One of the men who followed Jesus, Matthew, wrote down a series of Jesus’ teachings in a passage we now know as the “sermon on the mount”. During this discourse, Jesus makes a curious statement that, without proper context, can leave a person feeling helpless:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. -Matthew 5:48
There are those who take this verse, and others like it, to mean that it is possible to actually be perfect. To never sin. To do everything you are supposed to do and abstain from everything you’re not supposed to do. Really, what they’re saying is to mature so much in your faith that you don’t need grace any longer. Those sorts of people live in guilt much of the time instead of freedom.
But if that’s now what this verse means, what is Jesus really saying here when he tells us to “be perfect”?
In the Greek language, some scholars say there are around 17 different words that translate as “perfect” in English. The one used most often in the New Testament, including here in our verse, is the word teleios.
Teleios means to be whole or complete, to be fulfilled or brought to an end. It’s what Paul uses when he writes, “For [now] we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.”
We see in teleios a Greek sense of restoration. Of making something complete or whole that currently is not. A parallel to the Hebrew idea of shalom.
We talk a lot at Emmaus about the Hebrew idea that in the original state of creation, there was this peace, rest, wholeness, balance, and harmony. Those qualities are all wrapped up in the complex word shalom. When the first humans broke faith with God and introduced sin into the world, shalom was shattered and ever since God has been working to restore pockets of it to His creation. Jesus’ life, suffering, death, and resurrection was the ultimate act of restoration and reconciliation toward that end.
So in this teaching from Jesus, we see an invitation not to follow rules or adhering to a strict moral code, but to allowing God to restore that shalom in us. To come to God and allow him to make us a new creation, with the qualities he intended from the foundation of the world. Just as God the Father is whole and complete and fulfilled, Jesus invites us to be remade, reborn into that.
Be whole, just as your Father in Heaven in whole.
Be who God intended you to be in his original creation before we humans ruined it all. Be a sneak preview for people of what life in the Kingdom is going to look like someday when the partial passes away and the perfect comes.