Why Did Jesus Tell Us to Be Perfect?

During His mortal ministry, the Savior gave this counsel: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

This guidance is similar to an admonition in the book of Leviticus: “Ye shall be holy: for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).

When the Savior visited the American continent after His death and resurrection, He gave the same counsel, with a small but significant change: “Therefore I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect” (3 Nephi 12:48).

Why would He only claim perfection after His mortal ministry was over?

The Greek word telos (τέλος) means the end or the completion. To “endure to the end” is to keep going until you reach the telos (Matthew 10:22).

When the Savior tells us to be perfect, the Greek New Testament uses a form of the word telos. “Be ye therefore teleios,” He says. In other words, keep moving forward, keep progressing until you are finished or complete, until you have done all that you set out to do.

That’s why the Savior didn’t claim perfection until the end of His life. He was sinless. He was living an impeccable and exemplary life. But He was still living it. He wasn’t yet finished.

During His life, He prophesied to His disciples: “On the third day I shall be perfected” (Luke 13:32). The Greek word is teleioumai (τελειοῦμαι). Other translations emphasize the completion of His mission:

  • “I will reach my goal” (NIV)
  • “I will accomplish my purpose” (New Living Translation)
  • “I finish my course” (English Standard Version) (Luke 13:32 on biblehub.com)

At the end of His life, as He hung on the cross, after He had suffered for all of our sins, He pronounced three simple words immediately before His death: “It is finished” (John 19:30). The Greek word is tetelestai (τετέλεσται), yet another form of the word telos.

President Russell M. Nelson has encouraged us to keep moving toward our ultimate goal of perfection:

Brothers and sisters, let us do the best we can and try to improve each day. When our imperfections appear, we can keep trying to correct them. We can be more forgiving of flaws in ourselves and among those we love. We can be comforted and forbearing. The Lord taught, “Ye are not able to abide the presence of God now … ; wherefore, continue in patience until ye are perfected” (“Perfection Pending,” General Conference, October 1995).

Today, I will continue to improve and progress. I will remember that even the Savior, who lived a flawless life, did not claim to be perfect until His life was over. I will continue moving along the path until, by the grace of God, I am teleios—finished, complete, perfect.

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