What Does the Author of Hebrews Mean by “Made Perfect”?

I was reading Scot McKnight’s book, Embracing Grace, and was surprised to see how he correlates the author of Hebrews use of the term “made perfect” (τελειωθεὶς) with the resurrection. In Hebrews 5:8-9, we read that the Son “learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

There is a lot to explore in that verse but I want to focus on McKnight’s correlation between being “made perfect” and resurrection. In Hebrews, does “made perfect” stand for “resurrected” through metonymy?

There are five uses of “made perfect” in Hebrews. If the author consistently uses the term to stand for resurrection, it should be possible to substitute the term “resurrected” each time and it should make good sense. So let’s try it.

The first use is in the passage mentioned above (5:9). If we substitute “resurrected” through metonymy, the sentence does make sense: the Son “learned obedience from what he suffered and, once resurrected, became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

The next use is in 7:28, where we find: “For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.” It is questionable whether “the Son, who has been resurrected forever,” quite fits the bill in this instance. What would it mean to be resurrected temporally rather than forever? Does that even make sense?

In 10:14, we have something similar: “because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” Substituting “resurrected” here is awkward: “because by one sacrifice he has resurrected forever those who are being made holy.” It is hard to see how the one sacrifice resurrected those who are being made holy. At the same time, awkwardness is not conclusive. Translation from one language to another is always awkward.

Metonymy in Hebrews 11:40 might be possible: “God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” “…that only together with us would they be resurrected.”

12:23 is also ambiguous: “to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect.” Could the spirits of righteous men be “resurrected”? Yes, but the Bible does not really speak of resurrected “spirits” but rather resurrected people, especially resurrected bodies (see Isa. 26:19).

So the question of whether “made perfect” in Hebrews might stand for “resurrected” remains undecided. I think the weight of the evidence works against the hypothesis that “made perfect” can be used as a metonym for “resurrected.” This, however, does not mean that it can never stand for “resurrected” through metonymy. McKnight may be correct in making the connection in 5:9, but it remains – for me, at least – uncertain.

About salooper57

Husband, father, pastor, follower. I am a disciple of Jesus, learning how to do life from him. I read, write, walk, play a little guitar, enjoy my family.
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3 Responses to What Does the Author of Hebrews Mean by “Made Perfect”?

  1. Terry Powell says:

    I fail to see the connection between “made perfect” and “resurrection”. I would have said “glorification” but Hebrews 11:39-40 seems to be something more than what I take as final personal salvation.

    “And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised,” (Heb 11:39 NASV) “because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.” (Heb 11:40 NASV)

    Note how “what was promised” is connected with “apart from us they would not be made perfect”.

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  2. salooper57 says:

    Yes. I don’t know if McKnight would connect the two ideas outside of 5:9 where the person being made perfect is Jesus. Perhaps he would disagree that metonymy is employed here at all.

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  3. crossroman says:

    The problem is that everyone believes that Jesus was already perfect.

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