Righteous Men Made Perfect?- Hebrews 12:23

The verse we will examine today reads as follows: “You have come to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect”. The writer here is obviously referring to born again believers, to those who have come to the “church of the firstborn”, to those whose “names are written in heaven”. He then goes on to tell them that they are “righteous men made perfect”. The Greek word translated “made perfect” here is the perfect passive participle of the verb teleioo. Through the use of the perfect participle, the writer tells us here that this “making perfect” is something which took place in the past and has results in the present, that those referenced here were “made perfect” in the past, and were currently “perfected”. The use of the passive voice here tells us they were made perfect by someone else (God), that He did so in the past (when they were born again), and that they are still “perfect” in the present. At first blush, this causes much cognitive dissonance among us, because our everyday experience tells us that we are far from “perfect”, but the writer here tells us rather definitively that we have been “made perfect”. The reason for this tension here lies in the use of the word “perfect”. Our everyday English understanding of the word perfect is that it means to be “flawless”. This understanding refers to what philosophers and theologians refer to as ontological perfection, to be perfect in one’s very being, and because of this always behaving perfectly. This type of perfection is found in God alone, and among human beings, only Jesus was ontologically perfect, because he was fully man but also fully God. The Greek word which refers to this type of “perfection”, this “flawlessness”, is apsogos. The Greek word used by the writer here is teleioo, which refers to the other type of perfection, known as teleological perfection. The Greek root for teleioo refers primarily to a goal or purpose, something which is teleos (teleologically perfect) is something which accomplishes its purpose, something which does what it is made to do. For example, a hammer may have a cracked handle, a chipped head and be missing part of one prong, it may be far from ontologically perfect, but if it is being used to drive nails, then it is teleologically perfect, because it is doing what it is created to do. Another hammer which hangs on a hook in the hardware store may be flawless (ontologically perfect), but it would not be teleologically perfect because it is not being used to drive nails, it does not do what it is created to do. When we apply all of this to Hebrews 12:23, we then readily see what the writer means by calling us “righteous men made perfect”. We have been made teleologically perfect in that, in Christ, we are enabled to do what we are created to do. We are all created to be the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26), but this image was “flawed” at the fall of Adam, and, as lost people, we are no longer able to be the image and likeness of God. The ability to be the image and likeness of God is then restored to those in whom Christ dwells, for Christ is the image of God (Colossians 1:15), and His presence in us enables us to be this image and likeness as well, to live out our true purpose, to do what we are created to do. So how is this image and likeness of God to be reflected through us? Jesus guides us in the right direction in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:46-48, Jesus tells his hearers that “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It must first of all be noted that the context here is love. Jesus is talking about love here, so when He tells them to be “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”, He is telling them to love as God loves, and when we do so, we are then living as the image and likeness of God, we are then doing what we are created to do, and it is His presence in us which enables us to do so. We should also note here that the word Jesus uses for perfect is not apsogos, but teleos. What the writer of Hebrews tells us, then, is that what Jesus tells us to do here can only be accomplished by those in whom Christ dwells, that it is the presence of Christ in us which enables us to be “perfect”, to do what we are created to do, to love as God loves. Our next post will examine the first Epistle of John in order to explain more fully how we are enabled to live out our teleological “perfection”, to live as “righteous men made perfect”.

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