Matt 5:48: Command or Promise? (14:4)

Let’s come back to Matthew 5:48. There is an issue in the translation of Matthew 5:48 (“Be ye therefore perfect,” KJV) that we need to look at. The original language here is not entirely clear. Is it a promise or is it a command? Does it read “you must be perfect,” or “you will be perfect?” The key word (Greek: esesthe) is in the future tense. It literally means, “You will be perfect.” You can’t tell from that if it is a promise or a command. It can be simply a future statement: “You will be perfect.” Or it can be a command, as when a sergeant puts up a sign saying, “There will be no smoking in the barracks.” That use of the future is the equivalent of a command.

Notice how other versions have rendered Matthew 5:48. First of all, from the Good News Bible: “You must be perfect.” Second, from the American Standard Version, “Ye therefore shall be perfect.” They each expressed their choice as strongly as possible. On the other hand, Goodspeed, ever the skillful translator, brought into English both meanings of the Greek (and others, like the NASB, have followed his example), “You are to be perfect.” Which is it, a promise or a command? Some of you are familiar with the words in Desire of Ages, “This command is a promise” (page 311). What insight that shows into the meaning of the verse! Now if it is a command, it could be terrifying. We have to be perfect or else! It would certainly be terrifying if we didn’t know the One who has asked us to be perfect. But that is the subject of all sixty-six books of the Bible and the subject of the earlier chapters of this book. Scripture as a whole reassures us about the One who said we must be, or will be perfect.

We find a beautiful picture of God in the cases of David and Solomon, as described in 1 Kings 9:4-5 and 11:4-6. God spoke to Solomon: “If you walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness. . . . I will establish your royal throne” (1 Kings 9:4-5, RSV). Do you remember David’s life and all the awful things he did? Yet here we have God describing David. “He walked before me with integrity of heart and uprightness.” Then it tells us, “When Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods. And his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father.” 1 Kings 11:4, RSV. “Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done.” 1 Kings 11:6, RSV. David did some terrible things, but evidently his heart stayed “wholly true” to God throughout! Can you imagine having to deal with David’s problems in a church board meeting? Most boards would censure and even disfellowship him periodically. Yet through it all God could say that David walked before Him with “integrity of heart.” What do you think of a God who would describe David in that way?

What about Solomon? How were his sins different than David? The Bible tells us that his heart went after other gods, some of them are even listed in verses 5 and 7. He did what David never did. David never left God to go after other gods. Solomon did. He even went after the most disgusting of the gods, as some of the versions translate it. Yet at the end of his life he came to his senses and God took him back. Did he become a second-class member of the family from then on? Not at all! God even said to Solomon, “Write Me another book for the Bible.” And Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes after living such a life. According to 2 Peter, what kind of people write books in the Bible? “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” 2 Pet 1:21, KJV. Holy people wrote the Bible.

How could God describe Solomon as one of the holy men of God? A man who devoted himself to abominable pagan gods? The lives of Solomon and David do not speak too well of them, but what does this passage tell us about our God? We like to cite the promise that He will treat us as if we had never sinned. But these stories are not promises; they are facts. They are evidence. God demonstrated in His treatment of David and Solomon that He really will treat us as if we had always been His loyal children. And there are many other examples like them in the Bible. That is the kind of God who wants us to be perfect. Do we have any need to be afraid of Him?

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