On Being Perfect, Matthew 5:48

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.

Where Do Our Beliefs Come From?

Any good Bible College will teach its students that our beliefs as Christians come from four things: Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. However, there is a lot of argument about whether or not Scripture is inerrant, what the traditions of the church actually are and how much of a part reason and experience should play.

Let’s start by looking at Scripture and why I do not believe that the Bible is inerrant.

Firstly, the Bible is not and does not claim to be a scientific textbook. So when the Bible says that the sun stood still in Joshua 10:13, we don’t need to take this literally. Science has proven that the earth revolves around the sun. Therefore, it would make more sense that the earth stood still, but the writer didn’t know that. From his perspective, it was the sun that stopped moving.

The Bible also isn’t numerically correct at all times. In the King James Bible, Ahaziah was 22 years old when he became King according to 2 Kings 8:26 and 42 years old when he became King according to 2 Chronicles 22:2. Wherever this error came from, whether the original writers or people who made copies of the originals, or during the translation process from Hebrew and Greek to English, clearly both cannot be correct. Both Bible passages published in more recent years now give Ahaziah’s age as 22.

Numbers 25:9 records 24,000 people dying by plague and places responsibility for these slaughters on the Lord’s anger. When Paul quotes this very passage in 1 Corinthians 10:8-10 he changes the number to 23,000 and deliberately states that it was the destroying angel (or the Destroyer), not the Lord who destroyed the people. This is critically important toward building a healthy God concept by interpreting the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament. This also lends to the Bible being historically inaccurate at times.

Jeremiah writes a word of warning about other writers: “How can you say ‘We are wise, for we have the law of the Lord,’ when actually the lying pen of scribes has handled it falsely?” Jeremiah 8:8.

If the entire Bible were inerrant, why would Paul write: “To the married I give this comment (not I, but the Lord) … To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) … Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgement … ” 1 Corinthians 7:10, 12 & 25. Why did Paul ask Timothy to bring his coat and to try to get there before winter, 2 Timothy 4:13, 21? Was that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and if it was, then what spiritual relevance can it possibly have for us today? Paul was cold and needed his coat back. I’m glad he was human enough to write about it because it gives the Bible an authentically human feel.

Luke did a lot of research before writing the Gospel of Luke. “Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,” Luke 1:3. Clearly the Gospel of Luke was not dictated by God.

Let’s compare the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection:

Matthew 28:2-3 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.

Mark 16:5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

Luke 24:4 Suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them.

John 20:11-12 Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

So we have: one angel according to Matthew, one man according to Mark, two men according to Luke and two angels according to John. Now, it could be that some people only saw one man or angel while others visibly witnessed two. It is also easily acceptable that they could not tell the difference between men and angels. But even if we believe that, it proves that we must put our thinking cap on when interpreting the Bible and not miss the forest for the trees. Does the number of men or angels matter? Probably not. The point of the story, and all four accounts agree about this, is that Jesus resurrected from the dead.

In fact, I had one lecturer who taught us that unanimous agreement about every detail of these accounts might be suspect because the writers all had different perspectives and agendas in their stories. If all accounts were exactly the same we might wonder if they conspired together to share the same details in order to unanimously claim that Jesus was alive. Having four different perspectives of the same event that draw the same conclusions, is actually more convincing. Here is an illustration:

Mary and Joe walked into a classroom. Mary noticed that the walls were painted a dark burgundy colour and there were some chips in the paint. The desks looked a little cramped and the carpet was very old. She guessed that there were about 30 people in the class and most of them were female. The lecturer at the front of the room looked like her grandfather and was delivering a lecture on global warming. Joe did a rough headcount of the pretty girls in the classroom: there were 12. He sat down next to a blonde and missed half the lecture, but he knows it had something to do with global warming. Both of these stories are true and correct from the witnesses perspective. Did they experience this classroom and lecture the same way? No. Their estimations of the female population in the room disagreed, but they generally agreed that the lecturer’s topic was global warming.

What about verses in Chronicles that tell us that other books which are not included in our Bibles, contain further details that they have left out, 2 Chronicles 9:29, 12:15, 13:22, etc? We have to remember that a group of human beings decided which books to include in the Bible based on what was available and commonly accepted among Christians at that time. There are many other books and letters that have been excluded from the Bible and there are some books included in Catholic Bibles that aren’t included in other Christian Bibles. We also need to take note of the fact that there are multiple copies of Greek New Testament texts. These copies have discrepancies that scholars then have to weigh up in order to decide which Greek word is the most likely fit. This is called “text criticism” and I wrote an essay on the topic when I studied Greek at Bible College.

Then, when the Bible is translated from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek into English, it is always subjected to interpretation. Always. There is no such thing as a literal translation. Just to make my point clear, let me give you a very simple portion of a sentence in Greek and translate it as accurately as I can:

Transliteration: Legei autē ho Iesous
“Legei” means “he/she/it said”
“autē” in the dative form means “to her”
“ho Iesous” means “the Jesus”
Literal translation: He said to her the Jesus.
Most Biblical translations use: Jesus answered / Jesus said to her / Jesus replied.

Would you buy and read a Bible that used lengthy sentences like “He said to her the Jesus” instead of “Jesus answered?” Every time you read “Jesus answered,” or “Jesus said,” or “Jesus replied,” in English, there were probably other words there in Greek that were left untranslated. Meaning is translated instead of the exact words themselves and even the order of the words is drastically altered in English so that we don’t have to read ridiculous sentences that confuse us about who the subject is or that sound simply jarring to our ears if we translate them literally. This is one of the reasons there are so many different translations of the English Bible. No one translates literally and although they try to be as literal as possible according to their own standards, what they already believe about God and Christianity will always bias translations … including mine.

English, Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic; no book of the Bible is without human error. The Bible was put together by human beings who are imperfect and make mistakes.

But do not despair! The Bible tells us what we can count on when we are interpreting it:
2 Timothy 3:15-16 From infancy you have known the holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.

Most Christians agree that the Bible is inspired by God. As the prophets and scribes, the disciples and apostles penned their books and letters–or had other people do it for them–God was whispering his truth. As Peter writes, “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit,” 2 Peter 1:21. As 300 leaders gathered at the Council of Nicea where the decision was made about which books to include in the Canon, God was present. As scholars gather and spend hours on end translating the Bible, God is with them.

What does it mean that the Bible is inspired or God breathed? I believe it means that the Holy Spirit, who is the very breath of God, influenced the assemblage of the Bible, especially the weaving together of the overarching story or metanarrative of the Bible. As 2 Timothy 3:15 confirms, Scripture was formed to give us wisdom regarding salvation. The metanarrative of the Bible is the story of the creation and recreation–including the salvation, restoration, justification, redemption, sanctification, etc.–of the known universe and its inhabitants.

The Bible also points to Jesus Christ as the living and active Word of God. The ultimate way that we know the Word of God–Jesus–is through the Bible. And we know the Father-God because the Son–Jesus–has revealed the Father. And we know the Spirit of God because He is the very breath of God that inspired the Scriptures to reveal the Son and Father. The Trinity is intimately connected to the Bible, (see the verses at the end of this section).

So while I say that I do not believe the Bible is inerrant, I do not want to downplay just how powerful this book actually is. Let’s face it, it is difficult to know God without knowing the Bible.
I hold Scripture in the highest regard as the most authoritative book on earth. It oozes the love of God. The pungent aroma of salvation is unmistakable. Even among oft misinterpreted statements of wrath and judgement the Bible is rich with mercy, grace, repentance and forgiveness.

I love the Bible and everything I have to say about my understanding of Christian-Universalism comes from my interpretation of the Bible in conjunction with excellent teachers like Santo Calarco and the numerous books I have read.

John 1:1-3 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God, He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

John 1:14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 5:39-40 You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

Hebrews 1:1-3 In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by Son, who he appointed heir of all things and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

Hebrews 4:12 For the Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

Ephesians 6:17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God

Psalm 33:4 For the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does.

Psalm 119:105 Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.

Isaiah 55:11 So is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

What is Christian-Universalism?

There are three main schools of thought in Western Christianity: Calvinism, Arminianism & Universalism.

Calvinism – Calvinists emphasise the sovereignty of God. God is the Almighty; he’s all powerful, in control of everything and what he wills will be done. God predestines or pre-determines what is going to happen in our lives. The idea of predestination in Calvinism extends to what is known as “double predestination”. God chooses who will be saved and be in heaven with him. Therefore, God not only knows who is going to hell, but also predestines those people to hell on purpose. Jesus’ death on the cross only applies to the elect (those predestined to be saved), not to the reprobate (those predestined to damnation). This is a very commonly held, traditional belief in the American Church. It is not as common amongst Australian Christians, but it still exists here. In fact I had a Calvinist Bible College lecturer over the summer. I have a huge respect for Calvinism because its understanding of the sovereignty and predestination of God is very Biblical.

Arminianism – Most of the Australian Church tends to be more Arminian than Calvinist and Arminianism is strong in America as well. Arminians emphasise free will. Human beings were created with the capacity to choose to follow God, or not. Human beings are held responsible for all of their actions–God is not culpable–and if they wind up in hell, it’s their own fault. Jesus’ death on the cross was for the salvation of the entire world because God loves us. But if we reject salvation during our lifetime on this earth, there is nothing God can do about it. Arminians tend not to believe that God sends people to hell, but that people choose to go to hell by disobeying him and doing as they please. Some Arminians believe that God is the one punishing people in hell, but these days a lot more Arminians will say that hell is separation from God i.e. that God is not present there at all, and therefore people in hell are anguished because they regret their choices and are tormented by the devil and his angels / demons. I have a great deal of respect for Arminianism because I grew up in it. I agree that human beings have a will and I believe that Jesus’ death applies to everyone. I also commend the Arminian emphasis on the love of God and his ardent desire to save us.

Universalism – In my opinion, Universalism takes the best of Calvinism–the sovereignty and predestination of God–and the best of Arminianism–free will, salvation available to all and the love of God–and combines them. God is love and desires to save the entire world through Jesus. But human beings have a will and rebel against God, sometimes even rejecting him (or their concept of him) for their entire earthly lives. Yet, God is sovereign over salvation and has predestined all to be saved, so even though he works within the construct of the human will, God’s will is more powerful and he will save everyone in the end.

One of the most notable differences between Universalist Christians and Arminian & Calvinist Christians, is the belief in salvation after death. There are no verses in the Bible that indicate that our earthly life is the cut-off point for salvation. Hebrews 9:27 says “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgement.” Yes I still believe that, but this verse does not say that there can be no salvation after judgement. In fact, 1 Peter 4:6 says “the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead.” The only reason to preach the gospel to the dead … is to save them.

There are different types of Universalists just like there are different denominations of Arminians & Calvinists. Some Universalists are Preterists and believe that judgement day has already happened and there is no futuristic judgement day. Some Universalists have rejected the Bible and simply follow their hearts. Some Universalists believe that God is the universe and that after death, human beings become part of the God-universe. Some Universalists are more monotheistic or even atheistic than Trinitarian, others believe that all roads lead to God and Jesus is not the only way. Some Universalists don’t believe the cross was necessary, others don’t believe in sin, many are unsure whether the devil and demons exist.

I love and respect my Universalist brothers and sisters who have different beliefs to me, just as I love and respect my Calvinist & Arminian brothers and sisters. But I want to let you know that there is a Christian-Universalism that is arising today that is very Biblical, absolutely Trinitarian and Christocentric. This means that we hold to the inspiration of Scripture, we believe that God is triune and that Jesus is the only way to the Father. I personally believe in a futuristic judgement day and I believe in hell when it is defined as the refiner’s fire. I still believe in the power of prayer, I’ve been baptised in water and spirit, I take communion, I worship like a Pentecostal, and I personally have no qualms with the concepts of sin, the devil, angels and demons.

I do, however, reject “penal substitutionary atonement” which means I do not believe that Jesus’ death was a punishment. And I reject traditional doctrines of hell, which interestingly are as much disputed as any other doctrine: some believe hell is eternal conscious torment, some of those believe God is responsible for the torture, others blame the devil, some believe hell is eternal separation from God, others believe hell is annihilation–complete and final death.

I fully accept and embrace as supreme, the doctrine of the love of God. God is love. God’s mercy is his love. God’s justice is his love. God’s judgement is his love. God’s wrath is his love. God’s hellfire is his love.

This year I intend to write much more about my beliefs as a Universalist-Christian. I want to compose a systematic theology that I hope will be helpful to Christians who are transitioning from Calvinism & Arminianism to Universalism. I understand that there are over 7 billion people on planet earth and that we all believe differently. What I believe is not exceptional, it’s just another set of beliefs. But I am compelled to share it because I have seen how much influence one person’s theology can have–for better or worse. Calvin and Luther changed the course of Church history during the reformation. Maybe some of what they believed was helpful to others and maybe some of it was not. But if they hadn’t said it, I would never have become who I am today. If God wills it, I pray I will have the same kind of ripple effect on the world and play my part just as they did–for better or worse.

If you have any burning questions right now, please message me privately or email elissaanne.author@gmail.com