Matthew 5 is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. There is so much wisdom packed into this chapter that it is difficult to pick out pieces to include. So, I want to start at the end, in verse 48.
“Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
This is Jesus’s concluding statement to this part of his sermon. Reading this verse alone seems like Jesus is giving us an impossible task, and in this life, it really is. However, we should still strive for it. A lot of this chapter is telling us how to be perfect.
This is one of those times when Jesus is really flipping things upside down. The Jewish people were under the law, and some of them at least followed the letter of the law without regards to the purpose of the law. It was a specific set of rules, and consequences for not following them.
Starting in Matthew 5:21, Jesus takes some of these very specific laws, and really expands the meaning of them. The law in the Old Testament was “You shall not commit murder”. The consequence was that “whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.” Jesus continues in verse 22 with the spirit of the law instead of just the letter of the law by saying, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You fool’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” Calling someone a fool is much more difficult to guard against than killing someone. For those that were following the letter of the law and felt they were perfect in the law, this would have completely destroyed their view of themselves. How can we be perfect if something this easy to do makes us guilty before the court and makes us deserve the lake of fire?
Jesus then goes on to talk about adultery, and expounds on it by saying in verse 28, “but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This may be the most difficult sin for a male to conquer. I believe that every man has committed this sin. So, how can we be perfect?
Jesus does not stop there. He talks about vows and promises, about not holding grudges or repaying offences, and about loving your enemies. He takes a set of laws that were difficult to keep, and shows us the spirit of the law, and how our hearts and thoughts separate us from God just like the physical acts separate us from God. So, how is it possible for anyone to be perfect, or to ever be with God?
Was Jesus really changing the Old Testament laws with this? Verse 17 answers this by saying, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law of the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.” I think Jesus was telling them that this attitude and heart of the law was always there, but not understood by most. So, he wasn’t really expanding the law, but explaining how it should be understood. This still doesn’t make it any easier to be perfect. How do we even have a chance of being perfect?
Obviously, we have to have the sacrifice of Jesus’s death, and his resurrection, to be made perfect. We have to accept Jesus as our Savior and follow him throughout our lives. This is the only way we will ever be considered perfect, and able to be in God’s presence in the kingdom. However, that does not mean we should not strive to be more perfect each day, and with the help of God, and his Son Jesus, we can come closer to perfection each day (although never actually being perfect).
I think the beginning of Matthew 5 gives us a lot of traits to strive for, along with promises that go along with them. Jesus starts in verse 3 with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” He continues the list with those who mourn, the gentle, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peace makers, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. As we work to have the attributes described here, we draw closer to God. It isn’t about what we do, but where our heart is and why we do the things we do.