Matthew 5:48: Is Jesus Asking Us to Achieve God’s Perfection?

It seems crazy to imagine perfection in an imperfect world. We need to pay bills, work with people who don’t share our faith, and navigate daily life without offending others. Then, someone suddenly says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It’s enough to make you ask, “Where is that coming from?” After all, how perfect is God, anyway?

Moses understood God’s perfection when he received the Ten Commandments: no other gods, no idols, honor God’s name, keep the Sabbath… Most of us break these commandments daily. Our phones can become idols, and we might use God’s name without reverence. We’re all guilty, in one way or another.

Yet, Jesus says, “Be perfect.” He’s asking us to be like God. How? In Matthew 22:37-39, He provides the key: love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Keeping these two laws fulfills the Ten Commandments and puts us on the path toward God’s kind of perfection.

But how do we do it? Let’s discuss that in more detail.

Be Perfect!

Many prominent theologians and preachers throughout history have explored the themes of Christian perfection and God’s all-encompassing love, as found in Matthew 5:48. One such preacher was John Wesley, founder of Methodism, who emphasized the concept of Christian perfection. He believed this perfection was not sinlessness, but rather complete love for God and others, made possible by God’s grace. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer approached the concept from the angle of costly discipleship and radical love, even toward one’s enemies—a challenging perspective.

From these viewpoints, we can conclude that Jesus asks us to embrace God’s standard, not our own. As in his direct words, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” Jesus emphasizes that perfection is tied to God’s boundless love, not human notions of flawlessness. We cannot achieve this perfection through our own efforts.

Let’s pause a while and focus on how God’s love transcends mere feeling. It manifests as compassion, mercy, and a willingness to love even those who are difficult to love. This is exemplified in Jesus’s teachings to “love your enemies.”

Grace and transformation extend beyond ourselves when we embrace His perfection. God’s love and grace empower us to expand our capacity to love as He does. Perfection is a process, not an overnight accomplishment. As we strive for perfection, we connect with our communities and diverse individuals. Should we dismiss those who differ from us with the thought, “That’s their problem, not mine”? Jesus challenges us to love beyond our comfort zones.

Perfect Love

In Matthew 22:37-39, Jesus highlights two essential Hebrew concepts of love: ahava, encompassing deep affection, devotion, and reverence; and hesed, signifying loyal commitment and sacrificial action.

Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37 NIV)

Going to church is not enough to prove your love for God. You need more than that! It is specifically stated how we should love God: with all our heart, soul, and mind. Emphasis on the word “all,” which means there is a tendency to love God with “some” and not all. We serve a jealous God (Exodus 20:5-6) who wants us for Himself. So, when you interact with others, reflect His character. When you operate your phone, do so in a godly way. It’s like saying, “God, I know you can see me, and this is also for you!”

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When Jesus mentions those three distinct ways of loving God, He knows what He is saying. Our heart symbolizes our lives, without which we cannot live. It reflects how we connect with the world. Remember Matthew 6:21: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Our soul represents our emotions – is God present in our relationships? When we watch movies or have fun, is God there with us? Our minds are always occupied, but is there space for God in our thoughts? Well, it’s about being conscious of God’s major role in everything we do.

And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:37 NIV

Most often, we tend to wonder, ‘How can I love my neighbor when I haven’t finished loving myself?’ But Jesus did so and succeeded, and so should we. Who are our neighbors? We learn about this in Luke 10:29-37. They aren’t simply the comfortable neighbors around us, although those folks need to hear about Jesus too. Sometimes our neighbors are those we pass by every day – we see their needs, but turn a blind eye even when we have the power to help.

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). God saw our need for salvation, our imperfect state, and chose to respond with love. This same God, who created the vast universe, stooped down to create even us, ‘the ants that we are,’ and sent Jesus to die and suffer for our sake. If God showed such compassion and sacrificial love, why can’t we extend the same to others? Is that how selfish we have become?

Here’s how Paul puts it: ‘Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth’ (1 Corinthians 13:4–8a ESV).

Perfection from the context of Matthew 5

It is not a coincidence that Matthew 5:48 summarizes all of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5. It serves as a conclusion to all He has been saying: ‘Now that you have heard all of these things, be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ To fully understand this phrase, we should consider everything He taught.

The Beatitudes

The “Be attitudes” are a collection of blessings pronounced by Jesus during his Sermon on the Mount, found in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 5:3-12). These blessings highlight specific attitudes or qualities deemed worthy of God’s favor. A slightly shorter version also appears in the Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 6:20-23).

Salt and Light

During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses the metaphors of “salt” and “light” to describe the role and impact his followers should have in the world. Salt was essential in the ancient world for preserving food and adding flavor. Jesus uses this to illustrate how Christians should bring a positive influence to the world, preventing moral decay and enhancing its spiritual “flavor.” Light was a powerful symbol, dispelling darkness and guiding people. Jesus tells his followers they are meant to be lights in a world often filled with spiritual and moral darkness.

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The Fulfillment of the Law

In Matthew 5, Jesus emphasizes that He has not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17). This fulfillment has multiple meanings:

  • First, it refers to Jesus’ perfect obedience to the Law, demonstrating its full intent.
  • Second, His teachings deepen our understanding of the Law, revealing its emphasis on internal righteousness and love, not just outward actions.

Jesus isn’t discarding the Law, but rather demonstrating its true purpose and revealing that salvation comes through faith in Him, not simply through legalistic adherence.

Murder

In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus doesn’t describe a specific murder story. Instead, he expands on the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ explaining that even anger, insults, and slander can be akin to murder in God’s eyes. He emphasizes that true righteousness requires going beyond outward actions and tending to the roots of hatred and violence within our hearts.

Adultery

Jesus redefines adultery within the Sermon on the Mount. He goes beyond the traditional understanding of adultery as a physical act and extends it to include lustful thoughts and desires in one’s heart. Jesus emphasizes that even entertaining the desire to commit adultery is equivalent to the act itself. This radical redefinition highlights the importance of inner purity and challenges his listeners to uphold a higher standard of morality, focused on both internal intentions and external actions.

Divorce

Jesus does not establish a new rule about divorce, but rather reinforces the sanctity of marriage and condemns its casual use, which was prevalent in his time. He states that divorce should only be considered in the case of sexual immorality. Jesus highlights the harm divorce causes and emphasizes God’s original intention for marriage to be a permanent, lifelong union. While Matthew 5 doesn’t offer extensive guidance on all scenarios surrounding divorce, it presents Jesus’ clear teaching on its seriousness and the importance of avoiding it whenever possible.

Oaths

Oaths were formal promises or vows made in God’s name to guarantee truthfulness or commitment. However, in Jesus’ time, people had found ways to manipulate the system by making oaths that technically didn’t invoke God’s name. This allowed them to break promises without fearing divine punishment. Jesus criticizes this practice, emphasizing that our word should be trustworthy regardless of formal oaths. He encourages simple, direct speech – let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no. Anything beyond this introduces the possibility of deceit and undermines the sacredness of truth.

Eye for Eye

Jesus addresses the principle of “an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” found in Old Testament law (Exodus 21:24). This law intended to limit revenge, ensuring punishment was proportional to the crime. However, Jesus challenges this mindset in his Sermon on the Mount, emphasizing a radical ethic of love and forgiveness. He teaches that instead of seeking retaliation, his followers should break the cycle of violence by turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, and even loving their enemies. This doesn’t negate justice, but shifts the focus from personal vengeance to restorative love that seeks the greater good.

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Love for Enemies

Jesus presents a radical redefinition of love that challenges the prevailing “eye for an eye” mentality. Instead of limiting love to those who love us or seeking revenge, Jesus calls us to a boundless love that extends even to our enemies. He teaches us to bless those who curse us, do good to those who mistreat us, and pray for our persecutors. This mirrors God’s own generous love, extended to all. Jesus concludes this teaching with the command, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This perfection refers to the complete and selfless love that God demonstrates – a love we are called to strive for through His empowering grace.

How can we be perfect?

We have come a long way. We’ve learnt about God’s perfection demonstrated through His perfect love. But, perfection could seem so big a word that we cannot attain. How then can we approach this:

  • Focus on God’s Love, Not Human Flawlessness: Recognize that perfection is tied to God’s boundless love, and we achieve it through reflecting that love rather than striving for an unattainable human ideal.
  • Transform Love Into Action: Demonstrate compassion, mercy, and a genuine willingness to love even those who are difficult or hold opposing views. This mirrors how God loves us.
  • Embrace Grace and Transformation: Rely on God’s grace to empower us to grow in our capacity to love as He does. Accept that perfection is a lifelong process, not an immediate achievement.
  • Love Your Neighbor: Extend your love beyond your comfort zone to those who are different. Break down biases and actively offer help where needed.
  • Practice Ahava and Hesed: Cultivate deep affection and devotion towards God (ahava) and demonstrate loyal commitment and sacrificial action towards your neighbors (hesed).

Conclusion

The quest for perfection in our imperfect world can feel baffling. But Jesus, in Matthew 5:48, presents a transformational concept of perfection rooted in God’s unwavering love – a love that transcends human limitations. This perfection doesn’t mean faultlessness, but rather embodying divine qualities of compassion, mercy, and a commitment to loving even those who challenge us. Jesus emphasizes that perfection is not merely an inward ideal but something expressed through outward actions of kindness and service.

While the path toward perfection is a lifelong journey sustained by God’s grace, we can start by focusing on His love, not our flaws. By embracing the concepts of ahava and hesed and applying the Sermon on the Mount’s teachings, we begin to mirror the kind of perfection God desires. This isn’t about achieving sinlessness but about actively demonstrating sacrificial love that breaks down barriers and brings God’s Kingdom into our communities.

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