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,” where we make Jesus say whatever we choose, instead of what he said. (This may involve elaborate use of Greek.)
2. come up with some crazy theology where “perfect” means another stage after salvation, some blessing we receive, where 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.
The first step in moving beyond these tired approaches is to realize the paradox contained in Jesus’ command. He really is demanding 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?
I don’t think so. I think Jesus is emphasizing that we must rely on the Spirit, the only One with the power to perfect us.
All of our personal striving for perfection (and the mental games we play) are us fighting against the Spirit. Instead, we can submit, obey, and cooperate. If we can 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.
Holiness is both impossible and required and those together are a large part of the point.