“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – Matthew 5:48 ESV
In all that Jesus has said up to this point, this one line jumps out like no other. And He makes it at the tail end of His discussion regarding love. Jesus has let them know that the kind of love God expects from those are blessed and approved by Him is a non-discriminatory love. It isn’t a love that has to be earned or deserved in some way. There is no expectation of love in return. In other words, it’s not reciprocal in nature. Human love says, “I’ll love you, as long as you love me back.” But that’s a self-centered kind of love. Jesus said, “If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that” (Matthew 4:47-48 NLT).
Our model for love is to be God, not man. Which is what led Jesus to say, “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:49 NLT). And if we’re honest, the very first thought that goes through our minds when we hear that statement is, “You’ve got to be kidding!” Is Jesus serious? Is He really asking us to be perfect, like God is perfect? Is He calling His listeners to do the impossible? YES!
What Jesus is demanding is righteousness. God’s brand of righteousness. Mankind is adept at producing flesh-based righteousness. That is what Jesus has been addressing during this opening section of His message. He knew that those in His audience tended to measure their righteousness based on external adherence to some set of rules or standards. Here’s how they approached righteousness:
“As long as I don’t commit adultery, I’m doing okay with God.”
“If I don’t kill anyone, I am keeping God’s law and keeping Him happy with me.”
“If I happen to divorce my wife, I’ll still be okay with God, as long as I do it in the prescribed manner, according to His law.”
“I thank God for oaths, that allow me to break my word, but in a way that God will accept, even if my friends don’t.”
“God even approves of me when I do harm to others, as long as I’m doing it to get even.”
“And I can keep God loving me as long as I love my neighbor and hate my enemies.”
But all of those thoughts are based on a human understanding of righteousness, a merit-based concept that connects righteousness to behavior. But Jesus is presenting a radically different view that teaches that God’s ultimate expectation of men is nothing short of sinless perfection. In fact, the Greek word Jesus uses that is translated “perfect”, is teleios and it means whole or complete. It was used to refer to consummate human integrity and virtue. Jesus wasn’t calling for a better, slightly improved version of human righteousness. He was calling for sinless perfection. And there wasn’t a single person in His audience that day who could pull it off, including His four disciples. We are all totally incapable of doing what Jesus is saying, without His help.
What Jesus is demanding is simply a reiteration of what His Father had demanded of the Israelites centuries earlier.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” – Leviticus 19:1-2 ESV
The Hebrew word translated as “holy” is the word qadowsh. It means “pure, clean; free from defilement of crimes, idolatry, and other unclean and profane things” (“H6918 – qadowsh – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). It was also used to speak of someone or something’s status as having been “set apart” by God for His use.
You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine. – Leviticus 20:26 ESV
It was a call to separation and distinctiveness. The people of Israel were to be holy, set apart by God for His use. But their holiness was not to be simply a positional reality. It was to have practical ramifications. God had expectations regarding their behavior, but also regarding the condition of their hearts. They were expected to “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5 ESV). And they were expected to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18 ESV).
The apostle Peter would echo the words of Jesus in his first letter.
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:14-16 ESV
Be holy – in all your conduct. Be perfect – just as your heavenly Father is perfect. Those are some staggering concepts to get your mind around. They come across as so far-fetched and impossible, that we end up treating them as some form of hyperbole or over-exaggeration on Jesus’ part. Surely, He can’t be expecting us to be holy like God is holy, or perfect in the same way God is perfect. But Jesus is simply revealing the standard of God. God doesn’t grade on a curve. He doesn’t dumb down the test because of the spiritual acumen of the students in His classroom. One of the issues Jesus is exposing in His message is that the Jews were guilty of lowering God’s holy and righteous standards so that they could somehow measure up. That’s why Jesus said, “if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:19 NLT). And He topped that off with the bombshell: “unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:20 NLT).
God has always expected and demanded perfection. He has always required that His people be holy, just as He is holy. There is no lower standard. God doesn’t take a look at mankind, recognize their inability to live up to His expectations, then lower the bar so more people can qualify. Later on, in this very same message, Jesus will reveal “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it” (Matthew 7:13-14 NLT). God’s way is not the easy way. The kind of righteousness He demands and expects is not easy to achieve. It’s impossible. The life of holiness He requires of those who would be His children is measured by His own holiness. It is a holiness and righteousness that is far superior to anything the Pharisees or teachers of religious law could ever hope to produce.
Holiness and godly perfection are high standards indeed. And they are impossible to produce in the flesh. You can’t manufacture what God is demanding. You can’t be like God without the help of God. The apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth and reminded them:
Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness? What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil? How can a believer be a partner with an unbeliever? And what union can there be between God’s temple and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God said:
“I will live in them
and walk among them.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
Therefore, come out from among unbelievers,
and separate yourselves from them, says the Lord.
Don’t touch their filthy things,
and I will welcome you.
And I will be your Father,
and you will be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.” – 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 NLT
Then he follows this up with the logical conclusion or application.
Because we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God. – 2 Corinthians 7:1 NLT
You see, there is an expectation of separation. We are to love differently and distinctively from those around us. Part of how our holiness should manifest itself is in the alternative way of living that we model. As God’s children, we have a capacity to live differently than all those around us. We have the ability to live truly righteous lives because we have received the righteousness of Christ. We have the Spirit of God living within us and empowering us to live like Christ. We have a high standard to live up to: Jesus Christ Himself. He is the model of righteousness we are to emulate. Not scribes, Pharisees, rabbis, pastors, teachers, evangelists, parents, or friends. That is, unless they are modeling their lives after Christ. Paul put it this way: “And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 NLT).
So, when Jesus said to the crowd seated on the hillside that day, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, He wasn’t presenting anything new. He was simply reminding them that God’s standard had not changed. He had not lowered the bar. Human alterations and addendums to God’s laws might make them easier to live up to, but they couldn’t produce the kind of righteousness God was expecting. That’s why, as Paul reminds us, God did for us what the law could never have done.
The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT
Holiness and perfection are not impossible, unless we try to produce them on our own. God never intended the law to be lived up to. It presented God’s divine criteria for holiness. It made painfully clear what God demanded in the way of behavior from mankind. But in the end, it was intended to reveal our sin and our need for outside help, what Martin Luther referred to as “alien righteousness” – an righteousness outside of ourselves.
God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. Therefore, as the Scriptures say, “If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.