Perfection—What Does It Really Mean?
THE Bible says of God: “Perfect is his activity.”—Deut. 32:4.
As God’s handiwork, the planet Earth must have been perfect. Why, then, did God tell Adam and Eve to ‘subdue the earth’?—Gen. 1:28.
Likewise the product of God’s activity, the first human pair were also perfect. How, then, could they sin?
How would you answer these questions? What does “perfection” really mean? Do you know what the Bible’s teaching on it is? Would it appeal to you to live in perfection on this earth? Or do you think perfection would take all the challenge out of living, make it mechanically regular, stale?
GETTING AT THE TRUE MEANING
Actually, most persons have a very imperfect understanding of what the word “perfect” means. For example, one may see some shirts advertised for “$2.99 each,” with the notice alongside, “$5.99 if perfect.” Is that a proper use of the word “perfect”?
Some would say No. They might say, “There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ shirt.” Why? Well, they may think that a “perfect” shirt should have amazing qualities, perhaps never wear out, last forever. But if the shirt was made from cloth that never wore out, how could that cloth be cut to begin with? If it could be cut, then it could also wear out. And if it could not be cut, then it would have to be harder than any other existing substance, harder than even diamonds. How would a shirt like that feel on your shoulders?
Yes, the advertisement’s use of the word “perfect” would be correct. The dictionary tells us that the English word “perfect” comes from the Latin prefix per, meaning “throughout,” “thoroughly,” or “completely,” plus the verb facere, meaning “to do or make.”
So, something that is “perfect” is something that is ‘completely made or finished, not lacking in essential parts, not defective.’ It is also something that ‘meets all requirements and measures up to the standards of excellence set.’
The question, then, is: Who decides what is essential, and who sets the requirements and standards of excellence? In the case of a shirt, it is the manufacturer, the maker, who has certain requirements and standards. When these are met, the shirt is “perfect.” Of course, if the shirt is a sport shirt and the buyer wants a dress shirt, then, from his viewpoint, the shirt is not “perfect” for his use, the purpose that he has in mind.
Really, then, the person objecting to the use of the word “perfect” regarding a shirt or similar thing is simply going by his personal “ideal.” An “ideal” is one’s own idea or concept of excellence or perfection, what one thinks a thing should be. But ideals differ from person to person, do they not? What would you say is the “perfect” height for a man, the “perfect” shape for a woman’s face, or even the “perfect” flavor for an apple pie? Your answer would, of course, represent only your own preference, your ideal.
What does this have to do with the Bible or with living on earth in perfection? Very much. For though these points seem simple, keeping them in mind can help us to understand many things in God’s Word, including the questions asked at the beginning of this discussion. This is so because the Hebrew and Greek words that the Bible writers used to express perfection have a meaning very similar to the basic meaning of the English word “perfect.” They convey the thought of something that is “complete,” “finished,” “fully developed,” “having attained the appointed purpose or goal.” Let us see, then, how all this helps us to understand the Scriptures and their promise of life in perfection.
THE FINAL ARBITER OF PERFECTION
All creation owes its existence to God. That means that He is the final Judge as to whether a thing is perfect or not. If it meets his standards to his satisfaction, serves his purpose in the way he wishes, then it is perfect. That is why we can properly say that the perfection of any part of God’s creation is relative, not absolute. That is, it all relates to God’s purpose for it, and only when we know his purpose can we know whether a thing is perfect in his sight or not.
For example, God prepared the planet Earth for man’s habitation, filling it with vegetation, birds, animals and fish, and finally brought man forth upon it. Surveying his work, God pronounced the completed results “very good.” (Gen. 1:31) It measured up to his perfect standards. But note that God still instructed the human pair to ‘subdue the earth,’ evidently meaning that they should cultivate it and make the whole planet, and not just Eden, a garden of God. (Gen. 1:28; 2:8) We might compare this with a builder who contracts to build a fine house for a family but then to turn it over to them to do the painting, decorating and furnishing. When he turns the house over to the family, the builder’s work is complete, finished, of excellent quality. Is it “imperfect” because other things remain to be done? No, for this was the arrangement decided upon beforehand.
Then, too, God gave command to the Israelites to construct a tabernacle or tent of worship in the wilderness, giving them the specifications for making it. The work was of superb quality and done “just as Jehovah had commanded.” (Ex. 36:1, 2; 39:32, 42, 43) Could we say it was perfect? Definitely, for, when completed, God approved of it and made his presence evident there. (Ex. 40:16, 33-38) Yet in due time God caused that portable tent to be replaced by a fixed temple at Jerusalem and later caused even the temple to be destroyed. Why? Because these structures were only to serve as types or a small-scale prophetic representation of a “greater and more perfect tent,” Jehovah’s heavenly arrangement in which the resurrected Christ Jesus acts as High Priest. (Heb. 9:11-14, 23, 24) The earthly tent was perfect because it satisfied all God’s requirements. And it served its appointed end. On the other hand, the perfection of that which it represented, God’s heavenly arrangement, was of a far higher type, and would accomplish God’s ultimate purpose to remove sin completely. So, in this sense, what the earthly tent represented was “greater and more perfect.”
We cannot, then, go just by our own ideas in these matters, otherwise we are trying to make a god of ourselves, even putting our own thinking over that of our Creator. Since he is the Maker, the Producer, he knows what he wants and he has the full right to decide what the standards of excellence and perfection shall be in his activity and creation.
PERFECTION AMONG HUMANS
Turning now to the first human pair, we see that Adam and Eve were created perfect—physically and mentally. God even gave them a perfect moral start, for he implanted in man a conscience. That is why the apostle could properly say that God’s law is ‘written in men’s hearts.’ (Rom. 2:15) Could that perfect human pair sin? Or, to be perfect, should they be incapable of sinning, made so that they could only obey, only go in the right way, never deviate from the course outlined for them? If you made a machine, say an automobile, you would make it so that it always went in the direction you turned the steering wheel, would you not? So, then, should not the first human pair have been like that in order to be perfect?
No. Why not? Because they were not made to be machines, to perform like machines. God, the Maker, purposed that they should exercise free moral agency, that is, be able to make personal moral decisions, choose between right and wrong, between obedience and disobedience. Remember, the Maker sets the standards and requirements, his will governs. Therefore, if the human pair had not had this ability to choose, they would actually have been incomplete, imperfect, according to God’s standards.—Compare Genesis 2:15-17; 3:2, 3; Deuteronomy 30:19, 20; Joshua 24:15.
But suppose someone argues, “Yes, but if they were perfect then they should only have chosen what was right.” This is the same as saying that they had no choice, for if you can only “choose” one thing, you really are not choosing at all. So to argue this way is simply to substitute a personal idea in place of God’s own standards. Those standards required that the human pair be capable of choosing either good or bad. Why? Because only then could love enter the picture. If they obeyed because they could do nothing but obey, then their service would be automatic. But God granted them the ability to choose, so that they could serve because of love in their hearts. Or they could become disobedient because their hearts had become selfish. How could that happen?
This would depend on what they fed their hearts, from which their motivation issued forth. Just as their bodies, though perfect, required the right kind of food to function well, so also they had to feed their hearts with right thoughts and reasonings. Perfect Adam could not eat dirt, gravel or wood and still enjoy perfect physical health; if he tried to breathe water instead of air he would drown. His perfection was relative, limited to the human sphere of life. In the same way, if he chose to let his mind and heart feed on wrong thoughts, this would lead to entertaining wrong desire and finally would produce sin and death. This is exactly what happened, and by his disobedience Adam, of his own choice, entered into imperfection.— Jas. 1:14, 15; compare Genesis 1:29; Matthew 4:4.
MANKIND’S RETURN TO PERFECTION ON EARTH
In answer to the prayer, “Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth,” Jehovah God is going to remove everything from the earth that does not measure up to his standards, fit his righteous purpose. His promise is that, as a result, ‘neither tears, death, mourning nor outcry nor pain will be anymore.’ (Matt. 6:10; Rev. 21:3-5) During the thousand-year rule of his Son’s heavenly kingdom over earth’s inhabitants, obedient persons will be brought to bodily and mental perfection, the equals of the first human pair prior to their sinning.—1 Cor. 15:25, 26; Rev. 20:4-6.
Will this ‘take all the challenge out of living,’ make life ‘mechanically regular and stale’? Just the opposite. The reason why some have this idea is that they imagine that a perfect human would be able to do just about anything he or she wanted to with practically no effort. Suppose you were to decide you wanted to play the violin. Why, you could just pick it up and, though never having had one in your hands before, now play a piece like Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) without a single slip! So some seem to think. But this is just an imaginary ideal. The Bible gives no such concept.
Jesus Christ was born a perfect human. Yet he had to learn to eat solid food, walk and talk as all human babies do. If, as seems likely, he worked at carpentering with his foster father Joseph, he certainly had to learn skill in handling carpenter’s tools. It did not come automatically because he was perfect. Nor did other knowledge, nor even knowledge of his Father’s Word and purpose. As Luke 2:52 says of him from the age of twelve years onward: “And Jesus went on progressing in wisdom and in physical growth and in favor with God and men.”—Luke 2:42-52.
Perfection, then, will not eliminate the challenge of living. Each task will have its particular problems to be solved. Effort, thinking, planning will still be required. But perfection will remove the frustration, the disappointment, the futility that living in an imperfect, sin-ridden world now brings us, where even our best efforts so often are thwarted by obstacles or by the very shortness of our life-span, or fail due to the weakness of our sinful nature.
The prospect of everlasting life in itself will challenge those living in God’s new order to learn more and more, to learn about the wonderful earth on which they live and the enormous variety of created things that God has made. It will challenge everyone’s productivity, initiative, resourcefulness and enterprise, ingenuity and originality. What each person produces in the way of homes, gardens, dress, handcraft and works of art will reflect his own personal preferences and purpose, though all in harmony with the will of God. This will assure unending variety earth wide, never sameness and monotony.
Realize, then, that we should learn now all we can from the Source of truly worthwhile knowledge. Recognize that, “as for the true God, perfect is his way; the saying of Jehovah is a refined one.” Trust in his Word, put it to work in your life now and, relying on his promises for the future, make him your refuge and source of strength. Then you can say with the psalmist: “The true God is the One girding me closely with vital energy, and he will grant my way to be perfect.”—Ps. 18:30-32.