Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:48

Matthew 5:48
“So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
(NET Bible)
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.

From misunderstanding to understanding

In politics, many Americans have proven to be more fond of a good sound bite than they are of sound reasoning. The same desire for simplicity — false but reassuring — also affects people’s choices when they stick to an erroneous interpretation of the Bible.

Keep in mind that Eve found Satan’s false but simple argument really compelling, yet she found only spiritual ruin from it (Genesis 3). You must look deeper to understand what Jesus requires of his disciples. Are you willing?

Some verses create lots of needless difficulty, and the cause is generally an inadequate English translation. The English word perfect simply does not fit either the underlying Greek word (teleios) or this context. So, how did we wind up with a misleading English word in so many translations?

Perfect (5:48) was the word chosen by William Tyndale in the very first English translation of the New Testament (1526) based on the Latin Vulgate. Tyndale did not have a Greek New Testament to guide his work because they were not published in Europe until 1534.[1] About 85 percent of Tyndale’s popular translation became part of the Authorized Version, which we call the King James Bible, and the translation perfect in Matt. 5:48 was part of that incorporated material.

Bible translator William Mounce explains the second factor that often prevents English translation improvements: “The argument [in the translation committee] was, “This is such a well-known verse that we can’t change it.’”[2] Such forces of familiar tradition are strong in the Sermon on the Mount!

Craig Blomberg puts us onto the right plan when he says, “’Perfect’ here is better translated as ‘mature, whole,’ i.e., loving without limits . . . . Jesus is not frustrating his hearers with an unachievable ideal but challenging them to grow in obedience to God’s will — to become more like him.”[3] The key idea here is completeness, or loving without limits. God’s willingness to love even his enemies sets the example for the disciples of Jesus. Just as the Father is whole and undivided in his love, so must the disciples be!

The interpretation just given makes sense out of the initial phrase so then (5:48a). Verse 48 is a conclusion based on what has been taught previously. The Gentiles and tax collectors love their own kind (5:46-47), but we must look to God for our model of love, not our peers.

In spite of the fact that virtually all modern commentators agree on what has been said above about the correct interpretation of 5:48, it is not hard to find someone who teaches sinless perfection as the command of Christ. But that idea is very hard to reconcile with the prayer Jesus taught his disciples in which they pray for the forgiveness of the debt (of sin) between themselves and God (Matt. 6:12). Why would a perfect disciple need to ask forgiveness? Even stronger are John’s words: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8, ESV).

However, I must address a potential criticism. Someone might claim that I was teaching that God is not perfect. Far from it! What I do say is that such an idea is not what Jesus was teaching here. Instead, he was holding up God’s character as the example of love for his disciples to follow. God loves the just and the unjust, and so must we.

Improving the imperfect

Since Jesus is calling on his disciples to become more like the Father, that is the task we imperfect disciples need to focus on.

There is urgency in our need to adopt what Jesus says. Paul tells us: “Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he designated, having provided proof to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31). That day is coming fast!

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 3, S.L. Greenslade, Ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1963) 61.

[2] William D. Mounce, Greek for the Rest of Us (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003) 38.

[3] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 115.


Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!

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