A Perfect Translation? Reading Philippians like Wesleyans

I’ve got a new post up at Seedbed on Paul’s self-description as “perfect” in Philippians 3:15. Here’s the intro:
The third chapter of Philippians is important to Wesleyans for a variety of reasons, not least because Paul includes himself within a group he calls “perfect” (v. 15). Now that statement is probably surprising enough that you are already flipping through your New Testament to fact check my claim. Let me tell you what you’ll find. Unless you have the old King James or the New American Standard Version, you are unlikely to find the word “perfect” in your English translation of Philippians 3:15. It will most likely be rendered along the lines, “Let those of us then who are (spiritually) mature…” The nearest use of perfection language is a few verses earlier in 3:12 where Paul unambiguously insists that he most certainly has not been perfected. But here’s the thing: the Greek adjective that is typically rendered “mature” (teleios) in 3:15 has the same root as the verb rendered “perfected” (teleioō) in 3:12. So, in verse 12 Paul declares that he has not been perfected, and in verse 15 he places himself within a group he describes as perfect. Have I got your attention? Let’s talk about what’s going on in this passage and why I prefer the language of perfection over maturity when translating Philippians 3:15.
Read the rest at Seedbed.

4 thoughts on “A Perfect Translation? Reading Philippians like Wesleyans

  1. Thanks for your response Matt. I agree looking ahead to [Phil 3:21] seems to point in the direction you say it does at least. That is a strong argument, even if I'm not completely convinced.

    With respect to the idea baptism is the first resurrection (IMHO) this not a common view, and certainly not explicit; but it seems inevitable given other claims Paul makes.

    Romans [6:5] acknowledges Jesus's resurrection as evidence of our own resurrection, except that the death Paul points to is not our physical death but our spiritual one:

    “We know that our old self was crucified with him so the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. [Rom 6:6-7]

    Paul is using our spiritual 'death' (with Christ) as evidence we are 'no longer enslaved to sin'. If we have already died, and are thus free from sin, clearly we have been resurrected in Christ in some sense (even if not physically).

    Another argument Paul makes is that our faith is vanity if Jesus has not been raised from the dead [1 Cor 15:12]. Although Jesus' death was physical, it is representative of our 'spiritual' resurrection. This for two reasons: Jesus' Himself did not require spiritual resurrection and so the only resurrection he could could provide as an example would be physical. Secondly, Paul's subsequent argument ties faith and the power of faith of believers to evidence of resurrection [1 Cor 15:17-19] but not only physical resurrection but spiritual resurrection tying his point to baptism [1 Cor 15:30-31].

    Paul further claims that death (and therefore strength is Christ as evidence of resurrection) is an on-going thing: “I die every day” [1 Cor 15:31].

    This is what I think he means by “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?” [Rom 6:3].

    That said – this idea of baptism being the first resurrection is likely most evident in Peter, rather than Paul who explains how baptism works by brining us through death [1 Peter 3:20-22]


  2. I'll add that this post was a popular level version of an academic paper on the meaning of τελειος in Phil 3:15. That paper has a much more detailed argument that Paul has bodily resurrection in mind in Phil 3:12.


  3. Thanks for your comment and question. I take Paul to be speaking of bodily resurrection in 3:12 because the context suggests it. In 3:10-11 he speaks explicitly of knowing Christ in his resurrection. So, this context governs my reading of 3:12 when he says that he has not obtained or reached the goal – the goal of bodily resurrection with Christ. Further, this particular context comes to a climax in 3:21-4:1 where he speaks of the transformation of the body. So, Paul's discussion of his present life is bookended with references to Paul's hope for resurrection. Paul's idea of the believer's resurrection in 3:10-11 and somatic transformation in 3:21 is defined by its analogous relationship to Christ's bodily resurrection. So, I take Paul to have the eschatological resurrection of the body at the pariousia in mind in both places. In 3:14ff. he turns his attention to the believer's life in the present, but life in the present has an eschatological character about it. This is why Paul can use the language of perfection with regard to the present as an example of his inaugurated eschatology. But it is not realized eschatology, which is why he insists that he has not yet been reached the goal of bodily resurrection.

    I'm hesitant to affirm the notion of baptism as first resurrection. First resurrection is not Paul's term (that I'm aware of, though I may have overlooked it), but comes from the Revelation. Paul certainly sees baptism as that which unites a person to Christ in his resurrection. And I'm not sure that Revelation's use of “first resurrection” correlates with Paul's understanding of baptism. For Paul, union with Christ in his resurrection through baptism is an inauguration of the baptized person's participation in the resurrection of Christ which is brought to its climax and consummation when that person is resurrected with Christ at the parousia. Baptism is not really in view in Phil 3; so I don't think that is what he is speaking of there regardless of how baptism relates to resurrection.

    Finally, with regard to your final question as to whether Christ's goal is to form us in his image spiritually or physically, I would respond that this is a false dichotomy. Christ intends to conform his people to his image both spiritually (or in terms of their character) and physically. Sanctification is present transformation to the character of Christ; the resurrection of the body is the tranformation of the body to the image of Christ. And the latter is the consummation (or climax) of the former.

    Thanks for your comments and questions and for being a faithful reader of this blog.


  4. Yes, it is as you predict.

    I'm reading from the ESV which has removed reference to 'perfect'. I like the ESV (generally), except for the obvious bits where Calvinists have made it more Calvinistic in its reading. (Too bad really).

    I agree with you that 'mature' is not wrong, but it is a minority translation for 'τέλειος' as you point out and apparently not nearly as emphatic as what Paul seems to intend.

    One question though: I've long claimed in responding to your posts that Christian's often miss the first resurrection (baptism) looking only to the bodily resurrection.

    You say “So, in 3:12 Paul is looking to the future, to his own resurrection at the second coming of Christ. But he quickly turns his attention in verses 13-14 to the present and to the manner in which he lives as he anticipates the resurrection of the body.”

    Why do you automatically jump to the bodily resurrection here?

    If Paul is aware he has been spiritually resurrected with Christ but that the process of 'sanctification' is exactly that 'a process' why cannot Paul be looking forward to complete sanctification then, rather than bodily resurrection.

    I ask because what is Christ's goal, to form us in his image – spiritually or physically?


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