Every once in a while, I receive comments on the nuances of translation interpretations. These slight changes in meaning (as one moves from Greek or Hebrew to English) can have a dramatic impact on theology. So, how does one decide the meaning of a Scripture verse?
A simple example is Matthew 5:48…
You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
I wrote an article regarding the difference between “Christians” and “christians” which was basically a challenge for each of us to reflect on the fruit in lives as an indicator of our relationship with God. The article began with a series of rhetorical questions, including the statement that one cannot be “perfect” while on the earth, regardless of our level of spirituality.
A reader/responder noted that the word “perfect” in the verse above is the Greek word “teleios” and, in his opinion, should be translated as “(a) complete in all its parts, (b) full grown, of full age, (c) specially of the completeness of Christian character.” He offered a link to the Greek section of BibleHub.com, to support this softer view of teleios.
These three interpretations of the word teleios are clearly different than Webster’s definition of the word “perfect”.
Webster – Perfect – “being entirely without fault of defect, flawless”
If one views teleios as “perfect” then Matt. 5:48 is suggesting mankind could never reach the sinless nature of God on this earth. If teleios is viewed as “complete” or “full grown” as my commenter suggests, then one could stretch their theology to believe it is possible to achieve “completeness of Christian character” while on the earth. This was the point he was trying to make. This earthly perfection does have its supporters, something I have challenged and written about in the past. I might also say, in defense of BibleHub, that he ignored the additional references on the website that clarified the Greek telios as “perfect” as used in a number of other verses throughout Scripture.
As one who has no credibility in the Greek language, I choose to rely on those who have spent their careers studying the best way to take God’s original autographs and present them in English. Yellow lights start flashing when someone offers their thoughts on the “true meaning in the original Greek or Hebrew” for my enlightenment.
So how should one interpret verses in the Bible
Deciding on the Meaning of a Scripture Verse
My first step in validating a verse is to go to a reference source such as BibleHub.com and look at it across the 40+ translations listed, focusing especially on the major translations (which have their own nuances based on word-for-word vs thought-for-thought). In the case of Matt. 5:48, there is constancy across the translators in the use of the word “perfect” rather than the softer “complete”.
My second step in validating the meaning of a verse is to look at its context. In the case of Matt 5:48, the context is the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew chapters 5-7, Jesus is challenging His listeners to a level of service to their fellow man that is impossible to fully achieve. It includes never responding to others with anger, never looking at a woman lustfully, loving one’s enemies, giving to the needy, always keeping your promises, never praying with empty words, regularly fasting, etc. These are objectives as one grows in their faith. The term is “sanctification”, which is a life-long, never-ending process. Perfection, or even completeness, will not be achieved on this side of the grave as long as we retain a sin nature.
My third step in validating a verse is to look again at the context, this time in light of other supporting verses in Scripture. In the case of Matt. 5:48, clearly when one is asked to compare themselves to God, we must fall short (Romans 3:23, etc.) regardless of our level of Christian maturity (1 Peter 2:2, Heb. 5:12-14, 1 Cor. 14:20), coupled with our continuing sin nature (Psalm 51:5), while on this earth. There is no end to our sin nature prior to death, regardless of how mature we become. Paul speaks to this clearly in Romans 7:22-23. If one remains a sinner, one cannot reach “completeness” much less “perfection” as some might suggest. One of the best places I have found for concordance-based research is OpenBible.info a for a list of user-prioritized verses on a particular topic, such as the word “perfect”.
My fourth step in validating a verse is to look at commentaries and topical references which I have used over and over again and built a level of trust in their traditional Biblical Christian theology. Logos software provides an amazing array of resources, though it is pricy. There are many internet sources that are free (such as BibleHub, BibleStudyTools, BibleComments) and valuable as long as one is cautious on their underlying theology. One of my most frequent topical stops is GotQuestions.org.
Finally, the assimilation of parts or all of the above sources often boil down to common sense within the framework of an acceptance that God wrote an infallible love letter to mankind and is not a God of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33). It is important to filter your understanding of specific verses through the lens of your core theology and Personal Statement of Faith. These are the beliefs you hold close, and changing them would take a major paradigm shift in your Biblical Christian worldview that would need to be a conscious decision, not a slippery slope or frog-in-the-pot deconstruction in order to better conform to cultural changes. God the Father (Mal. 3:6), Jesus (Hebrews 13:8) and the Bible are unchanging (Matt. 5:18, Psalm 119:89, 1 Peter 1:25).