Rethinking Perfection

Jesus keeps us off balance. We think we know that perfection is a fastball of justice, and he throws us the curveball of grace.

When I read Matthew 5:48 abstracted from it’s context, I’m thinking mainly in terms of justice.

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

“Perfect,” ah yes, surely that’s mainly about being just. But Jesus’ context gives this charge some wicked spin.

Despite what I would guess in extrapolating from verse 48, with my innate definition of perfection, Matthew 5:38-47 is all about moving beyond mere justice to God-like grace. “Perfection” in God is not merely “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (verse 38) but turning the other cheek, giving more than is asked, walking the extra mile (verses 39-42).

The just thing would be to love those who love you and hate those who hate you (verse 43), but Jesus disorients us with this strange conception of perfection: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (verse 44).

Who is this guy—and what kind of serious rethinking (call it “new birth”) do we need to get in line with his Father in heaven?

I would think that “perfection” means giving the unrighteous what they deserve: no sunshine, no rain. But Jesus says about his Father, “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (verse 45).

The kind of perfection that Jesus says comes from his Father—and the kind he calls his disciples to pursue—does not find its sense of completion in delivering retribution for wrongs done. Rather, it is the perfection of a heart that finds so much fulfillment and satisfaction in the God of grace that it is able to extend grace to those who don’t deserve it.

David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor at desiringGod.org and an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis. He has edited several books, including Thinking. Loving. Doing., Finish the Mission, and Acting the Miracle, and is co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.