You therefore shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect
What this means in the context of the entire Bible
One of the hardest verses for a young believer to understand is Matt. 5:48, “You therefore shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Immediately, most believers take this as a matter of “trying to be a better person,” attempting to remove old sinful habits that don’t match their new calling to be sanctified in Christ. This isn’t however, the first time this word “perfect” is given to us by God.
And when Abram was ninety-nine years old, Jehovah appeared to Abram and said to him, I am the All-sufficient God; Walk before Me, and be perfect.(Gen. 17:1)
The first verse was spoken by the Lord in a public setting, to people who did not know Him very well. Most people received this word as they do today as a commandment or an ordinance. The second verse was spoken in a private setting, between two friends who knew each other for 24 years. As we shall see, until Isaac had been born there was no possible way for Abraham to known what God had meant when he said this.
It would be hard to argue with the Lord about being perfect as He gives the Sermon on the Mount in front of thousands of people, but what Abraham had experienced with God was a far more personal and intimate relationship. God first appeared to Abraham when he was 75 years old and now he was about to turn 100. If I was Abraham I would have said:
God don’t You know me by now? Are we not friends? I’m not perfect. I can’t even fulfill the promise You gave me in a way that makes You happy. I’ve lived on this earth for 99 years and I’m not getting any better — I’m only getting worse…what do You mean when You say ‘be perfect’?
What did God mean anyways?
How someone answers this question is very exposing in terms of what insight they really have concerning God’s purpose. Let’s be honest, do we really know what is going on here? Do we really know what God means, what He is saying? Doesn’t God know that Abraham gave up Sarah to Pharaoh, and that he would have the same serious failure again later with the king of Gerar?
Abraham doesn’t even believe God initially when He says that Abraham will have a child by Sarah, he instead pleads with God asking him “Oh that Ishmael might live before You” (Gen 17:18). Abraham’s faith wasn’t perfect and neither was his testimony. What part of Abraham was perfect? Only the Christ that would be worked into Abraham would be the perfection God had planned for Abraham. This process would impart God’s life and nature into Abraham so that Christ could be expressed out from Abraham.
God did not need Abraham to do anything to fulfill His covenant with Abraham. Abraham’s effort to have a child with Hagar was his attempt to do something by his flesh to fulfill God’s covenant. This exercise of his natural strength to fulfill God’s promise only offended God. By this we see God needed Abraham’s cooperation, but God did not need Abraham to do anything for Him. For example, if you are thirsty you need a cup of water, you don’t need the cup to do anything for you. You simply need the cup to contain the water. If the cup was to try and help you fill it with water this would be troublesome.
God needs a man on the earth to receive His blessing and His supply so that he might know Him as the all-sufficient God. God needs to work Himself into this man so that Christ can be produced out from this man. This man must know God as his source. God does not need this man to do anything for Him, apart from the divine life that God would impart into man. The living out of this divine life does not require man to exert any natural effort. In himself man can do nothing and should do nothing to please God.
God’s plan to work Himself into man is hidden
This is not easy to see in the Bible; in fact, it is completely hidden. We shouldn’t fault anyone for interpreting these verses some other way because what God is saying to Abraham, what God means when He says “be perfect” is hidden. The vast majority of Christians won’t be able to help you understand these passages. Instead of highlighting how Christ is produced out from a believer’s experience, they would highlight how to be a better person through self improvement and self-help.
To be perfect does not mean to be a better Christian, no to be perfect means that the God who is perfection is worked into us to produce Christ out from us. Only the Christ that is worked into us and lived out of us is the perfection God is seeking.
But if most Christians believe that perfection is related to self-improvement, how can I make the claim that it is instead only Christ? With Abraham, God’s intention was entirely wrapped up with his son, Isaac. The birth and later offering of Isaac are the keys to telling Abraham’s story. God’s covenant with Abraham is that God would give Abraham a seed and that he would be the father of many nations. The seed fulfills God’s purpose. Who is the seed? Isaac is the seed. Who is Isaac? Isaac is a type of Christ (Gal. 3:16, Gen 22:2 and note 1). But in order to produce Isaac as this type, God first needs to fulfill the typology of working Himself into Abraham.
This matter of God working Himself (as the divine life) into man; where do we see this in the Bible? Although our focus is understanding how God did this in Abraham, without the New Testament it would be impossible to see this. We need to put together a number of different verses to even begin to understand this.
- Gen. 15:6 — And Abram believed Jehovah, and He accounted it to him as righteousness.
- Rom. 4:9 — For we say, Faith was accounted to Abraham as righteousness
- Rom. 1:17b — But the righteous shall have life and live by faith.
- Rom. 8:10— But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
- Rom. 4:12–13 — (we) walk in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham … for it was not through the law that the promise was made to Abraham or to his seed … but through the righteousness of faith.
- Phil. 3:9 — be found in Him, not having my own righteousness which is out of the law, but having the righteousness which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is out of God and based on faith.
- Gal. 3:14 — In order that the blessing of Abraham might come … that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
- Gal. 3:2 — did you receive the Spirit out of the works of law or out of the hearing of faith?
- Gal. 3:5 — He therefore who bountifully supplies to you the Spirit … does He do it out of the works of law or out of the hearing of faith?
- Gal. 3:6 — Even as “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness”
- Gal. 3:7 — Know then that they who are of faith, these are sons of Abraham
- Gal. 3:26 — For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus
- Rom. 4:17b— in the sight of God whom he believed who gives life to the dead and calls the things not being as being.
- Gal 4:22–28 — Abraham had two sons … one (Isaac) of the free woman (Sarah) … (who) was born through promise … These things are spoken allegorically, for (Sarah typifies God’s covenant of grace) … and you, brothers, in the way Isaac was, are children of promise
- Rom. 4:16 — Therefore the inheritance is out of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise may be certain to all the seed, not to that which is of the law only, but also to that which is of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.
The above verses demonstrate how believing allows the believer to be justified by God according to God’s righteous standard. This results in the believer being able to receive the divine life so that they might become sons of God.
In Abraham’s case we can see that Isaac was generated from Abraham’s transactions with God. By transacting with God Isaac was promised (Gen. 15:6), Isaac was produced (Gen. 21:1), and Isaac was multiplied by experiencing a type of resurrection (Gen. 22:16–18). Abraham did not believe God to obtain outward blessings for his own existence; he believed that God was able to work something into him to bring forth a seed out of his own being for the fulfillment of God’s purpose.
Abraham is the type, the experience of the new testament believer is the fulfillment of this type. The believer receives the life of God imparted by the Spirit of God so that they might have Christ produced out from their living. Similar to how Abraham’s transactions with God produced Isaac from Abraham’s living, a New Testament believer’s transactions with God produce Christ in their christian life. This implies a process by which God works Christ into the person of the believer, so that the believer has the capacity to live out Christ Himself. Now contrast the verses above to the verses below which highlight the experience of the believer who attempts to keep the law.
- Rom. 10:4 — For Christ is the end of the law unto righteousness to everyone who believes.
- Gal. 5:2 — if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing
- Gal. 5:4 — You have been brought to nought, separated from Christ, you who are being justified by law; you have fallen from grace.
- Gal. 2:21 — I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness is through law, then Christ has died for nothing.
- Rom. 6:14 — you are not under the law but under grace.
- Gal. 5:18 — But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
- Gal. 3:18 — For if the inheritance is of law, it is no longer of promise; but to Abraham God has graciously given it through promise
- Rom. 4:14 — For if those of the law are heirs, faith has been made void and the promise has been annulled
To live according to the law is to: annul the promise, void faith, reject God’s gracious gift through His promise, reject the leading of the Spirit, leave the covering of grace, make Christ’s death of no value, nullify the grace of God, fall from grace, separate ourselves from Christ, negate any profit we might gain from Christ and reject God’s ordination that Christ would be the end of the law. How serious a matter it is to assume that perfection is a matter of law by stressing self improvement or self-help.
Abraham’s experience is my experience
The blessing in the Old Testament is the promise God made to Abraham. Namely, that Abraham would receive the good land and that his descendants would inherit this land. This good land is a shadow (prefigure) typifying the all-inclusive Christ in the New Testament (Col. 1:12, Acts 26:18). When a believer realizes the all-inclusive Christ in their experience, this is transmitted to them through the promise of the Spirit (Gal. 3:14). God is the Spirit. The Spirit with our spirit is the way a believer can know Christ and enjoy Christ (1 Cor 2:10, Eph. 3:5, Rom 8:16). When a believer knows Christ as the Spirit to be their supply, the name for this experience is called grace (Gal. 6:18, Phil. 4:23, 2 Tim. 4:22, Philemon 25). Grace is the riches of Christ made subjective to us.
Isaac came forth from Abraham after he and Sarah were visited by God (Gen. 18). Paul describes this visitation as God giving life to the dead. Sarah and Abraham had already considered themselves as being too old to have children (Rom. 4:19). Their ability to produce a child through God’s visitation therefore was a type of resurrection (Rom. 4:17). In the same way Christ is also worked into us through resurrection (1 Pet. 1:3) so that Christ might live out from us (Rom. 6:4, Gal. 2:20). The only requirement for us to have this experience is for us to believe (Rom. 10:9). Our faith comes from the exercise of the organ which is capable of receiving God’s blessing, our human spirit (2 Cor. 4:13). When we believe God we are regenerated; this is to receive the life of God. Once we have the life of God, we become sons of God. As sons of God we have God’s DNA, his genes (re-gene-rated 1 Pet. 1:23). His genes have an expression in our living (2 Pet. 1:4–11), but only when we are actually enjoying God as our life supply (Gal. 2:21, Gal. 5:4). This expression is righteousness (Rev. 19:8). This is how we are justified before God (Gal. 2:16). From these verses, we see that perfection is the process by which God imparts His life into man and lives His life out through man (Heb. 10:14, Heb. 7:25).
Perfection is accomplished when a believer spends time with God
This is not a matter of a believer spending time to work for God. Nothing we do for God, without God is of any value. When believers stress matters of the law, ethics, morality, behavior, and religious duty they cannot enjoy the same process that Abraham went through. This is because God’s dealing with Abraham does not focus on these things. Instead it focuses on four important items:
- Abraham receiving the promise and believing in God
- Isaac being produced and inheriting the good land
- Abraham offering Isaac to God and experiencing the God of resurrection
- Abraham knowing God as the all-sufficient One (El Shaddai)
What kind of Bible do you have? Does your Bible have Abraham believing, being justified, and receiving the Spirit as the divine life to be regenerated as a son of God? Does your Bible have him growing in life by experiencing the God of resurrection? Do you see how this experience produces Christ (typified by Isaac) by Abraham being joined to grace (typified by Sarah)? Do you see the birth of Isaac as a type of Christ coming forth from the experience of the believer? Do you see him growing further in life by trusting and depending on the God of resurrection, given God’s unreasonable requirement that Isaac be sacrificed? Do you see Abraham being able to offer Isaac (typifying Christ) to God as representing a culmination of this process? This process focuses on Isaac (Christ) which was worked into Abraham (Rom. 4:17, 19), and which was produced out from him through faith.
Abraham is in fellowship with God. Abraham walks with God. Abraham intercedes for Lot. Abraham obeys God. Does he do all of this out from himself? Is his willingness to trust in the God of resurrection and sacrifice Isaac out from himself? How was Abraham able to believe that Isaac would be resurrected?
- Gen 22:5 — And Abraham said to his young men, Stay here with the donkey; and I and the boy will go over there, and we will worship, and then we will return to you.
- Heb. 11:17 — By faith Abraham, being tested, offered up Isaac; indeed he who gladly received the promises was offering up his only begotten,
- Heb. 11:18 — Of whom it was said, “In Isaac shall your seed be called”;
- Heb. 11:19 — Counting that God was able to raise men even from the dead, from which he also received him back in figure.
Abraham believed in the God of resurrection for Isaac to be produced and Abraham believed in the God of resurrection for Isaac to be offered back to God for His purpose. Abraham knew who God was through the miracle of Isaac’s birth, and also in God’s unreasonable requirement that Abraham offer his only begotten son back to God for God’s purpose. What does “be perfect” mean in the context of Abraham’s experience? How then do we now read Genesis 17 or Matthew 5?
- Genesis 17:1 — And when Abram was ninety-nine years old, Jehovah appeared to Abram and said to him, I am the All-sufficient God; Walk before Me, and be perfect.
- Matthew 5:48 — You therefore shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.
To attempt to be perfect by trying harder to meet God’s standards is the law. In the context of the entire bible, these verses are not telling us that we should keep the law by trying to improve ourselves to meet God’s standards. The Bible is telling us that perfection is a process only understood by those who pass through it. Abraham had no way of knowing what God meant at that time (Gen. 17:1). Only after passing through the process was Abraham’s knowledge of who God was “perfected.” After this process was complete God could say that He had taken a significant step in His relationship with man through Abraham. Before Abraham, who knew God in this way? Now Abraham’s experience would serve as a guide to hundreds of millions who would come after him. This would give later generations some insight into God’s way with man. By understanding what God was trying to gain in Abraham we can see that spiritual growth is a process. Consequently, this highlights what God is trying to gain in each one of us. If anyone on the earth at that time knew that God accomplishes his purpose through death and resurrection, it was Abraham.
Abraham’s experience of God had been perfected after coming down from mount Moriah. Isaac was the product of this process. Isaac was 25 to 35 years old when the events of Gen. 22 took place (Gen. 17:17, 23:1, 22:6). This process required Abraham to live in fellowship with God and commune with God on a human level for more than 25 years. How could Abraham have possibly known what God meant at the time God asked him to be perfect? If he couldn’t understand what God meant how could Abraham be expected to obey God’s word? God did not need Abraham to understand what He meant at that time. This was because God’s word was not a commandment of what God needed Abraham to do, but a statement of what God would do in Abraham. The only way we can understand this is by using the context of the entire bible.
A Christian is passing through a process which begins by believing that Christ has died so that they can have God’s life. At the start of the journey of every Christian the resurrection life of Christ becomes installed within the believer. This allows a believer to pass through death situations such that they know God in a deeper way. Each trial is another opportunity for the resurrection life to manifest its power in our weakness, and its strength in our despair. By this process we know that the divine life is truly within us. We come to realize that God’s life is a higher life in our experience, this is the way that our knowledge of God becomes perfected. As he lives in us we learn who He is, not by attempting to keep the law but by enjoying grace.
God’s covenant with us is to give us His life, and this life is just Christ Himself. This Christ is the One who lives in us and lives out perfection itself. Perfection for the believer is not merely an attribute or an outward practice. Perfection is a person, the most wonderful Christ. As we enjoy this marvelous Christ living in us, we experience grace and this grace labors in us. This produces the practical Christian perfection that God desires.
This speaks to my experience as a believer
This is my paraphrasing of the below verses:
- Gal. 2:21 — I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness is through law, then Christ has died for nothing.
- 2 Cor. 5:21 — He made sin on our behalf that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
Christ’s death on the cross allowed Him to become the life-giving spirit (1 Cor. 15:45). He accomplished this for the express purpose of living in the believers (John 10:10). Christ lives in the believers as a law, the law of the spirit of life (Rom 8:2, 10). This law operates in a believer as a supply of grace (Rom 5:17, 21). This grace has an expression which is righteousness (Gal. 2:21). If a believer attempts to be reconciled to God through their own self effort by keeping the law of commandments, then this is to receive the grace of God in vain (2 Cor. 5:20-6:1). If we abandon grace by clinging to any religious law then Christ has died for nothing because we will not allow him to live in us (Gal. 5:4).
- Gal. 3:11 — By law no one is justified before God is evident because, “The righteous one shall have life and live by faith.”
We cannot be justified by our works (Gal. 2:16, Rom. 3:20). To be justified before God requires that we live out God. We cannot live out God without having the life of God. When we contact Christ, He Himself becomes our ability to believe (the faith of Jesus Rom. 3:22, 26, Gal. 2:20). The act of believing imparts the life of God into us that we might live out Christ who is the only one who is fully justified by God. (Acts 13:39, Rom. 3:20–28, Rom. 4:2, Phil. 1:21, Gal. 2:20)
- Gal. 3:21 — Is then the law against the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given which was able to give life, righteousness would have indeed been of law.
You cannot compare the promises of God with the law. We do not earn the promises of God since no work of the flesh will ever justify us before God (Gal. 2:16, Rom. 3:20). This is because the law cannot give a believer life. The law also cannot make a believer a son of God (Gal. 4:5). Since the law cannot give life it cannot produce righteousness in a believers living. Only the promise of God which is the Spirit who lives in the believer can produce righteousness within a believer. The law was a child conductor unto Christ, meaning that it was a temporary measure until we could experience Him (Gal. 3:24).
- Gal. 2:20 — I am crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live in faith, the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.
- 1 Cor. 15:10 — But by the grace of God I am what I am; and His grace unto me did not turn out to be in vain, but, on the contrary, I labored more abundantly than all of them, yet not I but the grace of God which is within me.
“Not I but the grace of God” equals “no longer I but Christ” in Gal. 2:20. The grace that motivated the apostle and operated in him was not some matter or some thing but a living person, the resurrected Christ, the embodiment of God the Father who became the all-inclusive life-giving Spirit, who dwelt in the apostle as his everything. — 1 Cor. 15:10 note 2
Perfection is something God does not something we do
We can see this further in Christ’s process of perfecting the believers in Hebrews chapter 7 and 10:
- 7:11 — If … perfection were through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people have received the law), what need was there still that a different Priest should arise … not … according to … Aaron?
- 7:19 — For the law perfected nothing
- 7:28 — For the law establishes men as high priests who have weaknesses, but the word of the oath, which was after the law, establishes the Son, perfected forever.
- 7:25 — Hence also He is able to save to the uttermost those who come forward to God through Him
- 10:1 — For the law … can never by the same sacrifices year by year … perfect those who draw near.
- 10:4 — For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
- 10:9 — He then has said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will.”
- 10:10 — By which will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
- 10:14 — For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.
- 2:10–11 — for the purpose of leading many sons into glory, God made the Author of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of One, for which cause He is not ashamed to call them brothers.
The Crystallization-Study of the Epistle of James by Witness Lee focuses on the matter of Christian perfection. Genuine christian perfection is nothing less than a believers experience of the Triune God in all of His riches and all of His divine attributes.