Tuesday, May 5, 2009


In a recent class, as an introduction to a book study on Messy Spirituality (written by Mike Yaconelli) we talked about the Biblical call to holiness, the reality of sin (and its power) and what freedom means in light of the delicate balance between the two.

In Matthew chapter five, in verse 48, Jesus says "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

If your like me, at first glance you might think "well, that's impossible, so I guess I should just give up now." Teachers have answered that sentiment with statements like "Jesus was speaking in hyperbole, which means we don't have to take his statement literally." Another, more extreme teaching is "yes, Jesus demands perfection, we should take it literally and seek to be perfect." Neither are at the heart of what Jesus was saying. We need to look at two very important aspects of the context to understand Jesus' words.

First, we have to look at the word translated as "perfect." The word in greek is teleos which does not mean moral flawlessness. It means fully grown, mature or complete. Elsewhere, teleos is used to speak of fruit maturing (Luke 8:14) and a fully realized unity of believers (John 17:23). Think in terms of complete or full grown as opposed to partial. Jesus is talking about being mature, complete and fully grown in our love for people. To "be perfect as God is perfect" means to love as God loves: impartially, completely, fully and without necessity of that love being reciprocated.

Second, this statement is made in the context of what mature love should look like in relationships with those that it is typically difficult to love. Jesus has just said to love your enemies. He has also asked rhetorical questions about how easy it is to love those that love you pointing to the truth that Godly love is more than just typical easy love.

Jesus was talking to mostly Jewish people each with a different status in their culture. The type of love he's talking about was not being shown either from those in power or those who were at the mercy of those in power. However, if both parties loved the way Jesus is telling them to love, then the great chasm that existed because of a broken system could've been closed and God's love would've been the new system.

What does this mean for us?

Jesus does not expect us to be morally flawless, but he does expect us to love him and love others in a way that is reminiscent of how he loves us. So, be free from thinking you have to live a perfect life, but know that you're calling to perfection (or should I say to impartial, counter-conditional Godly love)is a much higher and often a much more demanding request than that of moral perfection.

The good news: we aren't expected to love people perfectly on our own. The Holy Spirit lives in those of us that are new creations in Christ and that's why Jesus can call us to love the same way he does.


zzzzz said...

Rich said, "Jesus does not expect us to be morally flawless, but he does expect us to love him and love others in a way that is reminiscent of how he loves us."

That's a great way to look at being "perfect" or "teleos." Is that more demanding than moral perfection? I would hope not, but when you think about it, we probably would have a hard time grasping how much Jesus really loves us.

Still, it's nice to be reminded that we don't have to be "perfect" to follow Christ.

JMS said...

In "A Plain Account of Christian Perfection", John Wesley described what Jesus meant by His use of 'teleios' as loving God with ALL your heart, soul, mind and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself. If we're doing that, then at that moment we are morally blameless and living up to the calling we've received. But in order to do this in an ongoing daily fashion, we must have the Holy Spirit giving us the ability to do so. This is what Paul describes in Romans 6 & 8.

Great post, Rich!

Bill C said...

Nice write-up/comment. You might be right on your understanding of ‘perfect’ in Matt 5.48; but I think the context asks for a Judean meaning as opposed to a Greek meaning for ‘teleios’/perfect.

Matt 5:48 summarizes chapter 5, especially verses 21-47 and restates the ‘righteousness’ requirement that Jesus was conveying in easily remembered language. “Expectation” statements of Matt 5:48 sort are not without significant precedent. There is a number of them in the Old Testament, for example: Gen 17:1; Lev 19.1-2 and Duet 18.13. The use of teleios/‘perfect’ to define the summary requirement derives from the concept [stated in the OT verses cited] of God expecting total loyalty from his people; which concept flows from the Hebrew tamin which is rendered by teleios in the Septuagint (LXX) of Duet 18.13.

The Judeans were aware that a Covenant with God expected human behavior of 100% ‘loyalty of life’ to God Almighty. Jesus came to provide a way for humankind to ‘fulfill’ that long-standing loyalty expectation. We are so fortunate to live in the Age of the Spirit.