In Matthew 5.48, Jesus said, “You are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
Perfection. That’s a tall order. Thanks, Jesus, for setting the bar so impossibly high.
Typical responses to this command are either to:
1. re-explain what Jesus “really meant,” wherein we make Jesus say whatever we choose, instead of what he said.
2. come up with some crazy theology where “perfect” means another stage after salvation, some blessing we receive, wherein we no longer sin, and even the things we do that look like sin are not really.
3. strive really hard to actually be perfect. While 1 and 2 are only playing mental gymnastics, this approach requires real work. And perhaps a good dash of legalism and often a pinch (or more) of condescension. (Btw, people who go this route are 6 times more likely to perform a Jesus Juke on you.)
The first step in moving beyond these tired approaches is to realize the paradox contained in Jesus’ command. He really is calling for perfection, sinlessness, holiness, however you want to call it. Jesus was both smart enough and articulate enough to have said what he meant and meant what he said. At the same time, we cannot possibly keep this command. All our striving cannot attain perfection. This is not something Jesus was unaware of; being himself fully human (as well as fully God) he knew very well how imperfect we are.
And yet he issues this command. He orders us to do what he knows we cannot do. Is he just being mean or taunting us? Of course not. The call to perfection is a call to rely on the Spirit, the only One with the power to perfect us. Striving is a verb used in Scripture to describe fighting against the Spirit. What we need to do is submit, obey, and cooperate. What we need to do is hear that command for what it is – an impossible order – and trust that when he calls us to do the impossible, Jesus must be planning to provide the means. The good news is, he already has, ever since the Day of Pentecost.