Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

The concept of “perfection”

Figure standing amid rubble after earthquake
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November 14, 2021

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25

In the first part of Hebrews 10, the author highlights the effectiveness of the offering of Jesus. In Hebrews 10:11, he returns again to a contrast between the offering of Jesus and the offerings of the Levitical priests. Though he never explicitly says anything like, “Here’s a list of reasons that the offering of Jesus is superior…,” at various points, these aspects of his offering are highlighted:

  •     Christ was perfect.
  •     Christ was willing.
  •     Christ offered himself.

Though these are not explicitly mentioned in the selection for this week, the effectiveness of Christ’s offering plays a crucial role as early as Hebrews 10:11.

The author begins with a reminder of how the Levitical system worked. The priests made daily offerings. They stood at the altar. And all the while, those offerings could not “take away [periaireo] sins.” Christ, on the other hand, made one offering, and since that offering was wholly effective, he was able to sit down. This is a picture of his sacrifice being complete.

Some mistakenly locate the value of the offering in its singularity, but this is a sign of its efficacy, not the reason for it. Put differently, the Levitical offerings were not insufficient because they were repeated; they were repeated because they were insufficient.

The offering by Jesus is effective, and as a result, can be offered just once (10:12),1 and now he waits for all things to be put in subjection (10:13).

Hebrews 10:14 reiterates the fact that the offering of Jesus was once-for-all, but adds a detail about what the offering accomplishes. It “perfected for all times those who are [being] sanctified.” Though “perfection” language is not particularly common in the NT, this Greek word (teleioo) and various words from the same root (for example, teleiosis, teleios) appear many times in Hebrews, and since both people and Christ are said to be “perfected,” a clear understanding of the concept is important for understanding the theology of Hebrews.

But the perfection language throughout Hebrews is confusing for many English speakers in particular. “Perfection” often refers to moral perfection (in other words, “without sin”), or it might refer to something unblemished or undisturbed—like fresh snow on the ground.

Unfortunately, these English uses or associations do not fit as well with the concept of “perfection” in Hebrews. There, instead, this likely refers to something more like the “consummation” of humanity (and Christ) as they shed their human weakness and obtain “indestructible life” (see also Hebrews 7:16). 

The perfection of humanity likely takes place at the culmination of the ages (see also 9:26), and yet the verb tense used here (coincidentally, the perfect tense-form) typically is used with past actions that have ongoing implications or effects. It seems likely that this refers to ongoing implications of the past death of Christ. But the second half of this verse might complicate this interpretation. The author says that those being sanctified (present tense-form) are those “made perfect,” which implies that they are simultaneously perfect but not sanctified. Though perhaps a more sophisticated solution is available, for now, seeing this as a tension between what is “already” and what remains “not yet” might be the most simple explanation.

Whatever the author intends here, the Holy Spirit testifies to it! In Hebrews 10:15–18, the author introduces a shorter quotation from Jeremiah 31 (also found in Hebrews 8:8–12) as the words of the Spirit. He summarizes the testimony in 10:18: “Where there is forgiveness of these [sins and lawless deeds], there is no longer any offering for sin.”

The final set of verses in this week’s reading is Hebrews 10:19–25. This section is one of two major transition sections in Hebrews. (The other is Hebrews 4:11–16.)2 Like its counterpart, this section serves to summarize the major points of the argument to this point while also introducing what will come next.

His summary (primarily) is found in Hebrews 10:19–22. He reminds them that they have “confidence” (or “assurance”) to enter the sanctuary (10:19) by means of Christ’s sacrifice (10:20), which has cleansed them (10:22). Given the prevalence of cultic imagery in Hebrews, this is likely a picture of them being made ritually pure. Though the author says that animal sacrifices only cleanse people externally (see, for example, 9:9), here in Hebrews 10:22, the author says that their hearts are sprinkled clean.

This section has three exhortations:

  1. “approach [God] with a true heart” (10:22)
  2. “hold fast to the confession of our hope” (10:23)
  3. “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds” (10:24)

The first is a picture of exercising their new right to worship, to approach the altar and serve God. The second two serve the author’s introduction of his third major section (10:19–13:25). There the focus is on the response of the community to the example offered by Christ, in line with the faithful examples of their ancestors. They must “hold fast to [their] confession” (10:23) because God is faithful. He will follow through on what he has promised, and as Hebrews makes quite clear, for those who persevere, God’s trustworthiness is wonderful news; for those who do not persevere, God’s trustworthiness is harrowing news, indeed.

But the confession is “ours”—corporate—and the next exhortation reinforces a portrait of communal responsibility. They are to encourage one another towards “love and good deeds” (10:24), continuing to gather so that they can keep each other on the path of faithfulness.

This picture is distinctive in our day. Church is a place where I learn and worship, where I need to go for my own personal growth. And yet, the picture here in Hebrews is of service. Gather together for the sake of others.


  1. For more on “repetition” (and its interpretation in Hebrews), see Nicholas J. Moore, Repetition in Hebrews: Plurality and Singularity in the Letter to the Hebrews, Its Ancient Context, and the Early Church, WUNT II 388 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015).
  2. Cynthia Long Westfall, A Discourse Analysis of the Letter to the Hebrews: The Relationship Between Form and Meaning, LNTS 297 (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), esp. 136-37.