In reading Matthew 19.16-22 for my Three Worlds post, I came across that tricky little word—perfect (Matthew 19.21).
Currently, I’m still wrestling with my perfectionist demons. I’m still trying to discern the difference between perfection and excellence. I’m still working on allowing my perfectionism to propel me forward, but in a grace-filled, self-forgiving, risk-taking, diminished-fear-of-failure kind of way. Progress has been slow, but I’m beginning to strike a balance.
In light of this, I thought it perfect timing (pun intended), that I came across this word, τέλειος.
In Greek, τέλειος is an adjective which occurs 19 times in the New Testament, and which comes from the root noun τέλος meaning end, terminal, consummation or goal. In Scripture, τέλειος is used to describe God, Jesus, and humans. It refers to completeness in regards to physicality (such as a full grown adult), morality, and maturity. It signifies fullness of character, a type of consummation of integrity and virtue.* Yet, it implies that this happens through a process; it insinuates that this type of maturity entails development; that this endpoint, this finale, is only reached by journeying to it.
In the Oxford Dictionary, perfect is an adjective which means the following: conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type; entirely without flaws, defects, or shortcomings; accurate, exact, or correct in every detail.**
For most of my life, I’ve lived according to the Oxford Dictionary definition. I thought flawlessness, precision, and exactness would lead to greater achievement. I thought adhering to every external standard, and meeting every self or other-imposed requirement, would make me more reputable. I thought endless toil would equate to mastery. I was wrong.
Following this perfection rubric has left me exhausted, tattered, and limping toward an illusory finish line. It has had a fragmentary effect—rather than bringing about a fruitful character, it has left human shards in its wake.
This is why I’m adopting the biblical definition.
In Scripture, τέλειος isn’t about precision, accuracy or correctness. It’s not about crossing every T or dotting every I. It’s not a rulebook that looks at efficiency, inerrancy or failure. It doesn’t judge us off of our achievements, or lack thereof.
Rather, it looks at our character; it’s a measure of our human development; it’s a gauge of how we’re living as God’s image-bearers. It takes into consideration who God is and steers us in this direction.
When Jesus tells the young man in Matthew 19.21, “If you wish to be perfect,” he’s using an Aramaic idiom which means “whole” or “complete.” *** Jesus’ recommended actions (go, sell, give) represent God’s moral standard, and thus, perfection is defined as carrying out his will. The young man’s character is thus brought to wholeness and completion as he conforms himself to God’s character, as he responds as God would in this situation.
Biblical perfection is thus the product of choices and decisions which reflect our allegiance to God’s will, our willingness to imitate his character.
Whereas worldly perfection fixates on achievement, crucifying people for their shortcomings and failures, biblical perfection focuses on God, exhorting his followers to emulate his grace, love, and compassion (both for self and others). Whereas worldly perfection destroys, tears down, and makes us less human; biblical perfection builds up, promotes wholeness, and makes us more human. Whereas worldly perfection doesn’t allow for the process, biblical perfection does.
It’s in this process that we’re made complete; it’s in this journey that we’re made whole; it's in modeling our lives after God that our full potential comes to fruition.
***Keener, Craig S. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 205. William
B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.