If you grew up in church, like I did, you likely heard that Jesus was perfect. You may have also learned that as a baby, Jesus never cried. When he learned how to walk, he never stumbled. He always knew how to chew with his mouth closed. His voice didn’t shift during puberty and squeak awfully when he spoke in the temple. When he ate his food, none ever got stuck in his beard. No one ever, not in 33 years, had to tell him that he had something green stuck in his teeth, because being perfect meant that none of these things happened to Jesus.
No? You weren’t taught those things? Then what did you think it meant when you learned that Jesus was perfect?
No, really. Think about it. What does being “perfect” mean? Without blemish, flaw, fault, or mistake, right?
Then what would you call it if Jesus spilled wine on the table, or tripped on his robe, or banged his knee on the sycamore tree? An accident? Oh…I get it. So, you can still be perfect, but accidentally make mistakes? Wait. I’m confused. What?
It’s all Greek to me.
Speaking of Greek, I’d like to disrobe the term τέλειος translated as the English word “perfect.” τέλειος is used in several passages, namely, Matthew 5. In context, the passage reads:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The same Greek word τέλειος in Ephesians, is translated to the English word “maturity.”
11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.
In Matthew 5, it makes sense to translate τέλειος as “perfect” in the way we might understand it, because it is in reference to God. However, in context, we see that Jesus is calling his disciples to a more robust view of the law. He is calling them to “maturity,” “wholeness,” “completeness.” He is asking them to not only consider everything the Torah has commanded, but to go further by loving your enemy.
The passage that Paul writes connotes that spiritual gifts are used to build up the body in order that it may find “fullness.”
James 1:2-4 uses the same word τέλειος which is translated as “mature.” The verse explicates the meaning by describing this maturity as being “complete, lacking in nothing.”
2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
So, let’s look at Matthew 5:48 again. Jesus calls us to be τέλειος. He is inviting us into wholeness, completeness, not wanting us to lack anything. And the words, coming from Jesus’ mouth hold the utmost validity and credibility because he certainly didn’t shy away from the full experience of his own humanity. Though he was God, he emptied himself and became flesh and experienced the τέλειος of humanity. That means, even though he brought Lazarus back to life, Jesus wept over his friend’s death. Even though the disciples fell asleep on him in his darkest hour, Jesus still asked for help. Even though he knew and spoke to Peter and Judas’ betrayal, nonetheless, Jesus still offered them gifts of power.
Did Jesus make a mistake because he wept when he knew his friend Lazarus would live? Was it an accident that Jesus asked his closest followers to stay awake and pray for him twice only to come back and find them asleep both times!!!? Did Jesus use poor judgment when asking Judas’ to be the money keeper and Peter to be a leader?
Language confounds me at this point. I don’t know if Jesus made “mistakes” or if they were “accidents.” What I do know is that in his birth, life and death, he lived τέλειος. He experienced the fullness, completeness, wholeness and most robust humanity of anyone. So, why do we do anything less? Why do we not mourn in the midst of hope? Why do we not trust though some may disappoint? Why do we not take risks, even though it may be painful? Is it because we want to be perfect, but we don’t want to be τέλειος? τέλειος requires feeling – the bad and the good; facing what is true and untrue; risking when there is no guarantee. Whether it is making a mistake, or accident, or grief, or celebration, or hope, or risk, or daring…may we strive to be τέλειος – to embrace our humanity in order to experience fullness, completeness, maturity, and wholeness.
A beautiful portrayal of τέλειος can be seen in this depiction of Jesus’ humanity during his forty day fast.