“Be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) Perfect? What does Jesus mean? Or are we reading Jesus wrong? If Jesus means what we mean by perfection, we are toast – which could be true. But there are other nuances to the Greek word used here in Matthew 5:48.
The adjective teleios is used nineteen times in the New Testament, to which we must add related nouns and verbs which we must consider. Teleios has three basic meanings: perfect, mature, and complete. Knowing these options can help tremendously when we encounter verses that contain one of these words in our Bible.
We find this same word in Jesus’ challenge to the Rich Young Ruler in Matthew 19:21: “If you wish to be perfect, go sell what you have and give to the poor, and come follow me.” In Jesus’ aforementioned command to “Be perfect,” Jesus has just challenged his audience to love their enemies. In both of these examples, Jesus is setting the bar sky-high for those who think they have “arrived” in their walk with God. As Jesus says and then proceeds to unpack in the Sermon on the Mount, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)
Hebrews 6:1 urges us, “Let us go on toward perfection.” Is this a realistic possibility, or could “maturity” be more what the writer has in mind? Paul writes in Colossians 3:14 that love is the “bond of perfection.” But in Philippians 3:12, Paul says that he himself has not yet been perfected. In all of these instances, “maturity” might be a better way to translate what the writer has in mind.
“Maturity” could be what Jesus is aiming at when he says “Be perfect.” Hebrews 5:14 says that “solid food is for the mature.” In 1 Corinthians 2:6, Paul says “We speak to those who are mature,” while in 1 Corinthians 14:2, he writes, “In evil be babies, but in thinking be adults.” In Ephesians 4:13, Paul speaks of the time when “we all come to mature adulthood,” while in Colossians 1:28, he states that his goal is “to present every person mature/perfect in Christ.” Maturity is a tricky judgment to make, of course, unless we are willing to concede that we all have a long way to grow.
The word for “perfect” can also mean “complete.” A clear example is 1 Corinthians 13:10, “When the perfect comes, the partial will be abolished.” This meaning is closely connected to the meaning of the related verbs (see below). “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) indicates a love that has completed the process of transforming a person.
The writer of Hebrews has a lot to say about how perfection happens. Hebrews 5:9 says that Jesus was “perfected” by learning obedience through what he suffered (see previous verse, as well as 2:10 and 7:28). Hebrews 7:19 declares that the Law perfected nothing. Hebrews 9:9 teaches that sacrifices are not able to perfect the conscience, and Hebrews 10:1 adds that the Law can’t do it either. But Hebrews 10:14 states that by a single offering Jesus has “perfected” us. And Hebrews 11:40 and 12:23 speak of being made “perfect” when we reach the completion of our journey in life.James 1:4 uses this word twice in one short sentence. The first time, we are told to let patience have its “perfect work” = “full effect,” while the second time the word seems to mean perfect or mature. James 3:2 says that “if anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect / mature / complete man” (what an understatement!). And James teaches in 2:23 that faith is “perfected” (= completed) by works. The same sense occurs in the four times it is used in 1 John, including 4:18: “Whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”
The verbs related to the adjective “perfect” are teleō, “finish, bring to end” (used 28 times in the New Testament), and teleioō, “finish” (used 23 times), all based on the noun telos or “end.” In John 19:28, Jesus sees that all is now “finished,” and so as he dies, he cries in verse 30, “It is finished!”, a word that can also mean “Paid in full!” (See Matthew 17:24 and Romans 13:6 for the use of this verb to mean paying off one’s tax bill.)
Numerous familiar scriptures employ this verb for perfection or completion. Paul writes in his famous last words in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have finished the race.” Jesus predicts in Matthew 10:23, “You will not have finished going through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” Paul tells us Galatians 5:16 that if we walk by the Spirit, “you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh.” The Lord tells Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”
Revelation 15:1 declares that after the seven bowls are poured out, “the wrath of God is complete.” This verb is used to mark both when God’s word is fulfilled (Revelation 17:17) and when Jesus has finished speaking (Matthew 7:28). The sense of God’s love completing its objective can be seen in 1 John 2:5 (“Whoever keeps God’s word, truly the love of God is perfected in him”) and 4:12 (“If we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is perfected in us”).
John Wesley is alleged to have taught that sinless perfection is not only possible, but to be expected in this life. However, in his pamphlet A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, Wesley writes that “’sinless perfection’ is a phrase I never use,” but he defines “sin properly so called” as only “a voluntary transgression of a known law,” not including involuntary transgressions and/or “mistakes.” I remember this explanation from my Nazarene aunts years ago. Myself being a convinced Calvinist on this point, I define sin much more broadly, including not only what we do, but what we fail to do, and even who we are when sitting still.
Clearly, perfection, maturity, or completeness can only be a relative term in this life. Completeness can only come when we have completed our journey.