And now the time is finally here to talk about the word perfect. Like when Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It is one of those phrases that Evangelicals love to point to when talking about the necessity of moral perfection. I am pretty sure the text on that million dollar bill with the million dollar question I talked about back in episode six, included a bit about perfection. It is all part of an evangelism spiel that says if you are not perfect than you deserve hell unless Jesus saves you. There are just two small problems … Greek and context. I will unpack each.
The Greek word there is teleios. The root word, telos, means end. So teleios points to ideas like completion and maturity. In relationship to people, it can reference becoming an adult. It can also point to someone who is living in the fullness of their purpose. But nowhere does the word imply moral perfection.
As an analogy, imagine getting on a flight going from Los Angeles to New York City. However, before you take off the pilot announces that you need to return to the gate because a sensor failed. After a two-hour delay your flight finally takes off.
As you fly over the Rockies, something is going on with the jet stream. The turbulence is so rough it tosses the plane around like a rag doll in the sky. People’s computers are thrown from tray tables and broken. It seems half the passengers are getting sick. The flight crew, needing to remain buckled in, cannot help calm the chaos.
The whole experience is traumatic enough that the pilot decides to bring the plane down in Denver and have it checked over. After another two hour delay, you take off again. At this point, the typical five hour flight is now pushing 6 hours. Of course, with Covid restrictions, there are only peanuts on board. This means, by the time you finally land and get off the plane in New York City, you and the rest of the passengers and crew have not eaten in ten hours.
According to the English word, that flight was anything but perfect. However, because the plane got to where it was going, that flight fulfills all the qualifications for teleios.
The second problem with the common interpretation is context. The line we are wrestling with says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Now, whenever you see the word therefore, you need to ask the question, “What is the therefore there for?” In other words, therefore is a word that links what comes next, to what the author just said.
So what did Jesus just say? We can take this at three levels. One would involve the dialogue on loving your enemy and praying for those who persecute you that we discussed this week. In this case, being “perfect” as your heavenly Father is perfect means to reach that place where you truly do love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
The second option is this entire series of statements on what the religious leaders of the day taught the people versus what Jesus taught. This would include his teaching on murder, adultery, divorce, honesty, resistance, and loving your enemies. Here, being “perfect” would mean something like attaining a complete understanding of the law.
The third option would link to the entire Sermon on the Mount so far. This includes everything in the second option plus Jesus’ teaching on the Beatitudes, salt, light, and fulfilling the Law. Again, because this is not about the quality of the journey but ultimately reaching the destination, there is no sense of embodying perfection today. Rather, it is about a continual process of growth and development.
The Journey to Perfect
The whole thing makes me think of a line from the Apostle Paul to the Philippians: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
So as you live your process, my prayer for you echos that of the Apostle:
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.Philippians 1:9–11, NRSV
Ultimately getting to that destination, one way or another, is what it means to be perfect.