by Richard Burkard

Many people turn to the Bible for encouragement and hope, during times of trouble and sorrow. That's a wonderful thing to do. But there are some Bible verses which I fear could leave believers depressed and sad, especially when they first encounter them.

During my early years in the Churches of God, one verse which did that for me was Matthew 5:48. The King James Version makes it sound like a direct command from Jesus: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect."

Did you know there's actually a "Perfect Church?" It has a building near downtown Atlanta, along with a regular Sunday radio broadcast. Its name is The Perfect Church -- but Church of God groups probably would dismiss it immediately, because it holds worship services on Sundays. Others would contend there's really no such thing as a "perfect church," because we're all imperfect sinners (Rom. 3:23). You'd ruin any perfection simply by walking in the door.

The Atlanta congregation's web site declares true Christians are perfect - now, not in the future. Is that a, well, perfect statement? What does it mean to be a perfect believer? Is it possible in this life - and if so, how? What I discovered on this subject was liberating for me, and I pray it will be for you as well.

Did He Mean That?

The statement of Christ in Matthew 5:48 admittedly sets an extremely high standard for a Christian. Church of God groups I've attended have tried to soften the meaning, by analyzing a couple of words in the verse:

1. They claim "be" really means "become." Trouble is, Strong's Exhaustive Concordance shows they're truly two different words in Greek - words which do not interchange anywhere in the New Testament. And our check of dozens of translations found none of them use "become" in this verse, only "be."

2. They change the meaning of "perfect" to "complete." Strong's shows the Greek word teleios indeed has that sense. Yet only the Weymouth New Testament from 1913 uses that word in this verse, among the translations we checked. Most of the others say "perfect."

Nice Try

As I prepared this article, I came across an opinion by a blogger who once attended a Church of God group. He wrote: "It just seems to me that Christians cannot be honest with one another, since there's so much pressure on them to be perfect." In reply, I said half-jokingly that I wanted to comment - but simply couldn't.

Plenty of ministers across Christianity have told stories about putting on a "church face" for a service. Some even say men should stop wearing suits to church, because that can be part of the facade. I don't know if I'd go that far -- but I agree with the thinking that many people try to set the best example they can at a worship service. Doing that isn't really wrong; in fact, it goes with the concept expressed in a hymn: "Give of Your Best to the Master." But fake perfection is still fakery. And whoever coined the phrase "nobody's perfect" told the truth -- with one notable exception.

This close look at perfection was sparked by a Worldwide Church of God spinoff group's Pentecost message. The minister said at one point: "God creates things correctly." Correctly, yes - but perfectly?

The common Church of God teaching is that man was made incomplete, lacking the Holy Spirit of God. So the physical structure may have been correct, but Adam and Eve were not perfect - because after all, they sinned (Rom. 5:19). We can also conclude God's angels were not perfect, because some of them sinned (II Pet. 2:4).

An Imperfect Lord?

So to accomplish Jesus's assignment of being perfect, we need help. Thankfully, God provided that - but consider how He did it. Think about the last part of Matthew 5:48: "....your Father which is in heaven is perfect."

Jesus declared God the Father perfect. But was Jesus perfect when He said that? Hang onto your table - because the New Testament indicates the answer is NO!

How can I say that? Because of several statements in the book of Hebrews. Jesus "learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him...." (Heb. 5:8-9, NIV unless noted) The writer says earlier: "In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God.... should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering." (Heb. 2:10)

Let's stop right here and ask some more questions, which Hebrews also can answer:

* Did a preacher of Jesus's day make Him perfect, such as John the Baptist? John would dismiss such an idea out of hand: "But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie." (Lk. 3:16) But Hebrews adds, "If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood... why was there still need for another priest to come...." (Heb. 7:11)

* Did law-keeping make Jesus perfect? NO, according to Hebrews 7:19: "....for the law made nothing perfect...." God's law may be perfect (Psm. 19:7) -- but that doesn't mean it's like the mythical King Midas, making other things that way.

* But what did the suffering faced by our Lord accomplish? Quite a lot - as "the Son.... has been made perfect forever." (7:28) And Jesus pointed out after His resurrection he had to suffer, to enter glory (Lk. 24:26).

How You Can Do It

Do you realize what all of this means? I may not be perfect in explaining it, but here's what I conclude:

1. The standard Jesus describes in Matthew 5:48 was something He still had to achieve as well. The Lord wasn't all the way to perfection yet -- nor are we now, contrary to what that church in Atlanta might claim.

2. A close connection with a minister cannot make you perfect. Friendly relations with a minister can be good and helpful - but if the minister points you toward himself instead of Jesus as the standard, be very careful.

3. Striving to obey God's law with all your might will not make you perfect -- even if your church pressures you constantly to do it. The law didn't make Jesus perfect, after all.

4. The only thing which makes you perfect is the sacrifice of Jesus, "because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy." (Heb. 10:14) A later verse declares Jesus is "the author and perfecter of our faith...." (12:2)


In this life, a psalmist wrote, "To all perfection I see a limit...." (Psm. 119:96) How many married couples, business partners and supermodel oglers need to memorize those words? The book of Ezekiel suggests Lucifer was "perfect in beauty" - yet was found lacking in his actions, and sinned (Ezek. 28:12, 16).

Yet Paul advised a church at the end of II Corinthians, "Our prayer is for your perfection.... Aim for perfection...." (II Cor. 13:9, 11). We've seen it's a perfection humans cannot achieve in this life. But it's a promise we can claim now.

Don't be fooled into thinking that perfection is based on the laws you keep or the human preachers you hear. It comes through the death of Jesus Christ -- and we look forward to it happening in a new and perfect spiritual body.

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© 2008 Richard Burkard, All Rights Reserved.