May 4 – Jesus on God’s Love: To Be Like the Father

Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.—Matt. 5:48

These words embody all the truths Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount—in fact, they are the apex of all He teaches in the gospels. The ultimate goal of our redemption and the sincere, strong yearning of God’s heart is for all who would trust in His Son to be like Him.

The word translated “perfect” essentially means arriving at an intended end or realizing a completion of something. The word elsewhere in the New Testament is often rendered “mature” (cf. 1 Cor. 2:6; 14:20; Eph. 4:13, etc.). But here Jesus clearly intended to convey the meaning of perfection, because He is presenting God as the ultimate, holy standard for being and doing. It is the criterion of absolute perfection.

In our own power, such supreme and divine perfection is completely impossible to attain. And if we wonder how our Savior can demand the impossible, we simply have to remember His later instruction, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). God always provides the means and the power to accomplish what He commands.

Simply because God’s righteousness is perfect, it is impossible in human strength to attain it. However, the impossible becomes possible for those of us who trust the Lord Jesus, because God gives to us the very righteousness of Christ.

Are you willing to believe God for the impossible—that you can actually be “wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil” (Rom. 16:19)? How could you cooperate with Him today in drawing closer to this noble goal?[1]

Be Like Your Heavenly Father

Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (5:48)

The sum of all that Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount-in fact, the sum of all He teaches in Scripture-is in those words. The great purpose of salvation, the goal of the gospel, and the great yearning of the heart of God is for all men to become like Him.

Teleios (perfect) basically means to reach an intended end or a completion and is often translated “mature” (1 Cor. 2:6; 14:20; Eph. 4:13; etc.). But the meaning here is obviously that of perfection, because the heavenly Father is the standard. The “sons of [the] Father” (v. 45) are to be perfect, as [their] heavenly Father is perfect. That perfection is absolute perfection.

That perfection is also utterly impossible in man’s own power. To those who wonder how Jesus can demand the impossible, He later says, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). That which God demands, He provides the power to accomplish. Man’s own righteousness is possible, but is so imperfect that it is worthless; God’s righteousness is impossible for the very reason that it is perfect. But the impossible righteousness becomes possible for those who trust in Jesus Christ, because He gives them His righteousness.

That is precisely our Lord’s point in all these illustrations and in the whole sermon-to lead His audience to an overpowering sense of spiritual bankruptcy, to a “beatitude attitude” that shows them their need of a Savior, an enabler who alone can empower them to meet God’s standard of perfection.[2]

5:48 Jesus closes this section with the admonition: Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. The word perfect must be understood in the light of the context. It does not mean sinless or flawless. The previous verses explain that to be perfect means to love those who hate us, to pray for those who persecute us, and to show kindness to both friend and foe. Perfection here is that spiritual maturity which enables a Christian to imitate God in dispensing blessing to everybody without partiality.[3]

48 Some interpret this verse as the conclusion of the last antithesis (vv. 43–47; e.g., Allen, Hendriksen). In that case the perfection advocated is perfection in love. But “perfection” has far broader associations, and it is better to understand v. 48 as the conclusion to the antitheses.

The word teleios (“perfect,” GK 5455) usually reflects tāmîm (“perfect,” GK 9459) in the OT. It can refer to the soundness of sacrificial animals (Ex 12:5) or to thorough commitment to the Lord and therefore uprightness (Ge 6:9; Dt 18:13; 2 Sa 22:26). The Greek word can be rendered “mature” or “full-grown” (1 Co 14:20; Eph 4:13; Heb 5:14; 6:1). Many judge its force to be nonmoral here in v. 48, which becomes an exhortation to total commitment to God (e.g., Bonnard). But this makes for a fairly flat conclusion of the antitheses.

A better understanding of the verse does justice to the word teleios but also notes that the form of the verse is exactly like Leviticus 19:2, with “holy” displaced by “perfect,” possibly due to the influence of Deuteronomy 18:13 (where the NIV renders LXX teleios by “blameless”; cf. Gundry, Use of the Old Testament, 73–74). Nowhere is God directly and absolutely called “perfect” in the OT: he is perfect in knowledge (Job 37:16) or in his way (Ps 18:30), and a man’s name may be “Yahweh is perfect” (so yôtām [Jotham], Jdg 9:5; 2 Ki 15:32). But here for the first time perfection is predicated of God (cf. L. Sabourin, “Why Is God Called ‘Perfect’ in Matthew 5:48?” BZ 24 [1980]: 266–68).

In the light of the preceding verses (vv. 17–47), Jesus is saying that the true direction in which the law has always pointed is not toward mere judicial restraints, concessions arising out of the hardness of human hearts, still less casuistical perversions, nor even to the law of love (contra C. Dietzfelbinger, “Die Antithesen der Bergpredigt im Verständnis des Matthäus,” ZNW 70 [1979]: 1–15; see comments at 22:34–35). No, it pointed rather to all the perfection of God, exemplified by the authoritative interpretation of the law bound up in the preceding antitheses. This perfection Jesus’ disciples must emulate if they are truly followers of him who fulfills the Law and the Prophets (v. 17).

The Qumran community understood perfection in terms of perfect obedience, as measured exclusively by the teachings of their community (1QS 1:8–9, 13; 2:1–2; 4:22–23; 8:9–10). Jesus has transposed this to a higher key, not by reducing the obedience, but by making the standard the perfect heavenly Father. Ronald A. Ward (Royal Theology [London: MMS, 1964], 117–20) points out that in classical and Hellenistic usage teleios can have a static and a dynamic force, “the one appropriate to One Who does not develop, and the other suitable for men who can grow in grace” (p. 119, emphasis his): “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The gospel writers refer to God as Father only in contexts pertaining to the Messiah or to believers. He is not the Father of all men but the Father of Jesus and the Father of Jesus’ disciples (cf. H. F. D. Sparks, “The Doctrine of the Fatherhood of God in the Gospels,” in Studies in the Gospels [ed. D. E. Nineham; Oxford: Blackwell, 1955], 241–62). Just as in the OT it was the distinctive mark of Israel that they were set apart for God to reflect his character (Lev 19:2; cf. 11:44–45; 20:7, 26), so the messianic community carries on this distinctiveness (cf. 1 Pe 1:16) as the true locus of the people of God (cf. France, Jesus and the Old Testament, 61–62). This must not encourage us to conclude that Jesus teaches that unqualified perfection is already possible for his disciples. He teaches them to acknowledge spiritual bankruptcy (v. 3) and to pray “Forgive us our debts” (6:12). But the perfection of the Father, the true eschatological goal of the law, is what all disciples of Jesus pursue.[4]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 133). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 349–350). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1223). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[4] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 194–195). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


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