In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructed his disciples: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:46). Instructions like this are found all through the Old and New Testaments. In Genesis 17:1, God said to Abraham: “I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect.”
Some people say that the only way that we can be perfect is by faith in Jesus Christ so that His perfection is imputed to us. How does that fit with God’s instruction to Abraham?
There are 12 Hebrew words that are translated perfect in the Old Testament, and 8 Greek words that are translated perfect in the New Testament. These Hebrew and Greek words are often translated by other words in the Bible, usually words like complete or finished.
The Greek word teleios, which is twice used in the first verse that I quoted, means brought to an end, full grown, adult, mature. In 1 Corinthians 14:20 the same word is translated men: “Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.” And in Hebrews 5:14 it is translated of full age: “ But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”
The English word perfect is defined thus by Oxford: 1 complete; not deficient 2 flawless; without defect 3 very satisfactory 4 exact; precise 5 entire; unqualified 9 eminently suitable. Meanings 6, 7 and 8 deal with grammar, botany and sports. In English grammar the perfect past tense refers to an action that was completed in the past before something else happened; the imperfect past tense refers to an action that began in the past and was not complete at the moment being spoken of.
Too many people get hung up on definition 2 and think it is the only meaning of perfect. In fact, that meaning does not seem to be implied in any of the Scriptural uses of the word perfect. Most often the intended meaning, when referring to people, is grown up, mature. Maturity does not make us flawless, it makes us responsible. We make mistakes, confess them and do our best to make amends. That is what God wants of us.
We read in history of some Christians of many years ago who referred to their leaders as the perfect. If we understand the true meaning of perfect, that amounts to much the same thing as calling them elders. The use of the word perfect by those people is not enough in itself for us to judge them as having a false belief.
So, yes, we are called to be perfect, in the sense of being mature and responsible. It is a high calling, but God has given us the Holy Spirit to help us fulfill that calling.