Word of the Week
January 22, 2022
Teleios: The Impossible Demand?
Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
When young Sean brings home his grades, his mother praises him: “You got A’s in all but one class!” Dad, on the other hand, wants to know, “Why did you get a B?” He instinctively zeroes in on the one point of imperfection.
Many kids grow up feeling hopeless because they can never perform well enough to please their parents. Even when they succeed, someone just raises the bar higher. Eventually, these children either flame out in their efforts to do everything right – or they give it up as a hopeless cause.
People respond in the same ways to God’s requirement of absolute holiness. After all, His Book declares, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10). Sounds like the parent who refuses to tolerate a single B, doesn’t it?
Few verses are more discouraging than Christ’s statement in Matthew 5:48 – “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
By the time I’m old enough to read this passage, it’s already too late. Even toddlers are “steeped in sin.” Their selfish souls already show. I know I can never be perfect!
Or am I misunderstanding the verse?
Let’s take a closer look at the Greek word for “perfect.” Exactly what does Jesus require?
The Greek word used twice in Matthew 5:48 is teleios. It appears 19 times in the New Testament, most often In Paul’s epistles and the book of James. When we see the word “perfect,” we think “absolutely sinless, without iniquity of any kind.” Knowing our own baked-in crust of selfishness, we resign ourselves to failure in obeying this verse.
However, there’s more to the word teleios. Like most Greek words, it comes with several shades of meaning.
- It can mean mature rather than childlike.
Paul urged, “In evil be babes, but in your thinking be teleios” [mature] – 1 Corinthians 14:20. Act like a grownup, not a toddler! (see also Hebrews 5:14)
- It can mean complete rather than partial.
When that which is teleios is come, what is in part will be done away” – 1 Corinthians 13:10.
- It can mean whole or undivided rather than lacking in something.
Jesus told the rich young ruler, “If you want to be teleios, go and sell all you have and give it to the poor” (Matthew 19:21).
“Teleios love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
James tells us to allow trials to do their complete work, so that we will be complete (James 1:14)
The will of God is perfect, with no deficiencies (Romans 12:2).
The tabernacle in heaven is perfect (Hebrews 9:11).
The gifts of God are perfect, like jigsaw puzzles with no missing pieces (James 1:17).
The law of liberty is perfect, with no unintended consequences (James 1:25).
To be teleios is to be complete, with no missing parts.
God intends for every one of His children to reach the full maturity of Christ-like character. You can see the details in Ephesians 4:13; Colossians 1:28 and Colossians 4:12.
How about Christ’s command to “Be perfect”?
First, note that he was speaking in context about loving your enemies. God pours His good gifts on the undeserving, and we fall short of His example if we don’t do the same.
Second, even though the word doesn’t mean “sinless perfection” here, it still puts the standard higher than we can reach. One of the main points of the Sermon on the Mount is that God’s demands vastly outreach our abilities.
Third, God’s grace extends to our shortfalls. The Lord realizes that we will never achieve perfection in any aspect of life, and that is why He came to provide the redemption that makes it possible to receive life – not because we are perfect, but because He is!
The word teleios is related to telos, which means “end, completion.” [see a complete article on telos HERE.) You can’t always assume that two related words have the same meaning, but it is worth a careful look. You should use caution in using one word to determine the meaning of a related word, especially when you are talking about the origin of a word. The link to telos suggests the idea of reaching a goal. That’s where we get the idea that teleios describes someone that has fully realized the purpose for which they were made.
Q – When Jesus tells His listeners to be perfect (Matthew 5:48), is there anything in the Greek grammar that helps us understand the passage better?
A – The verb “be” in the passage is technically not a command. It is a future tense statement of fact that you would often translate “you will be.” It might sound a little odd, but it is a standard feature of Greek grammar. When Jesus quotes the commandments to the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:18, he uses the same grammatical pattern: “you will not kill; you will not commit adultery; you will not steal; you will not bear false witness.”
That does not weaken the force of the command, however. It just says it a different way, like a mother telling her child, “You WILL eat your peas” [if you know what’s good for you].” Similarly, God says, “You shall NOT steal”!
Do you ever feel as if you’re in a battle? That shows that you’re paying attention! Scripture talks often about spiritual conflicts so we will examine some of the Greek words for warfare next week.
©Ezra Project 2022