Perhaps the most celebrated word translated “perfect” in the New Testament is TELEIOS. There are several New Testament words that have the root TELEI- within them. These include: TELEIOW, TELEIOTHS, TELEIWTHS, TELEIWSIS, TELEIWS, TELESFOREW and EPITELEW.
In looking at the morphology, TELEIOS is adjectival in form; TELEIOTHS, TELEIWTHS, and TELEIWSIS are nominal; TELEIWS is adverbial, and TELEIOW is verbal. TELESFOREW and EPITELEW are compound verbs.
In classical Greek, TELEI- has different meanings when applied to different things. In reference to living organisms, it refers to maturity. In reference to events, it refers to fulfillment. In reference to sacrifices or offerings, it refers to a whole or complete sacrifice. One interesting usage was that in reference to deities or sovereigns, the word refers to omnipotence or authority respectively./1
The meaning of the stem TELEI- has within it the idea of maturity. The root has a relationship to the word TELOS according to R.C. Trench, who says, “All of the various uses of teleios refer to the telos [end], which is its goal. In a natural sense the teleioi are adults who have attained their full stature, strength, and mental powers; they have attained their telos.”/2
Hence, we find New Testament instruction to be TELEIOS even as God, the Father is TELEIOS (Matthew 5:48). The emphasis here isn’t upon being flawless, but rather, mature enough to act toward one’s enemies as God acts toward his enemies, namely, in a kind and reasoned way.
So also Jesus gives instruction to the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:21 that if he would be TELEIOS (that is, mature in matters of righteousness) to go and sell all that he had and give it to the poor. So the word is used in Hebrews 5:14 in reference to those “of full age” and to the kind of love that casts out fear in 1 John 4:18; it is a mature love.
TELEIOS as a word is found nineteen times in the Greek New Testament./3 TELEIOTHS (maturity, perfection) is found twice: once in Colossians 3:14 and once in Hebrews 6:1. The noun form TELEIWSIS is found in Luke 1:45 and Hebrews 7:11; this word carries the idea of “perfect” in the sense of “fulfilled.” TELEIWTHS, another noun form is only found in Hebrews 12:2 and there refers to Jesus as the “finisher” of the faith. The verb form TELEIOW is found twenty-four times in the Greek New Testament. The verb form ranges in translation from “fulfilled” (Luke 2:43), “finished” (John 17:4), “made perfect” (Hebrews 5:9) to “consecrated” (Hebrews 5:28 KJV). 1 Peter 1:13 has the distinction to host the adverbial form, TELEIWS, in reference to the need for the Christian’s hope to be “to the end.” The compound verb TELESFOREW is found only in Luke 8:14 meaning to “bring fruit to maturity.”
The compound verb EPITELEW occurs eleven times in the Greek New Testament. One interesting usage of it is found in Luke 13:32 where there is a play on words. Jesus says in answer to the threat that Herod would kill him that he had two more days to IASEIS EPITELW (perform cures, complete cures, finish cures, that is, in other people)./4 Jesus then says that on the third day he himself would be completed/perfected (TELEIOUMAI). Commentators disagree as to whether this refers to Jesus ending his work of healing or if he is referring to ending his life. The play on words would seem to indicate the former; Herod’s threat, perhaps, the latter. Jesus may have intentionally answered in such an ambiguous way to throw off his detractors.
Another interesting passage in which the word is used is Philippians 3:12-15. In verse 12, Paul uses the perfect tense form of the verb form (TETELEIWMAI) to indicate that he hadn’t attained to the resurrection. That is, he hadn’t been perfected in respect to the state in which he would be resurrected (i.e. perfection). In verse 15, Paul then uses the word TELEIOI to describe those who were mature in reference to practicing Christianity. It indicates that to be mature in eternity is different from being mature in regard to practicing Christianity and stands as a refutation to the doctrine that eternal life is a current possession of the Christian. In other words, if the Christian possessed eternal life, then why isn’t he TETELEIHTAI instead of merely one of the TELEIOI?
Perhaps the most celebrated passage among churches of Christ in which the word is used is found in 1 Corinthians 13:10 which says, “But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.” What is “that which is perfect?” Some have suggested that it refers to Christ. After all, Hebrews 5:9 speaks of Christ being made “perfect.”
However, one must take the usage of TELEIOS in its context here in 1 Corinthians 13. TELEIOS is contrasted with its antonym MEROS in this passage. It was miraculous knowledge, miraculous prophecies, and miraculous tongues that were MEROS. Each of those was a form or medium of communication that was MEROS. It would be inconsistent to apply TELEIOS to a person, while in the context its antonym is being applied to a mode of communication. Hence, TELEIOS must apply to some mode of communication that eventually will be TELEIOS. That mode, of course, is the written form of revelation that we have in the New Testament. The New Testament today is what is TELEIOS in contrast to the knowledge, prophecies, and tongues that were MEROS in the days of the apostles and prophets. Hence, TELEIOS here doesn’t refer to the person of Jesus but rather to the “perfect” (TELEIOS) law of liberty (James 1:25).
So, to summarize, the root stem TELEI- is related to TELOS which means to bring to an end. TELEI-appears to be the quality or characteristic of having brought something to an end. Hence, the word indicates maturity in physical growth as well as in matters of personal character. It indicates a completeness that has been brought about in reference to a desired goal as opposed to the idea of completeness in the sense of wholeness due to having all the pieces present (though TELEI- isn’t necessarily exclusive to that concept). That some have understood TELEI- to mean “complete,” the connotation is really more along the lines of mature, but, of course, the context is what is going to determine its ultimate usage. “Finish,” “fulfilled,” “completed,” “mature,” and “perfect” may all be legitimate translations in any given context. One ought not, however, to necessarily conclude that the word indicates moral perfection or flawlessness.
1. The example in Liddell and Scott referred specifically to the Greek god Zeus.
2. R. C. Trench, Trench’s Synonyms of the New Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2000), 90.
3. All statistics taken from George V. Wigram and Jay P. Green, Sr., eds. The New Englishman’s Greek Concordance and Lexicon (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1982).
4. This is the reading of the Textus Receptus. The eclectic text uses the word APOTELW, which, for all intents and purposes, shares the same meaning.