As gospel doctrine teacher where I attend church, I have been expounding on the Old Testament and now recently the New Testament over the last year or two in Sunday School and striving to build upon a certain theme, continually helping those who attend to aggregate information line upon line and precept upon precept using figures like Noah, Job, and others to shed light on what I probably consider not only the most important saying of Jesus Christ, but also a commandment: to be perfect without delay. This has involved teaching repetitively two concepts: idolatry and repentance. The Old Testament provided a plethora of examples to illustrate both.
In my lifetime, I have heard so many friends say that it’s impossible to be perfect in this life. But what they really mean is it’s impossible to be flawless. The way most people use the word perfect, they really mean to say without fault. And yet we readily use the word perfect to describe a sunny day, an article of clothing, or even a gift. We throw the word around with hyperbolic flair all the time: “It’s perfect!”
Jesus Christ used this word differently when He summarized a powerful sermon: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48).” After His resurrection, He visited the people in the Book of Mormon and taught them essentially the same sermon and summarized it with a small difference: “Therefore I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect (3 Nephi 12:48).” Therefore many Latter-day Saints believe they will only be able to become perfect after they resurrect because of this modification and so this important sermon then gets pushed into the proverbial back burner to be given little to no more thought.
The New Testament’s usage of the word perfect was translated from the Greek word teleios which means complete and refers to a person’s integrity and maturity. The Old Testament’s usage of perfect was translated from the Hebrew word tam which means complete and also blameless. Consider the following scripture:
Job 1:8 And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?
God describes Job in no uncertain terms: perfect, upright, etc. How could he have been the only one on Earth to be so highly regarded? Where were the patriarchs? Did Job live after Abraham? He did not have a covenant like Noah, Abraham, or Moses did. He was not under a law like the Israelites were. He was a random guy in the Old Testament from the land of Uz and yet God said he was perfect and God is not a liar. Because of Job and others in the scriptures that were considered perfect, blameless, etc, it is reasonable to conclude that any of us can be perfect in this life, too. And because Job was perfect, he had Satan’s and God’s attention. This resulted in Job not only suffering greatly because of Satan, but he was also given a personal tour of the universe by God, and more importantly developing a personal relationship with God.
I would like to postulate the following: They who are perfect in God’s eyes are they who have reached the full degree of development that God expects of them at any given time. And as they grow in the light and as their understanding increases, so does His expectation of their degree of development. Where much is given, much is required! Are we doing everything to our best ability that we understand God expects of us? We will not be able to claim ignorance while our scriptures collect dust on our shelves either. The following image is an oversimplified bar graph of Job’s development with relation to God’s expectation:
In the New Testament, a certain young ruler who was rich approached Jesus Christ, calling Him Good Master, and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus essentially told him that he needed to keep all the commandments to which the young man said he had done from his youth up to that point. Jesus told him that he yet lacked one thing: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me (Matthew 19:21).” If this young man had done so, he would have become perfect as Jesus declared or in other words, complete and blameless and no doubt Jesus would have taught him more things and expected more things of him. Instead the young man went away sorrowful because his heart was set upon his worldly treasures. A crude bar graph of his life would look something like the following:
He was so close yet so far! He had knelt before Jesus and Jesus had loved him, but did this young ruler really believe that Jesus was the Son of God or did he consider Jesus to be just another rabbi? So Jesus challenged him asking why he called Him good. Likewise, do we really believe Jesus Christ’s sayings? Do we really believe that He expects us to be meek, to refrain from being angry with a brother, to be reconciled with others before we bring our offerings to the altar and all the other things He commanded us to be and do in His sermon? Was His injunction to “be ye therefore perfect” just an arbitrary suggestion or is it a very real and paramount expectation? What would a bar graph look like for any of us today?
Are we slothful in our discipleship? Are we striving to learn everything that proceeded from Jesus Christ’s mouth and to do all that He said to do and to become all that He said to become? Are we aligning ourselves with ALL that we understand that God expects of us? If we are not aligned with Him, we will inevitably stray off the straight and narrow path. We must be oriented toward Him alone. To deviate from this path is to miss the mark. The Hebrew word for this is hata which means to stray or miss the mark. The English translation of this is to sin. How do we not sin? How do we ensure that we do not miss the mark or stray from the path? He gave the Nephites slightly different words than He did the Jews who needed to be more righteous than the Pharisees. In His sermon to the Nephites, He added:
3 Nephi 12:19 And behold, I have given you the law and the commandments of my Father, that ye shall believe in me, and that ye shall repent of your sins, and come unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Behold, ye have the commandments before you, and the law is fulfilled.
20 Therefore come unto me and be ye saved; for verily I say unto you, that except ye shall keep my commandments, which I have commanded you at this time, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
The “Sermon” wasn’t a set of suggestions. We are commanded to obey it. God expects us to become perfect and we can do that right now according to our best understanding. But we must do everything that we believe in our hearts that Jesus Christ would do in our place and not do anything that we believe in our hearts that Jesus would not do if He were in our place. Whatever your understanding is right now of loving your enemies, you are expected to live by it and as your understanding of it grows, so should your actions match it and so on with all the sayings, teachings, and commandments. As you learn line upon line, precept upon precept, you must live accordingly to remain perfect from day to day. Of course we know that Jesus Christ was perfect throughout His mortal life and the standard by which we must strive to live. He lived up to everything that He knew His Father in heaven expected of Him, thus He was sinless. And when He resurrected, His perfection was enlarged as He was glorified which is why He told the people in the Book of Mormon to be perfect as He also was perfect.
The more light and truth that we accumulate and live up to, the more like Jesus we become and this should be our focus. He is the light. He is the truth. Conversely, like that rich young man who preferred his riches and to go no further, but instead turned around, whenever we decide that we have had enough light and desire no more understanding, by halting our growth, we damn ourselves. This by definition is damnation. Like flowing water that becomes stopped, we simply stagnate and eventually dry up. This is spiritual death. Don’t be like that rich young man. Take inventory of all that you know you should do and be. Then begin living up to it today. If you’re not sure how Jesus would conduct Himself or what you should work on first, prayerfully ask the Lord, “what lack I yet?” Whatever inspiration the Lord gives you, work on that. You probably already know what you should be doing (or not doing) right now. Then work on the next thing. Take it one step at a time, incrementally, line upon line, precept upon precept. We become in spirit what we do in the flesh. Strive to become perfect today.