Matthew / chapter 5 (read the chapter)
Let’s take a little foray into the topic of perfection, shall we? (My little perfectionist heart quivers at the thought!) For in today’s chapter is that famous, or infamous, statement about perfection: “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (vs 48)
This verse alone would be enough to drive one crazy, but coming on the heels of this verse, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (vs 20), it could appear that God has some impossibly-high standards! Surely, the people listening to Jesus that day couldn’t conceive of righteousness that could surpass the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. They were the most “righteous” people in Israel!
Yet, there it is.
It is very interesting to read commentaries on this verse about perfection and see all the theological gymnastics people do to try to explain away the words of Jesus. They might say that He didn’t really mean it. Or that there is some obscure cultural reference in that statement that has been lost to us. Or that while we can’t be perfect, He was, and we can sort of commandeer His perfection. And the explanations go on and on.
But I’d like to suggest something radical today: Jesus actually meant it.
God wants you to be perfect. Really. Perfect.
Let me share a quote from one of those commentaries I mentioned: “Now a common mistake is to think that in Jesus the Law was abolished. But the Law still holds power over those who are under it. Everyone who does not put their trust and hope in Jesus is still subject to the Law’s demands, and the Law’s primary demand is moral perfection. Through faith in Jesus, the requirements of the Law are set aside. They become powerless to condemn those who are his because their life is hidden within his. Jesus’ perfect obedience and righteousness are credited to the sinful soul.” (from the Atone Bible Commentary on Matthew 3)
That doesn’t quite seem to square with what Jesus said about the law, though: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (vs 17-18)
So, how can we reconcile the idea of being subject to the demands of the Law with the idea of righteousness by faith (or having righteousness credited to us)? Fortunately, Paul writes about that very thing in Romans: “What does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.‘ Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God, their faith is credited as righteousness.” (Rom 4:3-5)
Did you notice what was credited to Abraham as righteousness? It wasn’t Jesus’s perfect obedience. It was his own trust in God! Paul spells it out even more clearly a little later in the chapter: “He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous.” (Rom 4:21-22) In other words, because Abraham believed God, he was already righteous. It didn’t matter that he was still going to lie to save his wife’s (and his) behind or try to fulfill God’s promise with his maid.
In God’s eyes, he was already righteous, already perfect. And why? As a good friend of mine once said, perfection is unavoidable for those who trust God. Think about that for a moment. When you open your heart to the Spirit of God—the most powerful, potent, human-changing force in the universe—is there anything that God cannot or will not be able to accomplish in your life? On the contrary, once again, it was Paul who said, I am “confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.” (Phil 1:6)
If we do not hinder God’s work in our lives—in other words, if we trust God—then total perfection is unavoidable. And if the Law’s primary demand is moral perfection, that means that the longer we trust God, the more (not less!) we will be able to fulfill the requirements of the Law.
In the Ten Commandments, the original word translated “You shall not” actually has a dual meaning in the Hebrew. It also means “You will not.” It is both a command and a promise. The same is true of verse 48 in this chapter. In the Greek, the command “you are to be perfect” can also be understood as “you will be perfect.” For God never asks us to do anything that He is not prepared and more than willing to give us the strength to do!
And that’s why our righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. For if true righteousness comes from trusting God, then the Pharisees and the teachers of the law had no righteousness at all. Without hearts open to the Spirit, they could no more keep the Law than Abraham could become a great nation by himself.
Jesus was perfectly serious when He said that He had not come to abolish the Law, and that means that the primary demand of the Law is still the same—that you must be perfect.
But don’t worry. If you trust God, you already are.