Unfortunately, yes! In fact, the command is more daunting than that. In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he concludes the first third of it (verse 48), by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Of course, much of this paradigm-shifting sermon is built upon the idea that the principles of heaven are so much higher than we can imagine. The people of Israel thought that murder meant just killing someone; adultery was narrowly defined to be a certain physical act. It was acceptable, they felt, to live by the rigid and selfish boundaries of “an eye for an eye.” So here Jesus says that not only should we strive for perfection, but for a new, lofty perfection as it would be practiced in heaven.
We should rejoice in several wonderful truths. First, our salvation is not based on any perfection we produce! We are saved because of Christian grace as a free gift from God, not because of any level of goodness we can attain. Ephesians 2:8, 9 is clear that any good works we do – and we are created to do good works (v. 10) – are never the reason why we receive eternal life in heaven.
Second, we need to realize that perfection is an ideal we can never fully comprehend, let alone achieve in our own power. To not only live in perfect accordance to God’s law, but to do each day every possible good deed, to make every possible sacrifice of self, to perfectly calibrate each thought in our minds with the holy will of God . . . is like trying to explain “infinity” to a kindergarten student.
Having said that, we soberly acknowledge that God continually invites us to seek perfection. A piano student tries to hit all the right notes, not wrong ones! A good golfer aims for the pin, not the water hazard to the right or the sand trap to the left. A successful bowler who wants to honor God by his athleticism will aim the ball for that sweet one-three pocket and hope to get twelve strikes in a row. We should wake up each morning and pray: “Lord, please help me to fully obey you today.” What else would we pray?
Likewise, all of us who carry the name of Christian will seek perfection because our wonderful Lord invites us to do so. We try to obey because it honors his kingdom. In a spirit of contented dedication, we try to be like Jesus in every way because we are grateful for Calvary, and because our watching neighbors will be drawn to that kind of attractive and vibrant faith. But because our salvation is based on the blood of Christ, we can now obey without stress or fear. As C. S. Lewis once put it, “Obeying in a new way, a less worried way.”
Here’s a bit more. The Greek word for “perfect” is teleioi or teleios, which conveys Jesus’ meaning of a wider and more heart-centered obedience. It’s a word that also indicates completeness or wholeness. Paul uses this word in I Cor. 2:6 and 14:20 to encourage Christian members toward maturity. One very loose paraphrase of Matt. 5:48 says this: You need to be like your heavenly Father who is selfless and kind to everyone, even those who don’t deserve it.
Especially in these closing days of our world’s fractured history, God calls His children to “be perfect,” to grow up into an unshakable loyalty to his kingdom. Revelation 14:4 describes the saints at the end of time with these very “perfect” words: They follow the Lamb wherever he goes.