The Standard of Perfection


Thankfully, we stand before Him on Jesus’ righteousness alone, but let us always aim to imitate our Lord.

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).  Matthew 5:43–48

Note the authority with which our Lord teaches in Matthew 5:21–48. When He says, “but I say to you” (vv. 22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44), He makes use of the personal Greek pronoun ego, which is used with verbs only for emphasis. In other words, we might better translate Jesus’ “I say to you” as “I myself say to you.” Christ is emphatically declaring Himself as the one doing the teaching, which is necessary only if He wants to exalt the worth and binding nature of His own words. After all, Jesus’ audience on the mountain does not need to be reminded that He is the one doing the teaching.

Our Lord’s authority does not lie in the newness of His instruction; what He says is not unknown in the Old Testament. Instead, His teaching is authoritative because He alone — not the scribes and Pharisees — determines the true meaning of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus’ authority reveals His deity; only the divine lawgiver Himself knows the full meaning of His own Law.

By this same authority, in this passage Jesus says our neighbor includes everyone on earth, even those who hate us (Matt. 5:43–47). Our Savior’s contemporaries have misconstrued the old covenant command to love our neighbors (Lev. 19:17–18) to mean that we must likewise hate our enemies, a notion found nowhere in the Old Testament. However, true children of the Father will imitate Him and love even their enemies. If God does good to those who hate Him, how much more should we who are His sons and daughters do the same (Matt. 5:44–45)? Believers, John Calvin comments, desire that “the wicked should return to a sound mind, that they may not perish; and thus they endeavor to promote their salvation.” The love Jesus commends is not primarily a feeling. It is an action wherein we do good for those who hate us, even to the point of sacrifice, though this command does not tell us to stand aside as others are harmed or to remain always in situations where we face grave danger. 

Christ’s exposition of the Law penetrates to the heart, demanding of us the impossible — God’s absolute perfection (v. 48). Thankfully, we stand before Him on Jesus’ righteousness alone, but let us always aim to imitate our Lord.  

Coram Deo

John Calvin also writes regarding this passage: “Christ assures us, that this will be a mark of our adoption, if we are kind to the unfaithful and evil.” Just as God’s love for His enemies does not mean He loves them the same way He loves us, so too will we love our enemies differently than we love our fellow Christians. Nevertheless, we are to do good to those who hate us in imitation of Jesus’ love. Do a good deed for an enemy today.

Passages for Further Study

  • 1 Samuel 24:1–7
  • Prov. 24:17; 25:21–22
  • Luke 6:27–36
  • 1 Peter 2:18–19
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