ESV - 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
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This is a great example of the great DANGER of taking individual verses, out of context, and building a theology around them. Christian theology has been built from the total Revelation of God contained in the bible. The interpretation of any verse is tested by comparing it to other verses that speak about the same topic. Our interpretation is refuted or confirmed by other scripture references, especially other verses that surround the topic being narrated. The quoted verse is part of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, a broad teaching about the Kingdom of God. Jesus uses many examples to contrast life in our sinful world with a radical new life that he brings in the kingdom of God. Jesus uses these many examples to help us understand "spiritual truth" about the kingdom of God. This particular section of Jesus's sermon is focused on "Love for Enemies" (Matthew 5:43-48). Jesus is contrasting life in our world where people love their friends and hate their enemies; with life in the kingdom of God which is radically different. Where the people of God love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. Jesus challenges us to Love All Other People with all our Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength, no matter how they respond to our love [unconditionally]. Why, because this is the way God loves us. Jesus is saying "strive to be perfect in your love for other people, just like God is perfect in his love for all people, including us. This verse has nothing at all do to with our SALVATION. Jesus is talking about life inside the kingdom of God; he is talking to believers who have already been saved. Satan uses verses like these to trick and trap us into believing his lies and deceptions. He tries to convince new believers and others who are seeking the faith that God expects us to be perfect or he won't save us. Satan does this to condemn us - stop someone from becoming a Christian, and stop a new believer from growing up in their faith. When we feel condemned, we run away and hide from God, like Adam and Eve did. But we need to follow Jesus example when he dealt with the attacks of Satan during his 40 day trial in the wilderness. Satan tried to trick and trap Jesus, and even twisted the true meaning of scripture passages, but Jesus always refuted and rebuked Satan with the truth of the bible. There is no substitute for every Christian having a thorough knowledge of the bible so their Christian theology is built on a solid foundation. The apostle Paul called this wearing the "Armor of God" to defend us against all the flaming arrows of the evil one. People who come to faith in Jesus but never make studying the bible a top priority, will always be tricked and trapped by the evil spiritual forces around us, into believing their lies and deceptions; so our faith becomes of no use to God. Our salvation is secure, but we lose the eternal rewards that should be ours, when we faithfully fulfil God's plan and purpose for our lives.
As I understand the cited passage, Jesus is saying that Christians should always strive for perfection -- the same perfection that God possesses -- even if they fall short of obtaining it. No human has been capable of achieving the degree of perfection that God possesses ever since the fall of humanity into sin. That was why it was necessary for Jesus to be incarnated, live without sin, die an atoning death on behalf of all humanity, and then rise again. His perfect righteousness can then be imputed by God to Christians through their faith in Christ. However, the fact that our salvation is by faith does not provide an excuse for Christians to give less than their best effort in emulating Christ's perfect life, which serves as their model to follow -- not in order to be saved, but in gratitude to God for the salvation that He has already granted them -- and seeking God's forgiveness for Christ's sake for those occasions when they fall short.
We do have to be perfect. Jesus said, unless our righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, we can not enter the kingdom of heaven. Romans 4:5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him who jsutifieth the ungodly, his FAITH is counted for righteousness. Romans 4:6. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputeth righteousness apart from works. When we trust Jesus alone apart from works for the free gift of eternal life. He imputes His perfect righteousness to us, and will no longer impute sin to our account. He paid our sin debt in full, past, present, and future sins we have not even thought of yet. It is the only way we could be saved. He paid our sin debt in full so we can never be condemned again. John 3:18. The Second we believe on Him alone apart from any works, He gives us eternal life as a free gift. Romans 6:23. First John 5:13
To be short: Sin is so repugnant to God that the only way we can stand before Him is to be perfect. Seems like an impossible task! So how to resolve the issue that Jesus put forth? In Romans 7:21-25 the answer can be found. Even as Christians we have a continual struggle which nonbelievers do not have. It's a struggle with the mind and spirit. Verse 23 says: "but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me." So the TOTAL answer can be found in verse 25: "Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Jesus met the need for believers to be perfect! Jesus paid it ALL! The only way for us to be "be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" is through the imputed perfection of Jesus. Nonbelievers or even believers, for that matter, will never reach perfection by the "works" of the law. Nonbelievers don't care about the doing good works for their works are always evil! But the sanctifying Grace of God is working in believers to conform us to the image of His Son (Romans 8:28-29). We (believers) are "predestined" to that conforming act of God and God makes sure that believers make it all the way to glorification! So as a believer stop struggling and start trusting the Holy Spirit to conform you to the IMAGE. Martin Luther once said: "Sin boldly". That doesn't mean you are free to live a live of evil, but when you do sin, confess and trust the forgiveness of the Father. BE PERFECT AS THE FATHER IS PERFECT and one day in heaven you will stand before the Father in the perfect image of Jesus.
The whole context of Matthew 5:48 is love, loving our enemies (Mt 5:43-48)--In regard to love (Mt 5:43-48) 1. The basic concept (Mt 5:43): The law says, "'Love your neighbor' and hate your enemy." I.e.love those who are near and dear to us (Leviticus 19:18) but hate our enemies. Jesus refutes this idea: love your enemies, too, He said. God's love extends to all people (Matthew 5:45 where He said, "That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.") RR 2. The broadened concept (Mt 5:44-48): Jesus says, "Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!" HW We can seek to love others as completely as God loves us. Our tendency to sin must never deter us from striving to be more like Christ. LASB
The Jews were given the law to reveal what sin is and show them that they could never, because of being dead in Adam (sin/trespasses), in their own strength and wisdom be reconciled to an Infinite, Holy and righteous Creator. So God put on skin and jumped inside the box (time) and He, God the Son (Jesus), took on the form of a man and became sin and suffered the righteous wrath of the Father on our behalf, and imputed/credited His righteousness to those of us that believe, so that we would become the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus (2 Cor 5:21). Stands to reason, we as the one betrothed or future bride of Christ would be as righteous as He is before He brings us home to actually meet His Father. This is completed at the cross when we are saved. Yes, we are righteous the instant we are saved. We receive a new heart of righteousness and the mind of Christ. It requires being born again in order to worship the invisible God, and because He is Spirit, He must be worshipped in Spirit. This is why Nicodemus said that we must be born again. This of course is achieved through regeneration by the Holy Spirit (kinda like a dead car battery being jumpstarted by a live one), Who comes and lives in the believer as the Paraclete that accompanies us onto glory. As He finishes off our prayers to the Father, the Son intercedes on our behalf. All of this was accomplished by the finished work of Christ Jesus on the cross at Calvary. We are continually being made into the image/likeness of Christ Jesus by the renewing of our minds. This is really condensed because it should be explained in depth, as each member of the Trinity deserve chapters in explanation of their contribution in the incredible account of God's creation and how it is reconciled with the Kingdom of Heaven. I came back to edit this because of the question being asked. I would like to make it clear and even stress, that Jesus came to save sinners and not the righteous. It is by grace alone, through faith and that is not of ourselves, lest any should boast or brag about it. This can not be achieved by works of any kind, as it is the free gift of God's immeasurable grace, and it is only found in Christ Jesus. Jesus said that nobody can come to the Father except through Him, and nobody can come to Him unless they are led by the Father.
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