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18. The Three Types of Perfection

– Chapter 18 –

The Three Types of Perfection

Preliminary Considerations

Perfection rejected

In most churches, perfection is not a topic that is preached. Have you ever heard a message on perfection anywhere? It is a topic we don’t hear about, being one which Christians generally are happy to ignore. It is embarrassing to talk about perfection when we barely reach the minimum level, so perfection is regarded as unrealistic and imprac­ticable. Yet perfection is taught in the Scriptures.

Hebrews says that “the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword … and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12). When we hear the word of God, it searches our hearts, examining and judging our thoughts, motives, and intentions. God’s Word, espec­ially when it deals with perfection, has a way of making us feel uncomfort­able, for it examines our very motive for being Christians.

The true reason for the church’s resistance to perfection is that most people just want salvation. We want to stretch out our hands and accept the free gift of salvation. If I can get salvation, who cares about perfect­ion? What has it got to do with me? Perfection is for those who are obsessed with the loftier realms of the spiritual life.

Most Christians are content to settle for the minimum level, seldom going beyond “me, myself, and I”. I want to get saved, and that’s all that matters. Perfection is so far away that you can hardly see it with a pair of binoculars. It is so remote that it is like reaching for the stars. Why talk about rocket theology when we can’t even get off the ground? Riding a bicycle ought to be good enough. If I can get from point A to point B in a car, that would suffice. Who cares about space shuttles? They’re for Christians who are out of touch with earthly reality. Let’s talk about bicycle theology, or motorcycle theo­logy, or if you’re ambit­ious, automotive theology. But don’t bother about rocket technology. You’ve got to keep your feet on the ground.

This way of thinking reveals a failure to see that perfection in the Bible is very practical, and is in fact what the Christian life is about. This will be demonstrated as we proceed. Since perfection is the goal which we are called to in Christ, we press on towards it by grace, going beyond subsistence-level Christianity.

Perfection and the whole purpose of God

Paul said to the disciples at Ephesus, “I did not shrink from declar­ing to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). He omitted nothing that was import­ant for their new life in Christ. Paul’s constant aim was to “present every man complete (perfect) in Christ” (Col. 1:28), which is why he says in the next verse, “For this purpose also I labor, striving according to his power, which mightily works within me”. The church today would be transformed if every pastor and church leader had this as his goal too.

Per­fection is integral to, and insepar­able from regen­eration and renewal in God’s plan of salvation for us. What will happen when we remove perfection from salvation? We truncate and distort “the whole purpose of God”. It is no longer the full salvation proclaimed in the Scriptures.

Notice Paul’s words “I did not shrink from” in regard to “declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). “Shrink from” translates a Greek word which means to draw back, or shrink from something, or keep silent, out of fear.[1] The same word is also used a few verses ear­lier: “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable” (v.20). Within the space of a few verses, Paul used the word twice. What might have caused him to shrink from declaring the whole purpose of God?

Anyone who has preached the whole message of salvation will know that his hearers will gladly receive some truths, but are less willing to accept some other truths, while yet other truths they find so utterly unpalatable as to strongly reject them. They gladly accept that part of the truth they like, but not the whole truth. Their opposition to that part of the truth they don’t like can be so strong and violent that some preachers have been thrown out of churches for preaching the whole truth which would necessarily include those portions distasteful to the natural man.

Paul had much first-hand experience not only of being thrown out, but also of being slandered, beaten, and nearly killed. I too have had some experience of these things. It takes divinely supplied courage to preach the whole truth, and not merely to dole out those por­tions we know will appeal to the multitudes. We must choose between preach­ing the whole gospel and dismembering it. Who do we fear more, God or man?

We do well to consider the closing words of Rev­elation, which are also the closing words of the Bible by the fact that Revelation is the last book of the Bible. These words give stern warning about any attempt to change the contents of God’s word, whether by adding to or subtracting from them:

I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book. He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming quickly.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. (Revelation 22:18-20)

This passage begins with the words, “I testify”. Who is the one making this solemn statement? The answer is found in the second part of the quotation: he who testifies is none other than Jesus himself. Though the warning may sound stern, it is given in love, just like the stern note in a father or mother’s voice warning a child for his own good not to play with fire.

Many people in their ignorance of the Biblical teach­ing on perfect­ion — the teaching of being conformed to the image of Christ, and growing into the fullness of his stature — have decided that perfect­ion has nothing to do with salvation. But would God teach us anything that is irrelev­ant to salvation? We give the excuse that given our human weaknesses, perfection is unattain­able. But who knows our weak­nesses better than God does? Why does He still call us to be perfect? Will He not supply the grace to accomplish that which He calls us to?

The separating of sanctification from justification

There is no basis in Scripture for bypassing perfection in salvat­ion, a method of theological categorization has become popular which separates justi­fication from sanctification. In general, the categorizing of subjects is a useful teach­ing tool, but it will mislead if it is inaccurate. This would be the case if we place justification under salvation, and perfection under sanctifi­cation, as two separate branches.

This simplistic classification does not accurately reflect the deeper pattern found in the Scriptures. It leads us to equate justification with salvation, and to dispense with sanctification as a redundant theologi­cal appendage. These theological categorizations become a deadly snare by classifying a substantial part of Script­ure as irrelevant for salvation.

Nowhere in the Bible can we separate sanctification from justifica­tion so neatly, slicing between them down the middle with a theologi­cal knife. The cost of this error to the church is unimaginably high. One such conse­quence is that Christians by and large have ceased to be the light of the world. Those who don’t have light cannot give light or be light, so we remain in darkness, which is the state of those who are unsaved.

Many Christians today are ignorant of being light in the world (cf., Eph.5:8, “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord”). Someone in our church once wrote an article about Christians being the light of the world. A reader phoned him up to challenge him, saying that it is Jesus, not Christians, who is the light of the world; and demanded to know where the Bible says that Christians are the light of the world. The writer of the article was astonished. Is it possible for a Christian, in this case a leader of a Christian fellowship, not to know that Jesus had said, “You are the light of the world” (Mt.5:14)? Yes, she really didn’t know that! She had to be shown the exact chapter and verse.

That is what happens when we separate sanctification from justifi­ca­tion. Justification, like the first stage of a rocket, is essential for the initial “liftoff” stage of salvation. But without the sanctification stage (Christ-likeness), the pur­pose of salvation won’t be fulfilled. We must never forget that the saved are those who “have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). And what is that purpose? It is stated in the next sentence, “To be conformed to the likeness of His Son” (v.29).

This whole discussion about the inseparability of sanctification and justifi­cation would scarcely have been needed in the apostolic church. But these things need to be expounded at length today.

Jesus says, “You therefore must be per­fect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt.5:48). This is both a call and a command, so anyone who refuses to obey it is evidently being defiant, by insisting that per­fection is irrelevant to salvation. But even if we don’t understand these deep complex theo­logical issues, do we think that anyone can disobey the Lord and still be saved? The matter is as simple as that.

And because we have separated these two things, much of the Lord’s teaching has become incomprehensible to us. For example, he says that you cannot be his disciple unless you deny yourself, hate your life, take up your cross daily, and follow him (Lk.9:23; 14:26-27). Many Christians re­act negatively to this teaching, saying that Jesus is speaking to his disciples, not Christians. There we go again, separating Christians from disciples. No such distinction exists in Scripture, yet we have decided that discipleship is not necessary for salvation. That is amazing, given that the only Christians in the Bible are disciples (Acts 11:26).

Because we have separated sanctification from justification, we don’t know what to do with Jesus’ teaching, a good part of which we regard as being irrelev­ant to Christians. That is why we say that Jesus’ teaching is meant for higher-level Christians called disciples, not ordin­ary Christians who just want to get saved. In making false distinctions and classificat­ions, we imagine that we can evade Jesus’ call to deny our­selves, take up our cross daily, and follow him — and still be saved!

But the call to take up the cross and follow him is integrally related to his call to perfection. Perfection is seen in complete obedience to God and the denial of the self. Perfection is part of Jesus’ most basic teaching to the multitudes (Lk.14:25-27). He starts at that foundation­al level without being vague or ambiguous about it.

Three types of perfection in Philippians 3

Let us now define perfection more precisely. What does the Lord Jesus require of us when he says, “You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”?

If you have at all seriously tried to live the Christian life, even for one day, you would sympathize with those who say that perfection is impractica­ble. You would know how hard it is to be a true Christian. It is no easy thing to love God with all your heart and strength, and your neighbor as yourself — even for one day. Who ever said salvation is easy?

The Lord makes it clear that, “The gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it” (Mt.7:14). That is why salvation is by grace, for without God’s empowering through the Holy Spirit, it would be im­possible for us to live the new life to which He has called us.

One of the great difficulties we face in the world is that many things go by the same name. Those who have studied philo­sophy would know that this is a problem for the philos­opher and thinker. It also poses a challenge to the Christian. The reason is that human language is some­what limited, so it often uses the same word to refer to a variety of disparate ideas. If you open a dictionary, you would see that many words mean totally different things. The same is true of “perfection”.

Hence we need to distinguish the different types of perfection if we are to avoid dangerous confusion. Some ideas about perfection are not Biblical, while some are. The under­standing of perfection which many Christians have derives from the world, not from Scripture. So when they read about perfection in Jesus’ teaching or in the New Testament, they ass­ume that the word means the same as in the world because that is the only definition they know. The result is con­fusion. It is crucial that we be well acquainted with the Biblical teaching about perfection.

First type of perfection: Carnal perfection

Philippians 3 is the chapter par excellence on perfection, for it defines it to the fullest extent. In this chapter we find three types of perfect­ion which we need to distinguish. The first type of perfection is found in verse 6, but let us read verses 4 to 6 to get the context:

If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless (or faultless or without defect, i.e., perfect).

This is the first type of perfection. In his former way of life, Paul was blameless and perfect — but in the flesh. He is saying, “If you have anything to boast about in the flesh, I have more. In terms of the Law, I have a perfect track record”. He scrupulously fulfilled every detail of the Law. Yet it was this perfection “in the flesh” that drove him to perse­cute the Church, which at that time was seen as an emerging sect.

Why did Paul (at that time called Saul) persecute the church so vehemently? Today the word “cult” or “sect” is bandied about freely. The Church was initially re­garded as a Jewish cult or sect (Acts 24:5,14; 28:22). Paul thought it his religious duty to persecute with utmost zeal this Jewish cult whose members had come to be called “Christians,” a cult which at that time was an apparently insignificant movement started by a professed Messiah, the leader of a small band of disciples, some of them fisher­men. The learned Saul would have regarded them as ignorant, unlettered, and untrained in rabbinical theology. “How arrogant can you get?” he must have thought, “These ignorant people profess to know a new way to God!” So Saul was determined to exter­minate this sect. He put Stephen to death, and the church in Jerusalem was scattered (Acts 8:1).

This first type of perfection is that of the carnal man. Carnal, fleshly perfection is totally different from spiritual perfection, in fact its very opposite. It is deadly. This type of perfection within the sphere of relig­ion results in fana­ticism. It embodies human enthusiasm and the zeal to establish one’s own righteousness before God. It is man-centered and imbued with human notions of perfection.

There are two types of zeal: a spiritual zeal for God, and a human zeal for God. Human zeal is prone to carnal jea­lousy. That is why “zeal” is often rendered “jea­lousy” or “envy” in the Bible. Paul says to the carnally zealous Christians in Corinth:

But I, brethren, could not speak to you as spir­itual men, but as to men of the flesh, as to babes in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife a­mong you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men? (1Corinthians 3:1-4)

(1) Carnal zeal is motivated by the self

The Corinthian Christians were zealous and probably regarded them­selves as quite perfect, with zeal being an expression of perfection. Zeal burns with a concentrated, single-minded devotion to a cause or ideology. Zeal of this kind does emanate from a perfect commitment and obedience of heart to God, but is inspired by a wrong motive: It is of the flesh, of the self. It is dangerous to the church because it splits and divides people: “I am of Paul, I am of Peter, I am of Apollos.” To this Paul would say, “Why the need to choose between Peter or Apollos or me? We serve the same God, follow the same Lord; why the zeal for the one over the other?”

This kind of zeal and perfection, seen often in single-minded dev­otion to a particular theology or dogma, is very dangerous. Outwardly it is not always easy to discern whether a person’s zeal is fleshly because both types of zeal, the carnal and the spiritual, are said to be “for God”. Yet these are motivated by different things.

To avoid being ensnared in the wrong kind of zeal, our hearts and motives must be thoroughly scrutinized before the Lord. Is God truly at the center of our lives, or are we still at the center? Are we subtly running the show, or is the Holy Spirit really in control of our lives?

If you are a zealous person, then bear this in mind: carnal zeal will blind you to spiritual things, and blunt your ability to distinguish light from darkness, true from false. This kind of zeal and perfection­ism is spiritually danger­ous because it is of human origin. It is not inspired by the Spirit of God or rooted in God and a concern for others, but derives from the old ego.

A person with this kind of zeal is a deadly threat to the church. He will attack and slander fellow Christians in the name of the truth as he sees it. The Lord warns of such people when he says to his disciples, “A time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God” (John 16:2). In his early days, Paul thought he was serving God when he, in his carnal zeal for God, persecuted the church and had Stephen put to death.

From Paul’s recollections of his own past, we could imagine him telling us, “I studied at the feet of Gamaliel the First, that eminent rabbi known as Gamaliel the Great. I was steeped in the theology of the rabbis, and was on fire for my religion. But being in bondage to the flesh, I did not realize that I was opposing God. I persecuted His church and tried to destroy it” (Gal.1:13; 1Cor.15:9).

If you are in bondage to the flesh, please forget about per­fection because you will end up with the wrong kind of perfection. You must start with regeneration, starting at the beginning and not the end.

We must start with regeneration because only that which is born of the Spirit is spirit, and therefore spiritual. We are made spiritual and new people in Christ, not by human zealousness but by God’s work of the new creation in us. When we become spiritual, our new life will grow and develop, moving towards a specific goal: the fullness of the image and stature of Christ.

(2) Carnal zeal and atrocities

The first type of perfection, then, is carnal perfection. Anyone who is not regenerate should not aim for perfection because one of these days he will persecute fellow Christians, putting them to death or calling them cults, antichrists, and so on. As in the case of Paul when he persecuted the church, this person will think he is rendering God a wonderful service. One day some of us may be killed by this type of Christian. Be prepared, for they are most dangerous. Jesus warns us that in the last days, the greatest threat to Christians is not unbelievers but mis­guided Christ­ians, who will commit every form of evil against us in the name of God.

This kind of carnal Christian lacks spiritual perception. They easily stray from the truth without being aware of it. And because they don’t know they have departed from the true faith, they think that they still stand in it. In this dreadful condition, they sway other carnal Christians, creating schisms within the church and violently attacking those who refuse to go their way. This situation will reach its climax in these last days: “At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other” (Mt.24:10). There will be inter­necine strife; there will be the betraying and hating of “one another”. How dangerous and hateful is carnal zeal.

The history of the church has many a wretched chapter in which Christians have put fellow Christians to death. It is probably true to say that in the course of church history, more Christians have been put to death in the hands of Christians than in the hands of non-Christ­ians. It is hard to imagine anything more brutal and terrifying than the Inquisition, in which Christians tortured other Christians to death in God’s name.

If we strive for perfect­ion yet without centering our hearts on God, on Jesus, and on love for neighbor, we will arrive at a carnal zeal. Flee from it as fast as your feet can carry you, because that kind of zeal will take you to hell. Some of the greatest enemies of the church operate within her and come forth from her. The Antichrist will come out from the church, that is, with a past or present Christian identity. The apos­tle John says that “anti­christs … went out from us”. They originated from within the church (1Jn.2:18-19). The final Antichrist is unlikely to be an exception. Be well prepared, for we are living in the last days.

Second type of perfection: spiritual perfection

The second type of perfection is found in Philippians 3:15:

Let us, therefore, as many of us who are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you. (Philippians 3:15)

Two verses earlier, Paul explains this perfect attitude in terms of the unrelenting pursuit after the Lord Jesus:

One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Phil.3:13-14, NIV)

When your life is focused on a goal, you are like an athlete who fixes his eyes on the gold medal. His whole being is focused on the finish line. His thoughts are centered not on himself but on the mark ahead of him. Paul’s single-minded goal is “the surpassing greatness of know­ing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil.3:8), reaffirmed in verse 10: “I want to know him”. Paul’s life, heart, and thoughts are all centered on Christ. That, according to Paul, is how the perfect think.

This second type of perfection must not be confused with the first type, which is perfection of the flesh, an external perfection that looks at things, even heavenly and spiritual matters, from the human point of view. It is “mere human” (1Cor.3:3,4) even if it has the out­ward appearance of being spiritual. It may quote the Bible, but it tends to inter­pret it by human reasoning and with carnal objectives (e.g., saying that the Bible teaches us to get money from God). It adheres firmly, even fiercely, to human tradi­tions and theological dogma, creating conflict within the church. It is motiv­ated by human love as distinct from spiritual love.

Spiritual or inner perfection, on the other hand, is gov­erned and motivated not by earthly and external things but by the Lord Jesus, the One who sits at the Father’s right hand. If we have been crucified with Christ and no longer live our self-centered lives, but Christ lives in us, we will no longer look at things from a human point of view, but with the “mind of Christ” (1Cor.2:16), seeing things from his point of view.

(1) Perfection has to do with the heart

Let us try to understand the Biblical meaning of “perfect” more precise­ly. How are we to ascertain its true meaning in the New Testament? By consulting a Greek dictionary? That won’t be adequate because the New Testament idea of perfection is rooted in Old Testa­ment ideas, not Hellenic (Greek) ideas. In the Old Testament, perfection[2] has fundamentally to do with the heart and its attitude. It speaks of a heart that is blameless, upright, or perfect.[3]

This is the type of perfection that God expects of us. He does not require absolute perfection in the sense of absolute sinlessness and moral perfection, for this would involve factors beyond the intentions of the heart. We may genuinely want to be perfect, yet did something wrong because of insufficient know­ledge in spiritual matters. The intention may be good but the action is wrong because of not know­ing the right course of action in a particular situation. This is often true of new believers who haven’t yet learned to walk close to God and to know His will for their lives.

Many Christians cannot handle real-life decisions. Should I take this job or that one? They may arrive at a wrong decision, only to realize their mistake later. They failed even though the intention of the heart was right in the first place. They need to learn to commune with God and be led by the Spirit.

God knows that even if the heart attitude is perfect, the action may be wrong. That is why we distinguish internal perfection and external perfection. God does not, I repeat, require that we be perfect in every external act, because that would require a knowledge of God’s will at a level which we have not yet attained.

Although the Spirit of God is there to guide us into all truth, we may still be limited in our capacity to commun­icate with God. The intention may be perfect but the level of communication is often inadequate, so we do not know God’s will in every situation.

This second type of perfection is an inner perfection that is not always outwardly visible to others, for it is not something for display. Attention-seeking belongs to the first type of perfection, not the second type. Carnal perfection craves man’s approval. We want people to see us praying when in fact we usually don’t pray much. People may be im­pressed with two hours of prayer, less so with 30 min­utes. How do we assess someone who prays for 30 min­utes, but for the rest of the day is in constant communion with the Lord?

The Lord looks at the heart. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “When you pray, close your door behind you so that no one will see you” (Mt.6:5,6). People don’t need to know how long we pray. I wonder how people knew that Martin Luther prayed for three or four hours at a time. Some­times, of course, you cannot hide it, especially if you are sharing a room with someone else. But the in­tention of the heart must be right. True spirituality is not concerned to let people know how religious we are, how long we pray, or how many Bible chapters we read daily. Someone once told me he had read through the Bible forty times. But if you talk with him, you may wonder if he has even read it once. How does it benefit you if you read the Bible forty times, yet fail to see the spiritual meaning of any particular verse?

When Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he is saying, “Be spiritual as your heavenly Father is spirit­ual.” True spirituality means, firstly, that we are born of the Spirit, and secondly, that we walk by the Spirit. Romans 8 talks about walking in the Spirit and being led by the Spirit. Do we exper­ience the Spirit’s presence and leading every day?

(2) Led by the Spirit

Will anyone still insist that perfection is irrele­vant to salva­tion? Put simply, perfect­ion is a life oriented towards God in which we commune and walk with Him, and experience the wonderful reality of being led by the Spirit. God leads His children even at times when we are not fully aware of it, but only in hind­sight. Who are the children of God? They are those who are led by the Spirit of God (Romans 8:14). To be perfect means to be holy, blameless, and in tune with the Spirit’s leading. Holiness means to be separate from the world and its carnality.

The churches today, like the church at Corinth, have many carnal Christians, and these often create trouble in the church. Paul is con­cerned to move them out of that state as quickly as possible, so he exhorts us to move on to a Christ-like attitude (Phil.2:5), which is the essence of perfection.

Third type of perfection: Absolute perfection

The puzzling thing about Philippians 3:12-16 is that Paul speaks in an apparently self-contradictory way. He says that he is not perfect, yet he is perfect. He expects every Christian to be perfect (v.15), yet he says, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect” (v.12). He uses the same Greek word for “perfect” in both verses,[4] yet in the one case he is perfect, in the other case he is not. This remarkable paradox is lost in some translations which use “per­fect” in one verse and “mature” in the other.[5] Paul con­sciously uses the same word twice, the first time to say he is not perfect, the second time to say he is per­fect. There is no self-contra­diction because “perfect” is used in three different senses in the same chapter.

When Paul says he has not attained to per­fection, he is speaking of absolute perfection. This type of perfection involves much more than having a right attitude and the right intentions of the heart; it includes absolute perfection in every thought and action, without the slightest sin or error, a type of perfection that is im­possible for us to attain at the present time. Paul does not claim to be perfect in this sense.

Our heart’s attitude may be perfect towards God, but we could still be inconsiderate, or over­look someone’s needs, or forget to say some­thing appreciative. I confess to failing in this way many times, e.g., failing to express the appro­priate gratitude for a kindness shown to me. That failure is sin. In the last chapter we saw that a mistake is a sin according to the Biblical definit­ion of sin. By that definition, my error, my omiss­ion, my failure, is sin. I am nowhere near the absolute perfect­ion that we see in Jesus, who has never failed in any action whatever. This kind of perfection is unattainable to us at the present time.

The body of flesh hinders perfection

Perfection is spirituality, but our spirituality is limited by the fact that we are still in the body, and are circumscribed by the imperfect­ions inherent in the flesh, including that the flesh obscures our spiritual vision. Paul says, “When perfection comes, the imperfect disap­pears … Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror, then we shall see face to face” (1Cor.13:10,12, NIV). Our spirituality is limited because we see an imperfect reflection in a mirror. My com­munication with God is hindered by my flesh, so I cannot commun­icate with Him face-to-face. The communication passes through the veil of the flesh. I see spiritual things, but not as clearly as when the veil of the body of flesh will finally be removed.

But John has good news for us: “We know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1Jn.3:2). Only then will we become fully Christ-like. Absolute perfection is attain­able only in the future, when we see Christ as he is, when this body of flesh is no longer, when we put on immortality. Paul concludes the chapter by saying that Jesus Christ “who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” (Phil.3:21)

All in all, Paul is saying, “I am not abso­lutely perfect at this time because the body of flesh is still with me, hinder­ing my communion with God, though I do have heaven­ly moments of fellow­ship with the Lord.” Paul experienced being trans­ported into the third heaven, not being sure if he was in the body or out of it (2Cor.12:2). But after this brief interlude, he was back again behind the veil of flesh. The flesh obscures our spiritual vision at present and will continue to do so until we see Christ face to face and become transformed into his perfect image and likeness.

We are waiting for the trans­formation or “the redemp­tion of our bodies” (Rom.8:23), when the mortal will put on immor­tality, and this physical body will be changed into a spiritual one (1Cor.15:44,53). Then we will be absolutely perfect in every­thing because we will have unhindered communion with God. Paul longs for that day with such intensity that he cries out in Romans 7:24, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” He would much prefer to die and be with Christ (Phil.1:21-23) because at death the body of flesh is put off and the spirit is free to go to be with Christ.

The spiritual man does not fear death. Paul is not afraid to die because he knows that the carnal and the physical stand as a bar­rier to direct communion with God and absolute perfection in Him. His fervent hope is that “I may attain to the resurrec­tion from the dead. Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on …” (Phil.3:11,12). Here is an explicit link between absolute perfection and the resurrec­tion from the dead. At the future resurrect­ion, we will receive a spiritual im­mortal body, and become absolutely perfect, free from the flesh, sin, and death.

What is our attitude to this physical life?

In summary, there are three types of perfection: First, there is the carnal or fleshly type, which should have been left behind in the past when we became new persons in Christ. The third type is what we look forward to in the future when we become like the Lord, fully conformed to his perfect image. Only the second type, spiritual perfection, concerns us in the present time as people who have become new persons, a “new creation” in Christ (2Cor.5:17).

But the path of spiritual perfection is a great challenge. We will soon discover that it leads us to the “narrow road” (Mt.7:14) on which we are to take up our cross and follow Jesus (Mt.16:24; Mk.8:34; Lk.9:23). Anyone who refuses to bear his own cross will find that he will be unable to walk this road that leads to life. Our physical life with its earthly appetites, pursuits and aspirations will fiercely oppose the call to spiritual perfection because its security and interests are being threatened. When we become new persons in Christ, we must settle the question of our attit­ude towards our earthly or physical life. Failing to do so is to court certain defeat from the outset.

Whether perfection is important to us or not, can be seen in our attitude to this world and physical life. It can be seen in whether we fear death. The one who fears death will cling to the physical life. But Jesus says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt.10:28).

What is our attitude to this physical life? Are we alarmed when our health deteriorates? Or our income is limited? Do we strive for an ever-bigger savings account? Do we seek the applause from men?

Or are eternal things the main con­cern of our hearts? Do we look at our health and our occupa­tion through the eyes of a faithful stew­ard who serves God as the center of his life? Mater­ial things may pass through our hands, but we don’t cling to them, like “those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away” (1Cor.7:31). The Christian life is very practical, for it comes to grips with these concrete realities of life. It is within the sphere of daily life that we see perfection in the enduring spiritual quality of our lives. That is what salvation is about.

[1] “mid. — a. draw back in fear Hb 10:38 (Hab 2:4). b. shrink from, avoid because of fear; I did not shrink from proclaiming Ac 20:27. c. keep silent about someth. in fear; I have kept silent about nothing that is profitable Ac 20:20.” An abbrev­iated extract from A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT, BAG.

[2] The Hebrew word for perfect (תמים, tamim) is frequently used of sacrificial animals which are to be without defect, perfect, healthy, e.g. Ex.12:5, and of people whose hearts and conduct are “blameless” and “upright,” e.g. Ps.119:80; Prov.11:20. KJV trans­lates the word as “perfect” 18 times, but other translations often use “blameless”; cf. Prov.2:21; 11:5; Ps.37:18, etc. It is used of God’s call to be “perfect” or “blameless” (Gen.17:1; Dt.18:13), and to speak of a “perfect heart” (Ps.101:2), God’s work (Dt.32:4) and His ways (Ps.18:30).

[3] For example, 1Chr.29:17-19 speaks of a “perfect heart” (NASB). It repeat­edly speaks of the heart in expressions such as “the integrity of my heart,” “the intentions of the heart of Thy people,” and “directing their heart to Thee”.

[4] Verse 12 uses the verb teleioō, from the same root as the adjective teleios, used in verse 15.

[5] New American Standard Bible preserves the paradox by using “perfect” in both verses, whereas Revised Standard Version uses two different words.


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