One of the most powerful words in the Greek New Testament is teleios. Often translated as “finished” in the NRSV, this word carries a much deeper meaning than having completed a meal or turned in a paper. In his commentary on Philippians, William Barclay describes teleios as having “a variety of interrelated meanings. In the vast majority of them, it signifies not what we might call abstract perfection but a kind of functional perfection, adequacy for some given purpose.” Teleios, then, is God’s will for each of us in our lives. Generically, for all Christians the teleios is is to love God and love neighbor, but each of us has a particular way in which that will be lived out depending on where we are in the course of our lives.
This word is important because it serves as the centerpiece of a theological double entendre from the lips of Jesus in the Gospel lesson for Lent 2C. We’ve skipped ahead from the Temptation of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry to a post-Transfiguration encounter en route to Jerusalem. Herod, still fearful that Jesus might be the second coming of John the Baptist, whom he beheaded, has decided that things would be a whole lot easier if Jesus was dead too. Some Pharisees, sympathetic to Jesus’ cause, offer him warning and counsel that he should stay clear of the area surrounding Jerusalem. Jesus will not be dissuaded, however, and he responds with a harsh word of Herod and a deep theological truth for those with ears to hear.
“Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work (teleios).'”
Other translations render this as “reach my goal” (NIV), “accomplish my purpose” (NLT), and “I shall be perfected” (KJV). In these versions, the theological double meaning is much clearer to to the modern reader who knows the larger story. For Jesus’ disciples, who have already heard him predict his death and resurrection twice, the meaning should be clear, but they don’t seem to get it as even on that third day, when their resurrected Lord enters a locked room, even in their joy, they are disbelieving and still wondering. We get the reference to the third day, and, with a little help that the NRSV doesn’t really give us, we can come to understand that Jesus is certain that he will be allowed to fulfill his purpose in due time. There is no reason to fear Herod in this moment because the time and the place are all wrong. Jesus’ work will be perfected only on the Feast of the Passover and only in the city of Jerusalem.