This article is about the use of the word 'perfect' (to make perfect) in the book Hebrews. The perfection of Jesus Christ and the believer is discussed in this article.

Source: Clarion, 1998. 8 pages.

The Perfection of Christ Jesus and Our Perfection

Tonight I take you through the majestic gospel of the Epistle to the Hebrews. This Epistle gives us God’s revelation of his gift of salvation in his Son, Jesus Christ. Our guide will be the verb “to make perfect.” This verb presents to us a central theme that opens up the entire message. The first section of this address contains a few general remarks about our Epistle, and a survey of the passages where this verb occurs. The second section deals with the meaning of this verb because interpreters have proposed different meanings. The third section presents our conclusion.

General Remarks🔗

The Epistle to the Hebrews deals with God’s speaking formerly to the fathers through the prophets and his speaking in the last of these days to us through his Son. The final revelation gives the real salvation, the former revelation presented what is preparatory and provisional, the shadow of the real things.

The first readers, called “Hebrews” in the superscript that was added later, were most likely Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and surrounding area. Sometime in the past these readers had endured persecution (10:32-34; cf. 6:10).

Persecution no longer seems to be the main problem. The time of writing places us, most likely, in the Palestinian situation just around the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 A.D. that led to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The problem facing the readers was probably pressure from their fellow Jews urging them to be loyal to the Jewish nation rather than to the church of this crucified Jesus. The Epistle’s stress on the priesthood of Christ seems to suggest that the readers were also urged to return to the Old Testament as the Word of the God of their Fathers, who had given to his (Jewish) people the Mosaic laws with the temple worship and atonement for forgiveness of sins through the Levitical priests with their sacrifices.

But whatever the exact situation was, the author comes to his Jewish Christian brothers and sisters with the urgent exhortation to hold fast to their confession concerning Christ Jesus, according to the apostolic preaching, and not to fall away from the faith. He underscores this appeal by painting before their eyes the majestic greatness of Christ Jesus, as Saviour, and the definitiveness of this salvation. He also warns: if you reject worshiping God through Christ Jesus, you are disobedient and have forfeited your salvation.

Quick Survey of the Texts🔗

Our starting point is 2:10. Here the verb “to make perfect” occurs for the first time. In the preceding verses the author has quoted Psalm 8 which speaks about man being crowned by God with the glory and honour of having dominion over God’s creation. The author comments: We do not have this glorious crown yet ourselves. But we do see Christ crowned with it because He suffered death for everyone. Then, in verse 10 the author gives the reason. We read:

For it was fitting for God, for whom and through whom everything exists, that He, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.

This text says: making his Son perfect through suffering was a divine must for God.

The second text is 5:8-9. It leads us to the next step.

Although He was Son, He learned obedience from what He suffered and so, having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

This text points to the fact of the Son’s having been made perfect through suffering and its saving result.

The third text is 7:27b-28, the end of the chapter about Christ as the great Melchizedekian high priest over against the weak, sinful Levitical priests. It tells us that

the law appoints as high priests men who are weak, but the oath which came after the law (in Psalm 110:4), appointed the Son who has been made perfect for ever.

After these three positive statements about the perfecting of the incarnate Son of God the true high priest, I mention the negative statements regarding the Old Testament Law which could not make the worshipers perfect. Hebrews 7:19 states:  For the Law made nothing perfect. Hebrews 9:9 confirms this more specifically, saying that the Old Testament animal sacrifices were not able to make the worshiper perfect in his conscience.

The third text, 10:1, repeats that the law with its animal sacrifices can never ... make perfect those who draw near to worship.

We should add here 7:11, where not the verb but the noun is used. It says:

If this making perfect was through the levitical priesthood ... what need was there still for an other priest like Melchizedek to rise?

Of course the answer is: the levitical priest did not make perfect; therefore, there was such a need for an other priest of a different order.

The next positive text is 10:14, presenting the climactic result of Christ’s perfection in the perfection of the believers: one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

There are two more texts where the verb occurs. They flow from the last one, 10:14. First there is 11:40. It says that all the Old Testament believers, men and women of faith, of whom some are mentioned in Hebrews 11, did not receive what was promised:

because God had planned something better for us so that only together with us they would be made perfect.

This basically means that the Old Testament believers could also only be saved through the sacrifice of Christ Jesus.

The last occurrence is in 12:23 where we read about God’s children in the new situation of the new covenant. Now that Christ has been made perfect and has made those who believe in Him perfect and is seated at God’s right hand, now these believers have come and belong to “Mount Zion, the heavenly new Jerusalem, the city of the living God,” with its angels, and with “the church of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven,” and with “God the Judge of all men” and with “Jesus the Mediator of a new covenant.” In this heavenly Jerusalem are also the spirits of righteous men made perfect.

These spirits are the believers in Christ who died. When they came to faith in their life on earth, they were made perfect through Christ’s sacrifice, so having access to God, and then they lived in faith by God’s word, righteously. Now, as spirits, they live with Christ in the presence of God.

Herewith we conclude our first section and come to our second point.

The Meaning of “Making Perfect”🔗

We do two things here. We first look at the basic meaning of the verb and the adjective from which it is derived. Secondly, we deal with a number of different interpretations.

The Basic Meaning🔗

Many scholars begin their discussion of the term “perfection” with pointing to the basic idea of the Greek verb rendered by “making perfect.” This basic idea is seen as making something complete, full, whole, bringing something to its end, to maturity, making that something completely answer to its purpose.

Making complete or full can be said with respect to a task, a product, a period of time, or one’s own life time, so that it can mean either to grow up to maturity or to die. Making something complete or whole can be making something so that it is one complete whole that shows no defects or is lacking in nothing. So an Old Testament sacrificial animal had to be whole, without any defect.

Because of this broad and wide general basic idea, it is understandable that almost automatically questions are raised like “What kind of perfection is meant?”, or “In which respect is there completion?” or “What purpose or goal is to be reached?” You will also understand that different interpretations have been proposed. I shall mention a few here, making use of the book of J.M. Scholer.1 He first mentions three proposals which he rejects and then comes with his own, which cannot be maintained either.

Different Interpretations🔗

Scholer lists the following:

  1. the moral-ethical interpretation;

  2. the consecration interpretation;

  3. the paideutic interpretation; then he presents his own choice, namely,

  4. the glorification interpretation; I also mention

  5. the vocational or qualification interpretation and

  6. the sanctification interpretation and, as the last and best one,

  7. the religious interpretation.

a. The Moral-ethical Interpretation.🔗

The basic idea of being perfect is here being morally completely good, so that one has little or no sin. This meaning is found in older, liberal and methodist traditions and the Holiness Movement. Since “making perfect” implies a growing process toward the state of being totally good, or a growing in moral character, most reject this meaning. Scholer says that “Christ was morally pure (perfect) from the beginning,” and when 5:8 says that our Lord learned obedience, this does not mean that he was disobedient at some time. Christ was without sin always. Scholer’s second ground for rejecting the moral interpretation is that the text does not say that Christ made Himself perfect but that God is here the subject. God made Him perfect. He sees here a parallel with 10:14 where it is said that Christ’s sacrifice has made the believers perfect and not their own efforts, which also excludes a being morally perfect.2 The conclusion is that this moral-ethical meaning as such does not fit Christ who was always without sin; and it does not fit the believers in 10:14 either, for their perfection is a gift through Christ’s sacrifice and not their own doing. This does not mean that a moral-ethical aspect is totally absent. The book of Job, for instance, when applying this term “perfect” to Job, and the Epistle of James clearly imply a being “whole” in relation to the neighbour as included in being “whole” in the relation with God. But the latter is the basic element.

b. The Consecration Interpretation.🔗

This explains Christ’s perfection as his consecration to the priesthood. It is done on the basis of an assumed analogy with the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests for which the same verb was used in the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. In Hebrew the expression is literally “make the hands full”, namely, with an offering to be presented to the Lord. This full formulation “making the hands full” is seen as a technical term in the Old Testament for the consecration of a priest.3 On the basis of this LXX use of our verb, a number of scholars applied this meaning to Christ. The fact that the text says that God perfected (consecrated) Him as priest through suffering has here this consequence that the consecration to the priesthood now is considered to have taken place after the sufferings on earth, when He entered heaven.

Scholer rejects this interpretation too. He does so on the following grounds:

  • The full LXX expression is (almost) only used in the Pentateuch and does not occur at all in Hebrews. Moreover, the consecration meaning does not fit in Hebrews. Christ is not consecrated into the priesthood through, and so after and on the basis of his sufferings. He was priest also in his sufferings, those sufferings being his sacrifice of obedience or his priestly task. Further, in Hebrews the meaning of this verb “to make perfect” is much more that of “to make complete” or “to bring to its goal.”

  • In order to make the meaning “consecration” fit the context in its Hebrew occurrences, the proponents of this interpretation have to add elements which “approach or resemble more and more the formal usage” of the verb. Scholer gives several examples. Consecration is explained as “nearing God”; or as “that which creates the condition of ‘standing before God’”; or as “qualifying” or “putting someone in the position in which he can come, or stand, before God.” This latter point is a very important argument. These additional explanations come close to what I see as the meaning of our verb in Hebrews: presenting the qualifying condition in the religious sense of the word for standing in the presence of God.

The conclusion is that Christ did not become priest through, which implies after, his sufferings, since He was already priest when He suffered and so offered his Self-sacrifice to God. Therefore, this interpretation cannot be maintained either.

c. The Paideutic Interpretation.🔗

This paideutic interpretation is taken over from the use of “making perfect” in Greek philosophical schools. Philosophical training and learning is there seen as making the student a perfect person, living a perfect life. In the light of the Bible it is obvious that this humanistic interpretation does not even need consideration in this context.

d. The Glorification Interpretation.🔗

Scholer gives as basis for this interpretation the fact that 2:9 says that Christ was crowned with glory and honour because of his suffering of death, and that 2:10 speaks of Christ’s being made perfect through suffering. Scholer sees these two statements as saying the same thing in a complementing parallel construction, so that “making perfect” is synonymous and identical with “being crowned with heavenly glory.” He writes, “The position of glory at God’s right hand clarifies the meaning of ‘making perfect’ when used of Christ.” He adds, “Thus, for God to make Jesus ‘perfect’ was to ‘crown Him with glory and honour’, that is, to bring Him into his direct presence at his right hand.” Later on he works this out further and writes, “to consider that God has led Jesus to the goal is therefore to understand his ‘perfection’ as his ‘glorification’ or entry’ into the heavenly holy of holies.”

Scholer sees the same stated in 5:9-10. He writes The designation as a priest ‘according to Melchizedek’s order’ occurred when he entered and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”4 In his elaboration, he states that the mention of perfection after the sufferings “suggests that the consequence of his death (i.e. suffering) was the simultaneous perfection or entry into God’s presence and his designation as high priest after the order of Melchizedek.”

Coming to 10:14, where we read that believers have been made perfect once for all by the one sacrifice of Christ, Scholer writes that their having access to God must be seen as spiritual, as a matter of worship and prayer while they still are here on earth and not yet in heavenly glory. The full reality of their perfection-glorification is still future.5

We add here the remark that when 10:14 says that also the believers have been made perfect so that they now are perfect, Scholer and others who have the same view, are in trouble. On the basis of reality they explain: believers have not been glorified, that is, made perfect yet. However, the text says that they have been made perfect. The title of Scholer’s book “Proleptic Priests” (priests in anticipation) expresses this difficulty. Here the meaning of the perfection of believers is no longer the same as the perfection of Christ. Having access in prayer to God’s throne from the earth is not the same as being in God’s presence in heaven. This change in meaning speaks against the glorification interpretation.

The basic argument from the text of Hebrews on which this glorification interpretation rests is the identification of “crowned with glory” in 2:9 with “making perfect” in 2:10. This identification is not necessary. There is a clear link between the two, but this connection can be explained better as basis and result: the perfection through suffering is the basis for the glorification, not the glorification itself (see below).

e. The Vocational or Qualificational Interpretation.🔗

Scholer discusses this as a form of the consecration interpretation, and therefore rejects it.6 I take it separately because it differs from consecration like preparation-to-become-qualified for an office differs from installation into that office. This vocational interpretation is presented by David Peterson, in his book Hebrews and Perfection. He rejects the consecration and (merely) glorification interpretations. The word “merely” is added here since Peterson does include the glorification in the qualifying preparation of Christ for the exercise of the heavenly priesthood. Like Scholer, he views the suffering experience as God’s way of preparing Christ for being a merciful high priest who can sympathize with the weaknesses of his brothers and sisters in their temptations since He Himself went through them.7 At the same time, the sufferings of Christ are preparation for the final act of obedience in his death-sacrifice at the cross, as the author presents it in 10:5-14. Peterson sees the preparation of Christ that qualifies Him for the office, on the one hand, in his suffering during his earthly life and, on the other hand, in his ascension to the heavenly throne, which is his glorification, according to the promising prophecy in Psalm 110:4. This promise to the Son is that God appoints Him priest for ever, according to Melchizedek’s order. “For ever” implies a heavenly priesthood. Peterson sees this aspect of Christ’s priesthood clearly taught by the author of Hebrews in chapter 7. Peterson also describes the perfection of the believers as being qualified through Christ’s acts (10:14).8 I can find myself to quite an extent in agreement with this qualification interpretation of Peterson, although I have difficulties with the glorification part. I would argue against this glorification part again with the same reason that the Lord’s glorification is the result of the preparation unto becoming qualified through obedience to appear in God’s presence. Moreover, the qualification interpretation has to be set within the framework of the religious interpretation, to be discussed later.

f. The Sanctification Interpretation.🔗

There are scholars who identify “making perfect” and “sanctifying.” Again, though there is a close link between the two, this does not justify their identification. It is true that 10:10 says that by the will of God “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” This will was behind Christ’s obedience in sacrificing Himself (“I have come to do Thy will”). It is further true that there is a parallel between this “made holy (sanctified) once for all through the sacrifice of the body of Christ” in verse 10 and the “made perfect once for all by the sacrifice of Christ” in verse 14. However a clear parallel does not imply identity. The basic meaning of holy is to be set apart from the world of sin and belonging to God. This is first of all a place or position in the covenant. It is a being consecrated to God. H. Bavinck says, “The word holy is first of all used of all sorts of persons and things which have been separated (set apart) from the common use and have been placed in a special relation to God and his service.” 9 Just like we have to distinguish between “righteous” and “perfect”, so we have to maintain the difference between “perfect” and “holy.” Righteousness, holiness, and perfectness are closely related in meaning but indicate different aspects of our position in Christ before God. We may say that, in these three terms set beside each other, God presents to us a richer treasure of his revelation of Christ and our salvation through Him, then we would have in only one term. The three complement each other.

g. The Religious Interpretation.🔗

This religious interpretation means a being perfect, complete, whole, in the relation with God. We find this religious meaning a number of times in both the Old Testament and New Testament, though more with the adjective from which the verb is derived than with the verb itself. The Greek adjective has a very adequate equivalent in the Hebrew of the Old Testament. Explaining this Hebrew adjective for “perfect”, B. Holwerda gives the following definition: it means being innerly whole, not divided, not complicated, simple.” According to Holwerda the sense is not so much moral or ethical but the word “has a very strong religious meaning, which it retains everywhere in Holy Scripture.”10

A few examples can show this. We take into account that our English Bibles often translate the Hebrew word not with “perfect” but with “blameless.” I shall use both. In Genesis 6:9 Noah is called “righteous and perfect” (blameless); in Genesis 17:1 God makes his covenant with Abraham and says “Be perfect (blameless) before Me.” In Job 1:1, 8, and 2:3 Job is said to be “perfect (blameless) and upright”; and in 9:20 Job testifies of himself that he is “righteous and perfect (blameless). In Deuteronomy 18:13 God exhorts the people: “You shall be perfect (blameless) before Me.” Important is further that the Hebrew adjective is used also for the animals which are sacrificed to the Lord: they have to be perfect, blameless, whole, without any defect (Leviticus 1:3, 10, 3:1, 6 etc. Compare here Hebrews 9:14 where it says that Christ offered Himself “unblemished” or “perfect” (blameless); the same adjective is used). In line with this, and significant, too, for our investigation, is Psalm 15:1-2. In verse 1, the question is asked, “LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary?” And the answer is: “He whose walk is perfect (blameless), and who does what is righteous.”

Our conclusion from this Old Testament use is that the term perfection or blamelessness indicates the condition people have to meet in order to be allowed to draw near to God and dwell in his holy presence, and that it is the condition animals have to meet in order to be used as sacrifice for the Lord.

As for the New Testament, here the word has the same meaning. Of special interest are Matthew 5:48, 19:21 and James 1:4.

In Matthew 5:48 the Lord tells his disciples that they have to be “perfect like their heavenly Father is perfect.” This means that as God gives his good gifts of sun shine and rain (the foundation for building up one’s life on earth) to those who serve Him and to those who do not, so his children, the believers in Christ must love and do good to their brothers and sisters and friends but also to their enemies and those who hurt them. In that way they are “whole”, “not innerly divided”, people of one piece. In Matthew 19:21 the Lord says to the rich young man who asked what he had to do to have eternal life and who said that he had kept the commandments, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow Me.” The man was still lacking in devotion to the Lord. He was still divided between God and his possessions. Doing away with them and helping the poor and following Christ would make his dedication to God and God’s service complete, lacking in nothing, whole. In the same way James writes to his flock that they should rejoice in the trials they are going through because they strengthen faith and make it steadfast with the result (which is God’s aim with them) that they become “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing”, that is “whole” without defects, no longer innerly divided and unstable in faith (1:4, 7-8). James’s message is here in short “through suffering to perfection” which is the same message as we have in 1 Peter 1:3-6 and Romans 5:1-5, as well as in Hebrews 12:4-11 where the author speaks of God’s fatherly discipline which, when received in faith, produces a “harvest of righteousness and peace.” Being righteous is very close in meaning to being perfect.

Our conclusion is that in the New Testament or covenant, belonging to God requires a life of full, complete, devotion to Him, with an undivided heart and lacking in nothing. It also teaches that God Himself works to that end in the life of the believers. Hebrews 12 says that God disciplines his children to build them up in their faith in a process of ongoing sanctification. In other words, the religious meaning of being “perfect” is very much present in both the Old and the New Testament. In a summarizing manner, we shall now apply this meaning to Hebrews and see that it clearly fits well in this Epistle.

Conclusion: The Religious Interpretation Applied in Hebrews to Us🔗

Here we are: sinners, people conceived and born in sin, lost, by nature children of wrath, condemnable and condemned in God’s judgment. However, God who created all things in the beginning through his eternal Son, did not want to leave his entire handiwork in that state of condemnation. He wanted to keep heaven and earth and renew his creation in a total, eternal, majestic renewal. In this renewal, He also wanted to bring man, that is, men and women, to their original destination of having dominion on earth over God’s creation. In other words, God wanted to bring many sons and daughters to that state promised in Psalm 8, the state of being crowned with glory and honour.

However, those many sons and daughters of God did not meet the condition of being perfect, without blemish, so that they were qualified to appear in God’s presence. Even God’s Old Testament people did not meet that condition. Sure, God had made his covenant with Israel. He had given them the administration of grace: priests and sacrifices for sin. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest could take one animal and put his hands on it, thereby loading the sins of the people on it and send it away into the wilderness. And he could take the other animal and slaughter it and bring its blood into the Holy of Holies and sprinkle it on the mercy-seat. In a substitution ritual the animals could take the place of the people and lose their life so that the people could continue to live in covenant with God. But, really, this Old Testament temple ritual could be no more than shadow. It was not the real means of purification. Instead, it was a reminder of sin for the conscience of the worshipers, rather than a true cleansing from sins, from dead works. So, through the shadowy priests and sacrifices, the condition of perfection for coming into God’s presence could never be met. God had to provide a better way.

In this context, it was proper for God to provide the true priest with his true sacrifice. It was proper for God to provide his Son and make Him perfect in the way of going through suffering, even unto death. That was the real effective substitutionary sacrifice (2:10). And God did what was proper for Him. He sent his Son. And in perfect willingness, the Son accepted this way of God for Him. He went through the sufferings, the temptations, in total, perfect, vicarious obedience for and in the place of his people. And in doing so, He proved Himself perfect to God. And through this proven perfection, He became the source of eternal salvation for God’s other sons and daughters. Having been made perfect, He ascended to the throne to continue his office there as Son and Priest (7:28).

Since Christ’s obedience in sacrificing Himself was vicarious obedience, He made at the same time, with that sacrifice, those other sons and daughters who believe in Him perfect with that perfection of his, as God’s pure gift of grace (10:14). We see here a clear parallel between the doctrine of God’s making (declaring) sinners righteous with the righteousness of Christ (justification) through the vicarious sacrifice of Christ in other Epistles in the New Testament and this doctrine of God’s making sinners perfect with the perfectness of Christ through that same vicarious sacrifice.

So we see how rich we, believers, are with Christ. Clothed with the perfection of God’s Son, with his total, undivided, obedience, pure and complete and whole, we meet the condition for being allowed to draw near to God. We now can appear in God’s presence. That is why believers, when they die, can be taken up in the heavenly Jerusalem, in God’s presence. And that is also why here on earth they still go through a process of sanctification in which God through Christ leads them through the discipline of suffering and temptation towards more and more wholeness of faith in his service. Those who have been made fully perfect with the perfection of Christ are still sons and daughters in the process of being sanctified. But, great comfort, on this road God has given them their merciful and faithful High Priest in his mighty and glorious Son, the author and Perfecter of faith through his Spirit and Word.

Indeed, how terrible it is to reject this Son and Priest. Rejecting Him means disobedience and losing not only the necessary requirements for access to God but also the access itself. Only wrath remains.

So let us hold fast the Apostle and High Priest of our confession to remain the household of God.


  1. ^ John M. Scholer, Proleptic Priests: Priesthood in the Epistle to the Hebrews (JSNT Supplement Series 49; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), 185-200. 
  2. ^ Scholer, Proleptic Priests, 187f. 
  3. ^ Examples are Exodus 29:9, Leviticus 4:5, Numbers 3:3; even without “the hands” in Leviticus 21:10.
  4. ^ Proleptic Priests, 84. 
  5. ^ Scholer, Proleptic Priests, 199.
  6. ^ Scholer, Proleptic Priests, 193-194.
  7. ^ Scholer, Proleptic Priests, 85, 89; David Peterson, Hebrews and Perfection: An Examination of the Concept of Perfection in the ‘Epistle to the Hebrews’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982) 63-66, 78, 193. 
  8. ^ Peterson,  Hebrews  and  Perfection, 106-167.
  9. ^ H. Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek (Kampen: Kok, 1928) II, 185. 
  10. ^ B. Holwerda, Dictaten, Deel I: Historia Revelationis Veterius Testamenti (Kampen, 1954), 39-41

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