Mariner's Lighthouse

Becoming Perfect

Mariner Folk
An exposition on Matthew 5:48
This material was presented as a priesthood lesson on 17 Jan 2010.
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The promise of perfection
Chapter 2 of the Gospel Principles manual used for priesthood classes in 2010 speaks of the plan of our Heavenly Father for us to become like Him. The text describes how we would come to earth to be tested and to develop godlike qualities, such as faith and charity. The purpose of our progression is to have a fulness of joy. The plan provides a Savior for us so that we can overcome sin and death, but in life we would be weak. We would not remember our heavenly home. We would be subject to sin, illness, pain, and death. It is the choices we make in our weakness that prove us. These trials can purify us and lead to a fulness of joy (see pages 10-11).

Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat the fruit of a certain tree. It was not the tree of evil. It was the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The weakness of man which brings so much sin and pain into the world is not evil. It is part of the “opposition in all things” according to “the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes” (2 Nephi 2:11-12). When the final Book of Mormon prophet Moroni expressed concern to the Lord about his weakness in writing, God told him that he gives men weakness so that they may be humble and have faith in him. Then he will make them strong by his grace. Moroni was comforted by these words, and remembered the miracles wrought by weak men who had great faith, and the great love that God has for his children (see Ether 12:23-34). Moroni’s message parallels that of King Benjamin, who said that if we would remember our “nothingness” before God and humble ourselves in prayer and faith, we would “always rejoice and be filled with the love of God” and grow in our knowledge of him (Mosiah 4:11-12).

Jesus, during his ministry, taught his disciples how to become like God the Father and have great joy. Some of this is recorded as the Sermon on the Mount, which in Matthew begins in chapter 5. In the King James Version of the Bible, this chapter ends with Jesus saying, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). This powerful and vital message is, however, often misunderstood because of translation issues. I will offer my interpretation of the text by referring to the original languages of the Bible and the teachings of the LDS scriptures. Notes on foreign words will occur in {braces}.

The Lord, through Moses, said to the children of Israel, “Ye shall be holy {kadoshim; Hebrew for “holy ones” or “saints”}, for I the Lord your God am holy {kadosh}” (Lev. 19:2). Peter quoted this to the saints of his day, rendered as, “… it is written, Be ye holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). The King James translators did not preserve the reading of “ye shall be” in this verse. The Greek verb here is esesthe {pronounced es-es-thay; Strong’s concordance number 2071}. It is future indicative, describing what “should be” or what “shall come to pass.” It occurs in the New Testament in this particular verb form a dozen times, and is usually translated correctly as “shall be,” as in these examples:
  Matt. 24:9 “ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake”;
  John 8:36 “if the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed”;
  Acts 1:8 “ye shall be witnesses of me in Jerusalem”;
  and 2 Cor. 6:18 “ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.”

Matthew records Jesus using the same verb. “Be ye therefore perfect” sounds like a command (as it is in the JST), but it should read from the Greek as a description: “Ye shall be {esesthe} therefore perfect.” This flows directly from a few verses earlier, where Jesus says, “love your enemies … that ye may be {genesthe; gen-es-thay, “you may become”; 1096} the children of your Father in Heaven” (Matt. 5:43, 45). This shows us the principle by which we shall be perfect. When Jesus says “therefore,” he directs our attention to the words he has just delivered. He has just told us that we are blessed {makarios; “blessed, happy, fortunate”; 3107} if we are humble, meek, and hungering after righteousness. He promises the pure in heart that “they shall see God”, and the peacemakers that “they shall be called the children of God” (Matt. 5:8, 9). If we will serve the world as savory salt and shining light, and live to a higher standard than the law of Moses, even to loving our enemies, following the example of our Father in heaven who sends his rain “on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 4:45), then we shall indeed become like our Father.

And what does it mean to be perfect? This adjective in Greek is teleios {tel-ee-os; 5046}. It means reaching an end {telos}, thus to be complete or mature, and by extension to be perfect. In the parable of the sower, the seeds that fall among thorns “bring no fruit to perfection” (Luke 8:14), to ripeness or maturity. Using similar language, Joseph Smith prayed to the Father that the Saints “may grow up in thee, and receive a fulness of the Holy Ghost … and be prepared to obtain every needful thing” (D&C 109:15). James expressed this process well when he described the trying of our faith: “But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing” (James 1:4). To the young rich man, Jesus said, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast … and come and follow me” (Matt. 19:21). Forsaking his wealth for the sake of Christ was the “good thing” that he should do to have eternal life (Matt. 19:16), the very thing that would complete his spiritual journey. A Hebrew translation of Matthew 5:48 (consistent with the Aramaic manuscripts) translates “perfect” using the word shalom, which means peace, wholeness, and wellness, from the verb shalam {7999}, meaning to complete or to make safe. Jesus promises his disciples that they shall be shalom, even as their Father in heaven is shalom.

Perfection, defined as flawlessness, is not a moral quality. A shiny diamond is not more virtuous than a dull diamond. A flawed gemstone may have less visual appeal, but that does not make it evil. Sin makes a thing evil. Righteousness is a moral quality. The scriptures do not relate flawlessness with individual righteousness. Jesus invited people to forsake their sins and follow him, but he did not ask his disciples to be sinless like himself, nor flawless in every regard. Is that what you ask of yourself? Is that what you ask of others? Moses recorded that “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord; for Noah was a just man, and perfect in his generation; and he walked with God, as did also his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth” (Moses 8:27). Noah and his sons were certainly not flawless or sinless, yet they were perfect {Hebrew: tamim; tam-eem; meaning complete, blameless, without blemish; from the verb tamam, meaning to complete or to accomplish; 8549}. You can also become perfect before God without first being flawless or sinless. Moroni, with his final testimony, invited all to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him,” because the grace of Christ through the covenant is sufficient to make you perfect in Christ, when you deny yourself of all ungodliness, and love God with your whole soul (Moroni 10:32). Then you are sanctified by the blood of Christ “unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot” (Moroni 10:33). Perfection is a process that culminates in sanctification. Jesus is the potter at the wheel, and we are clay in his hands (see Isaiah 29:16). He is the “author and finisher,” or in Greek, the founder {archegon; ar-kay-gon} and perfecter {teleioten; tel-ee-o-ten} of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), upon whose merits alone we are to rely (see Moroni 6:4).

The purpose of the covenant
Genesis 17:1-3
And when Abram was ninety years old and nine,
  the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him,
  I am the Almighty God {el shaddai};
  walk before me, and be thou perfect {tamim}.

And I will make my covenant between me and thee,
  and will multiply thee exceedingly.

And Abram fell on his face… ~

When God makes his covenant with us, he requires that we be obedient to him. He invites us to walk with him, as he did with Enoch (Gen. 5:24), and to enter into his presence, as he did with Moses (Ex. 19:20). For this purpose God has given his people the keys of the higher priesthood, to prepare them to behold even the face of the Father (D&C 84:19-22). They who are faithful in the priesthood “become the sons of Moses and of Aaron, and the seed of Abraham” (D&C 84:34), and are thereby lawful heirs of the covenant. The prophet Amulek taught how the covenant is fulfilled for us, after a manner greater than the law of Moses: “Behold, I say unto you, that I do know that Christ shall come among the children of men, to take upon him the transgressions of his people, and that he shall atone for the sins of the world,” by offering himself as “a great and last sacrifice,” and “an infinite and eternal sacrifice” (Alma 34:8, 10).

Alma 34:14-15
And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law,
  every whit pointing to that great and eternal and last sacrifice;
  and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God,
  yea, infinite and eternal.

And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name;
  this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy,
  which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men
  that they may have faith unto repentance. ~

We can believe in Christ and believe that his grace is enough to cover our sin. We can repent and enjoy the fulness of the Gospel of Christ. We can receive Christ and become his sons and daughters (Mosiah 5:7). We can be born of God and abide with the Father and the Son forever.

John 1:10-13
He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God,
  even to them that believe on his name:

Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man,
  but of God. ~

The “power to become” is a great gift. “Ye shall be perfect/teleios/shalom” is a great promise. Paul says that the gift of the Holy Ghost is a token or down payment on this promise, saying, “ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession” (Ephesians 1:13-14). Jesus bought us with a price, and those who keep his commandments will be “washed and cleansed from all their sins” (D&C 76:52) and “made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood” (D&C 76:69).

John 6:35, 37
And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life:
  he that cometh to me shall never hunger;
  and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.

All that the Father giveth me shall come to me;
  and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.

John 14:15-16, 18
If ye love me,
  keep my commandments.

And I will pray the Father,
  and he shall send you another Comforter,
  that he may abide with you for ever.

I will not leave you comfortless:
  I will come to you.

3 Nephi 12:47-48
Old things are done away,
  and all things have become new.

Therefore I would that ye should become perfect,
  even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect.

3 Nephi 28:10
And … ye shall have fulness of joy;
  and ye shall sit down in the kingdom of my Father;
  yea, your joy shall be full, even as the Father hath given me fulness of joy;
  and ye shall be even as I am, and I am even as the Father;
  and the Father and I are one ~

One Response

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  1. Mariner Folk said, on February 11, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    I was reading a FARMS article by Michael G. Reed (FARMS Review: Volume – 16, Issue – 1, Pages: 99-110; and noticed a fine selection of quotes from the Prophet Joseph Smith on the topic of his own imperfections:

    1. I never told you I was perfect.

    2. I told them I was but a man, and they must not expect me to be perfect; if they expected perfection from me, I should expect it from them; but if they would bear with my infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, I would likewise bear with their infirmities.

    3. None ever were perfect but Jesus; and why was He perfect? Because He was the Son of God, and had the fullness of the Spirit, and greater power than any man.

    4. Who, among all the Saints in these last days, can consider himself as good as our Lord? Who is as perfect? Who is as pure? Who is as holy as He was? Are they to be found? He never transgressed or broke a commandment or law of heaven—no deceit was in His mouth, neither was guile found in His heart. . . . Where is one like Christ? He cannot be found on earth.

    5. I do not, nor never have, pretended to be any other than a man “subject to passion,” and liable, without the assisting grace of the Savior, to deviate from that perfect path in which all men are commanded to walk!

    6. Although I was called of my Heavenly Father to lay the foundation of this great work and kingdom in this dispensation, and testify of His revealed will to scattered Israel, I am subject to like passions as other men, like the prophets of olden times.

    1 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 368.
    2 History of the Church, 5:181.
    3 History of the Church, 4:358.
    4 History of the Church, 2:23.
    5 Messenger and Advocate 1 (December 1834): 40.
    6 History of the Church, 5:516.

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