No one is like you, the Holy One, perfect in all that you do, perfect in who you are. You are love. You are good. You are all-powerful, majestic in awesome glory, you, the Sovereign King of Everything. And you call yourself my Father! You healed me, rescued me, brought me into your Family. Abba, Daddy, I’m in awe. And confused. You tell me to be perfect like you are perfect—can it be? Only you can make that change in me!
It’s hard enough that Jesus told his disciples that they must love their enemies. He told them that living out that commandment is what proves that they are children of their Father in heaven (Mat. 5.44-45)! Yes, I am Jesus’ disciple, so I am a child of God. Good parents want their children to mature and do what is right. With God as my Father, the standards are extremely high! I have been working (along with him) on being transformed, to be able to show love to “enemies.” And loving my neighbor, the parallel command, I affirm that that is something that has become a joy to live out. It involves not doing good only to the people that I know, especially those who are good to me and love me. Favoritism and prejudice, prejudging, have to be thrown out.
But then, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus added the command that wraps that section up: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mat. 5:48). What? Perfect”
I’ve confessed in previous blogs that I was born a perfectionist, convinced I was a complete failure at the hint of making a mistake, just tripping. When I was in first grade, attending Central Elementary School in Pontiac during my parents’ first furlough (from Congo), we had to spell the days of the week in the first spelling test I remember. I blew it! I wrote “Wednsday” – with no middle “e”. The teacher was shocked that I burst into tears when I got that red check mark. It was just the beginning of my long journey in coming to accept my imperfections. And that is a necessary part of maturing.
So what does God expect from his children when he says they are to be perfect, like he is? Jesus was actually referring to what had already been said in the Law:
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.” (Lev. 19:1 NIV)
When Moise and I were translating the Pentateuch, the book of Leviticus was a real challenge. But I became intrigued with its basic message: God’s people were to be different. They were to stand out among the nations through their love for God alone, no other gods, and also through their love for others. It is amazing now to see how Jesus picked up the themes of the climax of that book in his discourse, Leviticus 19, filling them in with deeper meaning just as he had said he would (Mat. 5:17). So now, when he is commanding sons and daughters to be “perfect,” it parallels the command to be holy, just as YHWH is holy.
Figuring out how to translate that word “holy” into Nyarafolo was one of our big challenges. What did it really mean? That research truly deepened my own understanding. We had long discussions after looking into all the Hebrew and Greek dictionaries and commentaries at our disposal. What could most closely express the complete, set-apart goodness of God, then that quality in his true followers? The closest term we could find was an expression meaning “without blemish,” in other words, perfect in every way.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus aligns this perfection with God’s fair treatment of everyone, using the weather as an example. It is not only righteous people who benefit from rain and sunshine. We all share this world, the one he created. And when Jesus came, he said that he had come specifically to call sinners to repent and follow the truth. All of us have fallen into sin’s trap, and he has brought rescue to anyone who will accept it. We are to be perfect like that as well, actively demonstrating our relationship to God by acting like he does, becoming like him. William Hagner explains how this ties in to all the teaching that just preceded this verse:
“The righteousness of the kingdom, which altogether exceeds that of the Pharisees, involves a call to be like the Father. τέλειος is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word תָּמִים (tāmîm), used often in the OT to refer to perfection in the sense of ethical uprightness (e.g., Gen 6:9; 17:1; 2 Sam 22:24–27 . . .) For Matthew, to be τέλειος means to fulfill the law through the manifestation of an unrestricted love (including even enemies) that is the reflection of God’s love. This unrestricted love preeminently embodies ethical perfection. This perfection, and nothing less, is that to which Jesus calls his disciples.
As Danker’s Greek New Testament Lexicon says, the word tέλειος means: “free from any deficiency, omission, or corruption’, complete, perfect . . . with God as a model.”
Can I be free from any deficiency, completely loving, ethically perfect? Only as I allow the Holy Spirit to change me! He has been sent to be my Counselor, my constant guide, living right in me. But am I listening to the promptings, the corrections, that are most certainly coming my way? That is my responsibility: admitting my failings, changing my responses so that they conform to Jesus’ teaching and the leading of the Spirit. Loving Abba (Daddy) that he is, he forgives, he holds my hand and leads me to into the paths where I do the right thing, and honor him.
He restores my strength. He leads me down the right paths for the sake of his reputation. (Ps. 23:3 NET)
So many times it is our lack of following his clear instructions that make him look bad in the eyes of those watching us. I hear it frequently these days as our country is filled with examples of hate speech and slander coming out of the mouths of Christians. People see us as a quarrelsome, divided family. And those who feel marginalized and dismissed as irrelevant are not experiencing Christlike compassion. It is interesting the way Luke expresses the same teaching of Jesus with slightly different words that underline the way that being “perfect” like our Father is shown through active love:
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Lk. 6:36 NIV)
Let’s walk down his right paths, and show others what he is like! He will pick us up when we fall, and show us the way to go. And as we get to know him more and more personally, we will realize what it means to be increasingly like him!
 Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 135.