Be perfect? (Matt 5:17-48)

Continuing in our series in The Sermon on the Mount, this week we look at Matt 5:17-48. Today is a bit of an aerial overview of this section as we try to figure out what it’s all about. Let’s look at the “bookends” of this passage now. It starts with this rather confronting statement:

5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (18) For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (19) Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (20) For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Surpasses that of the Pharisees? They were pretty scrupulous about obeying the law, and here, Jesus is saying that our righteousness needs to exceed theirs! More than that: even the tiniest part of the law remains for those who wish to belong to the kingdom.

But it gets worse.

At the end of this section of the sermon, Jesus concludes by saying:

5:48 “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Don’t you find that shocking? Jesus sums up his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount thus far by simply saying, “be perfect.” Perfect? Come on, Jesus! You’ve just announced that the kingdom of God has come, that it’s good news for the poor and the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness… You’ve built us all up, and now you say: oh, by the way, did I forget to tell you? Be perfect. How is that supposed to be good news?

Now if you check the original Greek word, you might get a little bit of hope. The word is perhaps better translated “complete” or even “mature”. That’s a bit more like it. I can’t achieve perfection, but maybe I have a shot at “completeness” or “maturity”, whatever that means.

Until you remember the rest of the verse: be perfect/complete/mature, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect/complete mature. Complete, just as God is complete. Great – that’s pretty much perfection whichever way you look at it. Even more so, as it echoes a famous refrain in the Old Testament, where God speaks to Israel saying:

Lev 11:45b “Be holy, because I am holy.”

Be perfect, as God is perfect. Is Jesus telling us to do the impossible?

Now full marks to those who have already made the mental leap to the cross. Jesus, having set up the essential problem of humanity – that we can’t meet God’s perfect standards – then proceeds to fulfil them on our behalf. Our imperfect life is reckoned to Jesus, who bears the punishment for us on the cross. And Jesus’ perfection is credited to us, so that before God we are declared righteous even though we are not. Praise God that he sent Jesus to do what we were unable to do by our own effort! End of problem, let’s all go home. Right?

Except that it’s only part of the answer. Because the context of Jesus’ statement here at the end of Matthew 5 is not about his righteousness being credited to us, or even his bearing the punishment for our unrighteousness. For a start, he hasn’t died yet. And the context is all about how we are to live as the recipients of the good news of the kingdom. (Or more immediately, how first century Israelites were to live as the heirs of the kingdom.) Jesus isn’t holding this up as some theoretical possibility, but as a real standard which we’re to strive for. In response to God’s grace we are called to holiness; to perfection in imitation of our God. So we need to take this command seriously. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

But what does this verse really mean for us – as fallen human beings? And how, exactly, has Jesus come to “fulfil” the law (v17)?

To think about

Thankfully, the examples Jesus gives in between these two confronting bookends provide us with a better idea of what he meant. Over the next three days we’ll look at three of them: his teaching on truthfulness (vv33-37), retaliation (vv38-42), and attitude toward enemies (vv43-47).

But for now, read through the other three sections (hatred, lust, and divorce) to see if you can spot the pattern. How is Jesus’ teaching “fulfilling” (or “perfecting” or “making complete”) the Old Testament laws he quotes?

5:21-26  “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. 23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. 25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
5:27-30 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
5:31-32 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

3 thoughts on “Be perfect? (Matt 5:17-48)

    • timmacbride says:

      If that’s how they interpret it (i.e. by ignoring the rest of the chapter in which Jesus illustrates what he means by it) then they’d have to also include the purity regulations and circumcision as being included in the least stroke of a pen (or flint knife). And I’m pretty sure Paul has something to say about that in a few places… (Note that I’m not arguing against the death penalty as a concept on this basis, but against the OT penalties still being in force.)

      • Stephen Tuck says:

        Thanks for the reply. The Bible critics will argue that Jesus here in Matthew 5:17-20 gives his full support to OT law including killing homosexuals and they (not me) argue that Jesus says it all still stands. They argue Paul was at odds with Jesus on their respective views of the Law. Your insights on this question would be appreciated.

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