Be Ye Therefore Perfect

Ben H. Swett
Ponca City, OK
22 August 1966

My sister-in-law, Karyn, told me about a young man named Don she had dated in college. He was very bright and talented, and everyone's candidate for "Most likely to succeed," but he committed suicide. His parents gave a copy of his suicide note to her. Now, she handed it to me and asked, "What can anyone say to his folks?"

In the note, Don apologized to his family and friends. He was not mad at anyone or trying to hurt them; he was suffering terribly. Everyone seemed to think he was perfect, but he knew he was not. His faults were always before him and tormented him so his life was a living hell. The whole note was full of references to Matthew 5:48--"Be ye therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

I pointed out the scripture references and said, "I don't know what to say to his folks, but surely neither Matthew nor Jesus nor God intended this outcome from that scripture. Something must be wrong here, perhaps in the translation."

I looked up that scripture in concordances and commentaries, but they all said the same thing: "perfect means without spot or blemish"--and the implications of taking that idea seriously drove Don to suicide. So I started looking for some way to study the New Testament in Greek, in order to by-pass the English translators.

Six years later, I found and bought a Greek New Testament and a secular Greek-English Lexicon. The first scripture I looked up was Matthew 5:48 and the first Greek word I looked up was the one translated "perfect":

teleios 1. complete, perfect, entire; of victims, without spot or blemish; but of sacrifices, performed with full rites. 2. of animals and men; full-grown, adult; hence, perfect in his or its kind. 3. of numbers, full, complete. 4. of actions, ended, finished; of vows, fulfilled, accomplished.

The primary meaning is "complete" so I looked that up in Webster's Dictionary, but the definition didn't help much until I noticed that "complete" has two different antonyms: it can mean "not defective" or "not partial".

When we say something is not defective, we mean it is without spot or blemish, but when we say a person is not partial, we often shorten it to one word: impartial.

I went back to the Bible and read the whole paragraph, Matthew 5:43-48. The key thought is that God makes His sun to rise on evil men and good, and sends His rain on just men and unjust--which is a description of impartiality that demands the translation, "Be impartial, as your heavenly Father is impartial" and implies, "Be full-grown, adult, as your heavenly Father is."

We can be impartial, but we are not and should not expect to be perfect. I'm still sorry I didn't know that and wasn't around to explain it to Don. It might have saved his life. But this is why I began to distrust Bible translators, and why I have continued to study the original languages ever since.