In Matthew 5:48, Jesus told people, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Simple enough. If Jesus said it, it must be something we’re supposed to do. Perfect. It sounded so…born-again. Such an apt summary of everything else I was trying to be. If I could just be “perfect,” that would take care of everything – and my preacher had told me I could do it. But I needed some time to work on it, so I figured summer vacation would be the best time to do this. Much better than the school year with all of its distractions.
I got a big new study Bible to read, a book called something like The Ultimate Perfect Pursuit of Godly Righteous Holiness, and set off on my summer adventure to become perfect. I think I made it through the first week without sinning (at least nothing anyone would notice) and felt pretty good about myself. But somewhere in the second or third week, things got all screwed up. Summer ended up being full of far more temptations than the school year. Having more free time was tougher on my pursuit of holiness than being busy. I arrived at the end of summer feeling defeated and more frustrated about my imperfection than I was at the beginning.
That’s the problem with striving for perfection – one has to be perfect to achieve it. So what on earth did Jesus mean when he told his followers to be perfect? From what I can see by reading my Bible, Jesus doesn’t like to set people up for failure. He does tell some stories that are hard to figure out, but I think he really wants people to know how to live in this thing he called “the kingdom of the heavens.” And by the type of people Jesus hung out with, I don’t think he expected them to be perfect in order to “join the club.”
It took me some time to realize that something had been lost in translation here. The primary definition in the English dictionary for perfect is “expert, proficient, being entirely without fault or defect, flawless, satisfying all requirements.” Sounds pretty good, right? This is usually how we think about the concept of perfection. The biblical meaning of “perfect,” however, is somewhat different. The word used by Jesus can be translated into the Greek word telios, which signifies an undivided wholeness of people in their behavior. This is a very different concept than what we often believe we need to strive for in order to please God or achieve what He expects of us.
The “perfection” that Jesus taught is a maturity, a completeness, or a wholeness that indicates that a person is integrated in all of his or her parts. There are no parts of oneself that are split off, in denial, under judgment, or unacceptable. Doesn’t that sound even better? Wuest’s translation renders Matthew 5:48: “Therefore, as for you, you shall be those who are complete in your character, even as your Father in heaven is complete in His being.”
So for our purposes, rather than talking about perfection, it makes much more sense to talk about becoming whole or complete. This is what I mean when I talk about holistic formation. It is moving from that place where my life is fragmented and dis-integrated to a place where all the parts of my life connect in a way that displays God’s beauty of creation in the soul of my being. And in case you haven’t noticed, God is a great Artist.
What have your thoughts historically been about Matthew 5:48? Have you ever tried (consciously or subconsciously) to “be perfect”? How did that work out for you? Next time we’ll talk about how we can begin to view our formation radically and differently.
This entry is the third part of a four-part series by guest blogger Michael G. Bischof of SOULeader Resources.
© 2015 Michael G. Bischof, SOULeader Resources. Used by permission. Dr. Michael G. Bischof (M.Div., D.Min.) is Founder and President of SOULeader Resources, an inter-denominational ministry established in 2000 to empower transformational wholeness in leaders, churches, denominations, and organizations. He is also Adjunct Assistant Professor of Spirituality at Fuller Theological Seminary and Azusa Pacific Seminary.
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