In His sermon on the mount, Jesus counseled His followers to "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matthew. 5:48).
One of the doctrines unique to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that it is possible for us to become like God, including becoming perfect as He is. However, most Christians feel it is blasphemous to think that anyone can become equal to God. Since they feel that God is the only perfect Being, therefore they feel that anyone who even thinks they can achieve such a level of righteousness must be either delusional or arrogantly prideful.
And yet, Jesus did command His followers to become just as perfect as our Father in heaven is. Then why do Christians teach that no one but God can be perfect? The answer most commonly given is that the Bible doesn't really mean what it says.
Here is how one minister explained these words of Jesus. He said, "Jesus did not speak of perfection here. What he said was: Be ye therefore teleios, even as your Father which is in heaven is teleios. The definition of telios in the Greek lexicon is 'complete.' You can do a word study through the New Testament to see how the word is used, and you will find that 'complete' works in every instance. Jesus said, 'be you therefore complete.' And there is a world of difference between complete and perfect. The word 'perfect' is defined as 'being entirely without fault or defect.' The word 'complete' is a different idea entirely.
"One of the biggest problems we face when tackling a subject like this is getting our semantics right. Perfection and excellence are two entirely different things. Excellent means 'eminently good, first-class.' It is possible to do a perfect, flawless performance, and yet have a performance that is mediocre and uninspired. What Jesus was saying in this verse is that He was calling on man to be complete, to strive for excellence."
Another preacher explained this verse thusly: "What, then, does 'teleios' mean? It has a variety of meanings, depending on how it is used. Here it means: 'full-grown, mature, complete, in good working order, sound, fully instructed, to reach your goal'. Notice the word 'therefore' which immediately precedes this command. Whenever you see the word therefore you have to look back to see what it is there for. What Jesus was talking about was love. Therefore, 5:48 is telling us that God loves with a perfect love. And … we are to love the same way He loves."
Yet another pastor explains, "The word perfect cannot be understood to indicate sinless perfection, or perfect likeness to God, because such a claim would be tantamount to blaspheme. The Greek word for perfect is - teleios - which means 'mature,' or 'complete.' It is the will of God that we grow to maturity, not physically, but spiritually. It is clear from these passages that God expects us to grow from a childlike state to a mature state spiritually. Jesus is not teaching that all of God's children must possess all of the qualities which make a person Christ-like to the degree of absolute perfection. This would be impossible for any human to obtain. He is saying that Christians should have these qualities in such a degree that his character will be well balanced."
Although all these people (and others that could be cited) agree that Jesus did not actually say that we should strive to become "perfect," in the sense of never committing any sin, yet they nonetheless disagree with each other on exactly what Jesus did mean by this statement. One said He meant that we should strive for spiritual excellence, another said He meant we should seek to have a perfect love for others, while another one said He meant we should strive to become spiritually mature, where our character is in balance.
The first thing that becomes apparent from these explanations is that there is no agreed upon answer among Christians of what Jesus really meant when He said we should be perfect. What makes this so significant is that traditional Christians also believe that the Bible is to be our only source of knowledge concerning what God wants us to know about salvation. But, if that is true, then the Bible would have to be sufficiently clear in its message so that anyone can easily understand it. However, if we have to depend on others to explain its proper meaning then it cannot be said that we need nothing more than the Bible to know what God expects of us. Yet these same people will criticize members of the LDS Church because we follow the teachings of living prophets rather than depending solely on what is written in the Bible.
But there is a second significant thing we learn from these various explanations which is that each of them are saying that the King James version of the Bible is not correctly translated. In other words, they are saying that the Greek word "teleios" in this verse should more accurately be translated as "complete" or "mature" rather than using the misleading word "perfect." Yet, while the LDS Church teaches that "we believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly" other Christian denominations denounce such a statement saying that it denies that the Bible is "inerrant," meaning, "without error." Yet, if the word "perfect" in this verse is not correct, then the translation is in error, in which case it cannot be said that the Bible is inerrant.
However, the real question is: What did Jesus really mean when He said we should be perfect? Did He mean that we should become sinless or did He mean something else?
Before we look at the answer to that question, it should be noted that nearly all direct translations of the Bible render the Greek word "teleios" as "perfect" and for good reason. If something is perfect then, by definition, it is not lacking in anything nor is there anything more that can be added to make it better. In others, something that is perfect is complete. For example, someone who gets a perfect score on a test has successfully completed each and every question. As such there is nothing more they need to do to achieve perfection on the test. In the same way, being sinless means that we never commit any sin, in which case, our righteousness is complete because nothing more is needed from us to become more righteous.
Also, the Greek word for "complete" is "pleroo" which means 'to make full or fill up; to fulfill" which has a different meaning than "perfect." The fact that the writer of the New Testament used the word "teleios" rather than "pleroo" indicates that they meant to convey the idea of completeness in the sense of being perfect rather than in the sense of just being fully matured.
The other thing that should be noted is that if the Greek word "teleios" doesn't mean "perfect" then there must be another Greek word which does. However, no other such word exists. That is to say, while the word "perfect" can mean "mature" or "complete" it also can mean "without fault or defect," such as being sinless. Therefore, when Jesus said, "Be ye therefore teleios even as your father which is in heaven is teleios" it could just as properly be translated, "Be ye therefore without sin even as your father which is in heaven is without sin."
Since the word perfect can have several different meanings, then it's important that we determine what Jesus meant by this saying. Was He counseling us to become sinless or did He mean that we should become more spiritually mature?
To aid us in finding our answer we can follow the advise of one minister who said, "Whenever you see the word 'therefore', you have to look back to see what it is there for." In other words, the statement that follows the word "therefore" refers to what has been said up to that point. If you will, it is a summary statement. It summarizes in one short phrase everything that was said before then.
The statement Jesus made that we should be perfect is part of a sermon He gave that begins on verse one of chapter five. In that sermon Jesus said that those who are poor in spirit, who are meek, hunger after righteousness, are merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers shall be blessed of God. He then went on to say that we should do good works to glorify our Father in heaven, that we should not break even the least commandment, that we should be righteous, not get angry with our brother, not commit adultery even in our heart, to watch what we say, love our enemies and do good to those who despitefully use us. And then, after telling us to do all of these things He summarizes His teachings by saying, in effect, "In other words, be perfect."
However, Jesus didn't end His sermon there. He went on to tell us not to give gifts just for the sake of being praised by others, that we should seek to store up our treasure in heaven, that we can't serve the world and God at the same time, that we should put our faith and trust in God, that we should seek after righteousness, not be judgmental of others, to ask God for what we want, to be wary of false prophets, and to do the will of God.
The idea Christ conveys in this sermon is that if we do all of the things He has just mentioned then He says our righteousness will be complete. However, the clear implication is that if we fail to do any of these things then our righteousness will be incomplete. To commit sin means to violate the commandments of God, therefore, if we completely do everything Jesus has just commanded us then, by definition, we will be sinless. To say that Jesus didn't mean we are to be sinless contradicts everything He has said in this sermon.
Furthermore, when Jesus says that we are to be perfect even as, or in the same way as, our Father in heaven is perfect, that tells us that God, our Father is perfect, complete, spiritually mature and therefore sinless. Therefore, when we do the things Jesus has just told us then He is also saying that we too will have become just like God - perfect, complete, mature, and sinless.
If Jesus counsels us to become perfect like our Father in heaven is then perhaps we can get a clearer idea of what He means by that statement if we look at what the scriptures tell us about God. The Bible says that the work of God is perfect (Deut. 32:4), that his ways are perfect (Samuel 22:31), that his law is perfect (Psalms 19:7) and his knowledge is perfect (Job 36:4). Therefore, if we were to walk completely in His ways and completely do the work that God commands us, being completely obedient to His perfect law, and completely following His perfect knowledge, then, by definition, we would not only be perfect but sinless as well.
The scriptures tell us that Jesus didn't become perfected until He rose from the grave on the third day (Luke 13:32). And once He became perfect then "He became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him" (Hebrews 5:9). And how did Jesus become perfect? By living a completely sinless life. To say that the word "teleios" doesn't mean being sinless but merely means that we are "complete" is to say that Jesus wasn't sinless but rather was just a complete and spiritually mature person. Of course, no Christian would agree with such an interpretation yet they nonetheless say that Jesus didn't mean we should be sinless when He said that we should be perfect.
The purpose of the Church is "for the perfecting of the saints" so that we can become a perfect man whereby we can measure up to the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-13). If Christ is sinless and we are not then we have not measured up to His full stature. Therefore, the purpose of the Church is to help us become sinless otherwise it is not helping us to become like Christ. To say that the Church is there only to help us become spiritually mature does nothing to help us reach the level of measuring up to Christ.
Shortly before His death, Jesus prayed for His disciples saying, "that they may be made perfect (teleioo) in one," (John 17:23) and the apostle Paul told the Corinthians that they should "be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Corinthians 1:10).
Jesus was sinless because He completely and fully did the will of His Father in heaven. And the reason why He was able to do that was because He completely and perfectly had the same mind and judgment as His Father. In that sense He was one with the Father in both thought and deed. When we become one with the Father in the same way Jesus was then we too will become sinlessly perfect, the same way Jesus was because we will then have no other thought or desire except that which God has.
The apostle Paul wrote that the way we become perfect is by completely doing the will of God (Colossian 4:12) and that the way a person is made perfect is when he is "thoroughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Timothy 3:17). As we have already seen, Jesus, the perfect man, became the author of salvation only to those who obey Him. Thus, it is through perfect obedience to the perfect law of God that we become perfect ourselves. To say that this merely means we have grown-up spiritually is to say that completely and fully keeping God's law doesn't make a person sinless. And if that's the case, then we could not say that Jesus was sinless either just because He perfectly obeyed every commandment.
Paul also said that "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). By clear inference that means at least part of God's glory comes from not sinning. That's why when we sin it causes us to fall short of the glory of a sinless God. Therefore, for us to measure up to the glory of God means we too must be sinless. Although many Christians say this is not possible for us to do, yet Paul taught that when Christ appears again "then shall we also appear with him in glory" (Colossians 3:4). The only way we can appear in glory with Christ is if we too are sinless as He is.
Some will say that we will become sinless, not because we have lived a sinless life but because God forgives us of any sin we may commit. If that was completely true then that would grant us the freedom to commit any sin we want. But Jesus taught, "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15). There would have been no reason for Him to have said that unless He felt it was something we could do.
The reason Christ died for us is not so we can keep on sinning but so we can be forgiven of the sins we've committed as we continually repent of them. However, our goal is not just to be forgiven of sin but to reach the point were we no longer have any more desire to sin. And the atonement of Christ makes that possible.
Most Christian faiths teach that God's goal is to conform us to the image of His Son. One minister explained what this means by saying "In order to become conformed to the image of Christ, we must of necessity be made partakers of the divine nature. And, where this is the case, that divine nature must necessarily manifest itself. Our tastes, our wishes, our purposes will become like Christ's tastes, and wishes, and purposes; we shall change eyes with Him, and see things as He sees them…. We must commit our whole lives to Him, our thoughts, our words, our daily walk."
Another pastor explained it this way: "Jesus said 'Herein, is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples,' John 15:8. It is in the bearing of that fruit that the Father is glorified. What is that fruit? The fruit is that of which we just spoke in John 14, the fruit of obedience. It is that fruit of walking according to the revealed will of God."
In commenting on 2 Corinthians 4 another preacher explained, "Notice the word 'knowledge' in verse 26 - 'light of the knowledge of the glory of God' - we need to know the way Christ acted, what he did, what he said, how he thought, how he spoke, how he suffered, and how all this was working out the plans of God. This is the way to… sanctification - your becoming like Jesus…. your holiness, your sanctification is the gradual process of our becoming holy which leads to eternal life…[In] 2 Corinthians 3:18. Paul describes here how we are changed into the likeness of Christ - that is how we are sanctified. He says, 'But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.' Now what is so relevant in this verse for us is the word 'glory.' Our gradual change into the image of Christ is, Paul says, a moving from glory to glory… We must have his character and we must be holy in order to be with him and enjoy him forever."
Yet another minister said, "The Bible tells us that no matter what difficulties or what circumstances we face, we are to bear Christ's likeness. We are to edify and encourage one another just as Jesus did, not tear each other down. God doesn't want us to just have a revelation of Christ, He wants us to be a reflection of Christ. Scripture tells us that we are to reflect Him in all circumstances, no matter what the difficulties are. Being conformed into Christ's image is the goal of the Christian life. In other words, simply being born in the spirit at our new birth is not enough. We need to learn how to walk in the Spirit, how to show forth His Love and how to live His Life. We need to put in our actions what we already possess in our heart."
The message that Christianity teaches about how we become conformed to the image of Christ is that we take upon ourselves God's divine nature wherein we come to think, say, and do the things that Christ would. It's having the same character and heart that Christ has. As we strive to live according to the revealed will of God the more we move from glory to glory, being transformed into an image that becomes a reflection of Christ. And it is through this process that we gradually become more sanctified and holy, thereby becoming more worthy to dwell in the presence of God.
When speaking about his own process of becoming perfect Paul wrote, "Not that I have already obtained [perfection] or have already been made perfect, but I seek after [it] that I may take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me" (Philippians 3:12, NIV).
Paul admits that he has not reached perfection yet but he nonetheless was still striving to attain that goal. Some things are easier for us to perfect in our lives than others. For some people it is fairly easy to perfectly keep the law of chastity wherein we do not commit adultery in either thought or deed. On the other hand, most people find it more difficult to perfectly love those who hate them. Yet, it is something that is doable, otherwise Jesus wouldn't have given us such a commandment. But if we say that perfection is something we could never achieve then there is no reason for us to even strive after it. But when we stop striving to become perfect then we also stop striving to become more like Christ.
To become Christ-like includes having the same desire Christ did to keep the commandments of God. And the more we continually and persistently strive to keep God's commandments the more we find ourselves gradually sinning less and less until we reach the point where we no longer have any more desire to sin. It is at that point when we become sinless as God our Father is because our heart, mind, thoughts and desires will have finally become completely and perfectly united in agreement with those of God.
Although our efforts may not result in us becoming fully perfected in this life, yet death is not the end of living. Even after we've laid our bodies in the grave our spirit can still continue to strive to achieve perfection, if that is our desire. And it is gained there the same way it is here - a little at a time through continual perseverance. Just as Paul said he was striving to seek after that which Christ died to give us, so we too must continuously endure to the end in our effort to measure up to the full stature of Christ. This is what Jesus meant when he said, "Be ye therefore perfect."
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