Today Bible reading was on obeying God’s Law (Matthew 5:17-48). The most striking verse was the last line (48),
“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Now this presents a conundrum because in our modern society, perfectionism is equated to flawlessness and without mistakes, which is an unrealistic, unattainable goal. Moreover, much has been waxed lyrical about the dangers of pursuing perfectionism, for example, being paralyzed by fear, feelings of inadequacy, debilitating self-criticism and self-doubt, anxiety, stress, and disappointment. I suppose this line also spoke to me because I admit I am a bit of a perfectionist. Therefore what does it mean when Jesus calls us to be perfect? Is He calling us into a trap? What is the biblical meaning of perfection? I started googling to gain insight into this issue.
What biblical perfection is not
First, it is bluntly put, as in Romans 3:23 that we have committed sin and therefore are imperfect – “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Perfection cannot be attained by man. Furthermore, God does not expect us to be sinless. Should we sin, we have to ask for forgiveness from God – ” If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-10). So sinlessness is not the kind of perfection God is speaking of.
Perfection is also not just about obeying the Law or Ten Commandments – “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming-not the realities themselves” (Hebrews 10:1). We cannot attain God’s standard of perfection by our own efforts and good works – “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
What biblical perfection is
The word “perfect” in Matthew 5:48 is telios, meaning “brought to its end” or wholeness, completeness, undivided devotion, and maturity. Thus biblical perfection does not imply sinless perfection, but instead implies full development and growth into maturity of godliness, through a committed and close relationship with God. Philippians 1:6 says that completion is the work of God – “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” He created us, saved us, and is faithful to perfect us.
Thus acceptance by Him, and entry into the Kingdom does not depend upon our “perfection” in the sense of sinlessness and flawlessness, as it is so often the idol of the perfectionist as we understand the term. Instead biblical perfection is the strive towards living godly lives and to submit to God. Excellence naturally flows from that loving relationship – “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).
This has helped clear things up a bit. In summary, we should not be obsessed with earthly perfection, but thirst for godly perfection.