Return to Sermon Archive
ἔσεσθε οὖν ὑμεῖς τέλειοι, ὥσπερ ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς τέλειός ἐστιν.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This is a verse that has always been puzzling to me. Be perfect! How can anyone be perfect? More than that, be perfect like God. That seems impossible. Since this is Father’s Day, let’s put it in that context. Does anyone here think that they are a perfect father? Let’s see a show of hands. Again, how about a perfect mother. Does anyone think that they are a perfect mother. I thought not. I don’t think that I was a perfect parent either. Jesus said: Be perfect like God, and we respond, “No way that is going to happen.” I have heard some sermons on this verse in which the preacher tried to get around the word “perfection,” by substituting a less demanding word. Jesus did not mean we should be perfect, so they say, he meant we should be mature or grown up or something like that.
But I looked up the Greek word that is translated as “perfect.” The word is τέλειός which means finished, complete, or perfect. So, the translation is correct: Jesus said: Be perfect like God.
But notice that the verse contains word “therefore”. This implies that this sentence is completing the thought of the paragraph. Thus, if we are to figure out what Jesus was talking about, we must consider what he is saying in the whole paragraph.
In Context, No Pretext
The worst sin of biblical interpretation is to take a verse out of context and make it a pretext for our own agenda. When we do that, we read into the Bible what we want to believe, instead of reading out of the Bible what it tells us to believe. This is why we have so many different denominations and so many different interpretations of what the Bible says.
By pulling out verses from here and there, you can make the Bible say anything you want to. For example, Matthew 27:5 says Judas “went and hanged himself.” Deuteronomy 15:17 says, “And thou shalt do likewise.” If you rip those verses out and put them together, you have a commandment to commit suicide. Perhaps that is the biblical “logic” that Jim Jones used when he got his congregation to drink poisoned coolaid down in Guyana. Obviously, that is the kind of biblical interpretation that we want to avoid. Unfortunately, it is much harder to consider a verse in context. The easy way is to pick a verse here and there and say see the bible proves what I said. That is the easy way, and the wrong way.
Law of Love
So let us consider Matthew 5:48 in context. It is part of the gospel of Matthew. In Matthew, Jesus is God’s messiah who interprets God’s plan for God’s people. Jesus is the new Moses who speaks with authority as he establishes a new covenant. Again, Matthew chapter 5 is part of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus gives us a new law for the new covenant. The new law is the law of love. More specifically, verse 48 is the concluding verse of a paragraph that began in v43. The subject of the paragraph is the same as the whole Sermon on the Mount. The subject is love. Let me read the paragraph:
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 and pray for those who persecute you,
45 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.
46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
In opening verses of this paragraph, Jesus states the commandment of love in its most radical form. Love even people who don’t like you. Love people who hate you. Our first question is: Why should we do that? Jesus anticipates that question in v 45 when he answers, “So that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Do you want to be God’s children? Do you want to be like God?
God loves His enemies. At one time, we were all enemies of God. Romans 5:10: “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.” We were God’s enemies, but God loved us and sent Jesus to us. Now God demands that we act like God and love even our enemies.
Human vs. Divine Thinking
That is not an easy thing to do. Jesus did not say it was easy. He said, Be like God. God makes the sun to shine “on the evil and on the good.” God “sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” That is Jesus’ way of saying that God loves people that love him, and God loves people that do not love him. God loves everyone; therefore, we are called to love everyone.
Say it was not so, say God decided to share his sunshine and his rain and his love with us on the basis of how we treat God. For example, what if God said, "I’ll give you sunshine today if you go to church." I suspect that would increase church attendance. What if God said, "I’ll send you rain provided you pray more." Again, people would pray a little more I suppose. But that is a human way of thinking. We say, we own this, and if you give me enough money, I will give you some of what I own. That is man’s way.
Human love divides people into categories. If people are attractive to us, if people can benefit us, we put them over here in this category, and we say, "We love you." Other people are just on the borderline. Maybe we sort of like them, so we put them in the middle. But other people we don’t like, so we put them away over there.
Think what a mess the world would be if some of us were in control. To those over here we would say, "We love you," so we would give them sunshine and rain.
To the people in the middle, we would say, "If you behave yourself just right, if you toe the line and are the kind of people we think you ought to be, then we’ll send some sunshine and rain to you."
Finally, to those folks way out there, we say, "You don’t get any sunshine or rain at all, because I don’t like you."
As I said, that is a human way of thinking. That is not God’s way. Jesus shows us God’s way. If someone hits you on the right cheek, turn the other one. If someone asks you to go with them a mile, go with them two miles. Jesus says, "I want you to love those people that are unloved and unlovable. I want you to love even people who hate you.
This is a higher way of living. You do not see this in nature. Some people say that we should get back to nature and do what the other animals do. In nature, the big fish do not love the little fish, they eat them. Zebras do not love lions because zebras are lunch to lions. Nature is red in tooth and claw, but we are not supposed to be that way. We are supposed to be like God.
Jesus says that if we are children of God, there should be a family resemblance to our heavenly Father. Often we see children who look just like one of their parents. Here is a son who is the "spitting image" of his father. He has his father’s profile. He talks like his father. He walks like his father. Jesus says, we should be the “spitting image” of our heavenly father. We should act just like God towards other people.
In this paragraph, Jesus reasons with us a little. He says, if you only love those that love you, what is the big deal about that? Everybody does that. We all want to be loved and when someone loves us, we naturally love them. There is nothing wrong with that. Jesus is not putting that down. What he says is that for his people that is not enough. We should be perfect in our love.
Rich Young Ruler
There is another place in the gospel of Matthew where Jesus says we are to be perfect. In 19:16-22 we have the story of the Rich Young Ruler who came to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" Jesus replied, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." The young man said, I do that. I keep the commandments. Apparently he did, for Jesus did not dispute with him on that, but Jesus said, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." (V21).
The rich young ruler was what we would call a good person. He was a moral man, a decent, law-abiding citizen, but Jesus tried to push him to a higher level. The young man needs to express his love by giving away his possessions. As we read the story, we realize that he was unable to do this because he was in love with his possessions. Jesus saw his problem. It was a love problem. The rich young ruler did not love others, he loved his money, and because he would not give up that twisted love—any love that is not focused on others is a twisted love—because he would not give up that twisted love for real love, he could not follow Jesus. He could not be perfect.
Let us say what perfection in love is not. Perfection in love does not imply that we are without error or without sin. We are all sinners and we all make mistakes (see Rom. 3:23).
Most of us who are parents are acutely aware of our imperfections as a parent. We remember the times we got angry with our children when we shouldn’t have. We remember when we overreacted to a childish fault. We remember when we gave bad advice. That hurts. The special agony of a parent is the thought that I might have led my child wrong, and all parents have felt that agony.
What then can v48 possibly say to us on Father’s day? When we take the verse in context, Jesus is not talking about sinless perfection. He is not talking about being without flaw. The only perfection Jesus cares about is love.
Can we be perfect in love? Many parents are. Let me say what I mean by that. To be in love is to be in sympathy with the beloved. To be in love is to so identify with the beloved that you want for them what you want for yourself. To be in love is to grieve when they grieve, to hurt when they hurt, to rejoice when they rejoice. That is the kind of love God has for us, and that is the kind of love many parents have for their children. Many parents would die for their children. Many parents when they see their child with a broken arm or a scraped knee, would gladly have their own arm broken or their own knee scraped, if it would stop that child from suffering. All of which is to say that many parents perfectly love their children.
That does not mean the parents are always right in what they say or do to their children. There was a spectacular case in Florida a few years ago in which a child had severe diabetes. The parents had been going to doctors and going to doctors and the child was just barely hanging on. The parents became convinced by their church that they should try faithhealing. And to demonstrate their faith, the first thing the parents did was to take the child off of the insulin the doctors had been prescribing. Then they began to pray. The whole church began to pray for that child. A few weeks later the child died.
Now I do not doubt that those parents loved their child. They intended the best for their child, but what they did was wrong. They made a horrible mistake in judgment. They committed an evil sin against their child. All that is true. But all that does not mean that they did not love their child.
As parents, we probably have not made that bad a mistake with our children, but we have made plenty of mistakes. That does not mean that we do not perfectly love them.
Someone Set the Example
You might still have some doubts about that? Really can we perfectly love anyone? And Jesus says that we are not only to perfectly love our children, we are to perfectly love everyone. Can that happen? Of course, it can, it has already happened. Someone has already done it.
Isn’t it amazing how things get easier when they have already been done. Up until 1954, everyone said that no human being could run a mile in less than four minutes. It was impossible. Then, on May 6, 1954. Roger Bannister did it. He ran the mile in 3:59.4. Since then, over 20,000 people, even including high school students, have run a mile in less than 4 minutes. Why is that? Before 1954, no one could do it. Now it seems that any good runner can do it.
Roger Bannister showed that it could be done. After Bannister, runners said, "If it can be done, I can do it." And they did. They could do it because someone else set the example.
Jesus said be perfect in your love. Then he set the example. He loved us. Now he calls us to follow him and love as he loved. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 8/22/05