Be Perfect

Matthew 5:48

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
April 2024

Is sinless perfection possible?  Some Christians teach that it is.  Some denominations teach it as well.  When I was in college, I did some door-to-door evangelism.

I knocked on a door in in West Virginia and preached the gospel.  The man claimed to be sinless. Nothing I said to him could change his mind, but I did notice his wife was standing right behind him with her arm around him.

I looked at her and said, “You know he is a sinner. You have to live with him.” She didn’t say anything, but she did smile, because she knew I was telling the truth.

Today, we are going to look at one verse which seems to teach the doctrine of sinless perfection.  Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 NIV).

Jesus gives a command.  Be perfect.  It is a command which is impossible to keep.  Even if you believe that Christians can be perfect in this life, as some Christians believe, none of us can be perfect as God is perfect.

Jesus said, “Be perfect AS your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Who can possibly reach, not only perfection, but that level of perfection?  That is not just perfection but absolute perfection.  It is divine perfection.

Is This a Command?

Some try to get around the force of this statement by saying that it is not a command but a prediction.  The NIV (so KJV) reads as a command (Be perfect).  The NASB (so NKJV) reads more like a promise (“you shall be perfect”).  Which is correct?  They both are.

The Greek reads Ἔσεσθε οὖν ὑμεῖς τέλειοι.  The word έσεσθε is a second person plural future INDICATIVE of είμι.  Grammatically this is NOT an imperative, but it is still a clear command.  This is clear from the context.

You shall not murder (φονεύσεις) in Matthew 5:21 is also second person future active indicative but it is a command.

You shall not commit adultery (μοιχεύσεις) in Matthew 5:27 is also a second person future active indicative but it is a command.

You shall not swear falsely (οὐκ ἐπιορκήσεις) in Matthew 5:33 is also a second person future active indicative but it is a command.

You shall love (αγαπήσεις) your neighbor in Matthew 5:43 33 is also a second person future active indicative but it is a command.  No one would dispute this.

Matthew 5:48 is a command.  Jesus uses a Hebrew idiom for a command.  The same words are used in the Greek text of Exodus 20.

The same form is used in the LXX for “Do not kill” in Exodus 20:13 LXX (οὐ φονεύσεις).

It is used in the LXX for “Do not commit adultery” in Exodus 20:14 (οὐ μοιχεύσεις).

It is used in the LXX for “Do not steal” in Exodus 20:15 LXX (οὐ κλέψεις).

It is used in the LXX for “Do not bear false witness” in Exodus 20:16 LXX (οὐ ψευδομαρτυρήσεις).

In order to find out what the word “perfect” means, you have to do basic hermeneutics.  You have to do a basic word study.  This is Hermeneutics 101.

You have to see how the word is used in the rest of the Bible, how the word is used in the rest of the book it is used, how the word is used in the context and how the word is used in any parallel passages.

Usage of τέλειός in the NT

This word is used nineteen times in the NT.[1]  It means wholeness, completeness, maturity.  “Perfect in the Greek has the meaning of coming to completion or wholeness; it can refer to maturity or to moral and ethical integrity.”[2]

In Hebrews 5, it is used of people who are physically mature.  People who are grown up can eat solid food.  They no longer eat baby food.

But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:14 NIV)

In I Corinthians 14, it is used of people who are spiritually mature.

Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. (I Corinthians 14:20 ESV)

James says that the result of trials is spiritual maturity.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:4 NIV)

What we discover is that the word perfect does not always mean perfect.  It is much broader in meaning.

The NT was not written in English.  It was written in Greek.  The word perfect in English means absolute sinlessness but the Greek word τέλειός does not necessarily mean sinlessness.

Usage of τέλειός in Matthew

The word τέλειός is used only three times in Matthew and always by Jesus.  It is used two times in Matthew 5:48 and once in Matthew 19:21.

The only other time the word is used in Matthew it does NOT mean sinlessness.

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21 NIV)

Selling your possessions will not make one sinless.  Giving to the poor is a good deed but by itself does not produce moral perfection.

It will not guarantee treasure in heaven.  Salvation is not by works.  It is not by good deeds.

Paul said, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (I Corinthians 13:3 ESV).

What is Jesus talking about?  Selling your possessions and giving the money to the poor is not a picture of absolute sinlessness but of “utter devotion.”[3]  It is a picture of undivided devotion to Christ.

Usage of τέλειός in the Context

Is Jesus teaching sinless perfection in the context?  No.  In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, He implies that his followers will sin.

In the Lord’s Prayer, He tells them to pray “And forgive us our debts” in Matthew 6:12 (NIV) and “Forgive us our sins” in Luke 11:4 (NIV).

If you want to know what the word τέλειός means in Matthew 5:48, you have to see what it means in the context.

Jesus is not saying that his followers will be sinless.  In fact, he implies that they will not be.  He told them to pray for forgiveness (Matthew 6:12

What was Jesus talking about in the immediate context? Let’s read the passage.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48 NIV)

The context is not dealing with sinless perfection but being perfect in the way you love people.  How do we know?  The immediate context is dealing with loving your enemies.  It is dealing with those who persecute you.

It is dealing with those who wrong you.  It is dealing with those who mistreat you (slap you on the face, cheat you, insult you and force you to do things you don’t want to do).

The way to become perfect, according to Jesus is to love these people and to treat them the way God does.  We become like God when we act like God and love everyone, even our enemies.

Usage of τέλειός in Parallel Passages

What does τέλειός mean in any parallel passages?  There is a parallel passage in Luke.  In Luke’s version of the Sermon of the Mount, we see a similar statement.

In Luke, we do not find the words, “Be morally flawless.”  Instead, we see the words, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36 NIV).  This proves that the context of the passage is love and mercy for personal enemies.

[1] Matthew 5:48 (2); 19:21; Romans 12:2; I Corinthians 2:6; 13:10; 14:20; Ephesians 4:13; Philippians 3:15; Colossians 1:28; 4:12; Hebrews 5:14; 9:11; James 1:4 (2), 17, 25; 3:2; I John 4:18.

[2] Barclay M. Newman & Philip C. Stine, A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 160.

[3] Scott McKnight, The Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary), 269.

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