[An excerpt from a talk in a series on Matthew, given August 28, 2016, at Reformation Fellowship. To hear the complete talk, go to “Matthew” in the Audio section of our website.]
Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
It is very common to see this verse as a conclusion to the entire “antitheses” section in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-48), where Jesus repeats, “You have heard … but I say to you.” This view sees Jesus’ point something like this: Your righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees. It is not enough to abstain from murder; you must not be angry. It is not enough to abstain from adultery; you must not lust in your heart. After giving more examples, Jesus then concludes, Yes, your righteousness must surpass the Pharisees; in fact, you must be morally perfect and without fault of any kind, just as your Father is.
This way of reading Matthew 5:48 supports the idea that Jesus’ purpose is to drive us to despair: You must be morally perfect, but the unspoken reality is that we cannot be morally perfect, and so we despair and turn to the cross of Christ for mercy.
Now, of course, in an important sense that is true. We cannot be morally perfect. And so we need the mercy that Jesus brings through His cross. But I don’t think that is the point Jesus is making in verse 48. Instead, I see verse 48 as the conclusion to Matthew 5:43-48 (NASB):
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 causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
I would translate the word “perfect” as something like “complete.” The logic of the passage is this: Don’t only love those who love you; love your enemy as well. This is the way God is. God does not only send sun and rain to His followers. He also sends sun and rain to the unrighteous. It doesn’t make sense that God would reward you for being like the gentiles, who only love those who love them, would it? So your love should be complete, not only for your friends, but also for your enemies, just like your Father is complete in His love. Jesus is not saying, “you must be morally perfect.” Jesus is saying, “you must follow your Father in being complete, inclusive in your love.”
Interestingly, Luke has his own version of this “love your enemies” passage. It ends as follows in Luke 6:35-36:
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Matthew ends: “be complete, just as your Father is complete.” Luke ends: “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” These are two different versions of the same idea. Matthew’s “be complete” means “be complete in your love; that is, include in your love those who have treated you poorly.” In other words, don’t treat people in keeping with what you think they deserve, but be merciful. This is also what Jesus says in Luke: “be merciful, as your Father is merciful.” And so Jesus says in Matthew, “be perfect, extend your love to all, just as your Father extends His love to all.”
In the end, Jesus is teaching something profoundly simple—and profoundly difficult. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is, we are to seek the good of our neighbor the way we would want to be treated. And it turns out that our neighbor is everyone, including those who mistreat us.