4th September, 2012
Caution is the first word to come to mind when considering the perfect or perfection in the Bible. Caution, because a ‘death to self’ and we are ‘going on unto perfection’ message, a message I heard numerous times in my early Christian days, is easily tainted by Pharisaical pride. This is a little ironic, a little crazy, when you reflect on what the New Testament says on this but...it happens.
A pressing on with God message can be underwritten with a look at us, look at what we are doing and look at how we are living (communal farms, businesses and so on) subtext. We are frontrunners in a new look 21st century Christian community and God is doing a perfecting work in our midst because we are willing to die to self to become part of God’s community. And then comes all the human stuff with pride at the head.
10/10?: Lloyd Harkness says the Bible teaches that Christians are ever working toward perfection in which we will be "made perfect in one". PICTURE: © Brian Jackson/istockphoto.com
"As a child watches and learns from his father so too is the follower of Jesus to reflect their heavenly Father’s character. Jesus is exhorting people to watch and learn, watch and learn and then watch and learn."
As I said, this is a little crazy when the Bible says keep your eyes on Jesus the perfector of your faith. Surprisingly, there is no encouragement to thump your chest because ‘your’ brand of Christians is more Christian than other Christians.
Perfect conjures up the perfect wave or the perfect score or the perfect day or the perfect answer.
The word is used in a variety of situations and we use it mostly in the sense of something that cannot be improved on.
(As a surfer I am still picturing the perfect wave, what it looks and feels like, and saying to myself, 'Yeah, it does not get better than that'. This could be a good starting point for thinking about the use of perfect as it does not necessarily mean error free.)
If it is perfect it is as good as it gets, however, there is a little more to the words used for perfect in the Bible than this.
(Before continuing please note the King James translation uses perfect more frequently than other renderings into English and there are some seven Greek words translated as perfect in different translations. Obviously not all will have the same nuance and I have not differentiated between them in this Word piece.)
Jesus stated in the Sermon on the Mount that His followers are to be as God is, to love as God loves. The King James translation is: "Be ye, therefore, perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect", whereas The Message says:" You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it...Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you".
The latter example captures better, for a modern reader, the idea God is your Father and He is the one to pattern your behaviour on. As a child watches and learns from his father so too is the follower of Jesus to reflect their heavenly Father’s character. Jesus is exhorting people to watch and learn, watch and learn and then watch and learn.
There is a process of maturing in God, of growing wiser, of being more at one with Him.
King James’ translation can be narrowly read that you have got to be perfect because that is who God is. If you arrive at that point the temptation is to establish a set of rules and laws to show how perfect we are. Why, we might even start tithing mint and other herbs just to show how we have got the tithing principle down pat.
Any error free idea of perfection being acquired by Jesus’ disciples, in interpreting this statement, is not just daunting but unattainable in the current age of God’s salvation work.
Jesus voiced a similar idea in His Sermon on the Plain where He tells the short parable on what happens when the blind lead the blind. The point of the parable is that the follower is not above his master but is to become as ‘perfect’ as him. This occurs because the follower is trained and equipped and is then given the opportunities in life to apply his learning. Jesus’ followers are ‘becoming’ like Him but the moment we say I have become like or as Jesus, then you are tripping yourself up - and others.
The type of perfection Jesus earnestly prayed for was Trinitarian in character. He prayed His followers"‘be made perfect in one" (King James); that is, that Christ will be in His followers as the Father is in Him. When this happens believers will be one with each other also.
Was Jesus just holding out a noble ideal for His followers? The impartation of the Holy Spirit to believers suggests not, but the strength of the believer’s oneness is still dependant on sin encrusted humanity and in this age we will never reach the point where we do not have to repent.
Of all the New Testament writers Paul has the most to say on being made perfect.
He challenges Timothy to perfect his faith and be thoroughly equipped; and he is strident in pointing out to the Galatian Christians that you cannot achieve any perfection of your faith by human effort.
For a church to be healthy it has to be perfectly united in mind and judgement. Christians have to work at this to become it. Consequently Paul tells the church at Thessalonica he is coming to them to perfect what is currently lacking in their faith.
"Paul’s view on eternal things is we are living in the partial. All is on offer through Jesus but we currently live in the partial. Christ’s kingdom has come but is yet to be fully realised. So the ‘perfect’ (King James) or the ‘mature’ (NIV) are to press on in God’s high calling until everyone can be presented as ‘perfect in Christ’."
One of my favourite verses from Paul has perfect in it even though what grabs me is not that word (you will soon see the pun) but the old world use of the word 'apprehend'. He explains his position to the Philippian believers as: "Not as though I...were already perfect but I follow after...that I may apprehend that for which I am apprehended." There is a whole lot of apprehending that needs to take place in every believer’s life. We need to be grabbed hold of and we need to grab hold of...again and again.
Paul’s view on eternal things is we are living in the partial. All is on offer through Jesus but we currently live in the partial. Christ’s kingdom has come but is yet to be fully realised. So the ‘perfect’ (King James) or the ‘mature’ (NIV) are to press on in God’s high calling until everyone can be presented as ‘perfect in Christ’.
Peter’s and James’ comments on a perfect work are largely in reference to troubles in life.
Peter says there is a Godly restoration in which the believer is made perfect, strong and at peace with God after having suffered for their faith. This is hard to comprehend in a world where pain leaves scars, where hurts do not always heal perfectly. A weakness remains in the stomach, a limp in the gait or a tiredness which was not there before the illness. When you think of all the things people go through when they suffer it is great to know God’s restorative plan is full and perfect stretching beyond the now.
James is in accord with Peter when he talks about patience being stretched because patience is never more stretched than in times of trouble. His view is the testing times will produce what is ‘perfect and entire’ (King James) or ‘mature and complete’ (NIV).
The perfect is God’s realm. His perfect salvation work is unfolding. For the believer this means there is a maturing process as natural as the progression we experience across a life span.
The young in faith naturally feed on the milk of God’s word but as they mature the meat of God’s word is required to live out an adult faith.
Christians have the joy and privilege of continuing to apprehend that for which they have been apprehended. This breathes life into faith and grounds a person in motivation to do, as opposed to providing excuses for not doing, in respect to the Bible’s take on being made perfect.
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