Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Pursuing Perfection (Matthew 5:48)

Complete: “Be ye perfect as your ________________ is perfect.” Father in heaven (Matthew 5:48).

After advising his followers to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love one’s enemies and even pray for them (Matthew 5:38-47), Jesus raised the bar even further. He concluded this section of his acclaimed Sermon on the Mount by disqualifying all human standards of conduct - “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48 KJV).

Almost every major translation renders the Greek teleios as “perfect” (ASV, ESV, HCSN, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) in Matthew 5:48. (The CEV and MSG omit the word.) Teleios can mean: 1. brought to its end, finished; 2. wanting nothing necessary; to completeness; 3. perfect; 4. that which is perfect. It conveys something that has completed its objective and carries with it the idea of being whole. Anything that has fully attained that for which it was designed is said to be “perfect” (teleios).

Jesus added the unnecessary pronoun “you” (humeis) to this statement, making it emphatic (Matthew 5:48). In doing so, Jesus forcefully established the highest standard possible for his followers: perfection. Many have commented that Jesus did not create a new requirement as God’s standard has always been perfect holiness (Leviticus 11:44, 19:2, 20:26; I Peter 1:15-16). John MacArthur (b. 1939) writes, “It is folly to think that being imperfect somehow provides us with a legitimate excuse to exempt us from God’s perfect standard (MacArthur, The Vanishing Conscience, 126).”

As Jesus himself was sinless (John 8:46; Hebrews 4:15), he is the only human being who has ever been in a position to make this command. Even so, human beings are not perfect. Does Jesus command the impossible? How can one fulfill this wish? What would the perfect version of you look like?

Jesus’ words do not necessarily represent a command. The Greek can be read in the future tense - “You will be perfect”. In Greek, the future tense is the same as the imperative (a command) as in each case, a sigma infix is added to the middle of the verb. (In modern English, it is like adding an S to the middle of a verb and is not much different than what Snoop Dogg [b. 1971] does in adding -izzle to words.) The ASV, NKJV, and NLT render the verse in the future tense -“Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48 NKJV).”

This reading also complies with the meaning of teleios, which was also used to refer to the maturity of an adult, which is the end to which a child aims. A.T. Robertson (1863-1934) explains that teleios “comes from telos, end, goal, limit. Here it is the goal set before us, the absolute standard of our Heavenly Father (Robertson, Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. I, 49).”

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) devotes a chapter of Mere Christianity to Matthew 5:48 entitled “Counting the Cost” (Lewis, Mere Christianity, 201-206). He summarizes the issue:

I find a good many people have been bothered by…our Lord’s words “Be ye perfect.” Some people seem to think this means “Unless you are perfect, I will not help you,”; and as we cannot be perfect, then if He meant that, our position is hopeless. But I do not think He did mean that. I think He meant “The only help I will give is help to become perfect. You may want something less; but I will give you nothing less (Lewis, Mere Christianity, 201).”
Humans were created to be perfect. Seeing perfection as our destiny instead of merely a command moves the tone of the text from demanding to encouraging. We are a work in progress and, with God’s assistance, the work we are working towards is perfection.

James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) explains that to achieve this goal of perfection “you must turn away from your own efforts completely and receive instead the perfection which God has already taken steps to provide for you. Nothing that you will ever do will be perfect. Only what God does is perfect. Hence, if you are to reach the perfection which God requires, it must be as the result of His working for you and in you (Boice, Sermon on the Mount, 170-171).

The key is that we move towards and not away from perfection. Lewis encourages, “This is the other and equally important side of it—this Helper who will, in the long run, be satisfied with nothing less than absolute perfection, will also be delighted with the first feeble, stumbling effort you make tomorrow to do the simplest duty (Lewis, Mere Christianity, 202).”

Perfection is the standard. Direction is the test. Are you moving towards perfection?

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.” - Anne Lamott (b. 1954), Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, p. 28

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