This morning I was reading Matthew 5, a passage with which I and I’m sure many other Christians are familiar. And reading it reminded me of something I had stumbled across in my thinking on another occasion when I had read this passage, which I thought it would be worth sharing.
If you have been in the church for any length of time, you may have heard preachers quote the last verse of the chapter, or writers indeed in their books, saying: “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” They would probably then go on to exhort the congregation to some kind of crazy perfection of life (now don’t get me wrong, we need to be holy), or perhaps use the verse to say actually, there’s no way we can do this because none of us are perfect (which equally doesn’t seem to fit the bill very well).
Essentially, this is where we can have a little problem if we’ve taken the verse out of context. Contextual reading of Scripture is a tough area because it can indeed be argued that even the New Testament writers in some cases took verses out of context and applied them to their own situations. But there is also merit to reading the context of verses, and I believe this is definitely a case for the latter.
You see, we could just read that verse and go, “oh my goodness, we have to be as perfect as God!” OR, we could read the whole passage:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love you neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
It has been wisely said, if you read a ‘therefore’ in Scripture, you ought to make sure you read what has come before it. So is the case with this verse.
You might also notice where the phrase ‘Father in heaven’ appears earlier in the passage. If we do all those things – in short, loving our enemies – we will show ourselves to be sons of our Father in heaven. You know the saying: like father, like son. Sons reflect their fathers’ attributes. Jesus then goes on to clarify that the Father Himself makes the sun shine on both evil people and good, and gives rain to the righteous and unrighteous people. He is good to all. So if we do the same, we will show the Father’s love to the world.
Essentially then, being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, is nothing to do with absolutely abiding by some law or other, being completely abstemious and so on. Being perfect in this context is actually about loving our enemies in exactly the same way as we love our friends. It’s good to see in this context that ‘perfect’ has to do with loving, not law-keeping. Because love is something which comes from the heart. Whereas with law, we very often try to govern it with our heads.
So if you want to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect, go and love people – love everyone, not just your friends. Love your enemies, even. And therefore “you shall be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”!