Monday, November 12, 2012
What is Perfection?
Matthew 5:48 the Savior commands all of his followers to be perfect and all conscientous Christains strive for this ideal. However, it is easy to become overwhelmed and feel completely defeated when striving for perfection when we use the conventional English definition of perfection.
Webster's dictionary defines the word "perfect" as: "being entirely without fault or defect : flawless". Using this definition it is natural to conclude that when the Savior commands us to be perfect he is commanding us to be sinless. Using this definition it is easy to become disheartened because as King Benjamin explains in Mosiah 4:29: "I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them."
As Joseph Smith explained: "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly..." (Articles of Faith 1:8, emphasis added) and in the case of Matthew 5:48 the English translators of the King James version of the Bible chose a word that does not properly convey what the Savior was teaching.
The original language of the New Testament was Greek and the word from which "perfect" was translated is τέλειος (teleios) which means "complete" in the sense of having finished a journey or reached a goal. Jack Welch points out in his book "The Sermon At the Temple and the Sermon On the Mount" that teleios "is used in Greek religious literature to describe the person who has become fully initiated in the rituals of the religion." Furthermore he states that "generally in the Epistle to the Hebrews, its usage follows a 'special use' from Hellenistic Judaism, where the word teleioo means 'to put someone in the position in which he can come or stand before God.'" (Welch 58-59, emphasis added).
It is interesting to note that there is a subtle difference in the command to be perfect as found in Matthew 5:48 and 3 Nephi 12:48. In the sermon given at the temple among the descendants of Lehi he gives the command to be perfect followed by the phrase "even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect" (emphasis added). In the account given of the Sermon on the Mount the phrase "even as I" is not included.
The Savior delivered the Sermon on the Mount in Palestine as a mortal prior to his crucifixion and resurrection but he delivered the sermon found in 3 Nephi after his resurrection. We know that while he was mortal he had not yet ascended to the father to stand in his presence. Indeed even shortly after his resurrection he still had not yet done so as he explained to Mary in the garden (See John 20:17). However, it is clear from the Book of Mormon that he did not appear to the descendants of Lehi until after his ascension to the Father (See 3 Nephi 10:18 and 3 Nephi 11:12).
Therefore, in the sense of perfection as being fully initiated into the rituals of the religion and being in a position in which to stand before God, Jesus Christ was not perfect until after his ascension. Also, we can conclude that it is not necessary to try to make oneself sinless in the absolute sense in order to be perfect or teleios. Perfection in the sense of sinlessness is an unrealistic and ultimately counter-productive expectation, an expectation that one is hard pressed to find in the scriptures. Certainly, obedience to the commandments of God and personal purity are essential to the Lord's plan and are a requirement to achieve ritual perfection but sinlessness is not required to obtain God's approval and to qualify for his highest blessings.