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Why Jesus Had to be Perfect

In the Spring of 2010, I wrote an article entitled “Was Jesus Perfect?”  Later, in the summer of 2020, it suddenly received a great increase in the number of readers.  I didn’t think much of it at the time, but recently I found out the cause.  It seems that about that time, CNN’s self-proclaimed theologian, Don Lemon, in defending the vandals that were destroying monuments of America’s historical figures, excused their criminal actions because “Jesus Christ, if that’s who you believe in, Jesus Christ, admittedly was not perfect when He was here on this earth.”  Mr Lemon did not supply a scripture reference in which Jesus supposedly admitted that He was not perfect, probably because one doesn’t exist.  He then falsely claimed that many are deifying the founders of our country, “many of whom owned slaves”.  While he was right about the evils of human slavery, he provided no evidence of any founder being thought of as a god.

A few weeks ago (March 2024), I went back and re-read my original article to jog my memory.  I noticed that, although it contained a certain amount of theological doctrine, I had written it primarily from a philosophical point of view.  Thus, I decided to write this follow-up from a more doctrinal and theological view to provide some much-needed additional information, to answer the “why” question  and explain the tie-in to the Easter celebration that is coming this Sunday.

Why Jesus Had to be Perfect

Biblical Meanings of the Word “Perfect”

We begin by exploring the meaning of the word “perfect”.  Modern dictionaries tend to define the concept as an ideal type of something, excellent or complete, or beyond improvement.  If we look back to the 1913 Webster’s Dictionary, published before religious material was routinely scrubbed from most classic publications, we get a much more accurate and appropriately helpful definition of the verb, namely “to carry to the end, to perform or finish”.  The 1913 Webster also adds “Brought to consummation or completeness; completed; not defective nor redundant; having all the properties or qualities requisite to its nature and kind; without flaw, fault, or blemish; without error; mature; whole; pure; sound; right; correct”.

In a move that would make many modern heads explode, it shares examples from biblical and classic sources, such as “My strength is made perfect in weakness - 2Cor 12:9.”  In addition, “Three glorious suns, each one a perfect sun.  - Shakespeare”  It also includes the line from John Keble’s 1827 “O most entire perfect sacrifice” from the poem “Tuesday Before Easter” that records

O most entire perfect sacrifice,
Renewed in every pulse
That on the tedious Cross...

In explaining the meaning of perfection, we often use the example of a teacher assigning a grade to various students on a test.  It is popular for many teachers to grade using a curve.  For example, the top twenty percentile might receive an “A”, while the next twenty percentile might receive a “B” and so on, regardless of how accurate the answers.  Thus, in one case, getting seventy percent correct answers might result in a “C”, while in another case, one might receive an “A”, all depending upon how your score compared with others in the class.  God however, does not grade on the curve, but in the test of life, compares all of our scores against the perfect life of Jesus.  Thus, the only passing grade is perfection (Mt 5:48).  Only Jesus lived His life on Earth in perfect obedience to the Father.

We now turn to the biblical use of the word.  For simplicity, we’ll concentrate primarily on the word “perfect” as an adjective, which covers the majority of occurrences in the Scriptures.  The good news is that the Hebrew word for perfect in the Old Testament (OT) and the Greek word in the New Testament (NT) translate into the same English words.  The bad news is, both translate into multiple English words depending on the context.  In addition, the various English translations can have a different translations for the same verse.  Fortunately, we can usually determine the proper meaning in most cases, but occasionally, we might need to consult a trusted commentary.

The OT Hebrew word for the adjective “perfect” is tamin, and the NT Greek word is teleios (we’re using the transliterated English letters for those who may not be familiar with the Hebrew or Greeks alphabet).  Depending on the context, the word can be translated as perfect, complete, whole, mature, guiltless, without sin or fault, blameless, without blemish, or other similar terms.

The fundamental idea behind the terms is usually that of maturity, blameless, flawless and/or completeness.  Of course, absolute perfection is an attribute that can accurately be applied on to our Triune God and/or His Word and His works (2Sam 22:31; Ps 19:7, Jas 1:17).  In the highest sense He alone is complete, or wanting nothing.  His perfection is complete, eternal, unchanging and totally without defect.  It is the standard by which all other perfection (Job 36:4; 37:16; Mt 5:48).  It is also either ascribed to men (Gen 6:9, Mt 5:48; Php 3:15; Jas 3:2)  or required of them (Gen 17:1; Job 1:1,8; 2:3) consistently throughout the Scriptures.  The perfection demanded of Christians is a state of spiritual maturity or completeness.  Jesus also commanded His followers to continually strive towards a state of moral and spiritual God-likeness in their lives.  This includes complete conformity to those requirements pertaining to our character and conduct that God has appointed.  But God is gracious and that acknowledges man’s present debilitated condition.  For believers, He considers man’s present (un)perfection as it relates to our position in Christ that we received by the baptizing of the Holy Spirit (Rm 6:3–4; Gal 3:27; 1 Cor 12:13).  Being “in Christ,” the Christian is credited with perfection, since the Father sees us through the Son’s perfection.  Based on our actual experiences however, each Christian realizes his or her perfect position is in reality, only in proportion to our belief and standing “in Christ”. He is what he is “in Christ” (“perfect,” i.e., “complete,” Col. 2:9–10), whether he reckons on it or not. The difference is that his position of perfection becomes experiential as he believes himself to be what he is “in Christ” (Rm 6:11, Col 2:9-10).  This paragraph was adapted from The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988) and the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003).

So based upon the assortment of meaning of the word “perfect”, we must pay particular attention to the context of each statement wherever it occurs, including whether it is referring to the Father, Christ or humans.  For example, absolute perfection is reserved for God alone (Mt 5:48), including His ways (Dt 32:4), His word (Ps 18:30), His knowledge (Job 37:16), His laws (Ps 19:7), and His will (Rm 12:2).  Humans, by contrast, can only obtain a derivative perfection by being in Christ (trusting in and belonging to Christ).  Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.  But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.  Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.  But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins.  And in him is no sin (1Jn 3:2-5).

Most Popular Argument against Perfection of Jesus

By far, the most common argument of skeptics is based on Hebrews 2:10.  The verse reads, In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation [Jesus] perfect [Gk teleioo] through what he suffered.  Critics argue that, since Jesus had to be made perfect, he must not have been perfect before.  The critics err by not understanding the various Greek uses of the word as we explained previously.  We can get a better idea by looking at a couple of alternate translations, starting with the thought-for-thought NLT version:  God, for whom and through whom everything was made, chose to bring many children into glory.  And it was only right that he should make Jesus, through his suffering, a perfect leader, fit to bring them into their salvation.  In the Amplified Bible, a translation that attempts to capture the various nuances of the original languages, we read For it was fitting for God [that is, an act worthy of His divine nature] that He, for whose sake are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the author and founder of their salvation perfect through suffering [bringing to maturity the human experience necessary for Him to be perfectly equipped for His office as High Priest].

So, Hebrews 2:10 is actually stating that, although Jesus was already perfect and without sin, He was perfected in the sense of experientially accomplishing everything He came to do.  That is to say, Jesus could not have, for example, come down from heaven on a Monday, offend the Jewish religious leaders, be crucified on Friday, walk out of the tomb on Sunday, an then ascend back to heaven.  Instead, he had to be born like us and be made like us in every way, except without possessing a sin nature. (Heb 4:15).  He then had to live a perfect life, fulfilling all righteousness (Mt 3:13-16), including all the requirements of the law (Mt 5:17).  Then he had to die for our sins, arise from the grave, appear to many, and finally ascend back to heaven, fulfilling all His Father’s requirements perfectly (Jn 17:4).  He did all this so that we could be forgiven of our sins, and to even allow us to receive credit for perfectly fulfilling the law (Rom 8:1-4).

We can also look at this with respect to His Divine and Human nature.  Jesus was wholly God and wholly Man.  In His Divine nature, He was absolutely perfect in every way and cannot change (Mal 3:6; Heb 6:17-18).  In His perfect human nature, He was always without sin, but He continually added to His experiential accomplishments per His Father’s will.  That is, He fully identified with us by experiencing what we experience, minus our failures and sins of course.

Biblical Evidence of the Sinlessness of Christ

We first mention that Jesus Christ could be without sin because He was born of a virgin w/o a human father (Mt 1:18-25; Lk 1:26-38).  Here, we provide some evidence from the NT Scriptures:

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God.  I have not come on my own; God sent me.  Why is my language not clear to you?  Because you are unable to hear what I say.  You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires.  He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him.  When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.  Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!  Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?  If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me?  Whoever belongs to God hears what God says.  The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”  (Jn 8:42-47).  Also note that the last verse declares that there can be no difference in belief and attitude toward the Father and the Son.

Jesus was the Perfect Prophet, Priest and King.  As the Perfect King, He possesses total authority over all creation and will fully exercise His rule over all at His Second Coming.  As the Perfect Prophet, He possesses all knowledge.  Finally, He is the perfect High Priest.  To be both a Priest and King was extremely rare.  The only two special cases in the Bible are Jesus and Melchizedek (Gen 14:18-24).  Many believe that Melchizedek was actually a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ, but that is a subject for a separate article.  In fact, when King Uzziah attempted to burn incense at the alter of the Temple, God immediately struck him with leprosy and cut him off from his people (2Chr 26:16-21).  But, Jesus, being the Perfect God-Man was an exception, and it is His perfection in His role as the Perfect High Priest in which we are most interested for our subject, although all three roles are essential.  It is His work as the Perfect High Priest that directly enables all true believers to be credited with His righteousness and to be granted salvation:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.  And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.  We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.  God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2Cor 5:17-21).  Thus, due to the perfect work of Christ as our High Priest, God gave His Son what we deserve, so that He can give us what only Christ deserved.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin (Heb 4:15).  Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens (Heb 7:26).

He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1Pe 2:22).

Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.  But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins.  And in him is no sin.  No one who lives in him keeps on sinning.  No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him (1Jn 3:4-5).

About the Sinlessness of Christ

In order to fully appreciate the sinlessness of Christ, we should note that He could not falter in any way for as much as a moment throughout His entire life.  The baptism of Jesus is recorded in all four Gospels, but only Matthew highlights a key phrase.  Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness”.  Then he consented.  And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:13-17).

This critical phrase (in bold) tells us that it was not sufficient for Jesus to refrain from committing a single sin, but he also had to fulfill all righteousness.  That is to say, not only must he avoid any sins of commission (saying, thinking, or doing something that is forbidden), but also sins of omission (failure to perform a required particular action).  In other words, He had to fulfill His Father’s plan to perfection, which He did (Jn 17:4).

Christ as our Perfect High Priest

Thus we see that evidence and proclamations of the Perfection of Jesus Christ are found throughout the Holy Scriptures, the proof is probably most prevalent in the Book of the Hebrews, and in particular, in Hebrews chapters 4-10.  In Hebrews, Christ is portrayed primarily as the Perfect High Priest.  Many of us are familiar with the OT sacrifice system that is primarily described in the Book of Leviticus.  Leviticus is sometimes known as the graveyard in which many read-thru-the-Bible plans are thwarted.  Genesis and Exodus are interesting fast-paced historical accounts, but when we get to Leviticus, we often get bogged down in the sacrificial rituals whose significance can be hard to understand.  Those who push on though Leviticus often do so with the help of a good commentary.  The good news is that the Book of Hebrews is undoubtedly the best commentary written on the OT sacrificial system.  It is also totally accurate in that Hebrews has the same Divine Author as Leviticus and the rest of the Bible, God Himself.  Thus, the Book of Hebrews, which we’ve already referenced a few times, will be the primary source of reference for most of this article.

To adequately cover our subject would require multiple articles, but we'll attempt to hit the most important highlights.  Still, we encourage all our readers to read the Book of Hebrews for a better understanding.

The central theme of the Book of Hebrews is the Superiority of Jesus Christ.  In Hebrews, Christ, the Son of God is portrayed as superior to the angels (chapter 1 and 2), and superior to Moses (Heb 3:1-4:13).  Christ is then further portrayed as superior to Aaron, the brother of Moses and the original high priest of Israel, and an unending Priesthood in the order of Melchizedek (Heb 4:14-7:28; see also Gen 14:18-20).  Chapters 8-10 continues to describe  Christ’s priestly ministry in terms of a superior covenent, a heavenly vs earthy tabernacle, and His superior “once for all” sacrifice with eternal ramifications.

We’ve previously noted the wide variety of biblical meanings of the word “perfect”, but now let’s make sure we understand how the author of Hebrews utilizes it.  In our everyday conversations, we sometimes tend to use it haphazardly as in a comparative sense by describing certain people, events, accomplishments, etc as perfect, when we merely mean excellent or better than something else. 

The word “perfect” is central to the meaning of these passages, but we must make sure that we are understanding the word in the way that the author of Hebrews is using it.  Often we use the word sloppily, sometimes even implying that we can reach a level of perfection this side of eternity.  We describe people as being perfect.  We describe certain achievements as being perfect.  We use perfect much as we use better or best, as a comparative or superlative term instead of as a statement of objective fact.  In contrast, the author of Hebrews uses the word “perfect” in the true sense of the word, absolute objective perfection.  Thus Jesus is not merely a high priest who is better in comparison to other high priests, but truly the Perfect High Priest.  That is, there was no other work or accomplishment that could be added that would have improved on His perfection.  In addition, His perfection could only be achieved by being both fully divine and fully human, as we will further see.

Now, we turn back to the Book of Hebrews with the author getting to the main point:

Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being (Heb 8:1-2).  This heavenly tabernacle is somewhat of a mystery, and may involve some allegorical thoughts since the author doesn’t offer a vivid description.  Perhaps it is similar to the throne room in Isaiah 6.  The main point is the superiority of both the permanent and final new covenant and the Divine High Priest vs the human high priest of the temporary old covenant (Heb 9).  The OT sacrifices were instituted because the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness(Heb 9:22), but the OT sactifices had to be repeated because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Heb 10:4), but Christ’s Sacrifice was once for all (Heb 10:1-18).

At the moment of Jesus’s death on the cross, the permanent and perfect payment for our sins, the curtain in the Jerusalem Temple was torn in two from top to bottom (Mt 27:51-54; Mk 15:37-39; Lk 23:44-47).  The curtain in the temple divided the Most Holy Place, that could only be entered once per year by the high priest (Heb 9:6-7), and the rest of the temple.  The torn curtain symbolized that there was no longer a human barrier between God and humans, but that all humans could now symbolically enter the throne room of God in the Name (by the authority) of Jesus Christ, the Permanent High Priest and only Mediator between God and man (1Tm 2:5-6).

Why Jesus Had to Be Without Sin

The short answer to the “why” question is “because we are not”.  Because we are not without sin, we are helpless when it comes to earning our own salvation.  Thus, we need a Perfect Substitute to take our punishment.  God the Father is a perfectly righteous Judge that requires us to live a perfectly sinless life (Mt 5:48), keeping the Law perfectly in order to earn our way into heaven.  We have all failed in that endeavor (Jer 17:9; Rm 3:23).  But thanks to the perfect high priestly work of Jesus Christ, whose was both our Priest and Sacrifice, we can say:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.  For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.  And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rm 8:1-4).

Notice that these verses guarantee that, those in Christ are no longer under condemnation and are credited with fulfilling the requirements of the law (see also 2Cor 5:17-21).

We could ask, “What if Jesus had not been perfect?”  It is very sobering to contemplate this alternative even though it could not have happened, contrary to the opinions of the usual critics.  If Jesus had not been perfect, in the sense of sinning and/or failing to fulfill the law perfectly, He Himself would have needed a savior.  We would then be without hope since there was no Plan B to secure our forgiveness and salvation.  Thus, we can confidently say with John the Baptist, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29).  The reference to “the world” is not a blanket forgiveness of every individual, but only those who truly trust in and belong to Christ (Jn 1:11-12).  So we should be like the Apostle Paul, who wrote Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.  Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? (2Cor 13:5).  For those in Christ however, this is not a possibility (Jn 10:27-30; 18:9).