THE FACTS OF LIFE - PERFECTION

Without doubt, one of the things I most enjoy during the preparation of these lessons is the opportunity to share the rich insights gleaned from word studies.  We've repeatedly found answers to difficult issues in Scripture simply by delving into the historical background or cultural meaning of certain Greek words which prove difficult to translate into English.   "Perfection", the word under consideration today, is a prime example of this.

The English dictionary shows the word "perfect" has over a dozen definitions attached to it, none of which accurately conveys the original meaning as found in Scripture.  The most common meaning ascribed to this word is something "entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings".  That definition seems to work well when applied to the material world.  But, when we assign that same meaning to that word as used in Scripture, we run into a problem.  For instance, let's look at Matthew 5:48 where Jesus exhorts his followers to:  "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."  At first blush, Jesus seems to expect his followers to attain the state of sinless perfection, freedom from "flaws, defects or shortcomings" which is generally ascribed only to God.  If this was, in fact, the true meaning of the word, then God demands that each believer achieve the same level of holiness as Himself.  But, this seems to be exactly what Jesus is saying when He even cites the heavenly Father's perfection as the standard expected of all: "You disciples, be just as perfect as your heavenly Father." (Matthew 5:48 paraphrased).

But, if this is an accurate interpretation of this verse, then it clearly sets a standard of behavior too high for ordinary mortals to achieve.  Over the centuries following Jesus' command, there is no evidence that any believer, even through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, ever reached that degree of holiness and perfection.  In fact, the Apostle Paul was far from perfect and, even after many years of spiritual growth in his own personal life readily admitted: "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus.  Philippians 3:12.  So here we have one verse that tells us to be perfect and another verse which seems to say that sinless perfection is an impossible goal.  Is this a Scriptural contradiction or merely a problem with translation?  Let's find out.

RESOLVING INCONSISTENCIES: I chose this example in order to introduce the subject of Bible Hermeneutics, the study of the principles of Scripture interpretation.  Believers are charged with the task of "rightly dividing the Word of truth" II Timothy 2:15 so it's important to understand and use some of the tools required for correct interpretation of God's Word.   In the matter under discussion today, we're faced with what appears to be an inconsistency in Scripture, that is to say, the truth we find in Matthew 5:48 seems to contradict that found in Philippians 3:12.   This is a case of apparent internal inconsistency and therefore must be resolved.

 Internal consistency is an important factor in Scripture because it supports the claim that all Scripture, regardless of the writer, has only one author: the Holy Spirit.  This is clearly stated in II Peter 1:21 "For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit."  However, if Scripture were found to contradict itself, the single authorship of the Holy Spirit would be called into question and the purpose of Scripture would be thwarted for: "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right."  II Timothy 3:16.

First of all, we need to correctly understand the biblical meaning of the word "perfect" as used in the N.T. Koine Greek.  The Greek word itself, τέλειος or teleios, has several shades of meaning, all of which involve the following ideas: perfection is a process of going through levels or stages of change to reach an end-goal.  The root "tel-" conjures up the picture of an old collapsing telescope, extending one section at a time until it is fully extended and functioning in accord with its design .  In reality, the word "perfection" deals more with process of maturation than with a static state of idealistic faultlessness. Indeed, a more accurate translation of this term would be mature, finished or complete as purposed.  It originally applied to a machine which has all of the parts for which it was originally designed.

The Greek concept of "perfection" also embodies the notion of relativity so that a simple device, such as a bicycle, which has all its parts and is functioning according to its design, is just as "perfect" as a complex mechanism such as a jeweled chronometer.  Obviously, the watch is likely viewed as more complex, intricate, elegant and valuable than a bike but both are equally perfect. because each is as complete and finished it can be. 

Now, when we apply this definition to our verses of Scripture, it takes on a whole new meaning.  Now, we find that Jesus' command for "perfection" relates to our behaving in such a manner that our godliness will be seen as mature, complete and  proportionate to our spiritual development.  Thus Christian perfection is an ongoing process described insightfully by the Apostle Paul in Philippians 3:13-15. "Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."  In other words, believers who desire spiritual maturity, which is the aim of the Christian life, must continue to press toward the goal of Christ-likeness and, in doing so to the degree they are able, are perfect at that point.

So spiritual perfection is relative to maturity and involves going through stages of growth, just as physical growth occurs in children.  How often do we hear new parents declare: "He's perfect, just like he is!".  At that point in life, all the baby is capable of is to eat, eliminate, cry and sleep, yet he is perfect!  However, once that individual turns 21 and still has only those same capabilities, he would, doubtless, be called something other than "perfect" then.  Any parent will tell you that at each stage of a child's growth, it masters skills and capabilities it could not have performed at a younger age.   At each phase of growth, their best performance is as good and perfect as it can be for that particular stage of life.  Indeed, the word "perfection" in the Bible is mostly used of such maturity in faith and grace as may be, and ought to be, attained at that point of growth.   Compare its usage in the following verses: Corinthians 14:20  Philippians 3:15, Colossians 4:12 and James 1:4

Now, let's expand our search for comparative verses and see if the use of the word "perfection" as used elsewhere might shed light on it's true meaning.  In Colossians 4:12, for example, we find the Apostle Paul using teleios to describe the desirable spiritual state of new believers: "....that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature (teleios) and fully assured."  Likewise, this same phrase is found in Hebrews 5:14 where it describes mature believers who eat the solid meat of the Word and constantly exercise their judgment to distinguish good from evil.  "But solid food is for the mature (teleios) who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil."  The subject of this verse is a "full grown" man, in contrast to a child, who reaches a level of maturity, which we might call "relative perfection", far above that experience at his spiritual infancy.   This is the picture drawn for us by the Apostle Paul as he describes similar stages of spiritual growth ion the Christian life thus; "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.  II Corinthians 3:18.

A final word before leaving this interesting word study. Although it occurred over half a century ago, I remember well a sermon I heard at chapel while attending Bible college.  The topic was "the fullness of God" and the key verses were found in Ephesians 3:16-19.  This is the Apostle Paul's prayer on behalf of the believers at the church in Ephesus and I've always considered it the best description of what the Bible calls Christian "perfection".  Read it carefully and see if you don't agree: "I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God."

 It is this last phrase, "... filled to the measure of all the fullness of God" which I find utterly amazing.  How could a finite vessel, such as the human spirit, be filled with all the fullness of an infinite God?"  The speaker that day then went on to give an illustration which both fascinated and satisfied my questioning mind.  He spoke of an occasion in which he went surf fishing in the great Pacific ocean.  To keep his bait fresh, he submerged the bait bucket under water, tossed his line into the surf and settled back for an enjoyable afternoon at the beach. It was then he noticed a small clam shell, turned face up, and nestled next to his bait bucket.  As he watched the gentle swell of the vast sea before him, his mind drifted to the phrase ".... filled to the measure of all the fullness of God".  At that moment, he saw new meaning in that verse he had never seen before.  As he stared at the two containers before him, he realized that both the bucket, which contained over a gallon of liquid, and the shell, with the capacity of only a few ounces, were together filled with the fullness of the vast Pacific Ocean.  The capacity of each was different but while sitting beneath the surface of the ocean, they were both equally filled with its fullness.

I found this example to beautifully illustrate the relativity of spiritual "perfection".  Both were as full as they could be but neither was as large as the ocean itself. The spiritual maturity of a new born in Christ is as perfect as it can be for baby but woefully imperfect for what it would soon become through growth.  Yet, both the babe and the mature are equally perfect for their age, both filled to the fullness of God. In summary, there is no conflict or inconsistency between Jesus' command to be "perfect" and the "imperfect" state of all believer.  When the word is redefined as "mature, imitating God to the best of one's ability, and relying on the Holy Spirit to produce those spiritual qualities reflecting God's character through growth.  Below you'll find additional comments on the subject referenced from "Bible Study Tools".

 

WORD STUDY "PERFECTION" FROM "BIBLE STUDY TOOLS". http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/perfect-perfection.html

God's People. Less obvious perhaps is the biblical insistence that God's people are called to be perfect: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" ( Matt 5:48 ). In Scripture nothing is clearer than the unique holiness of God, so this cannot be a command for sinners to become God's ethical equals. It is rather the call to "be imitators of God as dearly beloved children" ( Eph 5:1 ). Children who treasure their parents typically mimic them. Christians should mimic their Lord, who is perfect, thus reflecting his perfection in their lives. For some this will involve voluntary impoverishment for the sake of gaining true riches: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me" ( Matt 19:21 ). For others it is not the pride of possessions but the pride of self-expression that must go: "If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check" ( James 3:2 ).

While Paul calls on readers, not only to imitate God ( Eph 5:1 ), but also to imitate him ( 1 Cor 4:16 ; 11:1 ; 2 Thess 3:7 ), Paul denies that he is perfect ( Php 3:12 ). Yet he calls believers to share in the derivative excellence that life in Christ bestows ( Col 1:28 ; 3:14 ). Hebrews likewise speaks of the perfection of God's children, stressing that it is the result of Christ's death on their behalf: "by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy" ( 10:14 ; cf. 11:40 ; 12:23 ).   A key New Testament verse for understanding perfection in the Christian life is 2 Corinthians 12:9: "But he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'" Believers are perfect to the extent that they participate in the cruciform grace that God offers in Christ. Christ was perfected through the travail of righteous living amid the bruising realities of an unjust world. The means and abiding symbol of the perfection he won is the cross. His followers know perfection as they abide in the bright shadow of this same sign. Your Father which is in heaven.—The better reading gives, your heavenly Father. The idea of perfection implied in the word here is that of the attainment of the end or ideal completeness of our being. In us that attainment implies growth, and the word is used (e.g., in 1Corinthians 2:6; Hebrews 5:14) of men of full age as contrasted with infants. In God the perfection is not something attained, but exists eternally, but we draw near to it and become partakers of the divine nature when we love as He loves:

PERFECTION - PULPIT COMMENTARY 

Perfect (τέλειοι). In the Gospels here and Matthew 19:21 only. The word denotes those who have attained the full development of innate powers, in contrast to those who are still in the undeveloped state - adults in contrast to children. Thus the thought here is - Ye shall be satisfied with, and shall attain to, no lower state than that of maturity. But what is it as to which they shall be mature? Surely not the whole Law as illustrated by all the examples since ver. 21; for vers. 31, 32 are excluded by the comparison with God immediately following. It must be the subject with which the sentence is closely connected, vers. 44-47 (cf. Meyer); love to others even though they have done you wrong. In this respect, viz. love to others, you shall admit, says our Lord, no lower ideal than that of' maturity, even such maturity as is found in him who sends sun and rain on all alike. Some (Augustine, Trench) have seen in this a merely relative maturity, itself capable of further development; but the subject rather demands absolute and final maturity. This does not imply that man will ever have such fullness of love as the Father has, but that he will fully and completely attain to that measure of love to which he as a created being was intended to attain. It may, however, be in accordance with true exegesis to see, with Weiss, for such apparently is his meaning, also an indication of further teaching - the nature of the revelation made known by Christ. For whereas "the fundamental commandment" of the Old Testament, "Ye shall be holy; for I am holy" (Leviticus 11:44, 45), was the more negative thought of God's exaltation above the impurity of created beings, our Lord now puts forth "the positive conception of the Divine perfection, whose nature is all-embracing, self-sacrificing love. And in place of the God, for ever separated from his polluted people by his holiness, to whom they can only render themselves worthy of approach through the most anxious abstinence from all impurity, and by means of the statutes for purification contained in the Law, there is on the ground of this new revelation the Father in heaven, who stoops to his children in love, and so operates that they must and can be like him" (Weiss, 'Life,' 2:156). The simple and straightforward meaning of the verse, however, is this - You shall take no lower standard in love to enemies than God shows to those who ill treat him, and you shall, in fact, attain to this standard. Upon this (for the limitation of the meaning to one point makes no real difference) there arises the question which has been of so much importance in all ages of the Church -

What is the measure of attainment that is really possible for Christ's disciples upon earth? ought they not to expect to live perfect lives? But the text gives no warrant for such an assertion. No doubt it says that attainment to maturity - to perfection according to creaturely limits - is eventually possible. That is implied in ἔσεσθε (vide supra). But when this attainment can be made is not stated. Many will, indeed, affirm that, as our Lord is giving directions to his disciples concerning things in this life, the attainment also is affirmed to be possible in this life. But this by no means follows. Christ gives the command, and by the form of it implies that it shall be carried out to the full. But this is quite consistent with the conception of a gradually increasing development of love which, in fact will attain maturity, a state in which God's love has ever been; but not immediately and not before the final completion of all Christ's work in us. The words form, indeed, a promise as well as a command, but the absence of a statement of time forbids us to claim the verse as a warrant for asserting that the τελειότης referred to can be attained in this life. Trench ('Syr.,' 22.) explains the passage by saying that the adjective is used the first time in a relative, and the second time in an absolute, sense. But this does not seem as probable as the interpretation given above, according to which the adjective is in both cases used absolutely. His following words, however, deserve careful attention. "The Christian shall be ' perfect,' yet not in the sense in which some of the sects preach the doctrine of perfection, who, so soon as their words are looked into, are found either to mean nothing which they could not have expressed by a word less liable to misunderstanding; or to mean something which no man in this life shall attain, and which he who affirms he has attained is deceiving himself, or others, or both." Even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect; Revised Version, as your heavenly Father is perfect; so the manuscripts. The epithet, ὁ οὐράνιος, is wanting in Luke, but Matthew wishes to lay stress on their Father's character and methods being different from those of an earthly father. Observe again not "the Father" but your Father; nerving them to fulfill the summons to likeness to him (cf. ver. 16).  From "Pulpit Commentary" http://biblehub.com/commentaries/matthew/5-48.htm