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The Pursuit of Perfection

“Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48)

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jas. 1: 2-4).

Much is debated concerning Jesus’ command to us above from Matthew 5. I believe what He was saying referred to our journey more than our destination. Once again, as with all matters in this life, it comes down to which kingdom we believe in and embrace, the kingdom of man or the kingdom of heaven on earth? And, what does perfection look like in each?

Let’s begin by looking at very similar “summary” statements Jesus and Paul, the two most notable figures in the New Testament, proclaimed as their ministries on earth came to a close. When they proclaimed these truths there was nothing left for them to do, nothing left out of the messages they were to bring, and nothing left of faith to manifest in the way they lived. There would be no “PS” to these two testimonies.

John 19 records Jesus’ last words on the cross before He gave up His Spirit to the Father, “Therefore, when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, ‘It is finished!’ And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.” The word in the Greek for “finished” is tetalestai, which means “complete, to conclude, accomplished, make an end of, finish.” Again, nothing left to say or do.

This is the very same word Paul uses in 2nd Timothy 4, where he begins, “The time of my departure has come.” It was time for him to go. The end. Done here. Just like Jesus on the cross, He knew his life on earth was over. He continues, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” He fought the best of fights and had, as Jesus also said, accomplished everything God gave him to do. In his journey with God He had kept the faith, there was no lack of it he had preached, believed, or displayed. His words, “I have fought, finished, and kept all indicate two things: his life was a process and it took endurance to see it through. Finally, he says, “In the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness.”What higher goal could any believer hope to attain to than this? What more final or fulfilling statement could any man confidently make at the end of his life here on earth? Is there a greater goal than to obtain that coveted crown of righteousness from Jesus?

As similar as their life-summaries were, there were some notable differences between Jesus and Paul. While Jesus was indeed “tempted in all things as are we, and yet without sin” (Heb. 4), Paul struggled with sin in his flesh, as his confession in Romans 7 so succinctly points out. To be clear, I don’t believe Paul was saying his identity [or ours] in Christ is “deplorable sinner saved by grace”, [see my blog “Identity Crisis” on this page] but at the same time he could not be called sinless in the flesh [kingdom of man]. Paul not only struggled with a tormentor in his flesh, he couldn’t, or wouldn’t heal everyone like Jesus did. This is evident with the “stomach and other frequent ailments (1st Timothy 5)” of his “true child in the faith, Timothy,” for whom Paul’s cure was “drink a little wine.” He also left “Trophemis [his disciple] “behind sick” (2 Tim. 4) during their travels together. Jesus could have, and probably would have, healed them both.  

And consider this: if Paul, the one chosen by God to record in writing forever “the good news of the Gospel” above any other individual, would have attained to perfection in the flesh, don’t you think he would have shouted it from the rooftops as the best news of all? Wouldn’t the pages of his letters to the churches be veritably laced with proclamations Paul made it to that “Heavenly Father perfection” Jesus commanded? Why do we not find, anywhere, a gleeful declaration like, “I attained to the perfection of Christ! I made it. No more sin! I am now perfect as my Heavenly Father is perfect! I kept the command of my Lord!” Had Paul attained such heights he would have clearly said so, for there could be no possible better news.

Rather, he revealed the shortcomings of even the most faithful men ever to live when he said, “For now we see in a mirror dimly…Now I know in part… (1 Cor. 13).” In fact, Paul said, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12). Doesn’t sound like Paul thought he was God-like, does it? And what of these words of Paul, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all” (1 Tim. 1). He wasn’t God, wasn’t born of immaculate, sinless conception, was not sinless in the flesh, and never claimed to be. Those were all characteristics he ascribed to the only perfect man who will ever be, because Jesus was the only man who was all God as well as all man. So, we see from a kingdom of man perspective Paul was not perfect.

Ah, but Paul did claim perfection in God’s kingdom! In Philippians 3 he says, “I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude…” What I believe he was saying was while he had not arrived yet, he would forever press on towards God’s perfection in the Spirit, for Paul also said, “But earnestly desire the greater gifts, and I will show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12), and, “If anyone supposes that he knows anything he has not yet known as he ought to know” (1 Cor. 8). Again, a process journeying from one level of faith and understanding to another, yet never arriving because there is ever, and always, a higher calling in Christ.

All these verses that mention “perfect, accomplished, and finished we have looked at come from the root “telos.” While it includes an element of perfection, it doesn’t mean becoming like God, but rather “of full age, completeness of character, full-grown, accomplished, finished, end, fulfillment.” There are no fewer than ten words with this root used in the Greek, and while they all carry an element of perfection it is within the context of fulfillment or completeness of life and not, within the context it is used, literal God-likeness or perfection in the flesh.

What Jesus was commanding is the same thing Paul said he was about in life and what he had accomplished: full growth! What was the method? To keep on pressing on, seeking the ever-higher calling of God and constantly believing there was a higher call no matter what level he eclipsed. Jesus was saying, “I know it will be impossible for you to be as perfect as My Father is, but I am commanding you to keep on pursuing that very goal anyway! I want you to attain to full maturity here in this life, to be complete, never stop pressing on, and I want you to finish well!” And isn’t this the Great Commission? to make disciples who observe all [finish, accomplish, complete] Jesus commanded?

James tells us specifically what the path to this perfection is using the same word in the Greek Jesus used when He commanded us to be perfect, and it’s precisely the way Paul did it and thus proclaimed himself and others “perfect.” James scribes the most complete and highest promise in all Scripture, and it is wrapped up in simply enduring the journey. He says, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jas. 1). What was Paul saying in Philippians 3 and 2nd Timothy 4? “Pressing on…fighting the fight…running the race…keeping the faith?” if not, “I am enduring?” Paul also said when speaking of the righteous judgment of God, “He will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life…” (Rom. 2).

The book of Hebrews tells us Jesus was doing two things on the cross before He said it was finished and surrendered His Spirit: First, He was learning obedience, for “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation” (Heb. 5). Also, Jesus was enduring His own journey, “For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12). Even Jesus was enduring and learning through the many trials that call for faith in this life! In Matthew and Mark, Jesus says twice while prophesying of end times, “He who endures to the end shall be saved.” To the churches of Revelation, He speaks no less than eight times of those who overcome receiving the crown, just as Paul said his crown of righteousness would be awaiting him after he ran well the journey in this life.

Finally, Paul boldly stated, “Be imitators of me, just as I am also of Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 11).” He didn’t attain to perfection in the flesh [kingdom of man], yet he ran with endurance and finished well the race in the kingdom of heaven on earth! He simply attained, through enduring faith, to full growth and completeness in the only kingdom God cares about. Paul would ask of those who believe we must become perfect like God in the flesh or we failed to somehow understand or believe fully in Him, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh” (Gal. 3)? Here one more time, the contrasts between the Spirit [kingdom of heaven on earth] and the flesh [kingdom of man].

The message here is it’s about the journey and not the arrival. It’s about the kingdoms and which one we run in. Those who truly follow Jesus never arrive at perfection in the kingdom of man. However, they will be, until they leave this earth, on a never-ending journey of seeking the perfection Jesus commanded in His kingdom through enduring in faith, and that’s all He could ever command or ask of us.

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