Grow Up: Who in the World Is the Perfect Man?

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Ephesians 4:11

According to most English translations of Ephesians 4:13, we are to "become mature." That's what the NIV says. The NRSV says we're to come "to maturity." The NLT has, "that we will be mature in the Lord." In the ESV, we're to attain "to mature manhood." According to the Message and the CEB, we're to become "mature adults." Only the classic KJV is an outlier, with its peculiar translation: "Till we all come. . .unto a perfect man."

In fact, the KJV is much closer to the Greek of Ephesians 4:13 than more contemporary versions. Translating very literally, the original reads, "until we all attain. . .to a perfect (or complete) man." Reading this, we must wonder: Who in the world is the perfect man?

In order to answer this question, we need to examine the original language closely. The word translated as "man" is aner, which means "male human being." It is singular in our verse, modified by teleios, which means "complete, mature, or perfect." This is the word we find in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says, "Be teleios, therefore, as your heavenly Father is teleios."

So, then, is the "perfect man" that which each one of us, no matter our gender, is supposed to become when we grow up in Christ? The contrast with what follows in verse 14 makes this interpretation possible: "Then we will no longer be infants. . ." But, in verses 12 and 13, Paul is talking about the body of Christ as that which is to grow up. Following the statement that we are to reach the perfect man, Paul adds, "attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (4:13).

Thus, it makes the most sense to understand that the "perfect man" in this verse is Christ himself. We, as the body of Christ, are to grow up together so that we might reach the stature, maturity, and completeness of Christ himself. Individual growth to maturity in Christ is not negated in this verse. But it isn't the main point here. Rather, Christ, as the perfect man, provides the goal for the growth of the church.

I realize today's reflection has included some pretty weighty exegesis. I hope I've been faithful and clear in my effort to interpret this passage. At this point, let me encourage you to reflect further on what it might mean for the church, as the body of Christ, to grow up so as to attain the "perfect man," the completeness and maturity of Christ himself.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: What might it look like if the church were to grow up to the measure of Christ's own perfection and maturity? How does this process happen? What role might you have in helping the church to become what God intends it to be?

PRAYER: Dear Lord, this passage is not an easy one to figure out, I must confess. Yet, as we sort through the words and phrases, it seems clear that you are unveiling a vision of the church growing up to attain the maturity of Christ. That is, indeed, a lofty vision, one that seems far away from the reality of church life. Nevertheless, Lord, may this vision inspire your church—and may it inspire me, as a member of your church—to grow to become all that you have intended us to be. By your grace, may our growth help us to be what Christ is, "the perfect man." Amen.

Image courtesy of Laity Lodge Youth Camp, one of our sister programs in the Foundations for Laity Renewal.