We admit that we are not perfect–and cannot really hope to be perfect. So why does Jesus say to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect?
In Matthew 5:48 Jesus’ words about perfection conclude his contrasts (in Mt. 5:21-48) between what his disciples have heard before (from the scribes in the synagogues) and what Jesus now commands. The last contrast is about one of the great commands from the law of Moses: love your neighbor (5:43); and Jesus adds another command from the law of Moses: hate your enemy.
The first phrase, “love your neighbor,” quotes Leviticus 19:18. The neighbor of Lev. 19:17-18 is defined as “your brother,” or “the sons of your own people.” So this law, like the rest of the law of Moses, applies to those in the kingdom of Israel; those outside, the Gentiles, are not neighbors or brothers since they are not “the sons of your own people.”
The second phrase, “but hate your enemy,” can also be found in the law of Moses (though not quoted word for word). A few laws of Moses do speak of doing good to enemies (as in Exodus 23:4-5), and not oppressing strangers (Gentiles) in their land (23:9). But Ex. 23:23-24 says when Israel reaches the promised land, populated by Canaanites and other Gentiles, God will destroy those idolatrous Gentiles; Israel is to utterly overthrow them. These are the enemies God will drive out of their land; Israel is to drive them out, so they will not cause Israel to sin (Ex. 23:27-33).
Similarly, the love command of Lev. 19:18 is followed later by commands in Lev. 26:7-8 about Israel chasing (Gentile) enemies (in the promised land), who will fall before them by the sword. Deuteronomy 20:1-20 is a whole chapter about rules for waging “holy war” against (Gentile) enemies of Israel. Jewish scribes (rabbis) during Jesus’ time were also eager to free the kingdom of Israel from Gentile influence, including the Romans whose world empire extended into Israel.
Jesus’ righteousness, however, again fulfills the law (of Moses) on a new level: he commands his disciples to love their enemies. Disciples who patiently love their enemies and pray for them will be true children of their heavenly Father. For their Father gives sunshine and rain to both the evil and the good (Mt. 5:44-45).
So when Jesus concludes by saying, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect, this perfection is summarizing the preceding context of loving everyone, even enemies. Those who only show love to certain ones are not perfect as God is perfect. God’s perfect love is not partial when beneficial rain and sun are given to both the righteous and unrighteous. Likewise, God’s children must not be partial; they should show love both to their brothers or sisters and their enemies. If they love (pray for and do good to) even those who persecute them, their love will be perfect, like that of their Father.
In contrast, loyal “children” (citizens) of earthly “fathers” (rulers) who hate and kill their national or ethnic enemies have chosen the partial (imperfect) righteousness of their kingdom of earth. Jesus’ (perfect) new command for the kingdom of heaven rules out those (partial) traditional commands of the kingdoms of earth–including those of the kingdom of Israel.
When people cry out for justice now, it often means they want someone who’s guilty to be punished. “An eye for an eye” says the law of Moses. A punishment appropriate for the crime was considered “justice” in the kingdom of Israel (and other kingdoms of the earth). It’s biblical.
But Jesus tells his disciples not to punish like that (Mt. 5:38-39). Unlike the kingdom of Israel, Jesus’ new kingdom of disciples is to function on a higher level–on a nonviolent, patiently gentle level. A kingdom of earth with civil laws and punishments cannot function on Jesus’ level. The righteousness (justice) of the kingdom of heaven is different from the righteousness (justice) of the kingdom of Israel, or any other kingdom of earth. So this command of Moses is passing away, now surpassed by Jesus new fulfillment of the law. Jesus’ new law replaces this old law.
Instead of reacting to an evil person by executing the same evil against them, Jesus’ disciples are to respond with the justice of Jesus. The first example Jesus gives of how to do this is: whenever someone slaps a disciple on the right cheek, the disciple should turn the other cheek. Since most people are right handed, when they hit the right cheek of another it is with the back of their right hand. This is more of an insult than an injury. An evil person is insulting a disciple due to controversial prophetic words or unconventional righteous deeds (compare Mt. 5:10-12).
The Greek word for slap in Mt. 5:39 is used again in Mt. 26:67 where, after the high priest and (national) council in Jerusalem condemn Jesus to death, some slap him. In Jn. 18:22, in the same context of Jesus before the high priest, a police officer of the high priest slaps Jesus because his words challenge the high priest. Jesus does not slap him back; he turns his face to the one who slapped him and challenges him (Jn. 18:23). Jesus asks the officer to tell him what he said wrong, and if it was not wrong, why did he slap?
Turning the other cheek thus means disciples of Jesus continue to speak boldly, even if it means they continue (to “offer” their cheeks) to be slapped. When slaps are meant to stop controversial mouths, the appropriate response is to continue patiently to speak against evil, thereby offering one’s cheek anew.
It is very sad that literal murder invades churches. In Mt. 5:21 Jesus quotes the law of Moses about not murdering; this command was for the kingdom of Israel. Literal murder in Israel was against their law.
But then Jesus goes on to fulfill this law on a new level; he introduces a new focus and context: the kingdom of heaven. In this new kingdom of disciples that Jesus is initiating, everyone who is angry with his brother is in danger of murder (Mt. 5:22). The word brother signifies the new context: the new family of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus has described how his disciples are to be light in the world and thus glorify their Father (5:14-16); and he has blessed disciples who make peace since they will be called the children of God (5:9), making them brothers and sisters. Disciples who do the will of the Father are Jesus’ brothers and sisters (Mt. 12:50).
In Mt. 5:22 Jesus illustrates the anger he has in mind by depicting angry words against a brother or sister. An angry disciple who says raka (an Aramaic word) to a brother or sister (disciple) must face the council; an angry disciple who says more (using the Greek word moros) to a brother or sister (disciple) could face the fiery hell.
Both words would be strong repudiations of a fellow disciple; either word could condemn a fellow brother or sister. The Greek word for fool in 5:22 (moros) is also used in 7:26 for the one who hears Jesus’ words but does not do them. Thus, to call a brother or sister a fool is to accuse them of not being a true disciple. Words of anger that condemn a brother or sister are the same as murder. (In Mt. 23:17 Jesus angrily calls the scribes and Pharisees blind fools; this is not “murder” because they are not part of the family of the kingdom of heaven; see 23:13; 5:20).
Since Jesus’ warnings for disciples in 5:22 have to do with the family of the kingdom of heaven, the council mentioned would be a “family council,” not a council of the kingdom of Israel (like those led by chief priests or scribes and Pharisees). Compare the process in 18:15-17 that seeks the repentance of a brother or sister who sins. If the one sinned against fails to convince the sinner, the process leads to larger family circles: first two or three others, then–if that fails–the whole church (as a family council) confronts the brother or sister who sinned.
For an angry disciple to categorically condemn another brother or sister, without processing it through the family, means the angry disciple is himself in danger of judgment from the family council and of condemnation from God. The angry brother who judges/condemns another brother simply because of a small sin or minor issue (a speck in his eye) simply shows that he has a much larger sin: murder (a log in his eye) (Mt. 7:1-5).
When Jesus began to announce his new kingdom of heaven, he also began to fulfill prophecies about the dawning of a great light. In Mt. 4:15-17 Jesus began this mission in “Galilee of the Gentiles;” there the people (in darkness) saw a great light: Jesus.
After Jesus began to gather disciples, the nucleus of his new kingdom, he told them they were (also) the light of the world–a world of Gentiles as well as Jews (Mt. 4:18-22; 5:1-2,14). Jesus was pointing to their future world mission.
Like a “city on a hill,” they will stand out and shine a special light in the darkness of the world’s cities and kingdoms (Mt. 5:14). That true light cannot, and must not, be hidden from the dangerous darkness. Like a lamp in a house, the function of this light is to give light to all those in the “house” (world) (Mt. 5:15). Unfortunately, the darkness will try to put out that light.
Nevertheless, king Jesus commands his disciples to let their light shine before the people so they will see their good works and glorify their Father, the one in the heavens (Mt. 5:16). Their special righteousness of meekness and mercy (see Mt. 5:5-7) will lead some from every nation to join this new kingdom and family; like their king, this kingdom of disciples will remain gentle and kind and merciful. Jesus will make his disciples fishers of men (people) all over the world (see Mt. 4:19).
Their good works and words will be the good fruit of worthy repentance; they will exhibit Jesus’ new righteousness, empowered by (the Spirit from) heaven. As a result, some will see their unusual works (of righteousness), hear their uncommon gospel (of the kingdom), and glorify their unsurpassed Father (in heaven). These new disciples will turn away from their previous devotion to powerful fathers in the families and kingdoms of earth; those ruling fathers pursue their own personal interests, exhibiting works that are often not gentle, kind, or merciful.
On Palm Sunday many churches celebrate Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. But if you read the Gospel accounts, it is clear this was not so much a triumphal entry as a triumphal approach. And it’s the crowds–including the disciples–who have followed Jesus from Galilee that are feeling something triumphant is happening.
The viewpoint of the crowds is seen in their shouting Hosanna to the Son of David, echoing Psalm 118, where a king comes triumphantly and victoriously, as God’s powerful right hand helps him cut off the nations and enemies against him. Thus in Mt. 21:6-9 this crowd that has been following Jesus towards Jerusalem is celebrating the coming victory of this new king, a victory over the Romans and the Jewish leaders who collaborate with them.
But when Jesus actually enters Jerusalem, the reception of the city is quite different (Mt. 21:10). The city is “shaken;” (the same Greek word is used in Mt. 2:3 for the response of Jerusalem–especially Herod–when the wise men inform him of a newly born king). There is no triumphal celebration in Jerusalem. They ask suspiciously: Who is this? And the crowds, faced with this reaction from the city, respond differently than what they were shouting before they entered; they say, “this is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.”
So there are two groups of people involved: the hopeful but easily intimidated crowd that approached Jerusalem with Jesus; and the suspicious and intimidating crowd who lived in Jerusalem. Their viewpoints differ greatly.
But the most important viewpoint is that of Jesus. Mt. 21:5 says his intention in telling two disciples to get two donkeys (mother and son/colt) was to fulfill what the prophet (Zechariah) said about a humble king riding on a donkey, even the colt of a donkey. In Zech. 9:9-10 the prophet contrasts a humble king on a donkey with warrior kings on war horses. Some translations of 9:9 include the phrase “triumphant and victorious is he;” but the NIV is closer to the original Hebrew text with its translation: “righteous and having salvation.” The salvation this humble king brings will be a peace that will spread to all nations–from the River (Euphrates) to the ends of the earth (as far west as Spain) (9:10).
Mt. 21:5 is also often translated as the king who is “humble,” but the Greek word is more often translated meek, where the focus is being gentle and kind. So the salvation this king brings is not a triumphant victory over powerful enemies like the Romans, but a humble peace from faithful disciples who become gentle and kind. This Greek word is used two times earlier in Matthew. In Mt. 11:25-30 Jesus contrasts his “babes” (little children, aka his disciples) with the “wise and understanding” (the ruling fathers of Israel) and contrasts their heavy yokes and burdens with the “rest” he brings as one “humble” or “meek” and lowly in heart, for his yoke is “kindness” (a better translation than “easy”). His meekness is about being kind and gentle, rather than harsh and violent. The other use is Mt. 5:5, Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Presently, the harsh and violent fight it out for parcels of earth; but in the end, disciples of the gentle and kind king will simply inherit the earth from their heavenly Father.
After being anointed as the new king by the Spirit descending from heaven, the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the devil, the most powerful evil spirit (Mt. 4:1-11).
Like the deceitful serpent in Gen. 3:1, the devil raises questions about what God has said. God has declared from the heavens that Jesus is the beloved son (in Mt. 3:17). So Satan subtly suggests that if Jesus is now the (royal) son of God (as God claims), he should not be suffering hunger in the desert. Real rulers are feasting; the lords of the earth live in luxury; he should command the stones to become bread.
Jesus responds with God’s earlier words (in Deut. 8:3) to Israel in the wilderness: people do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. So Jesus chooses to believe the word of God (in Deut. 8:3, and the words from heaven in Mt. 3:17)–and thus will remain God’s faithful servant king. He will not just be another greedy ruler of the earth, who values his own mouth more than God’s mouth (words).
So the serpent takes Jesus to the highest point of the temple complex in Jerusalem. This is where Satan thinks a new king in Israel should announce his presence. The present rulers there will not recognize his authority unless they see a special sign from heaven. Since Jesus is focused on God’s word, Satan again begins with “if you are the son of God,” but then adds words of God from Ps. 91:11-12. Such a sign as angels from heaven rescuing the jumping Jesus would prove to Jesus, and show all Jerusalem, that he really is the royal son of God who should become their king.
Jesus replies with other words from God (from Deut. 6:16): Do not test the Lord your God. The Lord has already spoken from heaven (Mt. 3:17); Jesus is already the royal son of God–anointed to rule by the Spirit from heaven. He does not need to prove this to himself, or to Jerusalem and its ruling fathers. The servant son will continue to please his heavenly Father.
If Jerusalem and Israel are not a big enough temptation, the serpent decides to offer all the nations. Now Jesus can be the greatest and richest king of the world (empire), if he falls down and worships Satan. This time Jesus quotes God’s words from Deut. 6:13; you shall worship the Lord your God, and shall serve only him. Rather than become the imperial king of a world empire (like Rome), Jesus will remain true to the voice from heaven and be a servant king who pleases God.
Jesus does not question that Satan is the spirit ruler of (the kingdoms of) this world, and has the power to give all the kingdoms of the earth to Jesus. Indeed, later on Jesus will refer to Satan as “the ruler of this world” (Jn. 14:30; 16:11). Kings of the earth gain and maintain power and glory by cooperating with the ruler of this world. Like the ruling serpent, they deceive, seduce, and dominate in order to magnify themselves and their kingdoms.
Heaven’s new king commands Satan to leave; this king is even more powerful than “the ruler of this world.” Then (good) angels come to Jesus and serve him.
When Jesus is baptized and ascends from the water, the heavens open and he sees the Spirit of God descend upon him like a dove (Mt. 3:16). The same heavenly Spirit that conceived Jesus in his mother’s womb now anoints the Christ for his kingly rule in the new kingdom of heaven. This anointing from the heavens means the kingdom of (and from) the heavens has begun. In the Spirit, the new king will rule–giving new commands, promising new rewards, and gathering new followers.
After the Spirit rests on Jesus, a voice from the heavens announces, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am pleased” (Mt. 3:17). This confirms that Jesus is God’s anointed son; it fulfills on a new level the words of Psalm 2:7. In Ps. 2:2 the kings of the earth are against the Lord and his anointed one. In Ps. 2:4-7 the Lord enthroned in the heavens responds by laughing and decreeing to his new anointed king: “You are my son; today I have begotten you.”
The voice from the heavens in Mt. 3:17 also remembers Isa. 42:1–about God’s servant, with whom God is pleased. God will put the Spirit on this servant and he will faithfully bring justice (righteousness) to the nations (Gentiles). (Isa. 42:1-4 is quoted later by Matthew in 12:17-21, where Jesus says he fulfills Isaiah’s words.) Jesus is the Spirit anointed king, the beloved son who will reign by faithfully serving and righteously pleasing his heavenly Father. His kingdom from heaven will gather righteous disciples from all over the earth.