“Ye Should Be Perfect”

Brant Gardner

“Therefore” places this statement in the context of the entire sermon, following the section of paired sets that have become known as the Antitheses. (See commentary accompanying 3 Nephi 12:21–22.) “Therefore,” an adverb meaning “consequently” wraps up the entire previous section and presents what follows as their summation. This statement, then, is the culmination or fulfillment of the Antitheses. Everything Jesus was teaching funnels into this conclusion, that “ye should be perfect.”

Before dealing with this term, it is important to understand how the concept of perfection culminates all of the examples of how the law becomes the gospel. Most of them require a transformation in the heart. Not only should we not murder, but we should not let anger gnaw our souls. Not only should we avoid adultery, but we should not foster lust. We should not easily divorce but take marriage seriously and make a permanent commitment. We should not make contracts, secretly planning to break them, but we should be honest. 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 alters not only behavior but feelings and motivations. We are to transform our hearts, 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. Joseph Smith taught:

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.

That ultimate goal, godhood, increases the impact of “perfect.” It would not be possible to achieve that goal if we interpret “perfect” to mean that we must become without fault in this life. That shade of meaning, however, results from translation. The KJV translators rendered as “perfect” the Greek teleios, an adjective meaning “having reached its end, finished, complete.” (See commentary accompanying 2 Nephi 31:15.) Replacing “perfect” with a different coloration of its meaning would yield the following reading: “Be ye therefore completed, even as your Father which is in heaven is completed.” This reading implies a process, rather than an event. We do not become “completed” in the fulness that God represents overnight—or over many years of nights. We become as God is through the process of gradually transforming our souls. As Joseph Smith commented, we progress toward this goal “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.”

This context of a process also illuminates Matthew 24:13: “But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.” “Endure” has a perhaps unfortunate connotation of suffering, but the Greek hypomeinas can mean to “wait patiently” or “persist in doing something.” The emphasis is on continuation, not pain. “Enduring” to the end means “persisting” to the end. In what are we to persist? In living the gospel, of course. In transforming our souls, of course. In forsaking the natural man by listening to the Spirit, of course (Mosiah 3:19).

The word translated as “end” is telos, also the root of teleios. Differences in translation obscure the connection that Matthew is making. 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. What constitutes the “end”? The completion of the process. (See commentary accompanying 2 Nephi 31:15.)

When Jesus was in the Old World, he told his listeners to become perfect as his Father was perfect. In Bountiful, he included both his Father and himself as models of the desired perfection. He had, at that point, completed the process. If Jesus did not claim perfection until after his resurrection, we should not expect anything different.

Reference: Andrew C. Skinner, professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, sees this phrase as recapitulating the Beatitudes’ eschatological perspectives. They looked forward to future improvement in the believer’s conditions; so does this promise “‘Be ye therefore perfect.… ’ These are not idealistic, isolated words; they hark back to the Beatitudes.”

Text: There is no chapter break at this point in the 1830 edition. This chapter division was imposed in 1879 to make a closer match between the 3 Nephi and the Matthew versions of the sermon.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 5