How Christ was “made perfect”

Christ is perfect: he always has and always will be perfect. Yet, the author of Hebrews says that Christ become the cause of our eternal salvation by “being made perfect” (τελειωθεὶς). How are we to interpret this difficult phrase?

Some interpretative options are:

  1. “Being made perfect” refers to Christ’s sacrificial death (as the goal of his sufferings). This finds support in the location of this phrase immediately after a two-verse discussion of Christ’s passion experience. Against this, however, one could argue that the “and” (καὶ) that begins verse 9 sets it apart from verses 7-8. That καὶ indicates that τελειωθεὶς fits more naturally with “he became” (ἐγένετο) than with “he learned” (ἔμαθεν).
  2. “Being made perfect” refers to God’s validation of Christ’s learned obedience. This also correlates τελειωθεὶς to the previous finite verb “he learned” (ἔμαθεν), but in a different way. As an expression of God’s response to Christ’s obedience, it expresses the result his learning-by-suffering and introduces his “becoming the cause of eternal salvation.” This interpretation builds on alleged LXX usage of the verb τελειόω, asserting that it refers to God’s favorable response to qualified worshipers.
  3. “Being made perfect” refers to Christ’s consecration as high priest. This also builds on LXX usage, but interprets the Pentateuchal occurrences as references to the priestly ordination ceremony or completed ordination process.

The word translated “made perfect” (τελειόω) and its cognates are often used with the idea of “completion” or “goal” near the heart of their meaning. The base for this word group is the noun τέλος, which means “goal, end” (1 Tim 1.5). The adjective τέλειος refers to people or things that have the quality or characteristic of “end-ness” (1 Cor. 13.10). This adjective usually has the meaning “perfect” (Mt. 5.48). From the adjective, we have the verb τελειόω, which is causative – “to complete, to make perfect” (Jn. 17.4). The adverb τελείως is used to describe actions done “perfectly” (1 Pet. 1.13). There are three nouns built from the verb. Τελειότης refers to the state of perfection or completion (Col. 3.14); τελειώτης refers to a person who makes something complete (Heb. 12.2); τελείωσις refers to the process of completing or perfecting something (Lk. 1.45).

If these New Testament references and senses were all we had, we’d struggle to wonder how Christ was “completed” or “made perfect,” since incompletion and imperfection have never been part of his character. However, if we turn to the Septuagint (to the Pentateuch in particular), another sense of τελειόω emerges.

Exodus 29 discusses the ordination of Aaron and his sons to the priesthood. Because Aaron is mentioned specifically in Hebrews 5.4, this passage has a special relevance to this interpretation. In all four occurrences in this chapter (9, 29, 33, 35), the verb τελειόω refers to the actual ordination ceremony that Aaron and his sons went through. In Leviticus, the occurrences are more spread out (4.5; 8.33; 16.32; 21.10), but they still always refer to a priest who has gone through the ordination process. Numbers 3.3 contains another reference to priests who have been ordained. In these verses, no indication of “validation” or “approval” occurs; they are simply stating that fact that a priest has been officially consecrated.

Occurrences of τελειόω in the book of Hebrews fall into two categories: Jesus as the object, and other people as the objects. When Jesus is the object, the word follows the Pentateuchal cultic sense and means “to consecrate [him] as priest” (2.10; 5.9; 7.28). When people are the object, there are two subdivisions based on the performer of the verb: the law, or God. When the law attempts to “make perfect” a person, the gloss “consecrate” does not always work (7.19; 9.9; 10.1). In contrast, by Christ’s offering, God does indeed perfect those who come to him (10.14; 11.40; 12.23). In these passages, the idea of completing or perfecting is more prominent. It is also probable that these passages communicate a degree of “derivative priesthood” since Christ’s solidarity with his people is a key theme in this book (2.14; 4.15; 13.12).

What bearing does this have on the occurrence of τελειόω in Heb. 5.9? In light of the specialized Pentateuchal cultic sense of this word, the best interpretive option is Option 3: τελειωθεὶς refers to Christ’s consecration as high priest. This fits perfectly with the context of Hebrew 5.4-10. The author begins with a principle about men becoming priests (4), comments of God’s “calling” of Aaron and Christ as high priests (5-6), explains the suffering necessary to become a priest (7-8), and presents the results of Christ’s successful ordination (9-10). As a statement of Christ’s official consecration as high priest, this participle presents the means whereby he became the cause of eternal salvation. This view is confirmed when we recognize that “made perfect” (τελειωθεὶς) is parallel to the other participle attached to “he was made” (ἐγένετο): “being designated by God as a high priest” (προσαγορευθεὶς).

This is from the conclusion to a paper I completed recently: Exegesis of Hebrews 5.4-10. Be warned, it’s heavy on Greek and fairly technical. This selection has been lightly revised.