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Was Jesus Perfect?

For the past few weeks in our Sunday School class (March 2010), we’ve had an open forum in which all attendees could ask questions related to Christian doctrine, difficult passages in the Bible, or any other moral, ethical or family related issue.  During the first class, the question was asked, “We know that Jesus was sinless in His humanity, but was He also perfect?”  In this article, we'll attempt to answer this question, along with a few related ones.

Was Jesus Perfect?

Before we can even begin to answer our question, we must first be aware of the Biblical meaning of the word “perfect”.  In the NT, there are many Greek words which are translated as “perfect” (perfectly, perfection etc).  The most common are the noun teleiotes, the verb teleioō, and the adjective teleios, all deriving from the Greek root telos.  Depending on the context, these words can mean perfect, the end or completion of an act or state, to fulfill an event such as a prophecy, to mature, or to accomplish a goal.  These same Greek words are often translated as “mature” in modern Bible translations such as the NIV, ESV and NASB, but as “perfect” in the KJV, NRSV, and NKJV.  In addition, the word is not confined to usage in reference to sin.  It is also applied to power (made perfect in weakness), love (made perfect by our obedience), our Christian growth, and in other contexts.

Next, we must have a basic understanding of the humanity of Jesus.  The heresy of Docetism teaches that Jesus’ physical body was an illusion and therefore, He could not have died (and that he only apparently suffered).  The humanity of Jesus is however, just as critical to the Christian faith as His deity.  In His incarnation, Jesus is fully God and fully man, a single unique Person with two distinct separate natures, divine and human, existing in perfect harmony.  This arrangement is referred to as the Hypostatic Union.

So, how does the humanity of Jesus compare with our own?  We know he had to be made human in every way, except for our sin nature, in order to become our perfect high priest to make atonement for our sins at the cross (Heb 2:14-17, 4:15).  Thus Jesus took on our physical and emotional traits such as hunger (Mt 4:2, 21:18), thirst (Jn 19:28), weariness (Jn 4:6), anger (Mt 21:12-13, Mk 3:5), frustration (Mk 9:19), compassion (Mt 9:36, Mk 8:2, Lk 7:13), sorrow (Mt 26:37-38, Lk 19:41, Jn 11:33-35), joy (Lk 10:21, Jn 15:11), anguish (Lk 22:44) and love (Jn 11:5).  He was born (Jn 1:14, Rom 1:3, 8:3, Gal 4:4), grew physically and with wisdom (Lk 2:40,52), had flesh and bones (Lk 34:39, 1Tim 3:16), was tempted (Mt 4), prayed (Lk 5:15, Jn 17), slept (Mk 4:38), and He died (Mk 15:44, Jn 19:30, Rom 5:8, 1Pe 3:18).

We sometimes have difficulty thinking of Jesus as being fully human because He committed no sin (2Cor 5:21, Heb 4:15, 1Pe 2:22, 1Jn 3:5).  When we mess up or sin, one of the most common excuses we make is “I can’t help it, I’m only human”.  I’ve used this defense many times, but we must realize that this is an abnormal view of true humanity.  Humans were created good (Gen 1:31) and without a sin nature.  Jesus is only the third truly human being in the sense of God’s original intent, the other two being Adam and Eve before the fall (Gen 3).  Thus we can picture the human nature of Jesus being very similar to that of Adam before the fall (Heb 4:15).

There has been much speculation as to the physical results of the fall.  Some have argued that the human attributes of hunger, thirst, fatigue, pain etc came as a result of the fall.  A leading modern proponent of this is Metropolitan Hierotheos of Naupaktos of the Greek Orthodox Church, but we must be careful not to be too dogmatic on those issues about which the Scriptures are silent.  We know that, due to the fall, pain was increased in childbirth for women, and hardship and pain was added to man’s labor, since the ground would no longer automatically produce an abundance of food.  Sin and death also came into the world (Rom 5:12).  Beyond this, we enter into the realm of speculation.  I think it is reasonable however, to assume that since God provided food and water before the fall, neglecting to eat or drink could result in hunger, thirst and fatigue.   Adam and Eve could probably experience physical pain (Gen 3:16 states that pain would be “increased” or “multiplied”), but it is doubtful that there was any illness.  Keep in mind that these physical and emotional characteristics, whether natural or resulting from the fall, are not inherently sin.

While we’re on the subject of Jesus’ physical traits, let’s briefly address a related question which came up during the discussion.  Was the blood of Jesus normal or supernatural?  In other words, is Jesus blood just like ours, or does it have intrinsic supernatural properties?  If Jesus pricked his finger or stubbed his toe, could a bystander touch a drop and be redeemed?  Going back to Hebrews 2:17 and 4:15, we see that Jesus was “made like his brothers in every way” except for our sin nature, so this would also include His physical blood.  The Scriptures are clear that it is the “pouring out” of the blood which makes it effective.  Since the blood represents life (Lev 17:11), the shedding of blood represents the pouring out of life.  In the Old Testament (OT), the priest poured out the blood of the sacrifice on the alter (Lev 8:15, 9:9, Dt 12:27).  While instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus offered the cup to his disciples, saying “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26: 28).  The writer of Hebrews compares Christ as the mediator of the new covenant with Moses and the old covenant (Heb 9:11-28), and concludes that “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness”.  So, there was nothing inherently magic or supernatural about the physical makeup of the blood which coursed through Jesus’ veins.  It was his sinless life and substitutionary death which made the blood objectively effective in dealing with sin.  Furthermore, in context with Scripture, we must subjectively respond in order for the blood to personally cleanse us from sin and to be credited with the righteousness of Christ (Rom 10:9-13, 2Cor 5:21).

Now that we have established some background and defined our terms, we can finally return to our original question of the perfection of Jesus.  We’ll begin with the Biblical sense, and then move on to the modern perceptions.  Returning to the comparison of the covenants in Hebrews, we find the author contrasting the perfection of Jesus as the permanent mediator of the new covenant with the imperfection of the temporary priesthood of the old covenant (Heb 7:11, 23-28):

Such a high priest [Jesus] meets our need--one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens... For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever (Heb 7:26,28).

Just as the OT sacrifice had to be an animal without blemish, Jesus also had to be the perfect sacrifice, the unblemished Lamb of God, in order to take away our sins (Jn 1:29).

Some have argued that the phrase “has been made perfect” in verse 28 and a similar phrase in Heb 5:9 indicates that Jesus was not perfect before.  Likewise, it is alleged that the phrase “he learned obedience from what he suffered” in Heb 5:8 indicates that He had been disobedient in the past.  To correctly understand these verses, we should interpret them in an experiential sense.  Even though Jesus was already “perfect” and obedient, he acquired firsthand experience as a human being.  Although his character or human nature was not lacking in any godly qualities, he now had experienced living the perfect human life in that, he accomplished all the goals of his earthly mission (Jn 17:4).

Next, we consider the literal meaning of the word “perfect”, which we can define as conforming absolutely to some ideal standard.  Here, modern man has somewhat of a dilemma, since absolutes are generally denied in favor of relativism which, when carried to its logical conclusion, leaves most terms essentially meaningless due to the lack of an unchanging point of reference.  We know however, that our Triune God is the fixed point, so Jesus Himself is the absolute standard by which all desirable character qualities are evaluated.

Next, we can ask, did Jesus do everything “perfectly” in the modern literal sense of the word?  For example, when working as a carpenter, was every nail driven perfectly straight, and was every table He constructed perfectly planed?  The Scriptures do not explicitly address this question, but I think we can speculate that the answer is “probably not”.  Even though Jesus was perfectly sinless, he lived a normal life as a carpenter’s son.  Prior to the beginning of His public ministry, there is no evidence that He stood out in a crowd.  This is substantiated by the people’s amazement once He began teaching and performing miracles.  They asked “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?  Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” (Mt 13:54-55, Mk 6:1-3).  Even His relatives, who had lived with Him for almost 30 years, did not realize who He truly was (Mk 3:21,31-35, Jn 7:5) until His crucifixion.

As a normal human being, Jesus was voluntarily subject to typical human limitations.  Therefore, when fatigued, he would be more likely to drive a nail slightly crooked.  He may have even had to pull some out and re-nail at times.  Regarding planing a table, He would also have been subject to the limitations of his tools.  If we consult the specifications of various types of modern machinery, we find that even the finest tools can operate only within a certain degree of tolerance.  This is not to say that Jesus would have been prone to shoddy work.  On the contrary, since He was perfect (literally) in his ethics and morals, He would have certainly produced the finest quality work possible within His human limitations.

Finally, we can address the question, did Jesus do everything “perfectly” in our day’s common usage of the word and its connotations?  I think a few examples will demonstrate that the usage of the term “perfect” is so diverse that this question becomes impossible to answer universally.  For example, we recently watched the Winter Olympics, during which a sportscaster would often say, “She will need a perfect run to beat the current leader’s time”.  Suppose the leader had a time of 41.03 seconds, and the skier made a “perfect” run of 40.55 to win, would not a time of 40.50 be a “more perfect” race?  In baseball, a pitcher is said to throw a “perfect game” if no opponent safely reaches first base, but would it not be more perfect if he threw all strikes, or if the opposing hitters never even made contact?  The 1972 Miami Dolphins are credited with having a “perfect season” for going undefeated, but would it not have been more perfect if they had no turnovers, held all opponents scoreless, and scored on every offensive play?  While it doesn’t make sense to use the terms “more perfect” or “less perfect” in the strict sense, it is acceptable in common usage, such as the preamble to our constitution reading “in order to form a more perfect Union”.

The point to the previous examples is that, we personally or corporately define what is commonly meant by the term “perfect”.  We frequently hear a person talk of perfect weather, a perfect date, a perfect crime, a perfect gentleman, a perfect transaction, or speaking from personal experience, to make a perfect fool out of oneself.  Whereas, our strict definition of “perfect” conforms to an absolute ideal standard, the expression is commonly used to denote something that is acceptable, or that meets our satisfaction, requirements, or purposes.  Thus, although the common usage of “perfect” does not render the term meaningless, it is nonetheless highly subjective.  We must then respond to each case individually, often by qualifying what we mean by “perfection”.  For example, in the case of the 1972 Dolphins, we define “perfect season” as a season with all wins without a loss or a tie.

I believe however, that we can make an objective statement regarding the perfection of Jesus in His humanity.  In His high priestly prayer that was offered shortly before His crucifixion, He declares to His Father that “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do” (Jn 17:4).  Of course, His sacrificial death was still a few days away, but he can use the Greek idiom in the past tense since the remaining events were inevitable and unchangeable.  Earlier, we noted that a Biblical meaning of “perfect” is to accomplish a goal or to complete a mission.  Jesus was now declaring to the Father, “mission accomplished”.

Therefore, I think we can say that, in His humanity, Jesus lived His life perfectly consistent with God’s original design for man.  He also perfectly fulfilled all that God the Father willed for Him to do… and even though, unlike Jesus, we'll almost always come up short in one manner or another, we should strive to do the same.

Follow-up Article

Added March 2024, Just in time for Easter.

Why Jesus Had to be Perfect

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