In Matthew 5:21-47 we examined six instances where Jesus cites various Law commands and comments how their holy essence is to be embodied by his followers in witness to the redemptive reality of God’s kingdom. Each of these instances depict how “righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees” and whoever else maintains a half-hearted and hypocritical standard. Jesus then concludes his comments saying “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
It’s a comment echoing a well-known Law command summarily describing the essence the Israelite community was to embody: “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’”
The character of the community was to reflect the character of its God. Holiness was to be their standard as a people of the Holy One. A people set apart from a world characterized by corruption and degradation; a people set apart unto the One whose holiness would cleanse and heal the nations. Such character embodied would reveal to the world the LORD whose ways bring blessing.
This great call to embody God’s holy character had not changed by the time Jesus echoed it. The call was in fact being brought to a completed form in Christ who now repeated it to his followers. Perfect is a word that sets us on edge. We hesitate to use it because we don’t know what standard is being implied; we’re not even sure there is any perfect standard. And if there is, our inability to consistently and completely live up to it often weakens any resolve to even try. I believe a few nuances within Jesus’ statement, however, conveys a sense of assurance for all of these concerns.
First, in Aramaic Jesus’ word for perfect can also mean completeness or wholeness; given the holiness echo of Leviticus 19:2, Jesus’ comment to “be perfect” is a call to whole-hearted and completing devotion in how disciples embody the holy character of God.
Secondly, the existence of the Holy One establishes there is definitely a standard of holiness, “as your heavenly Father is perfect”. That holy standard is not as ambiguous as we often assume. The teachings of the Law and Jesus’ kingdom commentary give it clear structure and shape. The standard of holiness is given even further clarity in the person and character of Christ, the image of the perfect Father; as the incarnate “God with us”, Jesus is the completing depiction of how kingdom living is done. While aiming for perfection is ambiguous, Jesus as holiness clarified is not. When perfection is unclear, aim for Jesus.
Therefore thirdly, the person of Jesus gives both relief and resolve to our concerns for consistency in completing holiness. The apostle John would later write “grace and truth were realized in Jesus Christ.” The Grace of Jesus meets us where we’re at, understands our struggles and flaws, and patiently works in us as the Truth of Jesus conforms our character to his holiness and strengthens our spirit’s resolve to keep following after him.
I think our problem with the notion of perfection concerns how we never seem to attain it; we’re always reaching, but never attaining. So we shrug it off. But I see in Jesus’ call to “be perfect” the encouragement to always keep reaching. In this lifelong fellowship with Jesus, the reaching is our task. The attaining, however, is Christ’s concern as he sanctifies us with each step.
Perfection finds definition in the person of Jesus; when the pursuit of perfection weighs ambiguously heavy, find relief in the pursuit of Jesus. When Jesus is our aim, every step is an arrival. As we follow after him, walk with him, prayerfully and obediently mold our ways with his words, our lives and character are brought into the wholeness of his holiness.