Teleios (τέλειος) - 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

This week’s Bible word is the Greek adjective teleios. The word appears in the gospel of the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A (Mt 5:38-48), where it is translated as “perfect”.

The adjective teleios is one of a group of 13 related Greek words, all with very similar meaning. The related Greek noun telos is the basis for the English word “teleology”, which is used in philosophy to describe the purpose or goal of objects or events.

As we will see, this teleios group of words has many shades of meaning, clustered around the ideas of ending, completion and fulfilment, and some of these different meanings are closely related. This is a challenge for the translator, who has to find the most appropriate English word for any particular occurrence of the Greek word in a verse of Scripture. And the translator’s challenge has consequences for us, as readers of the English translations: when we encounter a word, it is useful to be aware of the other meanings of the underlying Greek word, which may give us a richer understanding of that verse of Scripture. This teleios group of Greek words is a good example of such a multi-faceted word – so I hope that this article will help us to be aware of the possible nuances of meaning, when we encounter words in English translations of the Bible such as “perfect”, “end”, “fulfil” and “mature”.

As with previous episodes of Bible Words, I will consider these teleios words as a single group, since their meanings are closely related – except where it is necessary to focus on one specific word.

In the secular Greek literature of the ancient world, teleios words have a wide range of meanings related to an end, or completeness, or fulfilment. In the sphere of worldly achievement, teleios words can mean a goal or end, or carrying out instructions, or fulfilling an obligation, including the payment of tax. The noun telos is used to refer to success in an endeavour, or power, or political office, or of ratifying a law. The verb can have a dynamic sense of making a word come true, as in the Iliad, when Agamemnon is worried that Hector will fulfil his threats. Among the philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, it can refer to intellectual or physical development, or in a moral sense, of orientation towards the good. Teleios words are also used for fulfilling religious obligations or sacrifices.

In the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures which was produced between the 3rd and 2nd centuries before Christ, teleios words are used to translate 7 different Hebrew words – which hints at a similarly rich variety of meanings. Telos can mean simply an end or result, as when Jason’s failed assault on Jerusalem causes him to receive only disgrace as the result (telos) of the dishonour of his plot (2 Maccabees 5:7). Sometimes it refers to death, as when Ecclesiastes 7:2 declares that death is “the end [telos] of every man”. The secular sense of an obligation is continued in the LXX, with telos being used to describe the tax or tribute that Israel must offer to the Lord (Numbers 31:28). Therefore, we have the same Greek word telos being used to describe both of the 2 certainties of life: death and taxes!

But there is a greater emphasis in the LXX on the moral and religious significance of teleios. It can refer to being blameless, for example Noah in Genesis 6:9. It is used for undivided loyalty to the Lord, in Deuteronomy 18:13 and also in 1 Kings 8:61 – though note that loyalty and moral perfection go hand in hand, an example of where the use of teleios takes advantage of multiple nuances of the word. The verb can also be used for dedication to false gods, as when the people of Israel were initiated into the rites of the Baal of Peor (Num 25:3, 5). The idea of consecration may be why the translator of the LXX uses teleios to mean “unblemished”, when referring to the lamb used for the Passover meal in Exodus 12:5 – though it may also overlap with the sense of perfection.

In the New Testament, some uses of teleios words reflect the basic meanings from the secular and LXX usage.

  • The evangelist Matthew uses the verb teleo to mean “finish”, when in 5 places (Mt 7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1) he uses the identical phrase “when Jesus had finished”, to denote the end of each of the 5 blocks of teaching statements. 1 Peter 3:8 uses telos in a phrase which prefaces a summary, literally “now the end”.

  • Telos is also used to describe the end of various actions or institutions: so Satan’s power is coming to an end (Mk 3:26); Jesus’s kingdom “will have no end” (Lk 1:33); and telos refers to Jesus’s mission when in John’s gospel it says that he “loved them to the end” (Jn 13:1). When telos is used to refer to Christ as the “end of the law” in Romans 10:4, it carries the sense of fulfilment as well as superseding. Telos is also an end to life in Hebrews 7:3 and in 2 Cor 3:13, the latter alluding to the death of Moses. 2 specific variants of the word, the verb teleutao and the noun teleute mean “to die” and “death”, mostly in the Synoptic gospels and in Acts.

  • There are multiple uses of telos to describe the end of the age: it is a favourite phrase of the writer of the letter to the Hebrews (Heb 3:6, 3:14, 6:11), and also appears 3 times in the Synoptic gospels, when Jesus says that the one who ensures to the end will be saved (Mt 10:22), before late in Matthew’s gospel, saying first “the end is not yet” (Mt 24:6), followed a little later by “then will come the end” (Mt 24:14).

  • Telos has the sense of “outcome”, when Peter was sitting with the guards to see what would happen to Jesus (Mt 26:58). The outcome or result is often beyond this life, for example in Rom 6:21-22, when the telos of sin is death, but the telos of those who follow God will be eternal life.

The secular and LXX sense of fulfilling religious and secular obligations also appears in the New Testament: the verb teleo is used to describe how the Holy Family “had performed [etelesan] everything according to the law of the Lord” (Lk 2:39). Telos is one of the words used to refer to taxes when the subject is discussed in Matthew’s gospel (Mt 17:24‑25) and in the letter to the Romans (Rom 13:6-7). Even the word for tax collector, telones, comes from the word telos. So the New Testament also has telos referring to both death and taxes!

The idea of moral perfection is strong in the New Testament, especially from authors (such as Matthew, James and the author of the letter to the Hebrews) who show the greatest interest in the Jewish heritage of the faith. In the gospel of the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A, Jesus challenges us to be “perfect” (teleios) as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:38-48). Later in Matthew’s gospel (Mt 19:21), Jesus exhorts the rich young man to give up his possessions and follow Him, in order to be teleios. Here, the word teleios may hint not only at moral perfection, but at being “whole”, not divided, as the young man is torn between following God and keeping his possessions. While these demands for perfection seem out of reach for us – indeed the disciples say as much after this incident (Mt 19:25) – Jesus makes it clear that for men such perfection is impossible, but all things are possible to God (Mt 19:26).

Other New Testament uses of teleios words provide a wider perspective on achieving perfection.

  • Perfection is more of a process in the first letter of John, which uses the word 5 times (1 Jn 2:5; 4:12, 4:17-18) to describe God living in us, and his love being perfected in us. The letter to the Hebrews is even more explicit that we cannot attain perfection ourselves through the law or temple sacrifices (Heb 7:11, 19, 28; 9:9; 10:1). Instead, Jesus is the only means of perfection (Heb 2:10; 5:9), because he has perfected us (Heb 10:14) through sacrificing Himself (Heb 9:11-12). The letter to the Philippians makes clear that it is God continuing to work in us (Phil 2:13): He begins the good work in us, and He brings it to completion (Phil 1:6). This latter quotation is dear to priests and deacons, because it appears in the rite of each major stage of their progress towards ordination, including the ordination rite itself.

  • The Apostle Paul frequently uses teleios words to refer to spiritual maturity. Teleios as maturity contrasts with infancy in 1 Corinthians 14:20; such maturity grows by becoming teleios in Christ (Col 1:28), in other words more Christ-like, as the standard of mature manhood (Eph 4:13). Although perfection cannot be achieved without Christ’s grace, we still have to strive for it, as the Apostle does himself in Philippians 3:12, and all who are mature (the teleioi) must be of the same mind (Phil 3:15). In 2 Timothy 4:7 and in Acts 20:24, Paul uses the image of finishing a race (the verb is teleo). And to the extent we are not perfect and fail, God’s power is perfected [teleitai], in other words has its greatest efficacy, in our weakness (2 Cor 12:9).

  • The idea of a process, which is in God’s hands, is the basis for the use of the verb teleo to describe the fulfilment of God’s plan. Teleios verbs are used on a few occasions by Luke (Lk 18:31, 22:37) and John (Jn 19:28b) for the fulfilment of the scriptures; in other places, teleo describes the completion of God’s words (Rev 17:17), or his “mystery” (Rev 10:7). Luke’s Jesus speaks of His baptism (by which he means His passion and death) being accomplished (Lk 12:50), or the seed of the gospel bearing fruit in maturity (Lk 8:14). Mary is blessed because she believed (Lk 1:45) that the promise of the Lord would be fulfilled (literally, a fulfilment, or teleiosis).

The accomplishing of God’s plan is most richly described using teleios words in John’s gospel, where Jesus on 3 occasions describes Himself as accomplishing His Father’s work (Jn 4:34; 5:36; 17:4). Jesus also prays, using one of the teleios verbs, that his disciples will be perfected in unity (Jn 17:23); this shows how Jesus’s mission is a telos, not just for Him, but for those He has come to save. Jesus’s perfection or accomplishment, is the means of our perfection. Most dramatically, verbs based on teleios are used 3 times in 3 verses at the climax of the Passion narrative:

  • Jesus knew (Jn 19:28a) that everything had been accomplished (tetelestai).

  • And then He said “I am thirsty”, in order to fulfil the scripture (Jn 19:28b). The verb teleiothe comes from the word teleios, carrying a sense of actively bringing something to perfection. It appears that John’s choice of this word is deliberate, since he (and the other evangelists) more often employ another Greek word (pleroo) to refer to the fulfilment of the scriptures. In this case, however, it seems as though John wants to echo the other 2 occurrences of teleios words in the surrounding verses. The Jerusalem Bible translates this verb as “to fulfil the scriptures perfectly”; this combines the ideas of fulfilment and perfection, which seem to be hinted at in John’s deliberate choice of a teleios word.

  • The 3rd and final occurrence of teleios words occurs when Jesus, having taken the sour wine, says His final word: it is, once again, tetelestai, “it is accomplished” (Jn 19:30). This tetelestai is the climax of Jesus’s work for the Father, drawing on all the previous uses of the word throughout John’s gospel. And since the language of John’s gospel is so richly metaphorical, perhaps there is a hint of another meaning of tetelestai, as confirmation of making a payment, and therefore of paying the price for our sin. Some papyri around the time of Jesus show the word tetelestai on receipts for tax and other payments. So while the primary meaning of tetelestai is the accomplishment of Jesus’s work for the Father, it is possible that the evangelist is taking advantage of the rich range of meaning of tetelestai, to hint at other nuances.

So, what does all of this mean for us?

  1. First, God has a plan for us God’s plan was foretold in the Scriptures, and accomplished through Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The purpose of that plan is to bring us to the telos, the goal of being with God in His heavenly kingdom.

  2. Second, perfection can only be found in Christ Jesus has already accomplished (tetelestai) the Father’s plan. It is His grace we seek, His work that will be fulfilled in us, and His power that will be most perfect in our weakness.

  3. Finally, we must play our part in the process We must strive to be mature, to run the race and keep going to the end – but we must also understand that it is a process that in this life, does not end. Rather, we must be content to allow, in Pope Francis’s words, “time” (by which he means the process), to be greater than “space”, which he regards as the desire to crystallise a particular state, leaving no room for continued growth (Evangelii Gaudium, 222-223). Always, our goal is to grow to be more like Christ. He is the purpose, the goal, the standard and the means of perfection. As Jesus says in Rev 21:6 and also in Rev 22:13, He is the beginning and the end – He is the telos.

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