Have you ever fretted about the verse “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect,” Matthew 5:48? I have. When I was a child I thought this verse meant that I needed to be completely and utterly sinless or I was going to hell.
This morning I read this verse in Greek and for the first time, the context of the verse dawned on me. Jesus didn’t flippantly yell out a command: “Therefore, be perfect!” He was talking about an ancient command to love our neighbours. “You have heard that it was said, love your neighbour and hate your enemy. BUT I am saying to you, LOVE your ENEMIES and pray for those who persecute you,” Matthew 5:43-44.
Being “perfect” is about loving. It is about not only loving the people that are easy to love like family and friends. It means loving people of other skin colours, sexual preferences, nationalities and religions. It is about loving people you find difficult to love. Maybe you struggle with loving gay people. Or maybe you struggle with loving Muslims. It is okay to struggle. But what you need to understand first and foremost is that God loves all people, friend and foe. Jesus wasn’t telling us to love them without first loving them himself. In fact he refers to his father here—the ultimate authority—and says our father in heaven loves all his enemies. He even offers an illustration. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” verse 45. This is the context in which we learn how to love. We see it demonstrated by our “perfect” heavenly father.
Furthermore, this word perfect doesn’t mean sinless. The Greek words used in this verse are “teleioi” and “teleios.” “Teleios” means: full grown / mature / complete / completely good / completely operative / perfect. So perfection in this context basically means wholeness. “Teleioi” means you will be whole / complete / mature. “Teleioi” does not mean you MUST be perfect as a rule OR ELSE. “Teleioi” is a future tense verb describing how you WILL be perfect. You will be perfect when you love your enemies. Just like your heavenly father is true to himself, entirely complete and whole in his love for his enemies, you grow in maturity by loving your enemies. And I’m not convinced that this is a rule so much as a fact. The fact is, God will teach us all how to love our enemies—no matter how long it takes—and when we finally get to that point of really loving all people, we will be “teleios,” perfect, complete and mature.