Much has been said and written about Christ’s call to “be ye therefore perfect.” Scholars have analyzed the original languages and contexts of the words, and scriptures have been cross-referenced to build narratives. The most prevailing one I’ve heard is that perfection means to be complete, and that even Christ didn’t have this type of completion until after he ascended to heaven. This is based primarily on a combination of the use of the original Greek word teleios, and the fact that the Matthew 5:48 version of “be ye therefore perfect” and the 3 Nephi 12:48 version are slightly different.
Teleios. The definition is typically given as complete in all its parts, full age, full grown, or finished. But words have definitions and connotations. They have what they are defined as meaning and what they mean in traditional use. If you go a little further than teleios’ definition you’ll find that many Greek philosophers used the word teleios to describe something which is being in its intended function. Complete in the sense that it is as it was intended to be, a manifestation of exactly what it is when it is pure. Not “doing” perfectly, but “being” perfect.
In context of Matthew 5, this perfection is a manifestation of what happens when we live the perfect law of love as described by Jesus in the prior 47 verses. He describes in beautiful detail what it looks like to really love, and ends by saying, “Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” There are two ways to read this verse. The first is the way Joseph Smith read it when he translated it to mean, “Ye are therefore commanded to be perfect…” (JST 5:50). I think this translation jives just fine, but I recently ran into another translation that was worth pondering on.
Read Christ’s sermon on love with this capstone instead, “If you live by this love you will therefore be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Not only does this taste a little better, but if you look immediately preceding this verse we get a little more context that lends itself to this translation as well.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
“But if you live by my love you will therefore be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” He tells his disciples that if they learn to live by the perfect law of love they will truly be their Father’s children. He then asks, “If you don’t live this way, is there any reward?” There is not, that would be too easy. But if you do live it, you will be perfect.
I know I’m taking some license here, but I don’t think I’m reaching too far out. In fact, I think its much less of a reach than saying that just because Christ mentioned himself in 3 Nephi and not in Matthew that we are safe to assume that Christ wasn’t perfected until after he ascended to Father. I’ve even heard some say that he was the only sinless man even though he wasn’t perfect in this life. This does wonders to immediately assuage our feelings of inadequacy, but is it true? It just doesn’t feel right to me.
Christ was perfect. He and the Father were one in all things. Before he was born, during his life, and after he ascended to Father. He had a message of hope for all of those who would believe him and experiment upon his words. “Be ye therefore” could be taken as both a command, as it has traditionally been taken, or as a blessing. Given the way Christ started the sermon (“blessed are the…”) and the immediate context of verse 48, I believe reading it as a blessing is appropriate. If it is a command, surely it is also a promise. You will be perfect, complete, and exactly as you are intended to be as a child of God, for that is who you truly are, when you live with love. You may not always “do” perfectly, but you can “be” perfect. Whole. Complete. Like Father.
Christ’s invitation to follow him is for us. He wants to bless us with an understanding of who we really are. This world wants to teach us many things about ourselves, even using vain words to flatter us into a carnal sense of security. But Christ knows we are capable of much more than that. He wants us to leave behind what we think we know and see all that God has for us.
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. (1 Corinthians 13:8–13)
Everything we think we know will eventually fail us because there is just so much to learn. We can’t see the end from where we stand. But that which can be perfected, our love, will transcend it all and make us complete, just as intended. We hustle and we scramble to gather as much knowledge as we can, but we will never know as much as when we abide faith, hope, and charity. Accept and live in accordance with these three great truths. Then, we will know ourselves the way God knows us. And we can do it now. “Now abide faith, hope, and charity.” And the greatest of these is charity. The greatest is love. Love never fails.