You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate
your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who
persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he
makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the
righteous and on the unrighteous. 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 and sisters, what more are you doing than others?
Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your
heavenly Father is perfect.
“Trying to be perfect can really mess you up!” That was the painful confession to me of a friend, speaking as one perfectionist-in-recovery to another. He was a psychologist and Christ-follower who knew up close and personal the pain of perfectionism in his own life and the lives of others. I understood exactly what he meant.
Having been raised in the “holiness movement” within the Wesleyan tradition that strived for Christian perfection, I had once prayed and hoped that I might some day be perfect. Add to my feeling the need to erase the one B on a report card of A’s, and I was well on my way to becoming a perfectionist addict.
But, I found justification for my perfectionism in these puzzling words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” His command to be perfect made life feel like one endless report card! The goalpost was always getting moved on me. I was like a hamster frantically running the wheel. “Oh dear Jesus, help me! What do you mean telling me ‘Be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect’”?
In time, I came to see the importance of looking at Jesus’ command in its context. In the immediately preceding verses Jesus describes the Father’s perfection as the way the Father loves His enemies and shines His sun on the evil as well as the good. Jesus says that God even loves the people’s hated enemy, the Roman tax collector. What an incredible perfectionist God is in His limitless love and care for the undeserving!
That’s what we see in the context of Jesus’ command to be perfect: but what about the words, “be perfect”? What does Jesus mean? The Greek word translated “perfect” is the word teleios, variously translated as “whole”, “mature”, “brought to completion”, “fully grown”, (e.g. 1 John 4:18; 1 Corinthians 13:10; 14:20; Ephesians 3:13; Hebrews 5:14).
The fine Bible commentator William Barclay aptly describes the meaning of teleios:
The Greek idea of perfection is functional. A thing is perfect if it fully realizes the purpose for which it was planned, and designed, and made… a man is perfect it he realizes the purpose for which he was created and sent into the world…It is the whole teaching of the Bible that we realise our manhood only by becoming godlike. The one thing which makes us like God is the love which never ceases to care for men, no matter what men do to it. We realize our manhood, we enter upon Christian perfection, when we learn to forgive as God forgives, and to love as God loves.
Here is the perfection that Jesus longs for us: ’to forgive as God forgives, and to love as God loves.’ Here is a lifelong growing into loving as God loves us.
Like most preachers today, Jesus would sometimes preach the same sermon to different audiences. For instance, Jesus preached this Sermon on the Mount, with its command to be perfect, as the Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 6:17-49). If you line up, side-by-side, the two sermons, you will notice similarities and also some variations. In both sermons Jesus hits on His theme of the Father’s unconditional love, and His gracious care for both the unrighteous and the righteous. Then in His two sermons Jesus drives home His point: to be like the heavenly Father!
Note the variation, the difference in wording, in Jesus’ application:
Be perfect, therefore, as your
heavenly Father is perfect.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
When we compare the two sermons we understand the “perfection” that Jesus wants for us. Jesus wants us to “be merciful” as His Father is merciful to us, and to all people.
Here then, is the meaning of teleios: it is being “whole”, “mature”, “brought to completion”, “fully grown” in the life God planned for us who are created in His image. It will take a lifetime, an eternity, to grow into God’s likeness. But, like our heavenly Father is merciful, so today we can begin to be merciful to others — and to ourselves — when we stray, stumble, and miserably fail. God the Father is perfect in this! By His grace, may we become more and more like Him: merciful!
Grace and peace,