Depending on which Bible translation you use, the word "perfect" will appear often in your reading of Scripture. This has caused much debate, anxiety and confusion among Jesus' followers throughout the centuries.
Matthew records Jesus’ well-known command in his sermon on the mountain, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48, NRSV). In what context did Jesus make this often misunderstood statement?
Before exploring this passage in its literary context, it is important to understand the meaning of the Greek word τέλειος (teleios), from which most translations render the English “perfect.” Whatever it means, it is an adjective that describes God, and Jesus is presenting this standard to his followers.
The word teleios appears a total of 19 times in the New Testament, and in the English Standard Version is translated as “mature” seven times, “perfect” eleven times, and “full” once. It can mean without defect, as in the case of sacrificial animals, as well as fully developed, as in the case of a person who has reached adulthood. Notice how in 1 Corinthians 14:20, teleios is contrasted with children: “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature [teleios].”
The wording in Matthew 5:48 recalls the repeated formula of Leviticus, “You are to be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2; cf. 11:44, 45; 20:26). God’s people (Israel) were called to reflect his character, and the same is true for all subjects of God's kingdom. In Deuteronomy 18:13, the Hebrew tāmîm (complete, unblemished, blameless, perfect) is rendered by teleios in LXX. The word teleios is used again in Matthew 19:21 to refer to a total commitment to God represented by the rich man selling his possessions.
The word teleios in Jesus’ discourse is synonymous with righteousness which must be greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 5:20). Jesus proceeds to contrast a number of laws given through Moses with a higher standard of God’s kingdom (Matt 5:21-42). It is important to understand that God’s laws given through Moses accommodated a societal standard far removed from God’s original plan for humans (Matt 19:3-9). Israel had largely conformed to this standard. Jesus called for a different approach, not by following rules that regulate behavior, but by knowing the mind and character of God. A definable list of rules can be fully kept in outward conduct (like traffic laws), but the standard of God has no limit because the goal is the character (perfection) of God himself.
In Matthew 5:43-45, Jesus continues, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Notice how he is calling his followers to be like God in character. The Father is kind to the evil people of the world, and thus God’s children should also love their enemies. “If you love those who love you,” Jesus says, you are living up to the same standard as the rest of the world (vs 46-47). There is no substantial difference. Then he concludes, “ You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (vs 48). Notice the “therefore” links Jesus’ statement about perfection with what was said in the preceding verses. Being “perfect” as God is perfect means reflecting his character in how we relate to other humans.