What does it mean to be perfect? How perfect must one be in this life? Suppose you saw someone who never swore, never gambled, never smoked, never drank, never stole anything, never lost his temper, never broke the Sabbath. Would you be looking at a perfect person? I hope not, because you could be in an anatomy building, looking at a well-preserved corpse. Corpses never do anything bad, but they never do anything good either. They just never do anything, which is a rather popular view of perfection.
In the early days of the church, the number one exponent of that view was a man by the name of Simeon, a member of the church in Antioch. He so much wanted to overcome sin, that as soon as he could afford it, he got material and built himself a small pillar. He climbed up on top, but found it was not tall enough. So he got more material and built on it until it was sixty feet high. He perched on top of that pillar for 30 years until he died. Think of all the bad things you cannot do on top of a sixty-foot pillar. So they called him Saint Simeon Stylites.
Other members of the church envied his perfect life, and as soon as they could afford it, they built pillars all around the area. Pretty soon most of the members were perched on pillars. So Simeon founded a whole order in the church, known as the Order of the Stylites; the order of the pole-sitters. Is that how the saints are going to be found when the Lord comes, all perched on pillars? They are of no use to anybody, but they never do anything wrong either.
Is that the best definition of perfection? The absence of doing wrong?
There is a much more positive approach to perfection. That is to understand that the very word in the Bible (Greek: teleiotês) means “completed” or full-grown. When referring to animals or human beings, it means mature, or grown up physically. It is generally used in the New Testament for spiritual maturity (1 Cor 2:6; 14:20; Eph 4:13; Heb 5:14). So to be perfect means to be mature. And one version, at least, has it that way in Matthew 5:48: “You must become spiritually mature, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Norlie). You see, when someone is converted, when they are won back to trust, and the procedure of healing begins, the change is so great that it is like being born all over again. Jesus said this to Nicodemus: “I am telling you the truth: no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.” John 3:3, GNB. Do you remember Nicodemus’ response? He thought that was a little too much to believe (John 3:4). That is how great the change is.
That’s why Paul interpreted baptism the way he did. Baptism by immersion symbolizes the great change in a person’s life. “By our baptism we were buried with Him in death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glorious power, we also should live an entirely new life.” Rom 6:4, Weymouth. Baptism by immersion represents this new life best. It is like washing the dishes. It doesn’t do much good just to sprinkle them a little—though our children might try that short cut sometimes. The word “baptize” means to dip, to immerse.
This is recognized by many scholars, including Roman Catholic scholars. In a footnote to Romans 6:3-4 in the Roman Catholic New Testament by Kleist and Lilly, you can read the following: “St. Paul alludes to the manner in which baptism was ordinarily conferred in the primitive Church, by immersion. The descent into the water is suggestive of the descent of the body into the grave, and the ascent is suggestive of the resurrection to a new life.” Could it be said much better than that? That is why many Christians still symbolize the beginning of healing through baptism by immersion. At the time of baptism, of course, Christians are just beginners. Paul and Peter call them babes in the truth (Rom 2:20; 1 Cor 3:1; 1 Pet 2:2; Heb 5:13), and babies need a great deal of protection. Yet even at that beginning stage, God treats them as if they had never sinned, as if they had always been His loyal children.
Does that mean that since He is so generous, it is all right to remain “babes in the truth?” Or does God want us to grow up into perfection and maturity? We know from the Biblical record that it disturbed Paul a great deal when, even after a few months, he found that the Christian converts were still babes in the truth (1 Cor 3:1-3). When a child’s physical development is delayed, we become very worried, don’t we? When a child’s mental development is delayed, we are even more concerned. But when a Christian adult is spiritually immature, we say, “Isn’t that precious? Isn’t that sweet? He still has the faith of a little child.” But the most serious of all conditions is to be spiritually immaturity. Notice what the Bible says about this:
. . . though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truth of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature [Greek: teleiôs], who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity. . . . Heb 5:12 – 6:1, NIV.
The author of Hebrews essentially urges new believers to “grow up.” Compare that passage with Paul’s advice to the believers in Ephesus:
His gifts were made that Christians might . . . arrive at real maturity [Greek: teleion]. . . . We are not meant to remain as children, at the mercy of every chance wind of teaching, and of the jockeying of men who are expert in the crafty presentation of lies. But we are meant to speak the truth in love, and to grow up in every way into Christ. . . . Eph 4:12, 14-15, Phillips.
Paul says in Ephesians that the whole purpose of the church is to help people grow up to perfection and maturity. The Bible explains why. Daniel 12 (verse 10), the Book of Revelation (chapters 13 and 16), and the warnings of Christ (Matt 24:24-27) and of Paul (2 Thess 2:8-12), tell us that we face a time of confusion and deception such as the world has never seen. If we are still babes in the truth then, we will never survive. And so God in mercy waits for us to grow up, and to be as settled into the truth as Job was. This topic is so important for the church that we will invest a whole chapter (Eighteen) on it, under the title “God Waits For His Children To Grow Up.“ This is even the reason for His merciful delay of the Second Coming. You see, it is not an arbitrary requirement that we grow up. It is absolutely necessary if we’re going to survive in the end times. We must not be satisfied to be babes in the truth; but we must grow up and be able to distinguish between right and wrong.
There is another way of looking at perfection: we can look at it as perfect obedience to God’s law. The perfect person is the one who is perfectly obedient. That might sound arbitrary until one takes another look at God’s law. You see, God’s law is no threat to our freedom. All God asks of us is love. But what does it mean to love? “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Cor 13:4-5, RSV). Isn’t that the description of a grown-up person? To really obey God’s commandments is to simply grow up; to be a safe and pleasant person to live next door to.