48 Therefore I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect.
(3 Nephi 12:48)
During His visit to the American continent following His death and resurrection, Jesus delivered a sermon which included the Sermon on the Mount. Partway into that sermon, He tells us that He wants us to be perfect, just as He and His Father are perfect.
What did He mean by that? The word “therefore” at the beginning of the passage indicates that this statement summarizes the message of the foregoing content. What is that content? Elder Jeffrey R. Holland summarizes it this way:
We are told—among other things—not only not to kill but also not even to be angry. We are told not only not to commit adultery but also not even to have impure thoughts. To those who ask for it, we are to give our coat and then give our cloak also. We are to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and do good to them who hate us (“Be Ye Therefore Perfect—Eventually,” General Conference, October 2017).
A daunting set of expectations, no question. How many of us can say that we live up to that standard of behavior? None of us. Not completely, not all the time.
But isn’t this what we aspire to? Even knowing that we can only achieve it with God’s help, isn’t this a description of the kind of people we want to become? Isn’t God the ideal we strive to emulate? Isn’t it our goal to follow the example of Jesus, as much as we possibly can, and ideally a little more every day?
In the Greek New Testament, where this admonition appears (Matthew 5:48), the word for “perfect” is teleios (τέλειός), which means “having reached its end,” or “complete.” It is related to the word telos (τέλος), which means purpose, goal, or end. Therefore, the commandment to be perfect (teleios) is essentially the same as the commandment to “endure to the end” (Matthew 10:22) (telos). (See the discussion of these Greek terms in Russell M. Nelson, “Perfection Pending,” General Conference, October 1995.) When the Apostle Paul compared the gospel path to a race, he described a distance run, not a sprint. He urged us to “run with patience the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1-2). You have to keep running until you achieve the goal.
Or, as Elder Holland said:
Every one of us aspires to a more Christlike life than we often succeed in living. If we admit that honestly and are trying to improve, we are not hypocrites; we are human. May we refuse to let our own mortal follies, and the inevitable shortcomings of even the best men and women around us, make us cynical about the truths of the gospel, the truthfulness of the Church, our hope for our future, or the possibility of godliness. If we persevere, then somewhere in eternity our refinement will be finished and complete—which is the New Testament meaning of perfection (“Be Ye Therefore Perfect—Eventually,” General Conference, October 2017).
Today, I will remember that the ideals taught by the Savior represent a distant goal to work toward, not an expectation I must meet immediately. Instead of becoming discouraged when I fall short, I will be grateful for incremental progress. I am far from perfect, but with God’s help, I can endure to the end, staying on the path that will lead eventually to perfection.