5:48 — “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
The only way to be “perfect” as the Father is “perfect” is to be clothed, through faith, with the righteousness of Christ. This is necessary, for without holiness “no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
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.
Perfecting the Saints
At an early point in the Sermon on the Mount the Lord Jesus Christ taught that if a man is to enter heaven he must possess a greater measure of righteousness than the righteousness possessed by the scribes and the Pharisees, the most religious and respected men of his day. As he taught this doctrine a person might easily have said, “You teach that a man can enter heaven only if his righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. All right, then, how much in excess of their righteousness must the saved man’s righteousness be? If the Pharisees can be credited with having attained seventy or seventy-five percent of the standard, what must our goodness be? Is seventy-six percent sufficient? Or is eighty percent necessary? How good must a saved person be?”
To these questions Jesus now answers with a statement that is devastating to all human attempts to earn heaven, a statement that is meant to turn men to God’s grace and away from all man-made attempts at salvation. Jesus said, in summary of all his previous teaching, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
I believe that this verse is the most important verse in the Sermon on the Mount. It is the climax of the first of the Sermon’s three chapters, and it is the midpoint, the pinnacle, from which much of the later teaching follows. I believe that if you understand this verse, you understand the essence of all that Jesus Christ is teaching. And, what is more, you understand the heart of the Christian gospel and of the Bible generally.
What does it mean, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”? What is perfection? The first and the best way to answer this question is by studying the words that are translated “perfection” in the Old and New Testaments.
The first word is tam or tamim. It means to be entirely “without defect” or “without blemish.” Thus, it is used of the sacrificial animals that were to be without blemish and without spot (Exod. 12:5; 29:1; cf. 1 Peter 1:19; Eph. 5:27). It has a negative connotation. The second word is shalem, which means “whole” or “complete.” This word speaks of perfection in a positive sense. Shalem is related to the common Hebrew greeting shalom (“peace”); it suggests the ideas of security, soundness, and well-being. In the New Testament the major word for perfection is teleios. This word means “complete” as when a ship is fitted out perfectly for sea or a legion of soldiers is equipped in all respects for battle. In the moral realm the word means “blameless.”
When these various definitions of the word are put together they show us that God’s standard for a man is complete and utter moral rectitude. He is to have nothing lacking of all that he should be, and he is to have no blemishes. In short, he is to be as blameless as the Lord Jesus Christ.
When we have said this, however, we have also made it clear that no one lives up to this standard. For all men fall short of such perfection, and in doing so they show themselves to be sinners. That is what sin is. Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The verb in that verse is a word taken from the practice of archery, and it refers to the arrows of those who fall short of and therefore miss the target. In other words, if the target were to be set up at one end of a football field and all the archers were to line up at the other end of the field and shoot their arrows, the verb would refer to the shots of all those who did not reach the target. That is what all men have done. God’s standard is a bulls-eye, and no one has ever hit it or ever will. All men fall short. Consequently, no one will ever enter heaven by his own efforts.
“Well, then,” you say, “what is a person to do? What am I to do?” The answer is that you must turn away from your own efforts completely and receive instead the perfection which God has already taken steps to provide for you. Nothing that you will ever do will be perfect. Only what God does is perfect. Hence, if you are to reach the perfection which God requires, it must be as the result of his working for you and in you.
In the course of my preparation for this study as I looked up all the verses in the Bible that speak about perfection, I came across a paragraph that I had never noticed before but which was striking to me, chiefly because it makes this point so succinctly. In the eighteenth Psalm David speaks of perfection twice, once of God’s perfection and once of man’s. The point of the verses it that God is responsible for both kinds. In verse 30 David writes, “As for God, his way is perfect.” Then two verses farther on he adds, “It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect” (v. 32). Who is God? God is the One who is perfect. What does he do? God works to perfect sinful men.
Now, how does he do it? The answer to that question is a tremendous answer because it involves the whole counsel of God. It has several parts. First, God begins by perfecting the record. Second, he works at perfecting us in this life. Third, he perfects us completely in all ways at the moment of our death.
How does God work to perfect the record? And what does that mean anyhow? Well, the background to what that means is to be found in the fact that sin consists in far more than what it does merely to the individual sinner. Sin involves others, and sin is an offense to God’s justice. It cannot be ignored or even simply forgiven. It must be dealt with. Consequently, God the Father sent God the Son to die for the sin of others, bearing sin’s penalty and canceling all claims of justice against the sinner forever. This is the meaning of the cross of Jesus Christ. It is not simply an example, still less a meaningless tragedy. It is the place at which God punished sin and canceled its claims against all those who should believe in Jesus. The author of Hebrews speaks of this aspect of God’s work of perfecting his children when he writes, “Because by one sacrifice he [Christ] has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Heb. 10:14).
The second way in which God works to perfect the believer is to begin to perfect him more and more in this life. This too is necessary. It is true that the believer has been perfected forever by his faith in Christ in one sense, but it is equally true that he is far from perfect in another sense. Paul knew this. Thus, when he wrote to the Philippians he wrote of two distinct types of perfection. He said, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Phil. 3:12). And then, practically in the next breath he added, “All of us who are mature should take such a view of things” (Phil. 3:15). Clearly, although he knew that his record had already been cleared before God on the basis of his faith in Christ, he was aware of the practical work of his being perfected that still lay before him.
Each Christian should also find this to be true in his own experience. When a person first believes in Jesus Christ as Savior, he normally has a great sense of joy and gratitude to God for removing the penalty of his sin, the sin that had previously condemned him. He is thankful. He is liberated. At the same time, however—and quite apart from these things—he is still not much different in terms of his natural inclinations and conduct than he was previously. Before he believed the gospel he was filled with many wrong ideas about who God was and what he was like. He was wrong about himself and about what God required of him. He had bad habits. Now he is saved, but many of these wrong ideas and wrong actions remain. What is to happen? Well, he is to begin to learn that many of these things must change. He is to develop a distaste for sin and a hunger for righteousness. In other words, he is to experience the second aspect of God’s work of perfecting.
This does not mean that the man is getting better and better so that the day will come when he will be able to say that he no longer sins. Some Christians must have said this in John’s day, for he wrote to them, saying, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). It means that the man is becoming more and more ready to turn to God for daily and sometimes hourly forgiveness and cleansing.
It is the old principle of the seesaw in theology. It is the principle that if God is up in theology, man is down; and if man is up, God is down. Both can never be up or down at the same time. Some persons have man up and are always talking about how well man is doing, but then they have a very small God because there is not much need of him if a man can manage so well on his own. Others, the ones who know their Bibles, have man down. Then God is everything, and he becomes increasingly wonderful to them. That is what God wants because he knows that as we get lower he will get higher and we will look to him for the help, strength, and encouragement which we so desperately need.
The final stage of God’s work in perfecting the saints is to perfect them completely in the moment of death. It is this fact that transforms death for Christians. Death is an enemy—even the Bible calls it that. But it is also the portal to that total perfection which we will never know in this life. Paul called death “a gain” (Phil. 1:21), and when he compared the life of eternity to the continuation of this life he said that the first was “better by far” (Phil. 1:23). He knew that death brings the believer into the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, and he knew that it results in the believer’s becoming Christ-like. He becomes like Jesus in holiness, knowledge, love, wisdom, humility, obedience, and all his other perfections.
That is salvation. It is past, present, and future; it touches every aspect of our living.
An Inflexible Purpose
I want to present one more verse on this subject. It is a great verse, for it teaches that God’s purposes in this process which I have been describing are absolutely unshakable and that, therefore, what God has begun in the moment of your salvation he will work to continue without interruption throughout life. The verse is Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” In other words, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, God already has begun the work of perfecting you; and because God does not change, his purposes will not change. God never begins a thing that he does not intend to finish.
Do you see what that means? For one thing, it means that no one who has believed in Jesus Christ will ever be lost. Were you the one who was responsible for your becoming a Christian? Not at all! It was God. He called you. He straightened out the record. If there was ever a moment in your life in which you seemed to be seeking God, it was only because he was there beforehand moving you to do it. That is why we sing:
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me;
It was not I that found, O Saviour true;
No, I was found of Thee.
God finds us. God calls us. God perfects us. And God never begins a thing that he does not intend to finish.
Second, it means that you will inevitably become like Jesus. What does the verse say? It says, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” What is the “good work”? Well, the answer is not given very clearly here in Philippians, but it is given clearly in Romans 8:28–29. Here Paul speaks of God’s great purpose in calling the Christian, which is “to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” God is so delighted with Jesus Christ that he has set the whole course of creation and human history in motion just so he could call out a race of sinful human beings, put his life with them, and transform them to be like his Son. The result is that there will then be millions of “Christs” where there was only one before. This does not mean that we shall become divine, of course. The Bible does not teach that. But we shall be like him. We shall be like the Lord Jesus; and we shall be so inevitably, because it is God himself who does the transforming.
The third thing this verse means is that God will not give up in his purpose of making you become like Jesus Christ, even though you may want him to give up. There are times when you will. The day will come in your Christian experience when you will sin and find that you like it. You will say to yourself, “I think I would just like to keep on sinning this way.” What will happen then? The answer is that God will begin to work on you. He will begin to poke you and to prod you and to whittle you, even to knock you around a bit if necessary, until you get out of your sin and back into the way he has marked out for you.
Moreover, the prodding will get rougher and rougher so long as you persist in your own way. Why? Because God must be true to his nature, and his nature is set against sin. He loves you, but he must lead you aright. He must be true to his own purposes, and his great purpose is to make you become like the Lord Jesus.
As far back as in the Book of Hosea there is a picture of how God did this with the Jewish people in Hosea’s day. The people had been disobedient, and God had been forced to judge them for their sin. Yet he continued to love them. So he says that he is going to come to them like a moth, gently, in order to get them back to himself. He says, “I am like a moth to Ephraim, like rot to the people of Judah” (Hos. 5:12). However, if Israel will not repent says God, then, “I will be like a lion to Ephraim, like a great lion to Judah. I will tear them to pieces and go away; I will carry them off, with no one to rescue them” (v. 14). It is a great principle. God is determined to lead you in righteousness. So when you sin, he will deal gently if he can. But he will also deal roughly when he must. In fact, he will even break your life into little pieces if he is forced to do it.
Oh, Christian, learn this lesson, and do not force God to come to you as a roaring and ravaging lion! Learn to recognize the flutterings of the moth—those slight inconveniences, those little failures, that restlessness, that miscarriage of your plans—that warn you of God’s displeasure at your present course of action and of his desire to turn you back to himself. If you learn that, you will go on from strength to strength, and you will rejoice that he who hath begun a good work in you will keep on perfecting it until the day of Jesus Christ.
48. You shall therefore be perfect. This perfection does not mean equality, but relates solely to resemblance. However distant we are from the perfection of God, we are said to be perfect, as he is perfect, when we aim at the same object, which he presents to us in Himself. Should it be thought preferable, we may state it thus. There is no comparison here made between God and us: but the perfection of God means, first, that free and pure kindness, which is not induced by the expectation of gain;—and, secondly, that remarkable goodness, which contends with the malice and ingratitude of men. This appears more clearly from the words of Luke, Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful: for mercy is contrasted with a mercenary regard, which is founded on private advantage.
Conclusion: the demand for perfection (5:48)
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 : 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 : 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.
 Stanley, C. F. (2005). The Charles F. Stanley life principles Bible: New King James Version (Mt 5:48). Nashville, TN: Nelson Bibles.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 1, pp. 349–350). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2002). The Sermon on the Mount: an expositional commentary (pp. 146–151). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Vol. 1, p. 308). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 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.