Matthew 5:48 says that we are to be perfect and, it says, we are to be as perfect as God is, Wow! If Jesus meant that, then we have a real problem. We can’t be perfect. So how should we understand Jesus’ words?
Some will say that “perfect” is not what Jesus meant. He only meant “try to be perfect.” But that is not what Jesus said, and we can’t add to His words to make it say something we want it to say. Furthermore, God is not the author of confusion. He is always true in what He says, and so we must find a biblical understanding of what Jesus said.
We start with: Jesus said what He meant and meant what He said. That is, we must take Jesus’ words literally. We must not compromise on what Jesus clearly stated. So let’s search the Scriptures to understand why Jesus would give a command that seems impossible to do.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:48 close a sermon that He gave to His disciples. Matthew 5:1 tells that
…seeing the multitudes, [Jesus] went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him.
Jesus left the multitudes and went up on a mountain. The reference to disciples here is likely broader than just those whom Jesus called to be disciples. It would have been people who were following Him– a group that trusted His words.
Then we read, Jesus began to teach. Away from the multitudes with this small group up on the mountain, He instructed His disciples about discipleship. He began with a series of blessings we commonly call the Beatitudes. Why are they called the Beatitudes? Because these are the attitudes we (Jesus’ disciples) are to be (the be attitudes). Jesus then went on to tell them that they were the salt of the earth (Matt 5:13) and the light of the world (Matt 5:14) and then He continued with a warning against breaking God’s commandments:
Mat 5:20 “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The Pharisees were known for their diligent efforts to keep the Law, but sadly they did so to prove themselves and to show their righteous works— their “perfection.” Yet, their good works could not save them, and if for any reason Jesus’ disciples might have thought that keeping of the Law could save them, Jesus elevated the Law to a standard that was fully impossible to keep (Matt 5:21-47). Jesus then ended His sermon with the words we are considering — a command of impossibility.
“Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
If one is going to say Jesus didn’t really mean perfect, then one must also say Jesus didn’t mean all the other standards of perfection that He proclaimed necessary to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees.
But We Can’t Be Perfect and We Can’t be Exceedingly Righteous
That is the whole point. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was meant to be a “brick wall” that the disciples would “crash into.” It was meant to reveal an impossible standard that would help them see their need for an intercessor —a mediator between them and God — someone who would save them since they could never be righteous enough to save themselves.
We are told, as Jesus ended His sermon, that “the people” heard His words and were astonished (not doubting). They may not have fully understood what His words meant. But we can!!!
The People Were Astonished
Mat 7:28 And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine [teaching]:
From the reference to “the people” being astonished, we can infer that Jesus had spoken some of His sermon to an even larger group that included people who were not disciples/followers. Perhaps more people had gone up into the mouton to hear Jesus preach, for “the people were astonished” (Matt 7:28) “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matt 7:29). It was after Jesus “was come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him” (Matt 8:1).
On the mountain, Jesus shared great truths that would have been extremely difficult for them to accept.
How Can Anyone Be Perfect?
So why would Jesus make such an impossible demand? The people who heard Jesus’ words could not be perfect. But there was One standing before them who was perfect — who was living a perfect life and would die as the perfect sacrifice who could give them the perfection they needed to be perfect.
This gift of perfection that Jesus gives is called imputed righteousness. It is the Lord’s righteousness that is given to us when Jesus saves us. It is the Glorious Exchange that Athanasius wrote about and the Great Exchange that Martin Luther proclaimed. Jesus took the sins of the whole world upon Himself and paid for them with His pure and sinless blood. And when a repentant sinner comes to Him in faith, Jesus forgives the person’s sins, washes the person clean in His blood, regenerates the person’s soul, and credits (imputes) His own righteousness to the person’s account. Therefore when God looks upon a forgiven and saved sinner for entrance into Heaven, He sees perfection — the perfection of Jesus given in salvation.
We are perfect in our justification before God. That is our positional standing in Christ Jesus. Read: The Gift of SalvaTION: Justification & Imputation What are the Doctrines of Imputed, Infused, and Imparted Righteousness?)
Yes, But We Still Sin
Of course we do. But it does not affect our justification— our positional standing in Christ. We continue to sin in the process of our sanctification—our growing in holiness and becoming more like Jesus (Rom 8:29). The sanctification process begins when Jesus saves us and lasts until we go to Heaven to be with Him. Sanctification is practical and progressive but it is not perfection. We will not be perfectly sanctified until we leave our fleshly bodies (in death or rapture) and enter into the presence of the Lord. Read: What you need to know about Sanctification & Glorification – What Happens If I Continue to Sin?)
So Did Jesus Mean Perfect?
YES…Jesus did mean perfect. He said what He meant and He meant what He said. We can’t do it. Praise the One who did it for us.
Jesus made us positionally perfect in our justification. Hallelujah, what a Saviour! Now we are to love God and love our neighbors. We are to devote our hearts to Jesus. Set our eyes on reading His Word. And let our minds and actions be directed by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Then we will grow in sanctification and reflect the love of Jesus to a dark and dying world that needs to know Him.
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