One time I heard a man pray, “Lord, you don’t call us to be perfect. You only call us to . . .”
I didn’t really hear the rest, because I was thinking, “Yes, He does! Right there in plain English!” Or Greek or whatever.
King James, my favorite, in Matthew 5:48: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
It’s a huge sticking point for Christians. God calls us to do something that’s impossible, and He obviously doesn’t empower us to do it, the argument goes, because obviously nobody’s perfect. So why did He say it? Because if we shoot for the moon we might hit the lamppost?
This year I’m in Philippians. And Paul talks there about being perfect. Apparently, at first reading, he’s not perfect, but apparently somebody is.
This is what he said: in chapter 3 he was talking about wanting to know Christ, to know the power of His resurrection, that he wanted to attain the resurrection of the dead, and then he said, verse 12: “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus.”
And so—I’ve heard it more than once—people think, well, if Paul (heavenly music here) couldn’t be perfect, how could any of us ordinary mortal Christians expect to be able to? It’s one of those times when we just scratch our heads and continue muddling through the Christian life.
The problem is that a few verses later (verse 15) he said, “Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded [having the thinking he had just described in verse 14]: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you.”
Do you see the disconnect here? Now he seems to think that apparently somebody is perfect, and he might even be including himself. Even if you have a different Bible version that uses the word “mature” here, it doesn’t, from my experience, mitigate the confusion that has developed over the years—not to mention that this is the very same word used in Matthew 5:48.
Somehow the word perfect has become associated with “flawless” and even “sinless.” But on studying the Greek word, I was surprised to learn that the Bible never makes that connection. Never! There are a few different Greek words translated perfect, and none of them are meant to express those concepts.
The word that Paul used in verse 12 referred to finishing, or completing, his course. Do you remember in Hebrews (2:10) when it says that Jesus was made “perfect through suffering”? What a weird concept—if you don’t get what that Greek word means. But if you see that it means He had to finish His work on earth by suffering, then it makes perfect sense.
In verse 15 the word used is used other places in the New Testament to refer to being ready, prepared, like a good soldier ready to enter battle. Like a loaf of fresh bread ready to be eaten. Like a fruit on the tree that has reached the peak of maturity. Maybe there’s a little flaw in the fruit, maybe the soldier isn’t as polite as he needs to be, maybe the bread has a large air hole. But that doesn’t negate that each one is perfect in the way Paul is using the word.
Isn’t it heartening to know that this is the word God is using in Matthew 5:48? The whole context of the “therefore” in that verse is the love of God flowing from Him through me to others. Am I prepared, through faith, to do that? Am I ready, with the fruit of the Spirit in my life? Am I full of the fresh Bread of the Living Word of Christ to give to others? Then I’m one of the perfect ones (not flawless! not sinless!) of Philippians 3:15.
How heartening it is, too, to look at the second half of verse 15 and see that even those who are perfect can still be subject to some wrong-headed thinking that the Lord needs to correct. I’m sure that several perfect people I know could attest to this truth.
John Wesley compared the two words to a marathon. The “perfect” of verse 15 refers to being ready to run the course. (Didn’t Hebrews 12 have something to say about that?) The “perfect” of verse 12 refers to finishing the course. Both are important. Both are distinct. Both can be accomplished by flawed human beings, because of the great Empowerer, Jesus Christ. Through the bursting power of His Holy Spirit, we can walk and run and even fly, looking, looking, all the while, to Jesus, the One whose sinless, flawless, completely finished perfection is never in doubt.