“Even as I or Your Father Who Is in Heaven Is Perfect”

Brant Gardner

Two words in this verse are of extreme importance. The first is “therefore” and the second is “perfect.” The word “perfect” rightly has the greater focus, but it is the “therefore” that places this statement into the context of the entire sermon. This statement follows the section of the paired sets that have become known as the Antitheses. It serves as a conclusion to those, and the nature of that conclusion is found in the simple word, “therefore.” This word is a conjunction. It joins the meanings of the entire previous section, and gives what follows the force of summation to those earlier sections. This statement, then, is the culmination, the fulfillment, of the point of the Antitheses. Everything Jesus was teaching funnels into this conclusion, that “ye should be perfect.”

Before dealing with the question of perfection, it is important to understand how this concept should be the culmination of all of the examples of how the Law becomes the Gospel. Each of the examples require that a transformation occur in the heart of man. Not only should we not murder, we should not let anger chancre our souls. Not only should we not commit adultery, we should prevent those feelings from consuming us. We should not easily divorce, but should take marriage seriously and make an eternal commitment. We should not make contracts while thinking of ways to break them, but rather be honest in our dealings with our fellow man. We should not seek vengeance, but be peacemakers. We should not shun others because they are different, but should show charity to all. Each of these Law to Gospel requirements is an alteration in behavior, but more fundamentally of heart. We are to transform ourselves, not just our actions.

The culmination of that transformation is that we are to “become perfect.” How perfect? Even as our Father in Heaven is perfect. How perfect? Even as the risen Lord is perfect. The model is very clear, and the bar is set very high. We are to become as God is.

“Here, then, is eternal life - to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead, and are able to dwell in everlasting burnings, and to sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power.” (Joseph Smith. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, 1972, p. 347).

That ultimate goal is known, but it increases the impact of the word “perfect.” We assume that we are required to become without fault in this life, and we dismay of ever reaching such a goal. That is not the goal, however, and it is only the artifact of translation and ironic history. The word we have as “perfect” is translating the Greek work teleios. The ironic history comes from the alteration of our perceptions of perfection with the results of the machine age. In a day when all work was done by hand, concepts of human perfection might take into account slight variations when we attempted the same thing twice. A barrel maker could make the “perfect” barrel, but it would differ in some respect from the last “perfect” barrel. In the world of manufacturing and machine-precision replication, our concept of perfection as added the connotation of “without flaw.” Did Jesus ask us to be “without flaw?”

We do not know the word that Jesus used, but we do know the word as it appears in Matthew. In Greek, teleios means “having reached its end, finished, complete” (Liddell and Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon).  Note how a simple change to our “translation” can completely alter the connotation of the verse: “Be ye therefore completed, even as your Father which is in heaven is completed.” Rather than focus on the lack of perfection, we are not focused on a process. We do not become as God is overnight, or over many years of nights. We become as God is through the process of gradually transforming our souls into a more Christ-like person. As Joseph Smith noted above, we progress toward this goal by “by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation.” (Joseph Smith. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, 1972, p. 347).

It is in this context of the process that we should see another important phrase from Matthew:

Matthew 24:13

13 But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.

Two words in this verse should be highlighted. The first is “endure,” which has the unfortunate connotation of suffering in English. The Greek that this word translates is hypomeinas and that word has different connotations in Greek. It can mean to wait patiently. It can mean to persist in doing something. The emphasis is on the continuation of the action rather than any pain associated with the extended action. When we are told to “endure” to the end, we are told to “persist” to the end. In what are we to persist? Living the gospel, of course. Transforming our souls, of course. Forsaking the natural man by listening to the spirit, of course (Mosiah 3:19).

Until when should we persist? Now we have “the end.” The word that is translated as “end” is telos the root word for the very teleios that we saw above. Here Matthew is making a goal in two different places be the same thing, and we miss that connection because of translation. We are to become teleios even as our Father in Heaven is teleios by persisting until the telos. We are to become completed even as our Father in Heaven is completed by persisting until the completion. To what “end” to we persist or endure? Until the process is completed.

When Jesus was in the Old World, he significantly referenced only his Father as perfect. After his resurrection and Ascension, he appears to the saints in Bountiful, and he then includes himself as a model of perfection – or as one who has now completed the process. Certainly if Jesus did not claim perfection until after his resurrection, we should not expect that we can do any different. When this verse closes out the section showing the people how to transform the Law into the Gospel, it necessarily focuses on the nature of those changes. We become perfect, we become completed, when we persist in changing our souls so that they develop the attributes of God. We are to alter who we are until we become in our hearts and souls, like God.

Textual: The important alteration in this verse is the addition of Jesus as one who was perfect in addition to the Father. Since this was a post-Ascension visit to the New World (3 Nephi 10:18), Jesus could rightly accept the recognition of his perfected state. (Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the New Testament: the Four Gospels. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1978, p. 55).

There is no chapter break at this point in the 1830 edition. This chapter division, and the particular nature of the verses, was the result of making the connection between this version of the Sermon on the Mount and the Matthean Sermon more obvious and easy to follow.

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon