Imitating Our Father

by Lois Tverberg

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:44-45, 48)

When Jesus instructs us to have unlimited love for one another, he presents God himself as our model for living. We should seek to have the same love that God has for us for one another. He says that we should strive to be “sons of our Father in heaven,” implying that somehow our “genetics” as God’s children should enable us to act like him.

Imitating our father

Later rabbis shared a similar sentiment in a commentary on Genesis. They imagined what the conversation might have been like in heaven right before man was created: (1)

When creation was all but ended, the world with all its grandeur and splendor stood out in its glorious beauty. There was but one thing wanting to consummate the marvelous work called into existence by the mere ‘let there be.’ That was a creature with thought and understanding that was able to behold, reflect and marvel on this great handiwork of God, who now sat on His Divine Throne surrounded by hosts of angels and seraphim singing hymns before Him. God said, ‘Let us make man in our likeness, and let there be a creature not only the product of earth, but also gifted with heavenly, spiritual elements, which will bestow on him reason, intellect and understanding.’

Truth then appeared, falling before God’s throne, and in all humility exclaimed: “Deign, O God, to refrain from calling into being a creature who is beset with the vice of lying, who will tread truth under his feet!”

Peace came forth to support this petition. “Wherefore, O Lord, shall this creature appear on earth, a creature so full of strife and contention, to disturb the peace and harmony of Thy creation? He will carry the flame of quarrel and ill-will in his trail; he will bring about war and destruction in his eagerness for gain and conquest.”

Whilst they were pleading against the creation of man, there was heard, arising from another part of the heavens, the soft voice of Mercy: “Sovereign of the Universe,” the voice exclaimed, in all its mildness, “vouchsafe Thou to create a being in Thy likeness, for it will be a noble creature striving to imitate Thy attributes by its actions. I see man now in spirit, that being with God’s breath in his nostrils, seeking to perform his great mission, to do his noble work. I see him now in spirit, approaching the humble hut, seeking out those who are distressed and wretched to comfort them, drying the tears of the afflicted and despondent, raising up them that are bowed down in spirit, reaching his helping hand to those who are in need of help, speaking peace to the heart of the widow, and giving shelter to the fatherless. Such a creature cannot fail to be a glory to His Maker.’

The Creator approved of the pleadings of Mercy, and called man into being.

In this vivid illustration, the rabbis expanded upon the implications of being created in the likeness of God, just as Jesus did in Matthew. Because God breathed his own breath into us to give us life, and because we bear his image, we are capable of love and mercy to one another. As long as we resolve to imitate our Father, we cannot fail to love as he loves.

To explore this topic more, see chapter 14, “God’s Image Stamped in Dust” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 180-91.

(1) Adapted from Genesis Rabbah 8, which dates from the 5-6th centuries AD/CE.


Tamim – Being Perfect

by Lois Tverberg

You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:43-48

A lot of us struggle with the saying of Jesus’ that we should be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect. Knowing its context and a little about language can help us have a clearer understanding.

The word that most likely came out of Jesus’ mouth was tamim, which in Hebrew means “pure,” blameless,” “perfect,” “wholehearted,” or “complete.” The sacrificial lamb of Passover needed to be tamim — without imperfections, completely whole. God told the Israelites to be perfect (tamim) before him in Deut. 18:13, then meaning wholeheartedly committed to him.

So Jesus is saying that we need to be wholehearted, but about what? Often people quote this line by itself and then become overwhelmed by its demands of moral perfection. Most likely, however, Jesus was not giving an undoable command to be entirely sinless. More likely, this is meant to be read as the culminating line of Jesus’ teaching about love that begins at verse 43. Jesus was pointing out that while humans hate their enemies, God shows love to everyone by giving good gifts even to those who hate him. He sends rain and sun alike on everyone, regardless of merit.

Other later rabbis noted a simiar thing. Rain is indeed precious in the arid Middle East, and God had threatened in the past to withhold it because of Israel’s sins. Surprisingly, though, God caused rain showers to fall and nourish the land and he didn’t discriminate between who received it. This was a sign of God’s mercy, they said. They even commented:

Greater is the day of rain than the resurrection of the dead because the resurrection of the dead benefits only the righteous, but rain benefits both the righteous and the unrighteous.

The “day of the resurrection” is the day when the dead will rise and be judged at the end of time. For the righteous it will be a day of great joy, of the coming of God’s glorious reign on earth. For the wicked, it will be a terrible day of judgment, however. Every day that God provides rain for all of us it shows the mercy of God towards sinners in this life. That’s the merciful, magnanimous love we are supposed to show to all if we want to be tamim, pure and complete.

Even the worst sinners are capable of love, even if just for their friends, but it is incomplete. In contrast, God loves all humanity — his love is complete in that sense. While our love can never be equal in quantity to God’s, it can be like his in its quality of being extended to even those who don’t deserve it. In that sense we are called to imitate God’s perfect love for the world.


Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

Further reading:

See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on the meaning of biblical words and phrases in their original setting.

For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg,, 2014 (ebook).