Vol. 9, No. 3
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The prince of scholarly commentators, J. W. McGarvey, says concerning Matthew 5:48, "It is, of course, impossible for man to attain to this perfection; yet anything short of it is short of what we ought to be." Although McGarvey may have forgotten more about the Bible than some of us will ever know, I am forced to take issue with him, and all others who have made similar comments about this passage. The implications of such a conclusion are wrong and dangerous for several reasons.
First, that conclusion disregards the basic meaning of the word "perfect" and the context in which it is commanded. Second, that conclusion teaches that although God commands something, we have the right to conclude that it is too hard, yea, impossible, for us to do and thus, not only have the right to break one of God's commandment, but must do so. This sort of conclusion is the soil from which cynicism, skepticism and frustration grows. If we have the right to say about God's commandments, "They are too hard," surely it takes no Solomon to see a variety of attitudes and responses that automatically follow. "God is unfair"--impugning the wisdom and righteousness of God. "I can determine which of God's commands I need to obey"--which makes a god of ourselves and is the basis of most modernistic and denominational foolishness.
Third, that conclusion teaches that although God has commanded us to do something we cannot do, we must forever feel inferior because we cannot do what we ought to do. It is one thing to feel guilty of a sin of which we can repent and quite another to have a guilt complex because of a supposed sin that results from a broken commandment that we cannot keep! An awareness of guilt, leading to repentance and a changed life is a part of God's plan and is proper and healthy. A guilt complex is improper, unhealthy and destructive. If you do not think so, try to repent of disobeying the command, "Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect!"
There are two or three things that need to be understood in dealing with this and other passages that speak of perfection. First, the word "perfect" does not mean that one cannot, has not or will not sin. The basic meaning of perfect--telios--is "full grown, mature, brought to its proper end."
Second, although grammatically speaking, there cannot be degrees of perfection, there are different measures of perfection (for want of a better term). This is what I mean: Suppose one has a circle with a radius of one inch. We do not need to say, "a perfect circle," for by definition every circle is perfect--a closed plain curve, every point of which is equidistant from a point in the center. A circle with a two-inch radius is not more perfect, but simply has a different measure. Being bigger does not make it more perfect.
When the Bible says, "Husbands love your wives even as Christ loved the church" (Ephesians 5:25), it does not mean, "Love them as much as Christ loved the church." That would be an impossible command to keep! But when a husband loves his wife as Christ loved the church, that is perfect obedience to the command. A circle with an infinite radius (whatever that is) is no more perfect than a circle with a one inch radius. And what we call the infinite love of God for our enemies is no more perfect than the kind of love we can have for our enemies--which is what God commands. He did not say, "Love your enemy as much as God loves you."
Third, it is possible, according to the Bible use of the term, to be "perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect." It is not possible to be as good as God is, or as loving as God is. But he did not command that. He did not say, "Be as perfect as God is," as if there were degrees of perfection. He said, "Be perfect." Noah was (Genesis 6:9). Some of the Corinthians were (1 Corinthians 2:6). Paul and some of the Philippians were (Philippians 3:15).
Now to the verses under consideration. When a man loves his enemies and does as God says do toward them (Matthew 5:44), he is perfect, as God is perfect. He does not love them as much as God loves them, nor is he required to. This love (agape) is not an emotional response, but is a choice of will. When one is willing to sacrifice what he is and has for the welfare and happiness of his enemies, and so demonstrates that love, he has done what God requires, and regardless of what McGarvey or anyone else says about it, does not need to go through life feeling inferior or guilty because he cannot do what God commanded him to do.
The "bottom line is: We can do what God tells us to do in every situation. We can, in this one, love our enemies as God does, and when we have done that, we have attained the perfection God requires of us in these verses.