NIV 2011 and Perfection

The new NIV 2011 shows its value in the insightful translation of Philippians 3:12, but it shows no improvement in Matthew 5:48.  In Philippians 3:12, the Greek verb in question, teleio?, is frequently — and wrongly — translated as if it involved some form of perfection. It is my contention that the concept of perfection presented in other translations of Philippians 3:12 came not from the Bible or from Greek and Hebrew but from philosophy. Christian theology has a long history of saying that God is perfect, and that has led to the contention that those who become mature in Christ are being made “perfect.”

The original basis in the Bible for this idea of “perfection” seems to come from Matthew 5:48. Next I will analyze that verse.

Matthew 5:48

For Matt. 5:48, NIV 2011 offers, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

In Matthew 5:48, the English word perfect simply does not fit either the underlying Greek adjective (teleios) or this context. So, how did we wind up with a misleading English word in so many translations?

Perfect (Matt. 5:48) was the English word chosen by William Tyndale in the very first English translation of the New Testament (1526) based on the Latin Vulgate. Tyndale did not have a Greek New Testament to guide his work because they were not published in Europe until 1534.[1] About 85 percent of Tyndale’s popular English translation became part of the Authorized Version, which we call the King James Bible, and the translation perfect in Matt. 5:48 was part of that incorporated material.

Bible translator William Mounce explains the second factor that often prevents English translation improvements: “The argument [in the translation committee] was, ‘This is such a well-known verse that we can’t change it.’”[2] [Mounts was not speaking here about Matt. 5:48 in particular or about NIV 2011.] Such forces against change are strong in the Sermon on the Mount!

New Testament scholar Craig L. Blomberg puts us onto the right plan for Matt. 5:48 when he says, “‘Perfect’ here is better translated as ‘mature, whole,’ i.e., loving without limits . . . . Jesus is not frustrating his hearers with an unachievable ideal but challenging them to grow in obedience to God’s will — to become more like him.”[3] The key idea here is completeness, or loving without limits. God’s willingness to love even his enemies sets the example for the disciples of Jesus. Just as the Father is whole and undivided in his love, so must Jesus’ disciples be!

The interpretation just given makes sense out of the word therefore (Matt. 5:48a). Verse 48 is a conclusion based on what has been taught previously. The Gentiles and tax collectors love their own kind (Matt. 5:46-47), but we must look to God for our model of love, not our peers.

In spite of the fact that virtually all modern commentators agree on what has been said above about the correct interpretation of Matt. 5:48, it is not hard to find someone who teaches sinless perfection as the command of Christ. But that idea is very hard to reconcile with the prayer Jesus taught his disciples in which they pray for the forgiveness of the debt (of sin) between themselves and God (Matt. 6:12). Why would a perfect disciple need to ask forgiveness? Even stronger are John’s words: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8, ESV).

I need to address a potential criticism. Someone might claim that I am teaching that God is not perfect. Far from it! The Bible amply demonstrates that God needs no improvement or development. What I do say is that the concept of God’s perfection or our own perfection as disciples is not what Jesus was saying here. Instead, he was holding up God’s character as the example of love for his disciples to follow. God loves the just and the unjust, and so must we.

Philippians 3:12

BNT Philippians 3:12 ??? ??? ??? ?????? ? ??? ???????????, ????? ?? ?? ??? ????????, ??? ? ??? ??????????? ??? ??????? [?????].

The standard Greek lexicon, BDAG-3, offers this definition for the bold-face Greek verb teleio?:  ”to overcome or supplant an imperfect state of things by one that is free fr. objection, bring to an end, bring to its goal/accomplishment.” Happily, this is the definition used by NIV 2011 in Phil. 3:12. Compare the following translations (“2011″ is NIV 2011, and NIV is the 1984 version):

ESV Philippians 3:12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

2011 Philippians 3:12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.

NIV Philippians 3:12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.

NLT Philippians 3:12 I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me.

I congratulate NIV 2011 for making this improvement in Philippians 3:12 and hope that they will eventually fix Matthew 5:48, though I’m not holding my breath!

[1] The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 3, S.L. Greenslade, Ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1963) 61.

[2] William D. Mounce, Greek for the Rest of Us (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003) 38.

[3] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 115.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. Material on Matthew 5:48 presented with permission of Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas, which originally commissioned the work.