What did Jesus mean when He said be perfect?

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Jesus ended the Sermon on the Mount by the words, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

The meaning of the word perfect in Greek

In this verse the Greek word teleioi or perfect is used to describe a flawless sacrificial victim or a mature adult. Jesus does not here deal with absolute sinlessness in this life. For sanctification is a progressive work. The word perfect signifies, rather, completeness, integrity, sincerity, but in a relative sense. The man who is perfect in the sight of God is the man who has reached the degree of development that Heaven expects of him at any given time.

In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus presented His six illustrations of the higher, spiritual application of the law of the kingdom of heaven (vs. 21–47). He taught that it is the internal thoughts and motives that determine perfection of character, and not the external acts alone. Man may look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart (1 Sam. 16:7).

The Jews were working hard to become righteous by their own efforts, to earn salvation by good deeds. But in their legalism, they focused their attention to the details of the letter of the law. And in the process they lost sight of its spirit (Matthew 23:23). But the aim of the law was the supreme love toward God and self-sacrificing love toward men (Matthew 22:34–40).

The meaning of the word perfect in Hebrew

The Hebrew term tam is equivalent to the Greek teleios, which is often translated perfect in the NT but which is better translated “full grown” or “mature” (1 Cor. 14:20). The Hebrew word tam, translated in Job 1:1 as perfect, has a number of different usages. The word, or one of its derivatives, is used in Genesis 17:1 where God told Abraham to “be perfect.” And all Israel was instructed to “be perfect” in verses such as Deuteronomy 18:13, 2 Samuel 22:33, and Psalms 101:2,6. In that sense, the prophet Abraham was righteous (Genesis 15:6). Also, the book of Luke records that Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, were righteous, and God-honoring people (Luke 1:6).

Obviously, then, the Hebrew words in Job 1:1 and Luke 1:6 are used to describe people who are attempting to follow God’s commandments to the best of their ability. In that sense, Paul speaks of “them that are perfect” (1 Cor. 2:6) and of “as many as be perfect” (Phil. 3:15). At the same time, he realizes that there are new heights to gain and that he himself has not reached the ultimate perfection. Job, Abraham, Zechariah. and Elizabeth were straight, just and right in their loyalty and devotion to God. Thus, people by the grace and power of God can become righteous on this earth (Philippians 4:13).

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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