Matthew 5:48 is part of the challenging Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This sounds like an impossible standard Jesus is placing before us. How can we be as perfect as God? What did Jesus mean?
Some people might view the command to be perfect as a proof text for sinless perfection. However, several passages of Scripture acknowledge the ongoing struggle with sin in a Christian’s life (Galatians 5:17; Romans 7:15–20; 1 John 1:8–10; Philippians 3:12). Jesus’ words cannot be used to defend the doctrine of sinless perfection, as Scripture consistently conveys a different message. We will never be perfect, in the sense of “sinless,” in this life.
Let us consider the overall context before delving into what it means to “be perfect.” Jesus begins His sermon by pronouncing blessings on unlikely recipients (Matthew 5:3–12). He then declares that His followers are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, emphasizing the importance of good deeds (verses 13–16). Next, He turns His attention to the law, making it clear that His standard surpasses mere observance of the law’s letter (verses 17–47). Our thoughts and motives matter, too. That’s why Jesus equates lust with adultery and hatred with murder. He also emphasizes love for enemies, non-resistance, the permanence of marriage, and the avoidance of oath-taking.
In Matthew 5:48 Jesus continues setting the standard higher than we are wont to set it. The literal interpretation is likely what Jesus intended. We are called to be absolutely perfect, matching the perfection of our heavenly Father. Every aspect of our being should align with God’s ways, including our deepest thoughts. The Greek word used, teleios, conveys a sense of maturity, completeness, or attaining a goal. In this context, the goal is to meet God’s standard, not simply settle for human morality. A follower of Christ cannot take an attitude of “I’m good enough.”
This realization should frustrate any honest person, for who can achieve moral perfection? Who hasn’t experienced coveting, lust, or hatred? The idea that we can be perfect like God seems hyperbolic. Moreover, the Bible clearly states that we are not perfect. We are all sinners and have fallen short of God’s standard (Romans 3:9–20; 1 John 1:8; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Psalm 14:2–3). How, then, do we reconcile the command to be perfect like God with the truth that we’re not?
The answer lies in the gospel. Jesus is the only One who has lived a perfect life, and it is through Him that we meet God’s standard. Rather than earning righteousness, we are declared righteous because of Christ. As Paul states,
We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God freely and graciously declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. (Romans 3:22-24, NLT)Second Corinthians 5:21 further demonstrates the substitutionary atonement of Jesus: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Because we are made perfect through Christ, we should live accordingly. Our lives should exhibit God’s righteousness and holiness due to our identity as His people. Christ’s standard becomes a way of life as we obey His teachings. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we find the strength to love our enemies, uphold our relationships, overcome lust and hatred, and follow the other commands in Scripture.
In obeying the command to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect, we cannot lean on our own righteousness, which falls far short. We must rely on Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit within us. “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6).