The English word “perfect” carries many different ideas. To illustrate: when parents enfold a newborn child in their first “group hug”, gingerly unwrap the precious bundle to marvel at the tiny fingers and toes, and exclaim, “He/she’s perfect!” — nobody argues. When the school child proudly brings home a “perfect” paper, he is praised. Later, with considerably less delight, they may refer to their teenager as a “perfect storm!” and still later, he may land the “perfect” job for which he is “perfectly” qualified, and find the “perfect” match with whom to start the whole process all over again. In each case, a different idea is in view.
Ironically, it is the sense of the “perfect” (without error) schoolwork, the only concept that is not represented among the Greek words used in the New Testament, upon which people have become fixated when pontificating about the “Christian life”. Too often, it then becomes a weapon of theological warfare, ignoring the fact that none of the seven different words that traditional versions have rendered “perfect” carries any implication of being totally free from error!
Akribos (from akriboo) refers to “accurate information, careful investigation, thorough understanding.” Luke uses it to describe his own research (1:3), Priscilla and Aquila correcting the errors in the teaching of Apollos (Ac.18:26), and legal investigations by government officials (Ac.23:15, 23:20, and 24:22).
Artios — “suitable, a perfect example of its kind, full grown, mature” — is used only once in the New Testament, (II Tim.3:17), of the maturity Paul sets before Timothy as a goal.
Epiteleo — “to pay in full, to discharge one’s duty, to complete, finish or accomplish a task” — is translated “perfect” only twice (II Cor.7:1 and Gal.3:3). In other contexts, the translations are more in accord with its definitions, especially those referring to the completing of a task (Rom.15:28, II Cor.8:6 and 8, and Phil.1:6).
Katartizo — “to adjust, put in order, restore, mend, furnish, equip, prepare,” involves the process of teaching, an important component of maturity. It is even used classically of the setting of a broken or disjointed limb! Jesus uses it of a disciple “becoming like his teacher” (Lk.6:40); Paul includes it in his instructions for the growth of the Body in Corinth (I Cor.1:10, II Cor.13:11) and his intention to add to his teaching in Thessalonica (I Thess.3:10). God himself is doing the teaching in Heb.13:21 and I Pet.5:10: “on-the-job training” of the very best kind!
By far the most common among the references are two related words:
teleios (adj.) — “complete, entire, whole; fully constituted, valid; full-grown, married; accomplished, trained, qualified; absolute or final, serious or dangerous (0f illness); and unblemished (of an animal sacrifice), and
teleioo (v.) — to make perfect, complete, or accomplish; to execute or make valid a legal document; to be successful; to reach maturity (fruit, animals, or people); to be fulfilled or brought to consummation (a prophecy or promise.)
I have tentatively sorted the passages where these latter words appear into three groups on the strength of these definitions (definitely open to challenge!): those that refer to a task or purpose being finished or accomplished; those that refer to maturity; and those that indicate completeness, validity, or fulfillment.
Jesus, for example, referred to “finishing” the particular healing work in which he was involved when he was warned to leave town because of Herod’s plotting (Lk.13:32). In Phil.3:12, Paul speaks of God’s work in him not being yet “finished”. James 1:4 refers to wisdom “finishing” its work in shaping God’s people, and Hebrews 9:11 to the better tabernacle than the elaborate tent in the desert. In most of these, the word “complete would have worked equally well.
Frequently, “complete” is contrasted with “partial” or “in progress,” and refers to a goal that is still before us — James 2:22 refers to faithfulness being “made complete” by action; I Jn.4:17 to love being “made complete”; and Heb.11:40 to the faithful folks of the past being “made complete” only together with the followers of Jesus. In his prayer (Jn.17:23) Jesus asks that his disciples be “made complete” in unity with each other, with himself, and with the Father. And of course, there is the most familiar statement, in I Cor.3:10, that when all is “complete,” the partial will no longer be needed.
The greater portion of the references refer to maturity. Paul frequently admonished his readers to “grow up” — a constant, lifetime assignment for all of us. Clearly, that is the sense of Jesus’ statement in Mt.5:48, in the context of his teaching that the attitudes and behavior of his disciples are expected to be patterned after the Father, rather than the local culture, as a child learns to mimic his adult role models. Paul, in Eph.4:13, Phil.3:15, and Col.1:28 and 4:12, incorporates the same idea of working/growing toward maturity, and John (I Jn.4:18) highlights the result of that maturing process: fear being replaced by a total confidence in the love of God.
Hebrews 2:10 and 5:9 suggest that maturity may have been a process, even for Jesus himself, as our forerunner. This may also include the sense of establishing his qualifications for the work of conforming us to his own image. Please note, to think of Jesus “maturing” is NOT to suggest that he was ever less than the earthly manifestation of our holy God. But also remember that he did deign to be born and reared as a person. I refuse to engage in the argument as to whether he ever had a normal childhood spat with his brothers. To insist that he could not, however, is to miss the meaning of teleios altogether, as well as to deny his total identification with our human condition. I do think this indicates that in our quest for the maturity to which we are called, we need not categorize immaturity as “sinful”, wrong, or evil. It’s simply what a dear friend used to call “a No Parking zone.”
Note also that maturity is never represented as an instantaneous achievement. “Mature” looks different at age 10 — or 20 — or 40– or 70, physically, socially, and spiritually. Jesus, and the faithful of historic times, are the only ones for whom it is spoken of as an accomplished fact.
For the rest of us, “Nobody’s perfect” must describe a goal, not an excuse: a motivation, not a lame apology. It is our privilege to declare with brother Paul,
“Not that I’ve already arrived, or already have been made complete (teleios) — but I’m striving intensely to take possession (of that for which) I was taken-possession-of by Christ Jesus.” (Phil.3:12), and later (v.15) “Anyone who is mature (teleios) must have this mind-set.”
Keep on keeping on!