Two word-groups in the Hebrew Old Testament are translated "perfect" or "perfection": tamam [m'T] and calal [l;l'K]. The former connotes wholeness, soundness, integrity, and often takes on ethical significance; the latter connotes completeness, perfection, and can carry the aesthetic sense of comeliness or beauty. Nearly all New Testament occurrences translate Greek words sharing the tel- stem, from which some half-dozen words are formed that bear the sense of completion or wholeness.
Divine. In Scripture essential perfection belongs to God alone. Jesus assumes that the "heavenly Father is perfect" ( Matt 5:48 ). Paul speaks of God's will as perfect ( Rom 12:2 ). This view is solidly based in a wide range of Old Testament passages that use words from the tamam [m'T] group with its ethical connotations. Of foundational importance here is Moses' statement that the Lord's "works are perfect" ( Deut 32:4 ). Light is shed on this claim by four other clauses in the same verse that parallel and thereby explain it: (1) " [God] is the Rock"; (2) "all his ways are just"; (3) " [he is] a faithful God who does no wrong"; (4) "upright and just is he." God's perfection is an attribute of who he is as a person, not an idea or theoretical postulate, and it involves ethical qualities like justice and uprightness rather than properties that would indulge selfish human desire and pleasure (as in "a perfect meal" or "a perfect day"). Elsewhere the Old Testament asserts that God's "way is perfect; the word of the Lord is flawless" ( 2 Sam 22:31 ; Psalm 18:30 ). God "is perfect in knowledge" ( Job 37:16 ). God's "law is perfect, reviving the soul" ( Psalm 19:7 ). In the New Testament James speaks similarly of "the perfect law that gives freedom" (1:25).
Old Testament references to perfection using the calal [l;l'K] root speak often of a passing perfection, a beauty granted by God but squandered, whether by God's own people ( Lam 2:15 ; Ezek 16:14 ) or by a city-state like Tyre ( Ezekiel 27:3 Ezekiel 27:4 Ezekiel 27:11 ; 28:12 ). The same word is used positively of Zion ( Psalm 50:2 ). Elsewhere the psalmist contrasts the Lord's commands with what seems perfect from a human point of view: "To all perfection there is a limit; but your commands are boundless" ( 119:96 ).
Christ. The New Testament is aware that Jesus Christ was sinless ( John 8:46 ; Heb 4:15 ; 7:26 ). It speaks of him being "perfect, " however, only in the Book of Hebrews. God made Christ "perfect through suffering" so that he could bring "many sons to glory" ( 2:10 ). "Once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him" ( 5:9 ). Paul surely refers in part to Christ when he says that "when perfection comes, the imperfect [lit. that which is partial] disappears" ( 1 Cor 13:10 ). The New Testament does not belabor the perfection of the Son of God, perhaps because the divine nature (and therefore perfection) of someone who forgave sins, raised the dead, and ascended to the right hand of God seemed to make the point obvious enough.
God's People. Less obvious perhaps is the biblical insistence that God's people are called to be perfect: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" ( Matt 5:48 ). In Scripture nothing is clearer than the unique holiness of God, so this cannot be a command for sinners to become God's ethical equals. It is rather the call to "be imitators of God as dearly beloved children" ( Eph 5:1 ). Children who treasure their parents typically mimic them. Christians should mimic their Lord, who is perfect, thus reflecting his perfection in their lives. For some this will involve voluntary impoverishment for the sake of gaining true riches: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me" ( Matt 19:21 ). For others it is not the pride of possessions but the pride of self-expression that must go: "If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check" ( James 3:2 ).
While Paul calls on readers, not only to imitate God ( Eph 5:1 ), but also to imitate him ( 1 Cor 4:16 ; 11:1 ; 2 Thess 3:7 ), Paul denies that he is perfect ( Php 3:12 ). Yet he calls believers to share in the derivative excellence that life in Christ bestows ( Col 1:28 ; 3:14 ). Hebrews likewise speaks of the perfection of God's children, stressing that it is the result of Christ's death on their behalf: "by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy" ( 10:14 ; cf. 11:40 ; 12:23 ).
A key New Testament verse for understanding perfection in the Christian life is 2 Corinthians 12:9: "But he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'" Believers are perfect to the extent that they participate in the cruciform grace that God offers in Christ. Christ was perfected through the travail of righteous living amid the bruising realities of an unjust world. The means and abiding symbol of the perfection he won is the cross. His followers know perfection as they abide in the bright shadow of this same sign.
Robert W. Yarbrough
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Perfect, Perfection'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".