How Can You Be ‘Perfect as Your Heavenly Father Is Perfect’?
IN THE Sermon on the Mount Jesus told his listeners: “You must accordingly be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48) Does this sound impossible? How could sinful humans be perfect like their heavenly Father? Yet, Jesus’ words show that we must if we want to prove ourselves his disciples. How can we do so?
To understand this, we first should rid ourselves of the idea that “perfection” must always be unlimited, all-embracing, and indicating supreme excellence in the most minute aspect. Only God has such absolute perfection. Perfection of any other person or thing is relative. That is, a thing is perfect in relation to the purpose appointed for it by its designer, producer or user. If these find no fault with it, then it is properly called “perfect.”
We could, of course, go around all the time examining everything with a high-powered microscope in our hand. Then ‘perfectly straight’ lines would all show up wavy and ragged; ‘perfectly clean’ clothes, freshly laundered, would all reveal microscopic bits of foreign matter; a ‘perfectly smooth’ table top would appear to have little craters and valleys and resemble the moon’s surface. Yet even if these microscopic factors were eliminated, would it really make any difference to us in our use of these things? So, while we could be dissatisfied with all these things as being “imperfect,” why should we? Such a demanding attitude would be impractical, foolish; it would fill our lives with discontent and exasperation.
The Bible does not present perfection in such an impractical, unreasonably demanding way, but in a sensible, realistic way. In fact, the very same Greek word (teʹlei·os) rendered “perfect” in the record of Jesus’ speech (Matt. 5:48) can also be translated “complete” (1 Cor. 13:10), “full-grown” (1 Cor. 14:20) and “mature.” (Heb. 5:14) The same is true of the Hebrew words translated “perfect” in the Bible. So, in Funk and Wagnalls’ A New Standard Bible Dictionary (p. 694) we read this statement about “perfection” in the Bible:
“When applied to impersonal objects [such as commercial weights (Deut. 25:15)] . . . the word is the synonym of ‘complete,’ . . . The notion does not, however, occur with an attempt at precision, but with the same freedom and approximation to exactness as outside the Bible. . . . When used of man it denotes, first of all, conformity to the ideal entertained at the time, and is there a relative and quite variable and expansive term. David claims to be perfect [faultless] in this sense (Ps 18:23), tho[ugh] elsewhere confessing sinfulness (Ps 51:3ff.).”
“FAULTLESS,” “BLAMELESS” SERVANTS OF GOD
Yes, the Bible speaks of Noah as being “faultless among his contemporaries” and of Job as being “blameless and upright.” (Gen. 6:9; Job 1:8) The same Hebrew words translated “faultless” and “blameless” may also be rendered “perfect,” for anything without fault is “perfect.” Obviously this does not mean these persons were without sin, for they were all descended from the sinner Adam. So, in what sense were they “faultless” and “blameless”?
They could be spoken of in this way because they measured up fully to what God required of them and God did not require of them more than they could attain. As Micah 6:6-8 shows, God does not make unreasonable demands upon his servants. “He has told you, O earthling man, what is good. And what is Jehovah asking back from you but to exercise justice and to love kindness and to be modest in walking with your God?”
Yes, Jehovah mercifully and reasonably took into account the imperfection and disabilities of his earthly servants. A father would not expect of his young son what he would of a full-grown man, would he? Nor would a potter expect the same quality when molding a vase from ordinary clay as he would when forming one from special refined clay. Jehovah God, who is the Great Potter, takes into consideration the inherent weakness of his human servants. For, “as a father shows mercy to his sons, Jehovah has shown mercy to those fearing him. For he himself well knows the formation of us, remembering that we are dust.”—Ps. 103:13, 14; Isa. 64:8.
In his Notes on the Gospels, Albert Barnes, Bible scholar of the nineteenth century, makes somewhat similar observations about the “blamelessness” (or “perfection”) of such men. Of the word “perfect” he says: “Originally it is applied to a piece of mechanism, as a machine that is complete in its parts. Applied to men, it refers to completeness of parts, or perfection, where no part is defective or wanting. Thus, Job (i. 1.) is said to be perfect; that is, not holy as God, or sinless—for fault is afterward found with him (Job ix. 20; Job xlii. 6); but his piety was proportionate—had a completeness of parts—was consistent and regular. He exhibited his religion as a prince, a father, an individual, a benefactor of the poor. He was not merely a pious man in one place, but uniformly. He was consistent everywhere. This is the meaning in Matthew [5:48]. . . . let the piety be complete, and proportionate, and regular.”
These men of faith of ancient times merited being called “faultless” or “blameless,” not because they never committed any error or wrong, but because, within the limits possible for them to attain, their devotion and loyalty to God was complete, sound. They manifested “a complete heart” (or “a perfect heart” according to many translations) toward Jehovah. (1 Ki. 11:4; 2 Ki. 20:3) They humbly accepted correction and discipline when they erred. (Job 42:1-6; Ps. 51:1-4, 7-11) Despite their errors and weaknesses, the sum total of what they did added up to what God required of them at that time and under the existing circumstances. Jehovah God was pleased with their worship. So, then, if he did not find fault with their sincere effort and overall course, who could rightfully do so? Compare what the apostle Paul says about anointed Christians at Romans 8:31-34.
How comforting it is to us today to know that Jehovah God will deal with us in the same understanding way, requiring of us only what we are actually capable of doing. This should encourage us to make our expression of love and devotion to him one that is full, constant, one that is manifest in every part of our life.
PERFECTING OUR LOVE AND MERCY
With this in mind, consider again Jesus’ words: “You must accordingly be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word “accordingly” takes us back to what Jesus had been discussing with his listeners. What was that? Love and generosity. Luke’s account shows that Jesus also brought in the matter of mercy at this point. (Luke 6:32-36) He had shown his disciples that for them to love those loving them was no great thing. Why, even the tax collectors and people of the nations did that. But if they wanted to ‘prove themselves sons of their heavenly Father’ the disciples must imitate God in the way that he showed generosity. How is that? God “makes his sun rise upon wicked people and good and makes it rain upon righteous people and unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:45) Why, God’s mercy is great enough to include even the animals, as shown by the ancient sabbath provisions and in other cases.—Ex. 20:10; Jonah 4:11.
True Christians, then, should not be narrow, incomplete, imperfect in expressing love and generosity but should show these qualities in a broad, complete, hence perfect way, their love extending even to enemies. (Matt. 5:43, 44) Jesus here was not talking about being like the Most High God in all respects, something impossible for humans, but was emphasizing this particular aspect of expressing a full, rounded-out love.
Do we today manifest love in this way? Do we show love to the point of ‘loving our enemies and praying for those persecuting us’? Jesus himself set us the example. He was like his heavenly Father in all these things. Jesus served and taught all kinds of persons, impartially, generously, lovingly, finally giving his life on behalf of imperfect, sinful mankind. If we perfect our love by broadening out our interest in others, not letting partiality and prejudice hold us back from showing kindness and mercy, then we will be imitating God’s Son as he imitated his Father. This expansive feeling in our hearts will make for fine relations with others. It will assure real warmth and consideration in our family life and keep out friction and disunity and maintain harmony and cooperation in Christian congregations. And, far more than this, our rounded-out, amply expressed kindness will extend out to worldly neighbors, making us considerate, helpful toward them, yes, even toward strangers. Our mercy can often be shown in material ways. But we will always remember that spiritual help is the most vital, as Jesus’ course showed. Our hearts will move us to offer this with the patience and mildness that mercy and love imply.
DO YOU “WANT TO BE PERFECT”?
On one occasion a rich young man approached Jesus and asked him: “Teacher, what good must I do in order to get everlasting life?” He was obeying the Law’s commandments, but Jesus showed him that his worship was still lacking in vital points. It was imperfect. Did he “want to be perfect”? Then he must bring his worship to full development. How? Jesus told him to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and “come be my follower.”—Matt. 19:16-21.
Do you see, then, how the thought of completeness enters into this matter of ‘being perfect’? The wealthy young man could have done what Jesus recommended. He may well have been single, without family obligations. Even if not, he could have done as others of Jesus’ disciples were doing, for not all of them were single. But the young man did not want to convert his wealth into a means for aiding others, such as the poor among his fellow Israelites. How different his self-centered attitude from that of the heavenly Father, whose love and mercy moved him to give his dearest possession, his own Son, on behalf of suffering mankind! (Rom. 5:7, 8) The young man’s “many possessions” meant more to him than taking hold of this grand opportunity of accompanying God’s own Son in his ministry.—Matt. 19:22, 27-29.
So, today, it is not a question of being asked to do the impossible, something beyond your reach. It is a matter of doing what you can do in service to God and your neighbor—and doing it wholeheartedly. Are you doing that? Do you study his Word and put it to work in your life? Then you may have the pleasure and joy of knowing that, on the basis of his Son’s ransom sacrifice and your faith in it, God accepts this as a perfect service on your part. Prove yourself a true child of your heavenly Father. Show love, kindness, generosity and mercy in the way that he does, and let his worship pervade every part of your life.