Word for Today - Telos

Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]

Category: A Word for Today

Precious Seed

teleo (To bring to a close, to finish)
telos (End, termination, the limit at which a thing ceases to be)
telones (A tax-gatherer)

We often use the word ‘end’ and its associated words to describe the idea of cessation or termination. Winston Churchill stated, after the allied victory at El Alamein in 1942, that the ‘victory was not the end, it was not even the beginning of the end, but it was, perhaps, the end of the beginning’. And for believers ‘the beginning comes out of the infinite so the end will also lose itself in it’.  1 Hence the words of God and of Christ, ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end’, Rev. 21. 6; 22. 13.

The noun telos had a variety of meanings in the Greek world including, ‘achievement’, ‘fulfilment’, ‘final step’, ‘result’, ‘goal’, ‘conclusion’, ‘cessation’ or ‘end’. Telos was further expanded through time to describe an ‘obligation’, and culturally to signify an ‘offering’ to a deity or the ‘fulfilment’ of sacrifices.  2 On rare occasions, it was also translated as ‘tax’ or ‘levy’, Num. 31. 28 LXX.  3 

In the Septuagint (LXX), the word telos occurs in both metaphorical and literal ways. In God’s speech to Jacob in Genesis chapter 46 verses 1 to 4, He assured Jacob that even though he was going into Egypt it would not vitiate the promises that He had made to his ancestors. In a very touching statement in verse 4, God also indicated that when Jacob died, his son Joseph would close (telos) his eyes, i.e., effectively recognizing that his life had come to an end. Interestingly, in Leviticus chapter 27 verse 23, the word telos is translated as ‘worth’, signifying the full or complete measure required to purchase a field. When Joshua stood with the children of Israel on the banks of the River Jordan, we read that the flow of water was completely cut off (telos) by God to facilitate the crossing, Josh. 3. 16.

Job uses the word in the sense of reaching a ‘goal’ as he seeks to find God who he believes has hidden Himself from him, Job 23. 3. The word occurs some fifty-five times in the Septuagint (LXX) title to many of the Psalms, in the expression eis to telos, which is translated as ‘for ever (more)’ or ‘to the end’, cp. Hab. 3. 19, but which is translated by the Masoretic text as ‘to the choir leader’ or ‘chief’ (musician). 

The writer of Ecclesiastes reflects on the effectiveness of the wise words of the Preacher as they stick in the memory and stimulate appropriate action. This is contrasted with the endless (telos), almost mindless, stream of pagan wisdom literature that, when studied, simply brought exhaustion to the reader, Eccles. 12. 11, 12.

When the noun telos and the verb teleo are carried over into the New Testament they take on the dynamic idea of fulfilment, that is, everything moving towards a goal or an ultimate conclusion. For example, our Lord uses the word telos of His fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah chapter 53, Luke 22. 37. Paul contrasts the heterodoxy of false teaching with the purity of apostolic teaching, 

1 Tim. 1. 4, 5. Knight writes, telos ‘has here the meaning of “goal” or “outcome toward which something is directed”. The goal of Christian instruction is love manifested in the Christian’s life through three channels, which are a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith’.  4 Peter reminds us that salvation is the ultimate end or goal (telos) of our faith, 1 Pet. 1. 9, and Paul writes that it is because Christ is the ‘end’ (telos) of the law, righteousness becomes available to every person who believes, Rom. 10. 4.  5 It is also a word very much associated with prophecy and the end times as demonstrated by Paul’s use of telos in respect of the consummation of God’s redemptive purpose and the coming of the Kingdom of God, 1 Cor. 15. 24. Yet, even though all things are moving towards a final eschatological goal or end, we can praise God that His kingdom and that of His Son will be without telos (end), Luke 1. 33.

Further reading/study

End, Ending (telos) in W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, pp. 26, 27.
Telos in Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich (ed.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Abridged in One Volume), pp. 1161, 1162.

 1 Colin Brown (ed.), Dictionary of New Testament Theology, pg. 164.
 2 For a comprehensive list of the meanings of the word telos, see H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon.
 3 For further examples of the use of the word in taxation see Moulton and Milligan, The Vocabulary of the New Testament, pg. 630, and, also, Rom. 13. 7. 
 4 George W. Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles, pg. 76. 
 5 The word telos has three possible interpretations in this context. It could mean ‘fulfilment’, ‘goal’ or ‘termination’. In our view, C.E.B. Cranfield is right when he states, ‘that Christ is the goal to which all along the law has been directed, its true intention and meaning’, Romans, pg. 519. Ultimately, of course, without Christ the law is unintelligible.

AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.

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