“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48, ESV).
This is one Bible verse that has gotten me into a lot of trouble over the years. It is not a problem with Scripture itself; God and His Word are perfect. Instead, it was my problem. Having a compulsive sort of personality, I am prone to perfectionism. Unfortunately, I am not perfect. So, I would read this passage, and then emotionally beat myself up when I did not live up to it. This would only drag me further from the sort of perfection to which Jesus called His disciples. All those books by nineteenth-century evangelist/theologian Charles G. Finney did not help matters.
It is important to understand what Jesus meant. The perfection ideal He presented is not the sort of 100% flawlessness a perfectionist like me is prone to pursue. Even the holiest people I know stumble sometimes. We all make poor decisions at times, driven by stress, imperfect wisdom, or habit. So, what is perfection? Perhaps, we can look at a few related Bible passages and the context of this verse.
This verse concludes a teaching in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount about “love for enemies” (Matthew 5:41-48):
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
In this passage, Jesus calls us to a kind of love that is not natural. Human nature compels us to hate our enemies, to insult and gossip about those who persecute us, and to seek revenge (or at least the upper hand). Christian perfection is a perfection of love, going beyond the imperfect love of sin-stained humanity to imitate the sacrificial love of Christ.
In a related sermon (which some Bible scholars call, “The Sermon on the Plain”), Jesus concluded a similar section by saying, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” This brings the point even further: “mercy” is not just a good feeling. “Mercy” involves action: Choosing to forgive a sinner; reaching out to help someone in need.
When Jesus tells us to “be perfect,” He is not demanding that we never fail. He is not planning to withdraw His forgiveness when we sin. He is, on one hand, giving us a high calling. We will not become flawless in this life, but that kind of perfection is our ideal; as long as we have shortcomings, we have new heights to reach and our spiritual journey is not complete. However, even when we fall into sin, we should not hide behind a facade of false holiness; we should confess our sins, accept His forgiveness, and seek His cleansing (1 John 1:8-10).
On the more practical level, Jesus is calling us to love our enemies, to offer His mercy to a world that deserves judgment. He is calling us to be Christians in every area of our lives (particularly, those areas where it is hardest).