When Jesus stood on the mount near Jerusalem and proclaimed His timeless sermon He included the call to all to “be ye therefore perfect” (Matt 5:48). In like manner, He related the same message to the Nephites in His sermon at the Temple as recorded in 3 Nephi. However, the Temple Sermon had one great variance from the words given to the Jews.
To the Jews Jesus only referenced His Father as being perfect but, after completing the work He was chosen to do and having returned to the Father, Jesus included Himself in the proclamation to the Nephites. This seemingly subtle change teaches us a lot about progression and the perfection that is required. It is something different from a flawless living. It is something attainable.
Yes, Jesus lived a perfectly flawless life. He was our exemplar. He was the Lamb of God that was prepared from the foundation of the world. His was an unblemished sacrifice of the Firstborn, holy, without spot. However, we learn that even “he received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace; And he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness” (D&C 93:12-13). Even the Messiah needed to grow and become perfect. Likewise, as we choose, act in faith, repent, make and keep sacred covenants, and love God we draw upon His grace.
We can draw further insight by looking at the Greek word that perfect derives from. Several years ago, then Elder Nelson taught,
“In Matthew 5:48 the term perfect was translated from the Greek teleios, which means ‘complete.’ Teleios is an adjective derived from the noun telos, which means end.’ The infinitive form of the verb is teleiono, which means ‘to reach a distant end, to be fully developed, to consummate, or to finish.’ Please note that the word does not imply ‘freedom from error’; it implies ‘achieving a distant objective.’”
This is helpful in giving us guidance as to what the Lord meant when He spoke of perfection. Such an idea is alluded to by His variance to two different people at very different times but it starts to make more sense as we splice together other scriptures and prophetic teachings.
Elder Nelson further explains this idea of perfection in association with the resurrection by citing the Savior’s words as recorded in Luke.
“With that background in mind, let us consider another highly significant statement made by the Lord. Just prior to his crucifixion, he said that on ‘the third day I shall be perfected.’ (Luke 13:32) Think of that! The sinless, errorless Lord— already perfect by our mortal standards— proclaimed his own state of perfection yet to be in the future. (In the Greek text of that proclamation, the verb teleiono was again used, in its future tense— teleiouma. ‘His eternal perfection would follow his resurrection and receipt of-all power…in heaven and in earth.’ (Matt. 28:18 see also D&C 93:2– 22)
“The perfection that the Savior envisions for us is much more than errorless performance. It is the eternal expectation as expressed by the Lord in his great intercessory prayer to his Father—that we might be made perfect and be able to dwell with them in the eternities ahead. (See John 17:23 – 24)
“The Lord’s entire work and glory pertains to the immortality and eternal life of each human being.” (Russell M. Nelson, CR Oct 1995)
Here, we have the power of perfection now associated with completeness, a future point, grace, and the resurrection. We need the Atoning Messiah to be able to be perfected. We are expected to fail. We are not going to live sinless and flawless lives. This is precisely why Christ did what He so lovingly did.
In a recent General Conference address Elder Holland explains our imperfections and allows us to hope.
“Brothers and sisters, every one of us aspires to a more Christlike life than we often succeed in living. If we admit that honestly and are trying to improve, we are not hypocrites; we are human. May we refuse to let our own mortal follies, and the inevitable shortcomings of even the best men and women around us, make us cynical about the truths of the gospel, the truthfulness of the Church, our hope for our future, or the possibility of godliness. If we persevere, then somewhere in eternity our refinement will be finished and complete—which is the New Testament meaning of perfection.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, CR Oct 2017)
We are to be perfected in Christ. As He learned to grow grace to grace we too must do the same. It is often been said that the greatest form of worship is emulation. God has shown us how to best emulate the Savior. If we look back to D&C 93 He proclaims,
“I give unto you these sayings that you may understand and know how to worship, and know what you worship, that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fulness. For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace.” (93:19-20)
As we look to Jesus Christ, apply His atoning power, and seek to emulate Him we will be therefore perfect as He and our Father in Heaven are perfect. We are perfected in Christ. We then will receive all that they have. We will come unto our exaltation having climbed the rungs of the ladder that Joseph Smith references. It won’t be today or tomorrow, but it will be by the time we are resurrected if we have stayed the course and remained worthy for the morning of the First Resurrection.