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Paul uses the same cognate word in two ways within three verses in Phil 3 -

  • V12 - Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect [teleioo], but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
  • V15 - All of us who are perfect [teleos] should embrace this point of view. And if you think differently about some issue, God will reveal this to you as well.

So, was Paul perfect or not?

3 Answers 3

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There is more than one way to visualize Paul’s concept of perfection. One way is to view perfection according to a linear model of continuous progression. In this model, we make incremental progress toward the goal of achieving perfection. If a person were already perfect, however, there would be little need for such a goal and therefore vv 12 and 15 would contradict one another.

But another way to look at perfection is as points on a continuum. While perfection is still the goal toward which we walk, it also constitutes the steps along the way. In this model, we may be considered to some degree already perfect as long as we remain on the continuum. Although the extremes of a continuum are distinct, adjacent points may not be significantly different from one another (Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries). Previous progress can thus be used as the standard for present action.

Nevertheless, to that which we have attained, we are to walk by the same – Phil 3:16 BLB

Previous progress, however, does not guarantee present effort or success. We can be perfect at one or more points in the continuum and yet deviate from it at others; a person who may be on the path of perfection still has the challenge of remaining on that path to the end. In the continuum model, vv 12 and 15 do not necessarily contradict one another.

To my understanding, the perfection of which Paul speaks is not ours but God’s (cf Phil 1:11, 3:9). Like a light that depends on an external source, we can be perfect only as long as we are connected to that source. Our work is therefore to “stand firm” in God (Phil 4:1) and remain standing so, allowing His grace and Spirit to work in and through us (cf Jn 15:5).

For God is the One working in you both to will and to work according to His good pleasure. 14 Do all things without murmurings and disputings, 15 so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God unblemished in the midst of a crooked and perverted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world – Phil 2:13-15 BLB

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    Excellent points. Many thanks
    – Dottard
    Jun 4, 2023 at 21:06
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I don't think the word has been used is a different sense, but the passage only teaches about the attitude of perseverance and humility among believers, since the goal of a Christian saint is to attain perfection. Maturity is not so suitable word for telios in many instances even though maturity is a metaphor for perfection. Cf. Matt 5:48 Matt 19:21 Rom 12:2 1Cor 2:6 1Cor 13:10 Eph 4:13 Phil 3:15 Col 1:28 Col 4:12 Heb 5:14 Heb 9:11 Jas 1:4 Jas 1:17 Jas 1:25 Jas 3:2 1John 4:18.

Eph 4:12-13 KJV

12For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: 13Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect (teleios) man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:

In Paul's Letter to the Philippians Edward D. Andrews, Thomas F. Marshall · 2022 writes,

If we look at 3:12, Paul informs his readers that he did not see himself as being perfect at the time of his penning this letter. He wrote, “Not that I have already obtained it or am already perfect [teleios], but I press on ..." “These two verses are not contradicting each other. Being one of the most ‘mature Christians of all time, Paul did not view himself as perfect, stating that he had not reached the ultimate goal, knowing that he had to continue to ‘make advancements in his maturity in this imperfect age of humanity. So, we all the more so need to make advancements toward complete maturity.

John Eadie commentary is very good,

The language used by the apostle -ὅσοι-intimates that all were not τέλειοι in the Philippian church; the idea of relative progress is therefore involved. Nor does it, as Wiesinger objects, in any way give countenance to self-esteem, for he neither names the τέλειοι, nor points out precisely in what their perfection consists. On the other hand, he classes himself among the τέλειοι, and yet he has declared of himself that he was yet not perfected. In fact, the perfect one was only in the way of being perfected; none knew his imperfection so much, or felt it so deeply, and therefore he strove with quenchless ardour to move fleetly onward to the end of the race, and obtain the crown. For one may be perfect in aim, and yet be far from realizing it. The perfection referred to was such a progress as vividly showed defect; such a stage in the race as revealed most painfully the distance lying still in front; such light which, as it grew, served also to enlarge the circle of darkness round about it. Chrysostom's notion is peculiar—“What means the word? (τέλειος). This-that we should forget those things which are behind. Therefore it belongs to him who is perfect, not to regard himself as perfect:”-

If we translate the second instance of perfect as mature, as what is seen from the New Versions, it loses the wordplay; however, it may give reason for the idea against perfection if that word has been avoided. The NET paraphrase version on Philippians 3:21 Therefore let those of us who are “perfect” interprets the statement as sarcasm to draw the anti-perfection lawless conclusions, quote opposite to the overall text. Such versions employ curious tactics of reading the minds of the authors, assuming any verse to be sarcasm and attack to his "opponents". NET notes states:

3:15 [23] tn Grk “those of us who are ‘perfect’ should think this,” or possibly “those of us who are mature should think this.”sn The adjective perfect comes from the same root as the verb perfected in v. 12; Paul may well be employing a wordplay to draw in his opponents. Thus, perfect would then be in quotation marks and Paul would then argue that no one – neither they nor he – is in fact perfect. The thrust of vv. 1–16 is that human credentials can produce nothing that is pleasing to God (vv. 1–8). Instead of relying on such, Paul urges his readers to trust God for their righteousness (v. 9) rather than their own efforts, and at the same time to press on for the prize that awaits them (vv. 12–14). He argues further that perfection is unattainable in this life (v. 15), yet the level of maturity that one has reached should not for this reason be abandoned (v. 16).

Even though maturity is a metaphor of perfection, the translator's and Bible editor's bias against obedience and striving for the goal can clearly be found. For this reason the reliable textual variant addition "have already been justified" η ηδη δεδικαιωμαι is conspicuously avoided in the Bibles versions.

To answer the question, of course, Paul was perfect, but he taught a humble attitude which never retires from the work, until the ultimate realization of the perfection and justification he hopes for, which is after the resurrection. He must maintain the perfection till the finish line. What he denied is not perfection in general, but the sense of achieving pinnacle and culmination of the mission.

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  • It seems that if Paul is using wordplay, which is highly likely, what Paul wrote was no one is perfect, including Paul. He is still striving for the goal of perfection, the image of Christ.
    – Perry Webb
    May 27, 2023 at 12:54
  • You mean the NET "perfect" sarcastic interpretation is true? There has been countless other references of the same and nobody can turn all of them including the commands to be perfect.
    – Michael16
    May 27, 2023 at 13:05
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No, Paul was not perfect as the term is normally understood. Not only did he say so flat out in verse 12 but elsewhere he admits that the famous "thorn" that tormented him served as a constant reminder of his imperfection.

Though if I wish to boast [of my revelations], I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor 12:6-9)

Clearly Paul could not have been perfect in a literal sense if he was plagued by this "messenger from Satan" and needed to continue to rely on God's grace. In another sense, however, every Christian that is saved by faith in God's grace is an example of God's perfection in weakness.

Modern translations tend to get around the problem raised in the OP by rendering teleos in vs. 15 as "spiritually mature" or by playing with the grammar so that it becomes "would be perfect" or "as many as are perfect" etc. This may be less than literal but it clears up confusion for the general reader.

Paul could hardly say directly that he had NOT been made perfect in one verse and then, just a three lines later, include himself as one who was indeed perfect in the same sense. Christians exemplify God's "power made perfect in weakness" but they are by no means perfect themselves, even Paul.

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  • While I tiotally agree with you, it begs the obvious question, What did Paul mean by his statement that he was one of the perfect people in V15? Put another way, was Paul mature or not?
    – Dottard
    May 29, 2023 at 21:22

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