianity of Jesus by embracing the mindset of Christ in daily life. Contact him here.
Bible References in this episode:
Matthew 5:48 NASB20
48 Therefore you shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Philippians 3:6 NASB20
6 as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.
Matthew 23:24, 25, 28 NKJV
24 Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!
25 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence.
28 Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Matthew 5:43-48 NKJV
43 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
44 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you,
45 that you may be sons of your Father 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.
46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
47 And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?
48 Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
John 18:37 NKJV
37 For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.
Matthew 4:17 NKJV
17 Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Genesis 1: 26 NJKV
26 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness;