Have you ever wondered why God commands us to be perfect when it seems so impossible? In English, the word means things like, “being entirely without fault or defect” and “corresponding to an ideal standard or abstract concept” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). When we read that and think of verses like “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23, NET), we might get discouraged. It’s disheartening to look at ourselves and realize how far we are from perfection.
The task of becoming perfect seems even more daunting when we read, “So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48, NET). How could we ever become as perfect as God is? If we don’t give up altogether thinking of that monumental task, it’s easy to get caught in a cycle of trying to be perfect, failing, and then falling into depression and/or guilt. We might think we’re not good enough for God. We might know that achieving perfection is only possible with God’s help, but still feel like if only we worked at it a little harder we’d be able to use His help more effectively and stop being so imperfect.
God doesn’t set us up for failure, though. Rather, His way of looking at perfection is very encouraging. First, we need to remember that Jesus told us things which are impossible for men are possible for God (Matt. 19:26). Next, let’s look at what “perfect” means in the Bible and how it’s used, because it’s different than we might expect.
What is “Perfect”?
Let’s start with an example. In the Old Testament, God described Job as a “perfect” or “blameless” man twice at the beginning of Job’s story (Job 1:8; 2:3). We know that Job learned and grew as a result of the trials he went through. God even showed up personally to set Job straight. And yet God could describe Job as “perfect” with complete honesty before all that growth happened.
The word in Hebrew that’s translated “perfect” in the KJV is tam (H8535), which refers to completeness and entirety. It doesn’t necessarily mean finished, though — rather, it describes someone moving “naturally toward that which is ethically sound” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament entry 2522). Thus in the Bible, we can be described as “perfect” while being on the path toward perfection–toward being like God.
As for God, his way is perfect.2 Samuel 22:31-33, WEB
Yahweh’s word is tested.
He is a shield to all those who take refuge in him.
For who is God, besides Yahweh?
Who is a rock, besides our God?
God is my strong fortress.
He makes my way perfect.
God is perfect in an absolute sense, and He takes on Himself the task of moving us toward similar perfection. As long as we are growing toward being like Him, He can describe us as “perfect” just like He called Job perfect.
This idea of growth also fits in with the New Testament writings. There are two main words translated “perfect” from Greek, and one is teleios (G5046). It means something that is finished or complete, as in completely blameless, or a person who is full-grown in mind and understanding (Zodhiates). This “full growth” is what Jesus Christ prayed His followers would experience.
The glory which you have given me, I have given to them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and you in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that you sent me and loved them, even as you loved me.John 17:22-23, WEB
Perfection as a Christian has everything to do with growth. If we think we’re already perfect, then we’re not (1 Cor. 10:12). But if we’re pursuing perfection by trying to be like God and deepening our relationship with Him, then He talks about us as if we’re already perfect.
On To Perfection
God the Father and Jesus Christ don’t leave us in the dark about how to grow toward perfection. The key is to focus on them rather than ourselves. We’re not trying to make ourselves perfect; we’re trying to mimic them. We’ll never eclipse their perfection, but we can become like them. That won’t be fully realized in this life, but we start the process now and in the future we’ll be so much “like him” that “we will see him just as he is” (1 John 3:1-3).
A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher.Luke 6:40, NKJV
This verse brings us to the other Greek word frequently translated “perfect.” Katartizo (G2675) means “to put a thing in its appropriate condition.” It can mean repairing something that was broken, setting a person right with God, and preparing or equipping someone for a purpose (Zodhiates). Here in Luke, Jesus is telling us that in order to become whole, complete and right with God, we have to become like Him. Growing the whole church body toward being like Christ is one of the most important responsibilities of the church (Eph. 4:10-14). The closer we get to “attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature” (Eph. 4:13, NET), the more mature we become as Christians.
We all have a responsibility to grow. Not to make ourselves perfect as if we could fix all our flaws ourselves, but to keep moving toward being like God. God doesn’t get angry and pounce on us when we stumble and fall or miss the mark; He helps us get back up. When we repent and keep growing, He still calls us perfect. It’s only when we stagnate (or sin and refuse to repent and change) that we get into real trouble.
For although by this time you should be teachers, you again need to have someone teach you the rudiments of the first principles of the revelations of God. You have come to need milk, and not solid food. For everyone who lives on milk is not experienced in the word of righteousness, for he is a baby. But solid food is for those who are full grown, who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern good and evil.
Therefore leaving the teaching of the first principles of Christ, let’s press on to perfection—not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works, of faith toward God, of the teaching of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. This will we do, if God permits.Hebrews 5:12-6:3, WEB
“Why aren’t you growing?” the writer of Hebrews asks. “You know what the elementary principles are, so build on them.” If you’re a brand-new Christian then you will be learning those principles, but as the years pass you’re supposed to keep building. We have a foundation — Jesus Christ whose sacrifice perfects us (1 Cor. 3:11; Heb. 10:14) — and now is the time to start building on that foundation. Even though God refers to us as perfect before we actually reach that goal, we can’t become complacent.
Not that I have already attained this—that is, I have not already been perfected—but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let those of us who are “perfect” embrace this point of view. If you think otherwise, God will reveal to you the error of your ways.Philippians 3:12-15, NET
Even the Apostle Paul didn’t think he could stop pursuing perfection, and he wrote over 30% of the New Testament text! But he didn’t let the fact that he wasn’t perfect yet discourage him. He also encouraged his fellow Christians to keep growing toward perfection and maturity in Christ. Like Paul, I hope we can accept the fact that we’re not yet perfect while continuing to move towards being like Jesus and our Father. We don’t have to beat ourselves up over not being “good enough.” God calls us perfect as long as we keep growing toward being like Him.
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